Terror Close to Home
In oil-rich Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends bad actors from the Mideast, Colombia, and Cuba
The suspicious links between Venezuela and Islamic radicalism are multiplying. American law enforcement and intelligence officials are exploring whether there is an al Qaeda connection--specifically, they want to know if a Venezuelan of Arab descent named Hakim Mamad al Diab Fatah had ties to any of the September 11 hijackers. The United States deported Diab Fatah to Venezuela for immigration violations in March 2002. A U.S. intelligence official says that Diab Fatah is still a "person of interest" and that his family in Venezuela is "a well-known clan associated with extremist and illicit activity" in northern Venezuela. But when U.S. officials sought Diab Fatah for further questioning, they were told by Venezuelan officials that he was not in the country. Diab Fatah may also be tied to the Caracas mosque of Sheik Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz, which has caught investigators' attention. One of the mosque's officials, also a Venezuelan of Arab descent, was recently arrested in London for carrying a grenade on a Caracas-London flight.
Sympathy. Latin America's Arab communities are also becoming centers for terrorist sympathizers. A Venezuelan analyst who recently visited Margarita Island, a free zone on the north coast of Venezuela run largely by Arab merchants from Lebanon and Iran, described the Venezuelan-Arab Friendship Association as a "fortress" with armed guards outside. A U.S. official says the association has been long known as a location of illicit activities. In addition, support "cells" for the groups Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamiyya al Gammat are active on Margarita, according to Gen. James Hill, the head of the U.S. Southern Command. In a speech last month, Hill said: "These groups generate funds through money laundering, drug trafficking, or arms deals and make millions of dollars every year via their multiple illicit activities. These logistic cells reach back to the Middle East."
Venezuela's support for terrorist organizations isn't limited to those based in Lebanon or Egypt. Colombia's complaints that Venezuela is actively aiding two Colombian armed groups on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list--the FARC and the ELN--have been met by heated Venezuelan denials. But U.S. News has obtained detailed information demonstrating that camps used by the Colombian rebels exist inside Venezuela; maps actually pinpoint the location of the camps, and firsthand reports describe visits by Venezuelan officials. The armed Colombian groups, though they have waged no attacks on U.S. soil, are among the most active terrorist groups in the world, and several of their leaders have been indicted in the United States for the killings and kidnappings of Americans and for drug trafficking.
The FARC's principal camp in Venezuela is in the Perija mountains near an Indian village called Resumidero, according to maps and testimony from FARC deserters. The Resumidero base is home to one of the FARC's top leaders, Ivan Marquez, and can accommodate 700 people. Marquez commands 1,000 fighters and, according to one deserter's account, oversees the training of hundreds more would-be guerrillas. A clandestine FARC radio station is located about 30 miles away, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Resumidero, which has 100 huts and three houses for Marquez and other leaders, is two days' walk from another camp called Asamblea, near the city of Machiques, which is about 35 miles inside Venezuelan territory. That camp, which has 25 houses and even Internet access, is used to train still more fighters.