Terror Close to Home
In oil-rich Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends bad actors from the Mideast, Colombia, and Cuba
The oil-rich but politically unstable nation of Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists, say senior U.S. military and intelligence officials. Bush administration aides see this as an unpredictably dangerous mix and are gathering more information about the intentions of a country that sits 1,000 miles south of Florida.
One thing that's clear is that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is fast becoming America's newest nemesis, U.S. officials say. He has forged close ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro and has befriended some of America's other notorious enemies, traveling to Saddam's Iraq and Qadhafi's Libya. Now, after surviving an attempted coup and a nationwide petition demanding his recall, Chavez is flirting with terrorism, and Washington is watching with increasing alarm.
"We are not disinterested spectators," says Roger Noriega, the new assistant secretary of state for Latin America. "Any actions that undermine democratic order or threaten the security and well-being of the region are of legitimate concern to all of Venezuela's neighbors." U.S. officials are monitoring three sets of developments:
Middle Eastern terrorist groups are operating support cells in Venezuela and other locations in the Andean region. A two-month review by U.S. News, including interviews with dozens of U.S. and Latin American sources, confirms the terrorist activity. In particular, the magazine has learned that thousands of Venezuelan identity documents are being distributed to foreigners from Middle Eastern nations, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, and Lebanon.
Venezuela is supporting armed opposition groups from neighboring Colombia; these groups are on the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations and are also tied to drug trafficking. Maps obtained by U.S. News, as well as eyewitness accounts, pinpoint the location of training camps used by Colombian rebels, a top rebel leader, and Venezuelan armed groups.
Cubans are working inside Venezuela's paramilitary and intelligence apparatus. The coordination between Cuba and Venezuela is the latest sign that Venezuelan President Chavez is modeling his government on Castro's Cuba.
The Venezuelan government denies supporting Middle Eastern terrorist groups and says that no Cubans are operating inside its intelligence agencies. Venezuela has long denied providing aid to the Colombian guerrilla groups.
Venezuela is providing support--including identity documents--that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups, say U.S. officials. U.S. News has learned that Chavez's government has issued thousands of cedulas, the equivalent of Social Security cards, to people from places such as Cuba, Colombia, and Middle Eastern nations that play host to foreign terrorist organizations. An American official with firsthand knowledge of the ID scheme has seen computer spreadsheets with names of people organized by nationality. "The list easily totaled several thousand," the official says. "Colombians were the largest group; there were more than a thousand of them. It also included many from Middle Eastern `countries of interest' like Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon." The official adds: "It was shocking to see how extensive the list was." U.S. officials believe that the Venezuelan government is issuing the documents to people who should not be getting them and that some of these cedulas were subsequently used to obtain Venezuelan passports and even American visas, which could allow the holder to elude immigration checks and enter the United States. U.S. officials say that the cedulas are also being used by Colombian subversives and by some Venezuelan officials to travel surreptitiously.
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.
U.S. News has also obtained documents that offer firsthand accounts--from people inside the camps--that illustrate the extent of Venezuela's backing of the Colombian rebels. According to debriefings of former rebels, some 60 Venezuelan soldiers, plus two Venezuelan officers, provide training to the FARC rebels at the Resumidero camp. Visitors to the camp have included Venezuelan civilians and Europeans. A 31-year-old FARC deserter who spent seven months at FARC camps inside Venezuela, says he witnessed Venezuelan officers arrive by helicopter. He says his unit twice ambushed the Colombian Army and then fled to sanctuary in Venezuela. He also asserts that "abundant ammunition"--a cache in April included 2,500 rounds of 7.62mm and .223-caliber ammunition for automatic rifles--has been shipped across the border to Colombia. Another guerrilla who turned herself in last July says she saw FARC leaders heading for a camp called Rio Verde in Venezuela. And a former guerrilla, a 32-year-old man, says he fled from battle to a camp called Sastreria in Venezuela.
Drug money helps fuel the fighting. Another FARC source told U.S. News that he witnessed a FARC logistics chief trade 8 kilograms of cocaine and cash for guns from a Venezuelan colonel, who arranged the shipments from Venezuelan Army stocks. Colombian officials have documented many such guns-for-drugs trades; they also confirm the existence of training camps--and even spots where hostages are held--along Venezuela's frontier from the flatlands of Arauca northward to the mountains of Perija. Adds a U.S. official: "It's no secret the level of cooperation that the Venezuelan government is giving to the Colombian groups, from the shipment of arms in, to the shipment of drugs out, to the movement of people in and out of Colombia." During an August visit to the region, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, went so far as to suggest that Venezuela's support for terrorists in Colombia was like Syria's support for terrorists in Iraq. "It is simply not helpful when countries don't fully support the antiterrorist fight."
The Chavez government's support of the Colombian guerrillas is no act of charity. After he was elected in 1998, Chavez vowed to bring about a "Bolivarian revolution" in Venezuela; the movement is named for Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century hero who defeated the Spanish in South America. But Chavez's popularity has plummeted, and Venezuela's economy is troubled. In April 2002, he survived a military coup--one that the United States prematurely applauded. Chavez has since purged the military.
The armed Colombian groups are helping Chavez create a force loyal to his regime. The FARC and ELN were "instrumental" in the formation and training of a 200-man Venezuelan armed group called the Frente Bolivariano de Liberacion that operates in western Venezuela, according to U.S. officials. The FARC has also provided training to the so-called Bolivarian Circles, an urban organization that Chavez set up to defend and promote his revolution.
Senior U.S. officials are concerned about the growing Cuban presence inside Venezuela. All told, some 5,000 Cubans have traveled to the country; in particular, many are turning up inside Venezuela's intelligence and paramilitary apparatus. Says one U.S. official: "The Cubans are deeply embedded in Venezuela's intelligence agency." Castro and Chavez are so close, they are said to talk by phone every day. Cubans also form part of Chavez's personal bodyguard detail. There is ample evidence, officials say, that "Cuba provides military training to pro-Chavez organizations" that have been set up to safeguard Chavez from coup attempts like the one he survived last year. None of this surprises U.S. officials who have been watching Chavez. "He decided to follow the Cuban model long ago," says one, citing speeches he made in 1994 and 1998. Chavez is sending some 53,000 barrels of oil monthly to help Castro's cash-strapped Cuba. And large numbers of Venezuelan military personnel have also been sent to Cuba for training.
Given all that is happening in Chavez's Venezuela, some American officials regret that terrorism is seen chiefly as a Middle East problem and that the United States is not looking to protect its southern flank. "I'm concerned that counterterrorism issues are not being aggressively pursued in this hemisphere," one U.S. intelligence official said. "We don't even have flyovers" of Venezuela. Another intelligence official complains that terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. base in Cuba, are not being interrogated about connections to Latin American. The bottom line, when it comes to terrorism so close to U.S. shores, says the official: "We don't even know what we don't know."
Aiding and abetting
The Venezuelan government is allowing armed Colombian insurgents--considered terrorist organizations by the United States--to operate inside its borders. And Islamic radical groups have gained a foothold within Venezuela's Arab community; local "cells" provide support to groups based in the Middle East.
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Area of detail: Venezuela
Hundreds of Colombian guerrillas train at smaller camps located in Venezuelan territory.
Colombian rebels operate a clandestine radio station along the Venezuelan border.
Latitude: N 10 29' 56''
Longitude: W 72 44' 56''
Venezuela has denied aiding Colombian rebel groups like the FARC. But exclusive information pinpoints the location of a remote camp inside Venezuela used to train Colombian guerrillas.
In Venezuela's capital, the government of Hugo Chavez cultivates close ties to Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Islamic terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, obtain millions of dollars from money-laundering and drug-trafficking operations here, say American officials.
Gulf of Venezuela
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This story appears in the October 6, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.