By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service:

Even in a region where some of the United States’ closest military partners are steadily improving national stability and security, the threat of violent extremism is spreading, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said.

During a weeklong trip that includes stops in Bogota, Colombia; Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Santiago, Chile, the secretary is meeting with military and political leaders to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to help with common defense challenges.

Increasingly, one of those challenges involves violent extremist organizations and the growing engagement of Iran in the region.

“We always have a concern about, in particular, the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and efforts by the IRGC to expand their influence, not only throughout the Middle East but also into this region,” Panetta said during a briefing en route to Colombia. “In my book,” he added, “that relates to expanding terrorism.”

Last month, in written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, detailed the regional activities of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shi’a Muslim militant group and political party, and Iran.

Southcom’s area of responsibility includes Central America, South America and the Caribbean. “We do see evidence of international terrorist groups benefitting from the intertwined systems of illicit trafficking and money laundering in our AOR,” Fraser said.

In South America, funding for Hezbollah is raised through charitable donations as well as through drug trafficking and dealing in counterfeit and pirated goods, he said.

In 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department identified the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a “primary money laundering concern” for its role in facilitating money laundering activities of Ayman Joumaa and his Lebanon-based drug trafficking network, which also channeled financial support to Hezbollah.

Joumaa also is accused of smuggling U.S.-bound cocaine through Central America and Mexico and laundering money for a group called Los Zetas, and many Colombian and Venezuelan suppliers.

“In addition to Hezbollah supporters throughout South America, the region is home to a small number of violent extremist organizations, Fraser said.

“We remain vigilant for the potential radicalization of homegrown extremists,” the general added. For example, a small number of Sunni extremists are involved in the radicalization of converts and other Muslims, Fraser told the panel.

“These efforts can be seen through the influence of public personalities like Jamaica’s Shaykh Abdullah al-Faisal, who was convicted in the United Kingdom for inciting terrorism,” the general said. Al-Qaida senior operative Adnan el-Shukrijumah has held valid passports for the United States, as well as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, where he has family and associates, Fraser added.

Despite recent convictions in a 2007 plot to attack the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, one alleged co-conspirator remains at large in Guyana, he said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited the region six times in six years, and Iran continues its overtures to countries there to try to circumvent international sanctions, Fraser said.

Iran has established modest economic, cultural and security ties, the general added, mostly with nations aligned with a group known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our Americas, called ALBA. These include Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Iran also has established 36 Shi’a cultural centers in the region, Fraser said.

The Fundacion Cultural Oriente is an Iranian outreach center dedicated to strengthening Iran’s ties to Latin America, Fraser said.

The center is run by radical cleric Moshen Rabbani, who is on the Interpol Red List for involvement in the 1994 bombings of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, the general said, adding that Rabbani oversees several media outlets and has recruited students from the region to study in Iran.

“We take Iranian activity in the hemisphere seriously and we monitor its activities closely,” Fraser said. “The U.S. government’s successful detection and thwarting of the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States,” he added, “reinforces the importance of that monitoring and the effectiveness of U.S. countermeasures.”

The expansion of terrorism is an area of concern for the region and its partners, Panetta said. “I hope we can work together,” the secretary added, “to make sure that all the steps are taken to ensure that anything that encourages terrorism can be fought against.”

-American Forces Press Service

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