Speaking to the Democratic Leadership Council recently, former President Bill Clinton advised fellow Democrats to boost the war with al-Qaeda but downplay the war with Iraq. From a military standpoint this strategy is akin to saying that the way to get rid of wasps is to ignore the nest and chase each wasp individually.
However, there is a point to be made. In the December issue of Vanity Fair, Sebastian Junger makes it. The swarm is everywhere.
"Looking very, very far down the road," he says, "one can imagine that virtually all terrorist groups, international Mafias, and even political agitators, might see a common goal in eroding Western dominance in the world. … they are all upset for their own particular reasons about the same basic reality: The United States, its allies and its corporate armies can do pretty much as they want and, at the moment, no one can stop them.
Except, possibly, an unholy union of international Mafias, Western terror groups, and al-Qaeda."
For the past decade, the place where these groups can meet in relative safety has been the Triple Border region of South America. That is the interior area west of Sao Paulo where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. With a large Lebanese expatriate population, the region has two significant cities – Ciudad del Este, Paraguay and Foz do Iguaçú, Brazil. There is a major economic boost from tourism in nearby Iguaçú Falls. A half a dozen temporary terrorist training camps are scattered up and down the border from the two cities.
According to local information, Triple Border has been a major logistical and planning base for al-Qaeda. But not just al-Qaeda. Triple travelers include members of the Irish Republican Army, ETA (the Basque separatist movement), FARC from Columbia and even neo-Nazi groups from the United States. They may represent either a stage of evolution or a deliberate process called "crossover."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Junger says, the United States became uncontested in its world dominance. This imbalance is more unstable than the Cold War. A loose affiliation of terror groups that share no ideology but trade favors to add to their collective power reflects a triple threat – the converging interests of organized crime, drug and arms dealers and political terrorists. It is extremists willing to look beyond their own kind for temporary assistance. Triple Borders is a perfect place to generate money and sell transferable skills.
Defectors from the training camps describe the curriculum as breaking into houses, blowing up buildings, making car bombs, shooting every kind of weapon and killing with a knife. They summed up the training as learning to kill Americans and Jews. Graduates are either given a mission or sent out to go dormant until called.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese-based leader of Hezbollah called on his fighters this week to "act everywhere around the world. Martyrdom operations – suicide bombings – should be exported outside Palestine," Some observers think that the hotel bombing and attempted missile attack on an Israeli charter tourist flight included help from Hezbollah. The Nasrallah speeches might be regarded as a further sign that the common hatred of the West is taking precedence over factional differences among the terror groups.
It is not, of course, difficult to imagine trained agents migrating into the United States through its porous southern borders. Nor through our porous northern borders, either. The Canadian minister of foreign affairs recently announced that he would not outlaw Hezbollah because it did social work in Lebanon. Newspaper reports in Canada’s National Post have cited the group’s Canadian operatives as a source for misdirected charitable funds, forged documents, stolen cars, fresh recruits and military equipment.
In the meantime, crossover potential in the Triple Border area grows. Fueled by the currents of drugs, weapons and money-laundering, the area is, in some ways, an island of illegal prosperity in a sea of honest poverty. Junger points out that Hamas and Hezbollah cells walk easily in the Muslim community and funnel huge sums back to Lebanon. Is there any economic hope for the area? Probably not.
Paraguay’s President Luis Gonzalez Macchi said this week that there was" no concrete evidence of terrorism on the border." Macchi has problems of his own. His lower house voted to impeach him this week over illegal investments of state funds. Paraguay has struggled since 1989 to recover from the 35-year reign of Dictator Alfredo Strossner. It is now chiefly known as the place to purchase stolen cars, pirated CDs and software, and contraband such as liquor, perfume and cigarettes. With a population of 5.5 million, it is widely considered to be the most corrupt nation in South America. The local currency has declined some 30 percent this year and anti-government riots are common. Paraguay is about two weeks from bankruptcy and collapse.
Not that things are so much better in neighbor Argentina. The International Monetary Fund has held up implementation of badly needed economic aid. With a 22 percent unemployment rate, jobless Argentines without a social aid network have begun peaceful protests on the streets of Buenos Aires. After four years of recession, half of the nation’s 37 million people live below the poverty line as devaluation created a 43 percent consumer price inflation.
That leaves Brazil. With its Leftist President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva about to reveal his cabinet makeup, Brazil suffers from an 11 percent inflation rate. The key appointment of a central banker is unknown but expected any day. But not to worry, Fidel and Saddam’s buddy Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has come to visit. Taking time off from the nation-wide strike against his leadership, Chavez traveled to Brazil to lend his advice. Venezuela, has suffered 48 percent currency devaluation and 17 percent unemployment. Oil delivery disruptions here would have a greater and more immediate impact than interruptions in Saudi Arabia.
Looking at the continuous contraction of the economy of Japan, the EU bureaucratic bungling of Europe’s recessionary pressures and the huge transformational problems of China, it is hard to see any challenge to the ascendancy of the United States and its allies in the foreseeable future, even if we are in a bear market rally. While Russia and France do their best to keep the United States out of Iraq, the fact remains that anywhere - Palestine or Three Borders - terrorist resources begin with oil.
The nest is in the Middle East.
Tom Huheey is a columnist who writes on Washington trends for specialized business publications.