13 June 2009

Threat Convergence Risks in the Tri-Border Area

The Crime-Terrorism Nexus: Threat Convergence Risks in the Tri-Border Area (June 2009)

Authors:   Patricia Taft, David A. Poplack, and Rita Grossman-Vermaas

Executive Summary

The Fund for Peace's (FfP) work in the area of threat convergence is based on the notion that the nonproliferation community in the US and abroad needs to devote more systematic attention to the role of non-state actors in WMD proliferation and terrorism. In January 2009, the FfP launched its Center for the Study of Threat Convergence. A primary objective of the CSTC is to examine how fragile states and ungoverned spaces may serve as enabling environments for nuclear terrorism.

This CSTC report is based on field research the FfP conducted in South America in February- March 2008 to assess the conditions that might enable nuclear smuggling and proliferation in the Tri-Border Area (TBA). The TBA, bounded by Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz do Iguacu, Brazil is a notoriously lawless region. Some US analysts and officials describe it as Latin America’s premier black market bazaar and the home of Islamic fundamentalism in the Western Hemisphere.

Claims that active terrorist cells, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, were operating out of the TBA began circulating after the bombing of Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s and increased significantly after the September 11th attacks to include references to Al Qaeda. This study was initially focused on exploring whether there may be specific, operational terrorist threats emanating from the TBA, but these threats were not confirmed by our research team. FfP researchers did confirm, however, a far more complex and nuanced problem than most of the literature on terrorism in the region describes. Powerful local elites tied to a regional and ultimately global infrastructure of crime and violence are involved in overlapping crimes that enhance the operations of criminal and terrorist networks in the region and throughout the world.

The FfP found that existing regional criminal networks in the TBA have the potential to afford access to the corollary activities necessary to commit an act of WMD terrorism, including: formal and informal financial networks, communications infrastructure, the provision of safe havens and identity “laundering,” and tested routes for the smuggling of personnel and materials throughout the hemisphere. Therefore, the TBA may offer a rich enabling environment that could support a WMD terrorism scenario anywhere in the
world—one characterized by corruption; gaps in the capacities of state intelligence, border security, and immigration control services; large legitimate economies and trading networks; sophisticated nuclear technology and expertise; and the presence of transnational criminal networks that overlap with the membership and activities of radical movements and terrorist elements.

Detailed recommendations for the US government, the international community and countries in the TBA are contained at the end of this report.The findings in this report are intended to supplement the existing literature on governance, terrorism and WMD proliferation in the region, stimulate further research, and foster policies that mitigate the threat of WMD terrorism.