The international community is increasingly concerned that the Islamic State and other terror groups may be exploiting weakness in Latin America to fund their terrorist activities.
American officials and international experts met with representatives of 10 nations in Argentina last week to discuss joint efforts to prevent terrorist financing in Latin America, amid growing concern that Islamic extremist groups are operating in the region.
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The Regional Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Forum was organized by U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.), chairman of the congressional taskforce on terrorism and unconventional warfare, and Mariano Federici, president of Argentina's Financial Intelligence Unit.
Pittenger told the Washington Free Beacon that he has become worried about the "growing nexus" between terrorists and criminal drug lords in Latin America. Hezbollah militants have been linked to the drug trade in Latin America, and Pittenger and others worry about the possibility of ISIS and similar groups establishing funding channels in the region.
"There is a consensus, clearly, among our friends in South America that their countries could be the subject of the transfer of moneys and the origination of funding from ISIS and other terrorist groups," Pittenger said Monday. "Interest is growing. Like any terror group, terrorists will go to any means to find the funds that they need to achieve their objective."
"All of our countries in the region are on the watch for possible threats related with ISIS and particularly with the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters," Federici told the Free Beacon in a separate conversation. "There have been some countries, particularly in the Caribbean region, where there have been fighters recruited to join the lists of ISIS."
Legislators from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela took part in the international forum last Monday, along with experts from the U.S. Treasury Department, global anti-money laundering agencies, and other private technology and financial firms.
Participants discussed global challenges in preventing money laundering and terrorist financing as well as the prospects of international cooperation on advanced technology and software and collaboration between the public and private sectors to confront the threat.
Federici said that Argentina and other Latin American nations are intent on developing a complete understanding of the terrorist financing threat from ISIS, Hezbollah, and other groups. They aim to close "all the gaps that may be available to [terrorists] to execute that financing strategy."
U.S. officials have previously expressed concern about ISIS garnering support in Latin America. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said in July that "radicalization is occurring" in the region and that he sees potential for the terror group to put down roots in Latin America and the Caribbean. The military commander said that criminal networks operating throughout Latin America could potentially move terrorists across the U.S. border.
Earlier this month, Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) wrote a letter to President Obama ahead of his trip to Peru, warning of "the increasing presence of Islamic extremist groups operating in Latin America."
"ISIS and its sympathizers are growing more overt in Latin America. Their increased use of messaging in Spanish and Portuguese, coupled with calls for terror in the region, exemplify ISIS's unwavering determination to change and imbed in new surroundings," Ernst wrote. "With decades of violence and illicit activity throughout Latin America, it remains fertile ground for extremist groups, like ISIS, to prosper."
Pittenger said Monday that the ISIS threat in Latin America is two-pronged, consisting of the terror group's physical presence and potential use of Latin American financial systems to funnel money for its global operations.
"There is a growing concern of ISIS penetrating that area and with this nexus and developing these relationships and finding funds, that's stage one," Pittenger said. "And stage two, whether they are there procuring these funds or not, it's a staging grounds potentially for the transfer of funds."
The congressman noted, however, that ISIS does not have to have a robust physical presence in Latin America to exploit regional financial systems and gain access to funds for terror operations.
"They don't have to be in country to transfer money through the financial system in the country. It's beyond the origination of the funds. It's getting access to the funds and working it through whatever financial system is accessible to them," Pittenger explained. "We are only as strong as our weakest link."
ISIS has generated millions in revenue through its control of oil fields in Iraq and Syria. A Treasury Department official estimated last December that ISIS generated over $500 million from selling oil.
The terror group's oil revenues have declined as its physical holdings have eroded, however. Pittenger estimated that ISIS will continue to seek expansion outside the Middle East and North Africa to develop financial ties and sources there.
Local forces backed by U.S. airstrikes and personnel have launched offensives in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in recent weeks to liberate the key cities from ISIS control.
As the terror group loses territory in its so-called caliphate, American officials have warned that the group will look to inspire external attacks and drive fighters to other regions. For example, ISIS has sought to expand across Southeast Asia, recruiting fighters there and calling for attacks.
Pittenger said the forum was important to establish a common mission between the United States and regional countries, and to ensure that Latin American nations have the technology and personnel to thwart terrorist financing operations.
The congressman recommended that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump "staff up" American embassies in the region with personnel who can train foreign officials in advanced technology and help them understand vulnerabilities of their financial systems that terror groups could exploit.
"[We need to] be a positive reinforcement to those countries to engage them in matters that they want help," Pittenger continued. "We can't force ourselves down somebody else's throat, but we can be accessible to them, working with the private sector and our government agencies to enhance their capabilities."
Federici said that Latin American countries need a clear understanding of the threat of terrorism and their vulnerabilities. He encouraged the U.S. government to share more information on terror groups like ISIS to aid this process.
During the forum, Pittenger said that Trump would build partnerships with countries in the region and ensure their security. Federici said he was hopeful that Argentina will be able to establish a "strong partnership" with the new administration, noting that Trump already has a relationship with Argentine President Mauricio Macri.