How Peru Can Help Stop ISIS
President Barack Obama visited Lima recently for a two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Trade was at the top of the agenda, but President Obama should have used this opportunity to court Peru into the US-led coalition to counter ISIS. In the last year, ISIS affiliates have appeared in Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, the Caribbean and Brazil, to name a few. A terrorist plot by the ISIS affiliate Ansar al-Khilafah targeting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was fortunately foiled.
The counter-terrorism success in Brazil was a combined effort by local and international authorities that acted quickly to thwart 12 Brazilian jihadists planning to emulate the November 2015 Paris attacks by ISIS. The catalyst enabling the Brazilian Federal Police to uncover this plot was the country’s first antiterrorism legislation, enacted this past March. This new law gave Brazilian officials the legal authority to case, survey, arrest and convict Islamist terrorists before they act.
The key to convicting Islamic terrorists in Latin America is to criminalize their membership in foreign terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, Latin American countries lack the proper designation lists to add Islamic terrorist individuals and organizations to the list of criminalized groups. More than half lack any form of anti-terrorism legislation. In many countries, being a member of ISIS or Hezbollah is not a criminal act in and of itself. Left unaddressed, this leaves Latin America with the same legal vacuum that existed in the United States 20 years ago.
Prior to 1996, the US lacked a proper legal framework to address the rise of terrorism, both foreign and domestic. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
One of the most important provisions of this law allows the US government to designate foreign terrorist organizations and prohibit their funding. In practice, this led to what is known as the Foreign Terrorist Organization list managed by the State Department. The list, which is updated every two years, allows US authorities to more easily track and prosecute members of jihadist organizations, helping to preempt and prevent future terrorist attacks.
Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, wrote a letter to President Obama prior to his trip to Peru urging the administration to be more proactive in working with Latin American officials to curb the expansion of Islamic extremists in “our own hemisphere.”
A good way for Obama to start would be to highlight the importance of Peru’s case against Mohamad Ghaleb Hamdar.
Hamdar, an alleged Hezbollah operative, was arrested in October 2014 with hundreds of pictures of high-value targets and critical infrastructure in Peru, as well as residue and traces of explosives on his person and in his apartment. The Hamdar case was prominently mentioned in the US State Department’s 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism. Moreover, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets and Control (OFAC) recently added Hamdar to a Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List, effectively labeling him a terrorist and restricting his access to US funds and American companies. Hamdar’s wife, Carmen Carrion Vela, a US-Peruvian dual citizen, has also been arrested in Peru for potentially providing financial support to Hamdar while she resided in Florida.
If convicted, Hamdar faces a minimum 20-year sentence, which would send a strong signal to jihadists around the world that Peru and Latin America are off limits. A conviction could change the anti-terrorism legal landscape in Latin America at a time when worldwide jihadists are on the move. A guilty verdict would mark the first time that a member of an Islamic terrorist organization has been convicted in Latin America for plotting a terrorist attack. It would also constitute a de facto designation of Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in Peru, a legal precedent that may spur additional designations throughout the region.
President Obama had the perfect platform at APEC to broaden the coalition against the global jihadist movement and add a potential new partner in Peru to the US-led coalition to counter ISIS. He missed this opportunity. Let’s hope the new Trump administration does not do the same.