Muslim South America

Where there are moderate Muslim populations, we're
bound to find a few radicals.

By Jonathan Schanzer
National Review Online
June 5, 2007

Last weekend we found out that a group of would-be
terrorists were allegedly conspiring to blow up JFK
airport, along with a fair portion of Queens. The news
was surprising, even if we have become accustomed to
the tactics of al Qaeda inspired terrorism. Perhaps
most surprising was that the alleged attackers hailed
from the sleepy South American nation of Guyana and
the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

Many Americans know Trinidad as a vacation spot. But
most don’t know that its population is approximately
10 percent Muslim. Most Americans know almost nothing
about Guyana, even it’s location (next to Venezuela).
Guyana has a population of about 760,000, and 10
percent of them are Muslim.

Americans should also know about Guyana’s eastern
neighbor, Suriname. This country has a population of
450,000, and 90,000 of them are Muslim.

Of course, a sizeable Muslim population doesn’t
automatically translate into a problem with militant
Islam. Yet, statistically speaking, whether in Europe,
North America, or the Arab world, we have seen
repeatedly since 9/11 that a small radical population
is almost always hiding amidst a moderate Muslim

I traveled to Suriname on behalf of the State
Department in 2003 to explain U.S. foreign policy to
select audiences throughout Suriname’s capital,
Paramaribo. When I visited the tiny Al-Iman mosque on
Paramaribo’s outskirts, I saw firsthand how militant
Islam could be gaining a foothold. Some 20 Javanese
Muslim congregants in the mosque were learning Arabic
and Islamic law from a young Indonesian cleric who
received his formal religious training in Saudi
Arabia. Embassy officials acknowledged that this young
cleric was likely trained by members of the
puritanical and radical Wahhabi sect, though they said
they didn’t know how many other Saudi-trained clerics
there were in Suriname.

Not long after my tour of Suriname, a piece appeared
in the Washington Times noting the country’s
“historical nexus to Indonesia, the home of Jemaah
Islamiah, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda and
responsible for the Bali bombing.” Indeed, Suriname
Defense Minister Ronald Assen admitted in 2003 that
Ali Imron, the Indonesian sentenced to life in prison
for his role in the October 2002 Bali bombing that
killed 202 people, spent a year living in the
Surinamese city of Mungo, where he taught at a Muslim

Suriname also had its fair share of anti-American
sentiment. Suriname’s former ambassador to the United
Nations warned privately that “the U.S. is intent on
pursuing a dangerous unilateral approach” to global
affairs. A Surinamese defense official insisted that
Washington “is lashing out in anger at the Muslim
world after 9/11.” Several Surinamese Muslim community
leaders I talked to thought that the U.S. war on
terror “is a war against the Muslim world.”

Thankfully, anti-Americanism is not palpable in
Suriname. One Muslim community leader I spoke with
sheepishly admitted that more Muslims might have
joined a demonstration against the Iraq war in
Paramaribo’s Independence Square, but were “afraid
that the U.S. would revoke their visas.”

Moreover, most of Suriname’s Muslim population is
proudly moderate. The beautiful Ahmadiyya Anjumanm
Ishaat Islam mosque in Paramaribo stands proudly next
to a synagogue representing one of South America’s
oldest Jewish communities. These two structures
standing side-by-side demonstrate the tolerance
Suriname is known for.

A history of tolerance notwithstanding, this weekend’s
disrupted plot demonstrates that U.S. counterterrorism
and intelligence agencies must cast a wide net, one
that includes even the tiny nations along the northern
coast of South America.

Few analysts have ever thought about a terrorism nexus
in South America apart from the Tri-Border area (a
lawless area between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina),
where Hezbollah and Iran are known to operate. It’s
time to start looking at other South American states
that may be inadvertently hosting terrorists. Guyana
and Trinidad were put on the map this weekend. Let’s
not forget about Suriname.

— Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence
analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy
Center. He is author of Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East
Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.

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