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03 March 2004

U.S. Officials Outline Counterterrorism Cooperation in Western Hemisphere

Vast majority of countries are "firm partners" in fight against terror

Washington -- The United States and its partners in the Western Hemisphere are working together to curb the threat of international terrorism in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to U.S. officials.

There is no evidence of operational planning by international terrorist organizations in Latin America, but there are "many, many support activities" for such groups taking place throughout the region, said Major General Rod Bishop, deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, in March 3 remarks on Capitol Hill.

Speaking at a conference labelled "The Middle East Terrorist Connection in Latin America and the Caribbean," Bishop indicated that the tri-border area shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, in addition to Margarita Island off Venezuela, Colombia, and Trinidad & Tobago are among the places in the hemisphere where international terrorist groups are engaged in illicit activities.

Bishop said that international terrorist groups in these areas are engaged in laundering money, forging documents, and transporting drugs, arms and illegal aliens. These activities, he noted, generate millions of dollars for terrorists around the world.

To curb these activities and to carry out its global war on terrorism, the United States has established a Joint Inter-Agency Coordination Group among U.S. government entities that aims to enhance cooperation and improve information-sharing, Bishop said.

He added that the United States is also engaged with its hemispheric partners in combating international terrorism in the region.

"Many of our Latin American and Caribbean neighbors are stepping up to the plate and helping us in this fight," Bishop said. "They are indicting, arresting, and in some cases extraditing those individuals involved in terrorism."

The United States is sharing techniques and intelligence with its hemispheric partners and working hard together to monitor the activities of radical Islamic groups in the region, Bishop explained. "This cooperative approach is at our frontline in the war on terrorism," he added.

William Pope, principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State, concurred with this assessment. "The vast majority of countries in the hemisphere have been firm partners in the war on terrorism," he said.

Yet while the hemisphere has demonstrated political will to curb international terrorism, the capacity to thwart terrorist activity in the region is "sorely lacking," Pope said.

Efforts to bolster the region's ability to curb international terrorism focus, in part, on improving the basic security of hemispheric nations, Bishop observed. He said that terrorists seek out areas without basic security -- ungoverned spaces where they can act with virtual impunity.

The United States Southern Command is working closely with its counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean to minimize the ungoverned spaces that exist in the region, Bishop confirmed.

Another crucial component in the global campaign against terrorism, Bishop and Pope noted, is the targeting of terrorist resources. Pope said the United States is actively supporting several financial task forces in the region, and suggested that efforts to address the fundraising activities of radical Islamic groups in the region have already yielded results.

The United States is also the largest donor to the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, as Pope pointed out. The success of this group in assisting Latin American and Caribbean nations to curb terrorism is "critical," he said.

These and other collaborative efforts not withstanding, more needs to be done, Pope said. "As much as we are doing already, the need to improve counterterrorism capacity-building is enormous," he conceded.

Pope said the United States would like to do more in Latin America and the Caribbean, in part to reinforce existing political will in the region.

At the very least, Bishop concluded, the United States must stay the course and commit the resources necessary to steel the nations of the hemisphere against terrorism. "If we turn away, then we fail the Americas and terrorists will continue to use the region," he said. "We must not allow that to happen."