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South America's 'tri-border' back on terrorism radar

From Mike Boettcher

The tri-border region's Cuidad del Este, Paraguay, is seen from across the Rio Parana.
The tri-border region's Cuidad del Este, Paraguay, is seen from across the Rio Parana.

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CNN's Mike Boettcher looks at the tri-border region, an area in South America that is drawing the attention of antiterrorism experts (November 7)
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CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay (CNN) -- The area of South America known as the tri-border region, which drew the attention of antiterrorism experts after September 11, has again become a point of concern.

CNN has learned from coalition intelligence sources that several top terrorist operatives met recently in the area -- where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay intersect -- to plan attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in the Western hemisphere. (Map of the tri-border region)

Sources said the meetings, which took place in and around Ciudad del Este, were attended by representatives of Hezbollah and other groups sympathetic to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

Two weeks ago, Argentina's security agencies issued a strong terrorist warning.

"We had intelligence that pointed to increased terrorist activity," said Miguel Toma, who runs SIDE, the Argentine equivalent of the U.S. CIA. "It is not unrealistic that there could be some action to prevent or to react to an attack on Iraq. So we need to react because of the global conflict."

Other indications of the threat came from intelligence sources in the Middle East, who told CNN of a new terrorist effort aimed at U.S. and Israeli interests and coordinated by a man named Imad Mugniyeh.

The sources say Mugniyeh -- working from his bases in Iran and Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon -- is directing the activities of terrorists in South America, planning to hit U.S. and Israeli targets if the United States attacks Iraq, or if Israel is drawn into the conflict.

Mugniyeh is suspected of being the mastermind in a long list of attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets over the past 20 years -- including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and the 1992 car bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Argentina's Toma met recently with intelligence officials in Washington to discuss the possibility of a new terrorist offensive launched from South America.

"This was a central theme discussed in recent trips to Washington," Toma said. "There is a direct correlation between terrorism here and the U.S."

Argentine authorities have connected Mugniyeh to such groups as Hezbollah, Gamaa al Islamiya, and Islamic Jihad, all of which have been identified by the U.S. State Department as terrorist organizations.

Imad Mugniyeh
Imad Mugniyeh

Argentine intelligence documents obtained by CNN last year spell out links between those groups and mosques and businesses in the area.

Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are Arab-based groups which have directed the bulk of their activities against Israel. Gamaa al Islamiya, an Egyptian group, has publicly allied itself with al Qaeda.

Warnings about terrorist activity in the tri-border region are not new. The lush jungle region is known for its porous borders and thriving black markets.

The region quickly fell under the anti-terrorism dragnet cast after September 11. Ten days after the attacks, police in Paraguay raided several businesses and rounded up 20 suspects, 14 of whom were later released.

Argentine officials point to more evidence they say indicates terrorist activity in the tri-border area -- thousands of U.S. dollars bearing stamps from Lebanese currency exchange banks, tens of thousands of dollars in phony bills, and receipts from wire transfers made between the tri-border area and the Middle East.

The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was bombed in 1992.
The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was bombed in 1992.

While international intelligence agencies have focused on the tri-border region since the war on terror began, many of the people they were looking for may have moved on.

Argentina's counter-terrorism police assert that terrorist operatives have dispersed east, to the remote jungles of Brazil and to Brazil's financial capital, Sao Paulo; and west, to the free trade zone of Iquique in Chile's northern desert.

Last year, U.S. officials requested that Chile investigate terrorist activity in Iquique. Police there recently seized 48 fake Pakistani passports, which they believe were destined for use by terrorists.

CNN's Ingrid Arnesen contributed to this report.

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