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 population.
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 school.
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.