Don’t look for Latin American jihadis – yet

Latin American Muslims seem immune to radicalism and ISIL’s global recruitment campaign – but for how much longer?

Caribbean nationals' presence among ISIL ranks in Syria caught the attention of US officials, writes Di Ricco [AFP]

Wallah I think I’m still dreaming, I am in a dream world. You have to be here to understand what I’m saying, wallah.” After a Finnish, a British, a Tunisian, and an Indonesian, it was the turn of the informal US representative in Raqqa to send his worldwide recruitment message. But the accent and the name of the man appearing in ISIL’s video Eid greeting last year, Abu Abdurrahman al-Trinidadi, betrayed no one in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago.

Trinidadi was quickly recognised by local authorities as one of the Trini who travelled to Syria to live and fight for the caliphate. Local media spotted in other ISIL videos more militants from the tiny and multicultural islands, which is home to around 60,000 Muslims, six percent of the population, and the only country in the region with a history of militant political Islam.

Media outlets identify ‘Jihadi John’

Caribbean nationals’ presence among ISIL ranks in Syria caught the attention of US officials. US Southcom Chief General John Kelly recently warned about the threat represented by hundreds of jihadists from different Caribbean islands, coming back “with ties to global extremists, and possible intent to harm western interests – and they will reside in a region rife with smuggling routes that lead directly and easily into the United States”.

Jihadist threat in US’ ‘backyard’

Beside these few cases and recurring false alarms, Latin America and the Caribbean seem to be the only regions that are not substantially contributing foreign fighters to ISIL.

If though an organised recruitment strategy appears to be absent from ISIL’s primary objectives, local religious scholars and intelligence agencies are vigilant over ISIL propaganda for Latinos who have recently converted to Islam.

Sensationalist media and conservative US politicians have been warning about the presence of ISIL cells operating on the US-Mexico border or collaborating with Latin American criminal organisations. This is just a repeat of what has already happened in previous decades with al-Qaeda, the alleged Iranian/Hezbollah infiltration in the US through Latin America, or the narrative around the Triple Frontier as a centre of logistics operations for Islamic extremists. In all cases, no solid proof of direct terrorist activities in the region was ever produced.

Since ISIL’s emergence, local and international media amplified the threat for the region, often without verifiable information. Bastian Alexis Vasquez, alias Abu Safiyya, from Chile, was the first to show up in an ISIL propaganda video. Addressing the camera in English, he announced the fall of the century-old Sykes-Picot borders between Syria and Iraq.

Quickly labelled as one of the first Latino contributions to ISIL, Abu Safiyya was instead totally disconnected from his homeland, which he left in 2001 for Norway, where he converted and was radicalised.

Argentinean media “celebrated” a Spanish Guardia Civil operation which led to the arrest of Cesar Raul Rodriguez. The Argentinean was part of a web of mainly Moroccan Islamist recruiters in Spain who were translating and spreading ISIL propaganda videos, but he was soon released without charge.

Islamophobia and Muslim marginalisation from society is missing in Latin America, as most of Muslims are long-time migrants of Arab origins or, especially in the last decade, locally converted.


Then came the exclusive report by Spanish daily El Mundo on the first Mexican involved in jihad operations in Syria, Abu Hadafa Al-Meksiki.

The real identity of Meksiki, who was found dead on the battlefield, was impossible to verify. The only picture of him was one looking straight at the camera with a Kalashnikov in his hands and his face almost completely covered with a keffiyeh.

The only verified flow of Muslim militants to ISIL territory has been from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago. While Jamaica and Suriname authorities denied Gen Kelly’s accusations of sending jihadists to Syria, Trinidad officials confirmed the presence of some of its nationals fighting in Syria.

The Muslim community of Trinidad has been under the scrutiny of local authorities and US intelligence agencies since the 1990 coup d’etat attempt by local Islamic movement Jamaat al-Muslimeen.

At least three of the Trini fighters actually in Syria had been arrested in 2011 for allegedly participating in a plot to kill the prime minister. Released without further charges, the mother of one of them claims that the 14 days of detention under state of emergency laws were probably contributed to his son’s radicalisation.

New Latino converts

With the exception of Trinidadian fighters, coming from a country with a history of political Islam and state persecution, not many Latinos have gone to the Middle East. ISIL’s presence in the region and organised recruitment seem for the moment to be almost totally absent.

The tiny, but growing Latin American Muslim community, which counts less than one percent of the whole region’s population, does not seem to share European Muslims grievances and reasons for involvement in ISIL.

Islamophobia and Muslim marginalisation from society is missing in Latin America, as most of the Muslims are long-time residents of Arab origin or, especially in the last decade, locally converted.

Latin American countries are not directly involved in any Middle East conflicts. In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff even criticised the US’ decision to militarily intervene against ISIL.

Even if Latin America and the Caribbean do not appear on ISIL’s recruitment map, which also explains the lack of propaganda material produced in Spanish or, even less, in Portuguese, there are some reasons for concern. Brazilian media recently reported an attempt by Brazilian Muslim converts to persuade Syrian refugees to join ISIL using social media.

Even if the Brazilian government did not acknowledge the report, it demonstrates ISIL’s appeal to local converts. Indeed, Latin America’s Muslims do not seem to be completely immune from the radical organisation’s propaganda, and social media shows the presence of at least some support for ISIL and other groups like al-Nusra Front.

Local Islamic scholars seem aware of such appeal for members of the community, especially new converts. Latin American countries have all the conditions for potential radicalisation: poverty, inequality, suburban marginalisation, high unemployment rates, and youngsters’ admiration for violent acts. 

It was not a coincidence that in a recent meeting of Muslim scholars from the Americas, the main topics of discussion were violence and extremism. The debate centred around the duty of local communities to prevent radicalisation and the ways to identify those at risk of being recruited by violent organisations.

For the time being, the distant ISIL dream of a caliphate doesn’t appeal to Latino Muslims, and those who left seem to have no intention of coming back.

But for susceptible new converts, the powerful propaganda images of ISIL could represent a path to radicalisation and violence.

Massimo Di Ricco is professor at the Universidad del Norte of Barranquilla (Colombia), a news commentator, and journalist who contributes to several publications on Middle East, Latin America, media and global politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.