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South America's Jihadists: A Look at US-Designated Al-Qaeda Affiliate Networks in Brazil and the Tri-Border Area
On December 22, the US Treasury Department added a Brazilian network of individuals and companies reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda to its terrorism list. Haytham Ahmad Shukri Ahmad Al-Maghrabi, 35, Egyptian-born Brazilian, Mohamed Sherif Mohamed Awadd, 48, and Ahmad Al-Khatib, 52, were designated to have their assets and accounts in the US frozen. The three are accused of having “materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial or technological support, in addition to goods or services, to help Al-Qaeda”
Al-Maghrabi, who moved permanently to Brazil in 2015, was one of the first members of an Al-Qaeda network in the country, according to US authorities. Al-Maghrabi was the Al-Qaeda liaison in Brazil for Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, Al-Qaeda’s chief of paramilitary operations for Afghanistan. Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali was indicted for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. On October 10, 2001, he was included in the FBI’s initial list of the top 22 Most Wanted Terrorists and was declared a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) on October 12, 2001. Ali was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2010.
Mohamed Awadd arrived in Brazil in 2018 and allegedly received bank transfers from other Al-Qaeda associates. Additionally, he was involved in counterfeit currency printing. Sanctions have also been imposed on two companies affiliated with Awadd and Al-Khatib. The Al-Khatib company is the São Paulo-based furniture business of the Enterprise Comercio de Moveis e Intermediacao de Negocios.
Ahmad Al-Khatib is a Lebanese-born Muslim sheikh who has lived in Brazil for 32 years and currently serves as the president of the non-governmental organization “Open Book-Islamic Nucleus” (“Associaçāo Livro Aberto-Nucleo Islamico”), which assists Syrian refugees. Following the US sanctions, he denied any involvement with Al-Qaeda in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “Al-Qaeda doesn't even exist in Brazil, these people from the US have a Hollywood imagination,” he said.
Al-Khatib was Mohamed Awadd's business partner in 2011 at Centro de Educacāo Raizes Ltda, a company that operated a kindergarten and elementary school in Guarulhos that was later shut down.
In addition, Al-Khatib partnered with Mohamed Ahmed Elsayed Ahmed Ibrahim in the Espaco Principal Comercio de Moveis and Colchoes furniture business in 2019. Mohamed Ahmed Elsayed Ahmed Ibrahim was designated by the US Treasury Department on September 10, 2019, for acting for or on behalf of Al-Qaeda. The company currently belongs to Mohamed Ahmed Elsayed Ahmed Ibrahim exclusively, and the Treasury Department has not sanctioned it.
While the US sanctioned Al-Khatib as an Al-Qaeda financial facilitator, Brazilian authorities investigated but did not indict him in Operation Hashtag, which uncovered a Brazilian jihadist network supporting the Islamic State via Facebook and Telegram and plotting attacks during the Olympics in 2016, following an FBI alert.
According to the complaint that the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor (MPF) of Paraná filed on September 15, 2016, the terrorists arrested in Operation Hashtag, who were participating in the Telegram group “Defenders of Sharia”, said that no official religious leader in Brazil would explicitly support the Islamic State except for a few “religious authorities.” They mentioned several sheiks and people with “deep jihadist expertise” who had directly or implicitly backed the Islamic State in their conversations. Ahmed Al-Khatib was among those “good Muslims”. “The group members had declared in their conversation that they were authorities in Brazil who had the same world vision and support the Islamic State,” the prosecutors added. Alisson Luan de Oliveira aka Alisson Mussab, one of the terrorists, described Al-Khatib as “extremely discreet” throughout the chat.
Among those detained as a result of Operation Hashtag were Guarulhos resident Vitor Barbosa Magalhāes (aka Vitor Abdullah) and Joao Pessoa, Paraiba State, native, Antônio Andrade dos Santos (aka Antônio Ahmed Andrade or Ahmed Al Falluji). According to the Brazilian Federal Police investigation, as well as what Al-Khatib revealed in an interview with the Brazilian television program Fantastico, Vitor Barbosa e Antônio Andrade worked with Al-Khatib in his furniture factory for a month handling sales, with Antonio working as a graphic designer. Al-Khatib said he met Vitor at the Pari mosque in São Paulo and encouraged him to join his Charity organization, “Open Book”.
Vitor Barbosa and Antônio Andrade gained notoriety after Brazilian media released a photograph of them posing with an Islamic State flag. Vitor Barbosa lived in Egypt from August 2012 to February 2013 in order to study Arabic, as he stated to the Brazilian Federal Police on July 22, 2016, after his arrest. He had met Antonio Andrade here, with whom he had shared an apartment for two months. Then Andrade dropped out of the language course after enrolling at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi authorities denied him the visa.
According to the trial documentation, Andrade said in a conversation on the Facebook group “Defenders of Sharia” that some individuals in Brazil wanted to pledge the bayat or allegiance to the Islamic State and sought advice from Al-Khatib on how to proceed. On a voice message, Al-Khatib encouraged Andrade to record a video without showing his face and state that he would obey and do anything the Emir asked of him in good and bad times.
On January 14, 2016, Al-Khatib asked Antonio Andrade whether his one-year-old son Ismael was already a DAESH member. Andrade replied that he was training him. According to prosecutors, Antonio Andrade would have been in charge of translating the texts posted on Al-Khatib's NGO Facebook page, and “the conversation between the two showed, in addition to a friendship, a spiritual and intellectual inclination.”
Andrade downplayed these two incidents during his interrogation with Brazilian federal police, claiming that his request for information about the bayat was driven solely by religious curiosity. As for his son, it was a joke between them, as DAESH is an Arabic term that sounds similar to the word “intolerant.”
Furthermore, Brazilian police discovered a video of Islamic State jihadists tossing people from a building’s roof on an Al-Khatib’s hard drive, as well as other videos of Islam Awazi “Voice of Islam,” the Turkestan Islamic Party's media branch.
In the second complaint filed on June 23, 2017, the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor (MPF) of Paraná wrote that Ahmad Al-Khatib, Antônio Andrade dos Santos Júnior, and Vitor Barbosa Magalhães were not indicted “because, despite the existence of abundant evidence of support and promotion of the Islamic State, all the conversations that the Anti-Terrorism Division (DAT) recorded and analyzed occurred before the entry into force of Law 13.260/2016.”
The Brazilian parliament passed the anti-terrorism law 13.260/2016 in March 2016. However, it is not retroactive. Brazil did not have a decree validating the UN resolution authorizing sanctions against individuals or entities associated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State until July 2016.
Before Operation Hashtag, Al-Khatib was a frequent user of social media. On Al-Khatib’s association’s YouTube page, there are numerous videos from late 2014 and 2015 of his lectures on Islamism influenced by Fahd Salem Bahammam’s “The New Muslim Guide,” the cover of which serves as a thumbnail for the videos. In Sweden, passages from this book were published on the website of the Gothenburg Mosque, sparking controversy over the book’s “reprehensible image of women,” which is also against the law, according to Sweden's foremost terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp of the National Defense College.
On his Facebook page, Al-Khatib has friends from the United States, Canada, French Guiana, Pakistan, Egypt, Spain, France, and Venezuela. Anuar Pechliye is also one of his Facebook friends. As disclosed by the Brazilian newsweekly Veja, Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden’s most crucial recruiter, revealed in an interrogation at Guantanamo that Anuar Pechliye had been trained in Afghanistan. In Latin America, Anuar provided false documents to Al-Qaeda terrorists along with Alan Cheidde, the first Brazilian foreign fighter in Bosnia.
Cases such as Ahmad Al-Khatib, that US authorities sanctioned as an Al-Qaeda financial facilitator and Brazilian officials investigated as part of an inquiry into a local group loyal to the Islamic State, are neither unique nor uncommon. Numerous individuals in Latin America have worked for multiple terrorist organizations, despite these groups being at odds in other parts of the world. For Islamic extremists, Latin America serves as a cash machine for jihad, a place for financing terrorist activities, smuggling cocaine and operatives for potential attacks on US soil and money laundering, which explains the dual role of these facilitators who are available to work for opposing terrorist groups. Thus, they have no reason to fight with one another. On the contrary, it is more advantageous to collaborate and share Latin America's illicit market to finance their operations.
According to the 2011 Congressional testimony of Roger Noriega, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Sheik Khaled Taky El Din or Khaled Razek Tak el-Din, based in Guarullhos and former Dawaa’s Director of Federation Of Muslims Associations In Brazil (FAMBRAS) was “one of Rabbani’s (Amia attack mastermind) principal collaborators in the Americas and he is linked to members of the Treasury Department-designated Tri-Border network that provides significant financial and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Noriega also claimed that “as far back as 1995, Tak el-Din hosted Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed at the Tri-Border Area (TBA)”, the region that straddles the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.” In 2003, the Washington Post reported on similar details provided by Brazilian military intelligence, but there was little conclusive evidence presented. Overall, it has been difficult to substantiate these claims.
International intelligence found in 2002 in the diaries of Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al-Qaeda leader arrested in Pakistan the same year, the name and Paraguayan telephone number of Ali Nizar Dahroug (Dahrouj), a businessman settled in Ciudad del Este. In July 2002, the Paraguayan police arrested Ali Nizar Dahroug on charges of tax evasion. Dahroug, who was the nephew of former Tri-Border shopkeeper and suspected al-Qaeda associate Muhammad Dahroug, had sent ten million dollars to the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, to finance Al-Qaeda and Hamas. During Dahroug's arrest, his nephew, Muhammad Daoud Yassine, managed to escape.
Assad Ahmad Barakat is a U.S.-designated key Hezbollah financier who has operated in the TBA. Barakat reportedly also had direct ties to Osama bin Laden. One of his companies, Mondial (World) Engineering and Construction, with offices in Ciudad del Este and Beirut, was suspected of making donations to Al-Qaeda through real estate fraud proceeds. Barakat also donated to several orphanages, as a discrete way of financing bin Laden. In 2002, police finally arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat for tax evasion. He was arrested again in September 2018 for forged documents.
The involvement of Al-Qaeda in Brazil is not new. Since the mid-1990s, Al-Qaeda has reportedly had an interest in and a presence in the country, mainly in the TBA. According to Veja, a Brazilian newsweekly, Osama bin Laden visited Foz do Iguaçu in 1995 (the specific month is unknown and the claim difficult to verify). As disclosed by Veja, which mentioned an anonymous top official of the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Agência Brasileira de Inteligência—ABIN), a 28-minute video apparently showed bin Laden participating in discussions at a local mosque during his visit. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the 9/11 mastermind, also visited the TBA that December. According to reports, he returned to Foz do Iguaçu area in 1998. As revealed by a 1997 FBI internal assessment, KSM stated in his application for a Brazilian visa in Malaysia that he was exploring a business to buy frozen chicken parts.
Shortly before the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., Brazilian authorities discovered dozens of calls from the TBA. They thought they were simple criminal techniques to reduce the cost of phone calls. However, after 9/11, suspicions moved to potential terrorist connections due to the calls to destinations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Suspected Islamic extremists used Private Automated Branch Exchange (PABX), a telephone network, to create a secure communication between people in countries designated as “high risk” for terrorism. Telecommunications experts believed that their true purpose was likely to elude satellites surveillance on telephone calls and exchange vital information in preparation for and following the attacks from an area that foreign intelligence monitored rarely.
Khaled Hussein Ali, a Lebanese national, relocated to Brazil in the mid-1990s, where he became the alleged chief of Al-Qaeda’s online propaganda branch, the Jihad Media Battalion (JMB). JMB publicized Al-Qaeda’s attacks and distributed communications from its leaders in 17 countries. Ali also reportedly supplied logistical support for Al-Qaeda operations, according to Veja. Khaled Hussein Ali was arrested in 2009 and spent only 21 days in jail. However, authorities could not charge Ali with any terrorism-related offenses since Brazil's penal code did not include any kind of anti-terrorism legislation until 2016.
After the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, which has upended geopolitical and terrorist balances, Brazilian and US authorities should tighten controls not only at TBA but across the country. They should pay particular attention to national and international financial flows and untaxed religious donations, which likely escape financial institutions’ tracking.