Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Latin American al-Qaeda link feared

LAST FRONTIER Amid reports that a suspected Saudi terrorist passed through Panama and Honduras, officials in the region are stepping up counter-terrorist efforts

AP , Monterrey, Mexico

Mexican and Central American officials are on alert as evidence grows that al-Qaeda members are traveling in the region and looking for recruits to carry out attacks in Latin America -- the potential last frontier for international terrorism.

The territory could be a perfect staging ground for Osama bin Laden's militants, with homegrown rebel groups, drug and people smugglers, and corrupt governments. US officials have long feared al-Qaeda could launch an attack from south of the border, and they have been paying closer attention as the number of terror-related incidents have increased since last year.

Perhaps the strongest possible al-Qaeda link is Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a 29-year-old Saudi pilot who is suspected of being a terrorist cell leader. The FBI issued a border-wide alert earlier this month for Shukrijumah, saying he may try to cross into Arizona or Texas.

In June, Honduran officials said Shukrijumah was spotted earlier this year at an Internet cafe in the capital Tegucigalpa. Panamanian officials say the pilot and alleged bombmaker passed through their country before the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft recently singled out Shukrijumah as one of seven especially dangerous international terror figures wanted by the government, and there is a US$5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Mexican and US border officials have been extra alert, checking foreign passports and arresting any illegal migrants.

In a sign of a growing Mexican crackdown, eight people from Armenia, Iran and Iraq were arrested Thursday in Mexicali on charges they may have entered Mexico with false documents, although they didn't appear to have any terrorist ties.

Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's top anti-crime prosecutor, said Mexican officials have no hard evidence that Shukrijumah -- or other al-Qaeda operatives -- are in Mexico.

But Mexican authorities are investigating anything unusual and keeping a close eye on the airports and borders.

"The alert has been sounded," Vasconcelos said.

Last week in Central America, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said officials have uncovered evidence that terrorists, likely from al-Qaeda, may be trying to recruit Hondurans to carry out attacks in Central America. Alvarez didn't provide any details.

El Salvador authorities this past week reinforced security at the country's international airport and along the borders after purported al-Qaeda threats appeared on the Internet against their country for its support of the US-led effort in Iraq.

For some observers, the fears of a terrorist attack in the region make sense.

Terrorists have struck in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the US. Latin America could easily be next, especially as it becomes harder to operate elsewhere.

"If there is a crackdown, they are going to pick up shop and move," said Matt Levitt, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

Officials worry the Panama Canal could be a likely target because it moves 4 percent of all world trade, and an attack on the waterway would deal a huge blow to international commerce.

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