After years of worrying that Latin Americans might join ISIS in Iraq and Syria and return home battle-hardened, regional commanders are now more concerned about the self-radicalization of people who never left home.
To be sure, U.S. Southern Command is keeping a wary eye out for citizens returning to, say, Trinidad & Tobago, the small Caribbean island nation that dispatched more fighters to the Islamic State per capita than any other country in the Western Hemisphere. But that’s not the only way extremist ideology is spreading among the U.S.’s southern neighbors, Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd told reporters Thursday.
“The greater danger, frankly, is self-radicalization from this message from ISIS that is being transmitted back across this region,” said Tidd, who leads SOUTHCOM. “And as, you know, as we’ve all seen, from the attacks that occurred in Europe to the attacks that occurred here in the United States in San Bernardino and in Orlando, it’s that self-radicalization that poses a very worrisome threat.”
He said there could be extremist cells in “a number of countries” throughout Latin America and the Caribbean that have been encouraged by Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language online magazine, to conduct attacks on U.S. interests and partners in the region.
How big is the threat? Tidd offered not even a ballpark estimate on the number of countries he is looking at. And the groups aren’t as large or as sophisticated as they are elsewhere in the world. “At this point, I think we’re looking at aspirational efforts,” he said.
But it’s enough that countering ISIS recruitment and messaging is “one of the areas of greatest work that we are engaged in,” Tidd told senators on the Armed Services Committee.
One final point: It’s not just SOUTHCOM that has yet to see the predicted flow of ISIS fighters fleeing Mosul or Raqqa, the Islamic State’s two remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Asked about foreign fighters in March, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, had a similar response.
“If you’d have asked that question like six or seven months ago, I mean that was the plan, that was the open-source ideology: ‘Don’t come to Iraq and Syria, go to Libya,’” he said. “You don’t see that anymore … I would just tell you today that large numbers [coming from the Middle East to Libya] are something that we haven’t seen.”