Drug trafficking organizations have made sophisticated and intricate advancements in moving product and people into the U.S. Top military leaders believe extremist groups like ISIS are looking to capitalize on the smuggling routes already developed.
As the Department of Defense touts that the militant group’s hold on Syria and Iraq are weakening, ISIS has not lost its ability to lure recruits out of the west. Similar worries have plagued countries on or near U.S. borders.
According to U.S. News & World Report, Marine Gen. John Kelly, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told Congress last month that as many as 100 individuals have left their native Caribbean homes bound for Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State group’s cause.
Nasser Mustapha, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of the West Indies, said he has heard rumors throughout Trinidad of men attempting to recruit people to join ISIS and join its so-called holy war.
“I was really shocked to hear that,” said Mustapha, an expert on security in the region. “When I first started hearing about ISIS, I really, honestly felt that people from these parts, people from the West would be smarter or more mature to think of going there. When I actually started to see reports of people from the Caribbean actually going there, I was more surprised.”
Kelly stated he was not aware of any direct plans at the time for ISIS to use the new recruits to attack the U.S., but they represent a troubling development. He said most of the countries from which these individuals come from, such as Suriname, Jamaica, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, have limited to no intelligence or law enforcement infrastructure to hunt them down. Some extremists may even benefit from government corruption to maintain their cover.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Chris Zambelis, an expert on extremism in the Middle East with the Jamestown Foundation, who has studied potential links between these groups and the Caribbean. “These little things should warrant closer consideration. In terms of being a wide movement, or a wider concern among the broader Muslim community, there’s really no evidence of that. Compared to what you’re seeing in Europe, for example, with people traveling to Syria in streams, I’ve never seen anything like that in Latin America or the Caribbean.”
One particular concern that troubles U.S. intelligence is the abundance of smuggling ocean routes. Coast Guard officials have stated in the past that the number of ships available to stop illegal trafficking has been cut in half to only four. These vessels have to cover a region about 12 times the size of the continental U.S.
U.S. News & World Report reported that the FARC, considered one of the world’s most dangerous guerrilla organizations and prolific drug smugglers, has developed disposable submarines that can transport 8 tons of cargo more than 1,000 miles undersea. Upon reaching their destination, the advanced vehicles can be scuttled and sunk, making it almost impossible for the U.S. military, intelligence or law enforcement infrastructure to identify and stop them.
Kelly and other defense leaders have blamed budget cuts and military downsizing for depleting the resources they need to hunt down insurgents like these, and to support friendly militaries who wish to do the same. Kelly told Congress in March he relied on the FBI, CIA and other law enforcement entities to try to track down networks before they become a problem for the U.S.