PUERTO IGUAZU, Argentina – Earlier this month, tourists returning to the luxurious Tropical Das Cataratas Hotel from an excursion to the scenic Iguazu waterfalls separating Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay were greeted by a chilling sight — a throng of men in dark suits crowded around a large black message board with the ominous message: “Conference: Global Terrorism and the Tri-border Area: Myth or Reality?”
The security officials and experts picking up their tags at the front desk did not look like they were on a vacation.
For tourists flying halfway across the globe from the United States, Europe and Japan to forget about the world around them — including September 11, Osama bin Laden and the war against terrorism — it was not exactly the “pina colada-around-the-pool” welcome they expected from a five-star hotel that requires reservations booked a year in advance.
But such is life in the post-September 11 world. Terrorism gobbles up the best planned government agendas, fills newspaper pages and has become a hot topic for conferences around the planet. And while South America may not challenge Pakistan as a hot spot for terrorism fighters, experts and security officials have been training their sights for a decade on the continent in general.
The tri-border area is particularly high on everyone’s list. Although Argentina was struck twice by terrorism in 1992 and 1994, spooks have been training their attention on this region for its role as a financing center for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Gamaat Islamiya.
Of course, when a major tourist destination is associated with terrorism, someone is bound to be unhappy. And when an Israeli company with a strong foothold on the continent, known as Security and Intelligence Advising or SIA, decided to hold a parley on the spot and bring together international terrorist experts and local law-enforcement officials, Brazil simply decided to boycott.
Sources said a Brazilian intelligence official had been told by the government not to attend the three-day seminar, which was co-organized with the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
The absence did not go unnoticed. Several speakers blasted Brazil for ignoring the terrorist threat and warned about its consequences for the American-backed effort to improve regional coordination of counterterrorism operations.
Still, one objective of the conference was to sensitize local authorities to the global dimension of terrorism by bringing together renowned international experts such as Magnus Ranstorp, director of the anti-terrorism center at St. Andrews University and an authority on Hezbollah, Francois Haut, a French expert on the linkage between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, as well as Mike Boettcher, a CNN special correspondent who recounted his reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There was a strong Israeli input with the hands-on experience of retired colonel Samy Barak, a former senior intelligence official and ex-terrorism adviser to the prime minister, as well as professor David Bukay of Haifa University, who raised eyebrows by proposing the creation of an alliance of Jews and Christians to fight Islam.
Local police and law enforcement officials relayed their experience in the field, outlining the need for more regional cooperation and more investigation into financial institutions.
Judging from the weak participation in the question-and-answer sessions, the audience — made up of current and former police officers, military and intelligence officials, most of them from Argentina, along with diplomatic and military envoys from the United States, Great Britain and France — did not seem captivated by the speeches. Some were here to do business — SIA provides a wide range of security services to which police authorities tend to turn instead of asking their own cash-starved government — and some were here to learn about the tri-border area.
(In an indication of how the war against terrorism has changed habits in Washington, the Pentagon dispatched a two-person team of Marine officers involved in planning to the conference. Also present was the FBI envoy to Argentina. But no State Department official was on hand.)
On the last day, the organizers brought the participants to the Paraguayan and Brazilian border towns of Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguazu, where they could witness firsthand the bustling traffic of people and merchandise. But for people knowledgeable about the tri-border region, the conference did not break any new ground and was seen essentially by some as a business forum.
Some noted that security companies have to underscore threats in order to land contracts, while several security officials privately whispered about whether SIA’s links to Israel were just business-related, with the words “Mossad” or “Shabak” (Israeli slang for the Shin Bet General Security Service) quietly popping up during informal chats over caipinrinhas — the most popular Brazilian cocktail.
Laura Kulfas, a spokeswoman for SIA, strongly rejected the charges.
“There’s absolutely no mystery regarding our connections with Israel,” she said. “SIA is indeed an Israeli company, and its founders and most senior experts come from Israel’s IDF and intelligence circles… Our goal is purely business-oriented: to help our clients succeed in complex situations. We do not represent any government or governmental agency of any kind.”
Regardless, Israel is indeed a much-sought asset in the ever-growing security business. Participants said SIA had earned a solid reputation on the continent — it has offices in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay.
In Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, the rich and powerful have been looking for efficient ways to counter a wave of kidnappings. In recent weeks, two individuals pretending to be ex-Israeli officials were making the rounds to set up a security company. But some sources said they were two Argentinean nationals posing as Israelis.
In any case, SIA is about to open shop in Asuncion.