CARACAS, Venezuela, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Intelligence agencies are investigating links between Islamic terrorist networks and the Venezuelan government. While U.S. counter terrorist efforts in Latin America have until now tended to concentrate on the "tri border area" of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, it's believed that al-Qaida suicide bombers could also be hiding in Venezuela.
Investigators name two Venezuelan based al-Qaida suspects: Hakim Mamad Al Diab Fatah who was deported from the U.S. on suspicion of involvement with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and Rahaman Hazil Mohammed Alan who is jailed in the U.K. for smuggling an explosive device onto a British Airways flight. American and British officials complain that their investigations are stymied because the government of President Hugo Chavez has dismantled U.S.-trained intelligence units which tracked terrorist connections among the half-million strong Venezuelan Arab community.
Chavez has instead brought in Cuban and Libyan advisors to run his security services according to American, British and other European diplomatic officials in Caracas.
Although the U.S. State department does not yet consider Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, FBI officials express concern over "a lack of cooperation on the part of Venezuelan authorities." Despite repeated requests, U.S. law enforcement agencies have received no satisfactory explanation on the whereabouts of Diab Fatah, Venezuelan ID 16104824, who is associated with Hani Hanjour, the hijacker of American Airlines flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon.
Fatah attended the same New Jersey flight school as the suicide team and talked about blowing up airliners. He was arrested in the U.S. shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks but was deported when official inquiries through the Venezuelan government turned up nothing on him other than psychiatric records.
The U.S. legal attaché in Caracas at the time, Hector Rodriguez, informed the Venezuelan Interior Ministry of Fatah's flight number and 8 March 2002 arrival time to request that he be detained for questioning. But to the amazement of American authorities, the Venezuelan government says that there is no record of Fatah ever re-entering the country.
Venezuelan National Guard General Marcos Ferreira, who headed the interior ministry's border control department and forwarded the FBI request to Deputy Interior Minister Luis A. Camacho on 5 March 2002, believes that Venezuela's security service or Directorate for Intelligence Security and Prevention is protecting Fatah.
"DISIP fetched him directly from the plane and took him to a safe house," Ferreira tells UPI.
There is no independent confirmation of this account and the Chavez government discredits Ferreira by claiming that the general was involved in a May 2002 coup plot against the government. But the Fatah mystery appears to fall into a developing pattern of Venezuelan state involvement with terrorism.
British law enforcement officials are similarly perplexed about a fragmentation grenade which got smuggled on board a British Airways flight in the luggage of another Venezuelan Arab as the plane stopped off in Caracas last February 13 on it way to London. Mohammed Alan who boarded the plane with Venezuelan passport BO974970 was arrested upon arrival at London's Gatwick airport when X ray machines detected the device in one of his bags.
Britain's main airports had been on a high security alert all that week following tip offs that a major terrorist attack was being planned.
"The Venezuelans can't explain how the grenade got past security screening but the fact of the matter is that it got on the plane," says a British diplomatic official in Caracas. Chavez has since turned down an offer by the British ambassador to provide counter terrorist experts to assist Venezuela's security services.
According to intelligence sources, the smuggled hand grenade's serial number corresponds to weapons stocks of the Caracas based 3rd army Division and could have been the detonating system for a larger bomb. An unconfirmed report says that a thin sheet of plastic explosive was embedded within the box containing the grenade which Mohammed took on board the aircraft.
An account of the incident published in the Venezuelan magazine Tal Cual maintains that the alleged kamikaze carried the device in a backpack which he brought on board as hand luggage. An air disaster was only averted because the flight crew transferred the bag to the plane's luggage hold when it proved too bulky to fit into the passenger section's overhead compartments.
"He could no longer detonate the bomb in midair as may have been the original plan," says a source quoted in the magazine.
Britain's Scotland Yard cannot officially comment on the case until Mohammed Alan's trial opens. There is still no scheduled date. But members of a detective team sent to Caracas are reported to be "less than satisfied" with information which Venezuela's interior ministry has provided on the terrorist suspect.
Venezuelan police officials speaking on condition of anonymity say that Mohammed's identity is manufactured and that members of his supposed family have connections with Chavez government circles. They could also be connected with a Hizbollah money laundering operation centred around the Banco Confederado on the resort island of Margarita which channels money into the establishments of several Arabs in Venezuela with known radical ties,
A U.S. trained Venezuelan intelligence officer who formed part of the disbanded counter terrorist unit, Section 11, tells UPI that Chavez has been withholding key intelligence from U.S. authorities about the head of Hizbollah's financial operation, Mohammed Al Din, a contributor to Chavez's presidential campaign.
The source says that his unit was eliminated while it was investigating suspicious cash transfers between the Banco Confederado and Lebanon during 2001. A Section 11 undercover agent was killed in Margarita where Diab Fatah has been recently spotted according to Intelligence officers. The island is considered a stronghold of Chavez's state sponsored militias, the Circulos Bolivarianos.