CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay, 5 May 2003 — Back in 1995, Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is said to have visited a mosque in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, a key location on the triple frontier of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, according to Brazilian intelligence sources.
But imams and Arab community leaders here say reports of such a visit are false. “No one from here remembers that visit,” said Jalil Omad, a Lebanese-born trader. The mosque’s gold dome and white towers are visible from the bridge that links Brazil with Paraguay, over which thousands of trucks and people flow each day. According to the United States, the traffic feeds contraband, drugs and piracy as well as arms trafficking.
The US State Department maintains that sleeper cells of Islamic groups Hezbollah and Hamas have a presence in the region, famous for its dense vegetation and the spectacular Iguazu Falls nearby.
Last March, after the third leader of Al-Qaeda, Kuwaiti Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was captured, authorities found in his personal documents evidence of his presence here, including a 20-day visit in December 1995. The Kuwaiti visited the region with Bin Laden himself, according to the Brazilian magazine Veja, which cited an Egyptian informer of the Brazilian intelligence service.
Yet no one seems to remember his visit either at the Foz do Iguacu mosque or in the Arab community in neighboring Ciudad del Este, in Paraguay.
“We are a peaceful working community. Bin Laden is a man of violence who’s been asking for it,” said Sheikh Assayed Charis Sayed, the imam of the Prophet Muhammad Mosque, set in the commercial center of this city of 220,000 inhabitants, located 350 km east of Asuncion. Veja, however, claims that a 28-minute video clearly shows Bin Laden in a meeting with Muslims of Foz do Iguacu.
Bin Laden, who is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, “appears with a discreet goatee, not the full beard” seen in videos in the wake of the attacks.
“The only thing it has done is to cause uncertainty,” Mijail Meskin, Syrian consul in Ciudad del Este, said of the report.
“Here we have the best intelligence services in the world, including (the Israeli) Mossad, and the CIA, even the Argentine and Brazilian (services). Until now, they have found no concrete proof,” Meskin said.
Alarmist press reports have caused a drop in tourism and trade, and caused local Arabs to go elsewhere, he said.
Many of the nearly 25,000 Arabs in the region have left for Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Iquique, Chile, or have gone to Salta in northern Argentina “to be able to work in peace,” Meskin said. In the steep commercial street of Ciudad del Este signs in Spanish and Portuguese hang side by side with signs in Arabic and Chinese. Here, too, is the Page gallery where, according to Washington, funds are raised for extremist organizations — in particular for Hezbollah.
The State Department says the owner of Page gallery, Assad Barakat, raised tens of millions of dollars over the past 10 years to finance terrorist activities. He was arrested in Brazil last June. In Argentina, justice officials are investigating the relationship between Barakat and the July 1994 attack against the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association, which killed 85 and injured 300, and the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, which left 29 dead.