Chilean children in ISIS camps: what are the threats to Chile?

SANTIAGO – The Swedish television network ITV News aired a story this week telling the desperate story of a Chilean grandfather looking for his grandchildren. The seven children are currently trapped in an ISIS camp in Syria. Their mother, who died in the caliphate, is not the first Chilean to fight for the terrorist group.

In a news brief on the Swedish television channels ITV News, Patricio Gálvez, a Chilean man, talked about the horrible conditions his seven grandchildren were suffering. Their mother, a woman called Amanda González, had traveled with her Swedish husband to Syria in 2014.

According to the news brief, her husband was active with the terrorist organization ISIS at that time. He recruited warriors from Turkey and helped them get to ISIS camps in Syria. The man decided to move Amanda González and the four children they had at the time closer to the battlefront.

Amanda González’s husband died in 2018 while fighting for ISIS, and then the woman  died in early 2019 when the Syrian government bombed the al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria.

When Patricio Gálvez found out his daughter and her husband had died, he decided to do everything possible to get his seven grandchildren home safe. It has thus far been impossible. He has located all but one (a 5-year-old girl remains missing) and he has even visited the ones he found in a Syrian hospital. But he has not been able to bring them home to Chile.

According to the Chilean, the children suffer from malnutrition and are heavily traumatized. Chilean authorities have said upon request from Bíobí that the children are not registered in the Registro Civil and are not in possession of Chilean passports. Nevertheless, Chilean authorities have affirmed that they will meet with representatives from the Swedish embassy in Santiago.

Other Chileans fighting with (or against) ISIS

The case of Amanda González and her seven children is heartbreaking, but a Chilean traveling to the Middle East to join in the fight for ISIS isn’t new to the country. The most famous Chilean fighting for ISIS is probably Bastián Alexis Vásquez, or Abu Safiyya. The 25-year-old Norwegian, a son of Chilean immigrants, joined ISIS and appeared in ISIS propaganda videos.

In his first video, Vásquez appeared by stating that he was “Abu Safiyya, from Chile,” according to Paul Adams, a BBC correspondent in Baghdad, “to emphasize the global appeal of the organization.”

Vásquez, before travelling to the caliphate, was on the radar of the Norwegian intelligence services after he had threatened the Norwegian Royal House in 2012 and participated in Muslim extremist rallies. Although he wasn’t born a Muslim, he converted to Islam in 2008 or 2009 when Muslims in his environment started to become more radical and political, as Norwegian journalist Lars Akerhaug, author of the book, Norsk Jihad (Norway Jihad), told BBC World.

In early 2016, it was reported that Bastián Alexis Vásquez, had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The Norwegian television did a piece on Bastián Alexis Vásquez:

Another Chilean who participated in ISIS’s battle was Francis Carolina Peña Orellana, a woman born in Viña del Mar. Orellana, who left Chile when she was 16, was arrested in Barcelona ​and was accused of recruiting for the Islamic State. Her Muslim boyfriend had introduced her to radical Islam. Through Facebook, Orellana recruited at least twelve women, according to the investigation.

But then there are also stories of Chileans fighting against ISIS. Famous is the story of “Apoci,” with whom El Desconcierto did a revealing interview in 2017. “Apoci” lived in Europe after his parents, who were communists during the dictatorship, had fled the military dictatorship of Pinochet.

He had travelled to fight with Kurdish troops, joining forces with European, American, and even other Latin-American warriors. “Apoci” learned the Kurdish language, joined the international military academy of the YPG (Kurdish militants), and signed a contract for six months of service on the combat front.

According to the story, “Apoci” even sang Victor Jara’s El Aparecido to his fellow warriors. He left the battlefront after his contract ended.

See the documentary that El Desconcierto made here:

Radical Islam in Latin America

Apart from a few stories about people with a Chilean background who find their way to what was the caliphate, radical Islam hasn’t set foot in Chile. In Latin America, there are very few stories about Muslim terrorism and investigations also point out that the continent doesn’t have much to fear from this extremist form of the Islam religion.

In 2015, Al Jazeera wrote that we shouldn’t be looking for Latin American jihadists yet. Around that time, ISIS was still strong, and its message still attracted Muslims from around the world. But, as the article noted, the Muslim communities in Latin America are very small, there isn’t much Islamophobia in Latin societies and “Latin American countries are not directly involved in any Middle East conflicts.”

Three important factors keep the Latin American continent far off the radar of terrorist movements. According to a 2017 publication in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, “Latin America still represents the safest continent on the earth from ISIS threat.”

A Chilean investigation from the Center for Strategic Research (ANEPE) on the reality and the challenges of so-called “jihadist salafism” in Latin America and the Caribbean, found that the threat of radical Islam is mainly focused on the poorer countries in the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and Tobago. Even though there doesn’t seem to be any direct threat, ANEPE warns in the investigation for investments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, focused on increasing influence in Latin American politics and possibly supporting extremist Islamic movements.

Apart from some “lone wolves,” (a Cuban with extremist links arrested in Colombia in 2018, an ISIS supporter murdering a Jewish man in Uruguay in 2016, and two Iranians who planned on attacking the U.S. embassy in Argentina in 2011), Latin American countries, and especially Chile with a Muslim minority of a few thousand, shouldn’t have a lot to fear.

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But that doesn’t mean radical Islam doesn’t exist in Latin America. According to Jerry Haar from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., radical Islamists are active at the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, mainly involved in criminal activities to finance their battles overseas.

Haar mentioned in the article there are sleeper cells active in these areas, and that U.S. intelligence services see the chances of an ISIS attack from Latin America as “highly likely.” The professor sees “Latin America’s horrendous prison system as a breeding ground for jihadists, via conversion to Islam among prisoners; and far too often governments take a stance of neutrality toward Islamic terrorism, thereby making the region a safe haven for them.”

As ISIS is seen as defeated, it remains to be seen if the terrorist organization still has the impact it had before. But for the Chilean grandfather in Sweden, desperately hoping to bring his seven grandchildren home, that impact has already cratered his family. He just wants to get back what’s left of it.

Also read:

What’s in the new Anti-Terrorism Law in Chile?


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