SOUTHCOM Commander: Terror Networks 'Reach Deep Into Our Hemisphere' in 'New and Surprising Ways'

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The commander of U.S. Southern Command said there's "significant concern" in the Western Hemisphere about "the ability of radicalization to occur via the internet" and create terrorists in their home countries, as well as the return of foreign fighters who spent time in Syria.

"The threats that we and our partners face in the region are a chief concern to many," Adm. Kurt Tidd told reporters at the Pentagon, underscoring "the sophistication, adaptiveness and considerable financing leveraged by criminal and extremist elements."

"Drug traffickers, human smugglers, terrorist supporters, arms dealers and money launderers are not new to this region, but they operate in new and surprising ways, compared to years past," he said. "Relying solely on what worked in decades past to find and disrupt them is not enough. Threat network enablers like facilitators, suppliers, recruiters and technicians provide criminals and extremist with unprecedented global reach, and the ability to operate stealthily in both the physical and the cyber worlds. Criminal networks leverage all means available to move lethal narcotics, people, weapons and dirty money into and out of Latin America and the U.S. homeland."

"Extremist networks like ISIS reach deep into our hemisphere, inspire would-be terrorists to conduct attacks in the region, or to attempt entry into the United States to do our citizens harm."

Pressed to elaborate on ISIS movement in the Western Hemisphere, Tidd pointed to the at least 100 jihadists, by that government's count, from Trinidad and Tobago who fought for ISIS abroad.

"That would be probably the best indicator that, yes, in fact, there are individuals who have been radicalized, who this pernicious message has taken root," he said. "And so it's one that is of concern to the government of Trinidad and Tobago. They have focused on it. And so I think it's an area that we all have to take into consideration."

Last week, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley said at a news conference that there were an estimated 200 people on the islands with either ties to ISIS or sympathies for the terrorist group. The country is mostly Christian with a 5 percent Muslim population.

Asked if there were any cases of ISIS adherents being smuggled into the U.S., Tidd said he would "leave that in law enforcement channels right now and not talk in any specifics."

"But it's an area that -- we work closely together, because we recognize that our law enforcement partners, our intelligence community partners, military partners, diplomatic community partners, as well as partner nations, all have a key role to play, working together as part of a team so that we are able to see if something like that were to occur," he added.

The SOUTHCOM commander said that "because of the increased attention that has been paid and the successful efforts of the international community that have come together and are working to counter ISIS -- because of their efforts, the ability to detect the flow of fighters has had some success in keeping some of those returning individuals from coming back through into the region."

"But I would just say, in my conversations with partners throughout the region in the past, I think there was an unwillingness to acknowledge that perhaps they had a problem with radicalization from these extremist messages," Tidd said. "Now, it is a matter of routine conversation that we have in which we recognize -- you know, as we saw in our own country, in San Bernardino and in Orlando, as we saw in Nice, and as we've seen in other countries, sadly, throughout Europe and the rest of the world, it's all too easy for radicalization to occur. And so it's something that we must have our eyes open to and be on the lookout for the signs of."