ISIS Man in Havana

Inside the ISIS Terror Plot to Kill U.S. Diplomats in Colombia

What caused a Cuban national to join up with ISIS for an attempted bombing attack in South America?

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

CALI, Colombia—A Cuban national was dragged cuffed and defiant into a Colombian court last week for an alleged “terror plot” to kill American diplomats on behalf of Islamic State (ISIS) extremists in the nation’s capital of Bogotá.

Raúl Gutiérrez, 43, pled not guilty to the charges that he had conspired with an international ISIS cell to blow up a restaurant popular with Embassy staff and other foreigners in the Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) region of Bogotá.

“I’m not a terrorist, I told you, man,” Gutiérrez was overheard shouting as he was rushed into the courtroom at the center of a phalanx of police riot shields.

Nevertheless, a judge ordered him held without bail until trial, based on the case presented by local authorities working closely with the FBI and Spanish police.

Colombia’s Attorney General said that the international law enforcement dragnet had produced a trove of evidence, including seized cell phones, indicating Gutiérrez had been calling and sending encrypted text messages to at least three other cell members in Morocco and Spain over the last few weeks. Those suspects are still being sought.

The recovered bomb package, put together with funds provided by ISIS, reportedly included more than eight pounds of C4 and another 12 pounds of dynamite, and would have been used as part of a suicide strike.

Gutiérrez had already obtained work as a dishwasher at the targeted cafeteria in order to pull off the attack, which was scheduled for mid-March, before police intervened. One of the final communications Gutiérrez received from his handlers read:

“Allah will receive you in Paradise with open arms. Do it in the name of ISIS.”

“Thieves, Conquerors, Killers”

In the wake of Gutiérrez arrest, much was made of the fact that he was a Cuban citizen who only recently converted to Islam. Why would a native son from the “Pearl of the Caribbean” choose to join a Middle Eastern sect famous for beheading helpless prisoners and blowing up archaeological treasures?

“On the one hand, it is surprising since Latin America has no Muslim tradition and, in general, the culture is very far from that of radical Muslims,” Hernando Zuleta, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs and Security (CESED), told The Daily Beast. “It is also surprising that he is Cuban because the Caribbean spirit does not seem compatible with the idea of ​​ISIS,” Zuleta said.

“On the other hand, in Latín América there are many people who hate the U.S.,” and blame “the origins of the ills of our nations on foreign powers.”

Gutiérrez seems to have fallen into that camp. Investigators reported they had originally tumbled to his radicalized behavior—including adding the word “jihadist” to his social media handles—after following the thread of his anti-U.S. rhetoric on the Internet.

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The Cuban had previously lived in the U.S., and prosecutors say he’d hoped to return there. At his arraignment, Gutiérrez said that he is now dedicated to battling American power and the “new world order,” according to the Associated Press.

When a Colombian journalist asked him to elaborate on his animosity for Uncle Sam, Gutiérrez answered, “For the same reason we all hate them—because they are thieves and conquerors and killers.”

CESED’s Zuleta speculated that the attack “may have been planned [for the Bogota embassy] since Colombia has been the most constant ally of the U.S. in the region.”

Zuleta also said certain anti-Latino remarks made by President Donald Trump could have added fuel to the Cuban zealot’s fire:

“I do believe that Trump's speech and some of his policies generate an increase in anti-gringo sentiment,” he said. “Calling Latinos ‘bad hombres.’ talking about how they entrap America, ​​and building walls generates a sense of enmity.”

New Recruits

Although other terror groups sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah are known to operate in South America, this marks the first known incursion into Colombia by ISIS. Unfortunately, it likely won’t be the last.

“Latin America would allow a new ISIS branch a ready opportunity to generate illicit revenues and gain access to military type weaponry, given the narcotics production and smuggling opportunities that exist and with all the armed criminal groups running around with infantry arms,” said Dr. Robert Bunker, of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, in an interview.

Bunker pointed out that the region is home to large swaths of “essentially lawless regions” that provide  “bad actors a certain level of impunity of action.”

In fact, would-be bomber Gutiérrez had been twice deported from Colombia in the past, most recently returning illegally through the nation’s porous southern border with Ecuador.

“[ISIS] recruitment could be conducted in these zones as well as within slums and jungle areas no longer under governmental control in various regions,” Bunker said.

Dr. Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), told The Daily Beast that ISIS has its “slick” recruitment tactics down to a science, in large part due to the “immediate feedback mechanisms” on social media.

ISIS touts can “watch for who liked, retweeted, shared and otherwise endorsed their materials to identify, and hone in on, and even swarm those individuals for recruitment,” Speckhard said.

When they find someone who likes their materials, ISIS recruiters seek “at first to interest them more, sometimes ‘love bomb’ them with attention, meet their needs (as most cults do) and eventually overtake them.”

Antipathy for the U.S., such as that expressed by Gutiérrez, can also be a flag for terrorist headhunters.

“ISIS has been very good at attracting those with underlying issues to its message of hatred for the West,” said Speckhard, whose ICSVE is actively engaged in producing an anti-ISIS counter narrative, in part by employing terrorists who have defected.

“Cubans have suffered a lot under their government and U.S. anti-Cuban policies [which feeds into] the ISIS message of the West trampling on the rights of other minority communities. ISIS has also used mentally ill people in a similar manner,” Speckhard said.  

“Intelligence Work Can Be Useless”

Outside the Colombian courthouse last week, Gutiérrez claimed that others would pick up the struggle where he left off. In spite of his arrest, he said, the “seed has been planted.”

One strategy to keep that seed from growing into a tree of hate is addressing the root causes of terrorism worldwide, such as poverty and a lack of infrastructure.

A “hearts and minds approach” aimed at stopping the spread of ISIS in Latin America “would have to be focused [on] educational and economic opportunities [and] basic security[,] so that human rights and liberties can be protected,” in impoverished areas, Bunker said.

He also advocated beefed up information gathering, while acknowledging such steps can be limited in the vast wilderness and unmonitored borderlands of South América.

“An early warning capability derived from HUMINT (human intelligence) networks of agents and informants is always preferred,” he said, “but is not always a realistic option in some of these scenarios.”

Colombian security expert Zuleta agreed that the Gutiérrez case highlights the problem of preventing backdoor infiltration of the Americas by ISIS:

“It’s difficult because there is no radical Muslim community here, and because the [Cuban] terrorist was not Muslim,” Zuleta said, “this indicates that intelligence work can be useless.”

ICSVE director Speckhard is concerned that the attempted attack in Colombia could be a sign of things to come.

“We should expect that ISIS will use mentally and emotionally unstable people as well as true believers in their cause to attack in the West using handguns, vehicles and anything readily available to mount simple but lethal attacks,” she said.

“This keeps the brand going and continues to attract more recruits.”