Growing fears that Al Qaeda emissaries are looking to tap into well-worn smuggling routes along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border have led to a security crackdown in recent months as well as new levels of official cross-border cooperation, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials say.
Officials say they have no hard evidence of an Al Qaeda presence in Mexico. But intelligence reports, security alerts and other recent incidents have raised fresh concern that terrorists view America’s porous southern border as a window of opportunity.
“We are seeing a pattern of terrorist suspects exploring opportunities to get hold of Mexican passports and documents and infiltrating into the U.S. through Mexico,” said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
A major concern, he said, is that terrorists will use South America as a launching pad to slip into Mexico and ultimately the United States, using smuggling rings or forged documents. Counterterrorism officials said that Islamic terrorist groups have long used the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay as a base for fundraising and recruiting.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have long viewed the Canadian border with concern. It was at a Port Angeles, Wash., border crossing in December 1999 that agents arrested Ahmed Ressam, who was subsequently convicted of plotting with Al Qaeda to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
Canada has large pockets of Middle Easterners and, compared with Mexico, the border to the north had never been heavily guarded against illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
But according to staff members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, accused mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had a keen interest in smuggling Al Qaeda operatives across the Mexican border. Investigators were not able to determine whether he succeeded.
A study of border security released by the commission this summer warns of links between human smugglers and terrorists. Among other concerns, the staff report cites “uncorroborated law enforcement reports suggesting that associates of Al Qaeda used smugglers in Latin America to travel through the region in 2002 before traveling onward to the United States.”
Despite extensive surveillance, the border remains porous because of the stretches of desert it crosses and Mexico’s established smuggling networks. Some Mexican cities, including Tijuana, have sizable Arab populations, giving rise to a recent history of illegal transit of Middle Easterners across the border.
Several incidents in recent months have raised concerns, though none has been confirmed to be terrorist-related.
Earlier this year, U.S. authorities received information that Saudi-born terrorism suspect Adnan G. El Shukrijumah had been sighted in Honduras. Shukrijumah is believed to have been an Al Qaeda surveillance expert who in 2001 helped case the New York Stock Exchange as a possible terrorist target.
After an investigation failed to turn up evidence that he had been in Honduras, U.S. officials enlisted the help of Mexican officials.
“We have no objective evidence to confirm that he is in Mexico, but the alert was sounded, and we are looking for him,” Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, chief of Mexico’s task force on organized crime, told reporters. “It is difficult to find someone who, it seems, is a ghost.”
In August, U.S. authorities issued an alert for a Middle Eastern man who paid what officials said was an unusually large amount of money to be smuggled into the United States near the border town of Tecate, Mexico. He was last seen getting into a waiting black pickup and driving off into the night. Authorities have declined to release further information, or say how they learned how much he paid to be smuggled into the United States.
Last week, the Justice Department announced the arrests of three Michigan residents on charges of running an alien-smuggling operation that brought some 200 citizens of Iraq, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries to the UUnited States via South America. There is no allegation that terrorism was involved, although a Justice Department spokesman said officials view the case as “a serious border security issue.”
And officials are still sorting out the case of Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed, a South African woman arrested July 19 by federal agents in the border city of McAllen, Texas, after swimming across the Rio Grande.
Ahmed had traveled from Johannesburg, South Africa, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to London and then to Mexico City about July 14. Authorities said her passport had pages missing and she had an airline ticket to New York. A member of Congress was quoted as saying that she was on a terrorist watch list but officials declined to confirm that information. Farida, 48, remains in custody on charges of violating immigration laws.
Of all the leads about the smuggling of potential terrorists from Mexico into the United States, the most intriguing may be the case of a young Lebanese man who was dropped off at a Chula Vista hospital in June 2002.
The man, near death, showed signs of radiation poisoning, suggesting work with a radiological “dirty bomb."In the end, the radiation symptoms were discounted and the man died of undetermined causes. But the case led to the arrest of the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Tijuana who last year was convicted of operating a smuggling ring, in league with a Mexican diplomat based in Lebanon. U.S. officials estimated that he arranged for the illegal entry of 80 to 200 Arabs into the United States over a period of months.
Then, in July, federal agents arrested an Egyptian man in Miami on charges that he ran a smuggling ring based in the Middle East and Latin America. Ashraf Ahmed Abdallah, 34, was charged with directing migrants from Egypt and neighboring countries to travel to Latin America, and from there to Guatemala, the base of the smuggling operation, where they would be transported through Mexico for entry into the United States.
Although police have not detained any terrorist suspects trying to enter the United States from Mexico, a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement memorandum obtained by The Times says that the Drug Enforcement Administration developed intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives had been in contact with human and drug smuggling rings in Mexico to gain entry into the United States. Homeland Security officials said they had been unable to confirm the information but took it seriously.
Border security issues in general have caused a renaissance of sorts in U.S.-Mexico relations on immigration. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has been pressing Mexico to tighten security at its airport and borders. The Mexican response has drawn praise from U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza and other American officials, even as officials of both countries acknowledge the impossibility of fully securing the border.
“There’s a constant and increasing stream of information sharing,” said a U.S. official, who credits the Mexicans with “full cooperation.” A Mexican official said Mexico was conducting a “very fluid, transparent” exchange of intelligence with Washington.
Mexico has taken other steps in the face of terrorist threats to the United States. It joined the United States in anti-terrorist training exercises and last year unveiled a plan to deploy 18,000 security personnel to the border.
Over the last two years, the Mexican government has arrested more than 50 former and current immigration agents and officials on charges of collaborating with migrant-smuggling rings.
In February, Mexico upgraded and computerized a system that tracks foreigners entering at the country’s five biggest airports. Mexican officials said the system is on alert for 1,710 individuals with some degree of trouble with law enforcement agencies, including about 50 wanted or suspected terrorists.
“What you have is better information of who is coming into the airports, but we still have land borders that are extremely porous to undocumented migrants,” said Gustavo Mohar, a migration expert and former Mexican diplomat.
Schmitt reported from Washington, Reza from San Diego and Boudreaux from Mexico City. Staff writers Josh Meyer in Washington and Douglas Frantz in Istanbul, also contributed.