By Todd Bensman, Special to Homeland Security Today, December 2016
In March 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators set their final dragnet at the Miami International Airport and waited to score a win in the war on terror. Soon enough, their longtime quarry, Iran Ul Haq, a Pakistani resident of Ecuador they’d been tracking across the globe for months, stepped off a plane from Quito and they slapped cuffs on him.
A secret, high-wire intercontinental undercover sting of a rare sort the American public knows nothing about was finally over.
Foryears, Ul Haq had run a profitable, globe-spanning human smuggling network out of Quito, transporting an endless backlog of fellow Pakistanis through Latin America to the US southwestern border. He charged them $60,000 each. Run by ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) with other countries from both the US attaché office in Quito and a local residence office in Atlanta, Georgia, The investigation had been complicated and expensive. It also was unique for another important reason; HSI agents were able to test a theory about long-distance human smuggling operators like Ul Haq. Was he willing to smuggle anyone into the US, even avowed terrorists?
To test this proposition, HSI agents directed three undercover informants posing as smuggling brokers to propose that Ul Haq transport one of several fictitious members of the notorious terrorist group Terik-e-Taliban, known as the Pakistan Taliban, across the US-Mexico border. The terrorist, it was explained, had been“blacklisted” by Pakistan and others like him were waiting in line for travel to America.
Ul Haq didn’t bat an eye. Of course he would do it, he responded, according to unsealed court documents. Ul Haq was recorded saying he could care less about what the terrorist would do once in the US – “hard labor, sweep floors, wash dishes in a hotel or blow up. That will be up to them.” Ul Haq accepted payment, provided the reputed terrorist with a bogus Ecuadorian passport bearing someone else’s fingerprints, and planned his trip from Lahore, Pakistan to Dubai, UAE, then onto Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti for the final leg to the US.
In January 2012, Ul Haq was sentenced to 50 months in prison on a charge that was rare for an alien smuggler: material support for terrorism.
Unseen dance of predator and prey
The imprisonment and disruption of Ul Haq’s smuggling organization demonstrated the creative prowess of ICE’s “Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force,” the current tip of the spear of a virtually unknown American law enforcement campaign underway in distant lands since shortly after 9/11. The ICE effort, according to congressional testimony given in 2010, at that time involved some 240 agents in 48 US embassy attaché offices. The campaign targets one of the world’s most unusual and least-understood forms of human smuggling; extreme-distance enterprises that have moved thousands of “special interest alien” (SIA) migrants from some 35 identified Islamic nations to the US-Mexico land border.
It has long been theorized that these illicit enterprises provide the main capability by which a terrorist infiltrator such as the ISIS fighters who attacked in Paris could breach the Southwest border. The American hunt for the smugglers moving SIA clients relentlessly northward in the absence of widespread awareness has gone under-studied and largely unevaluated for effectiveness. So long as no terrorist infiltrator struck the homeland, the threat remained largely theoretical, and there was little reason for the American public to homeland security overseers to care.
But all that punitively changed with the November 13, 2015 attacks on Paris, which proved, tragically for the first time, that terrorists could be infiltrated into the US by camouflaging them among crowds of illegal immigrants. At least three of the Paris jihadists (and probably more) were European citizens fighting with ISIS in Syria when they reentered Europe among thousands of Syrian war refugees, using alien smugglers to cross Europe’s common Schengen Zone border at Greece. The Belgian attack planner, along with at least two of his French suicide bombers, traveled alongside Islamic immigrants of the sort routinely transported to the US-Mexico border. Suddenly, overnight, Americans woke up and looked south to the border crossings of Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghan migrants, and asked,“could foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS also have sent agents among them?And what should be done?”
The ICE campaign against the smuggling networks thus become fair game for review,evaluation and public discussion, even though such activity often is by necessity secretive. Equally unknown, perhaps even to American law enforcement and intelligence services, is their prey: the SIA smuggling organizations.
The problem of ‘other than Mexicans’
Fearing that determined Al Qaeda terrorists would surely find America’s porous borders an easy entrance into the country following 9/11, Congress passed a variety of legislation recognizing the need to retard terrorist travelers and the transnational smuggling organizations transporting them. Laws such as the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, and the Secure Fence Act of 2006 spawned strategic plans that placed much onus for a counter-smuggling war on the immigration-control services such as ICE abroad and the Border Patrol at home. For instance, the Reform and Terrorism Prevention act mandated “a cohesive effort to intercept terrorists, find terrorist travel facilitators and constrain terrorist mobility domestically and internationally.” It also created a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center to analyze intelligence on human smuggling that could enable“clandestine terrorist travel” far from the beefed-up American home border. Anew lexicon emerged to describe these newly securitized migrants and networks,including the term, “Other Than Mexican,” and its offspring, “special interest aliens” from the 35-40 Islamic countries in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.
Even less publicly known is the role of intelligence services and the FBI. But ICE Office of Investigations Deputy Director Kumar Kibble, discussing his agency’s efforts to disrupt SIA smuggling, told a congressional committee in 2009 that“partners in the Intelligence Community target the most dangerous international human smuggling organizations for investigation and prosecution, especially those that pose a threat to our national security.” Much of the work is classified, Kibble explained, “but the effort has led to a number of significant prosecutions since 2001.”
Investigation,though, indicates America’s counter-SIA campaign has fallen short of legislative expectations and that its effectiveness only rarely audited or assessed. For instance, a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of ICE work hours devoted to human smuggling investigations found the percentage of time spent on alien smuggling investigations versus“other investigative areas, such as drugs,” over the previous four years was only 16-17 percent. “Investigators,” the report stated, “are conducting immigration-related activities that are not consistent with [ICE’s] primary mission of conducting criminal investigations.”
ICE promised to do better, as did Border Patrol, according to a 2012 GAO investigation of their counter-SIA smuggling contributions. The GAO audit concluded that Border Patrol headquarters had not even considered SIA smuggling to be its problem, despite a requirement in its own 2004 strategic plan to make it so. GAO noted that while more than 500 SIAs had reached the border that year, the greatest percentage were apprehended more than 20 miles inland.
Another indicator that the campaign could stand improvement came from a software-driven qualitative analysis of thousands of court documents from the total number of SIA smuggling prosecutions that could be found, 19 between September 2001 and September 2015. Among the study’s findings: brilliant investigations such as the one that netted Ul Haq are very few and far between, due in part tounder funding and general neglect. The data also indicated smuggling operations have to first be understood if they are to be disrupted. They are neither.
Finally,perhaps the most compelling indicator of mission trouble is the seemingly uninterrupted flow of SIAs to US land borders each year, based only on data that has slipped into the public realm. For example, data provided to Homeland Security Today by CBP show from September 2001 through 2007, nearly 6,000 SIAs were apprehended. Other data has shown this traffic continued at a regular pace after 2007. A confidential Texas Department of Public Safety intelligence report leaked in 2015, citing CBP data that there were 740 SIA encounters in Texas alone during 2014, a 15percent increase over the same period in 2013. Among the SIAs were individuals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia and Turkey. Numbers and government audits leave one wondering how many more might have been invested in this effort had Ul Haq’s Pakistani terrorist been real and conducted a Paris-style attack in a large American city.
Analysis of pubic files from the 19 court prosecutions showed SIA smuggling is a highly complex endeavor run by wiley, if imperfect, criminal kingpins. The networks must overcome a diversity of obstacles along the way: accessing fraudulent identity documents enabling air travel and border crossings; using safe houses in various countries; and arranging a diversity of ground transportation, all while evading law enforcement detection of communications and cash flow.
A number of common characteristics about these SIAs emerged from the files. For one thing, most of the prosecuted smuggling organizations involved guided home country-to-destination services operated by a single kingpin who, with a small group of trusted insiders of the same ethnicity, maintained loose-knit arrangements with local indigenous smugglers in regions and countries along the way. Using these subordinate groups, a kingpin could pass migrant clients like runners pass batons.
SIAkingpins, however, make their organizations vulnerable because they bear somany unique capabilities that their removal can seriously disrupt their network. All of them held two or more citizenships, knew multiple languages and controlled access to key corrupted officials or other key competitive advantages. These unique attribute combinations allowed for unfettered intercontinental mobility necessary to success.
Kingpins and their circle of insiders also led by centrally controlling cash flow, communications, key competitive advantages such as access to document manufacturers and major logistical decisions such as when and where travel will occur. These skilled entrepreneurs and internationalists typically did not rule by violence.Importantly, the records show most were motivated by profit, rather than ideology, although in some cases, sympathy to radical Islam may have come into play.
Kingpin schose their routes depending on favorable conditions enabling illegal passage in the regions through which their clients had to pass, such as corruption,government disinterest in pass-through migration or diplomatic hostility toward the US.
All routes though eventually converged through the same six Latin American countries featuring these conditions, although certainly, other nations figured into the mix as well. The six most commonly used countries – and perhaps the best candidates for increased American counter-smuggling investment – are Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Mexico.
Like any illegal enterprise, SIA-moving enterprises proved adaptable to evade law enforcement pressure, especially after 9/11. Common operational security measures SIA smugglers employed can provide insight into how to better target them:
- Cloaking identification. SIA smugglers understood their clients would most likely fall into the hands of American law enforcement, as asylum petitioners, and become potential informants. Therefore, most of the smugglers coached, exhorted or financially threatened clients not to reveal details of their identities and operations. Smugglers used aliases extensively to cloak nationalities, such as Arabic names they believed would draw attention in the post-9/11 national security climate.
- Obfuscating money transfers. The SIA smugglers most often used Western Union offices throughout Latin America and the United States to receive and send money, but also sometimes the commercial mail services DHL and Federal Express. Some ordered wire transfers in smaller amounts, believing they would not be flagged. Kingpins used false names or subordinates to send and receive money to mask nationalities they believed would raise national security flags.
- Communications. SIA smugglers primarily used cell phones and Internet-based communications such as email and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) available via personal computers to communicate with clients and one another. Mobile phone and personal computer technologies enabled real-time decision-making for operations strung across time zones and continents.
Nothing breeds success like success. The tactics that have worked in the past can be lessons for the future, but only if they are tracked and replicated. Analysis of the disparate court cases also showed smugglers are well aware of how their compatriots were caught, and they will shift modes of operations. Nevertheless, some of the law enforcement tactics that worked multiple times across the 19 prosecutions involved the following:
Exploiting the smuggled as investigative leads resources. Those who paid to be smuggled proved to be the most valuable investigative resources, but they are not often tapped. Despite exhortations by their smugglers that their clients not inform on them, SIAs apprehended at the US border and abroad consistently provided investigative leads, information and court testimony in most all 19 of the cases. FBI, ICE and Border Patrol interview some SIAs en-route or after apprehension, but more are never interviewed.
Inserting undercover agent andinformants into smuggling enterprises. In eight of the 19 cases, US law enforcement inserted undercover agents or paid confidential informants into SIA smuggling operations. The method collected evidence that could not possibly have otherwise been available given the natural camouflage and mobility smuggler senjoy in distant jurisdictions. They recorded phone calls, stored email and other communications, videotaped direct observations, identified otherwise hidden co-conspirators and developed new leads
Inserting paid informants into US detention facilities. In two important cases that turned out to have had terrorism connections, paid FBI informants of Somali descent were inserted into Texas detention facilities. They collected intelligence about Somali SIAs, leading to three prosecutions involving purportedly terror-associated individuals. While it is unclear how often this method is employed, it should be used more widely.Only in this way was the FBI able to discover that Ahmad Dhahane had been working as a smuggler in Brazil and had lied on his asylum application about his role as a ranking operative for the Somali terrorist group AIAI. The same method wasu sed to convict Somali SIA Omar Fidse and his wife Deka Abdalla Sheikh in 2013 for lying during a federal terrorism investigation and on asylum fraud charges. Fidse, it was discovered, had boasted extensively of ties, training and involvementin terrorist plots for the Somalia Al Qaeda franchise, Al Shabaab.
Flipping arrested smugglers as information sources. In several of the cases, arrested SIA smugglers provided important leads against others in their industry. A number of them cooperated with investigators in exchange for lesser sentences or other benefits.
Developing confidential informants in key transit countries. The court case files suggest that a number of the 19 investigations began as a result of tips from law enforcement contacts,sometimes in foreign countries. However, if deployments of ICE agents are limited, than so too would opportunities to develop more sources.
What can be done
Any enhanced strategy to achieve US security objectives in foreign countries is contingent on a key component: the willingness of foreign governments to cooperate and follow through. Department of Justice press releases announcing SIA smuggler arrests and major case developments often credited Latin American police forces and governments in playing significant or supporting roles, suggesting some degree of successful bilateral collaborations. But governments in Latin America should be expected to resist shifting their own resources to American priorities. Consequently, the United States will have to establish or substantially increase financial security assistance, humanitarian development aid and training program packages to at least the six key transit countries of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Mexico. Money and equipment has to be used to leverage local governments to allow the following:
– Increase the number of American counter-smuggling investigators, especially the ranks of ICE agents deployedto attaché offices in the key transit countries where they will relentlessly target kingpin smugglers and their successors. Policy leaders should ensure investigators substantially prioritize SIA smugglers and terrorist travelers and no other priority, as past GAO audits have noted. This strategy recognizes that kingpin smugglers, due to irreplaceable language and mobility capabilities, are not quickly replaced.
– Fund the creation or expansion of corruption-vetted mobile customs and border patrol units dedicated to hunting SIAs in currently unpatrolled bottleneck passageways of Colombia, Panama and Guatemala—the main bridges linking South America to Mexico. These new units,carefully shielded from corruption, could quickly shift deployment in remote regions when smugglers shift routes to avoid them.
– Establish an Immigration Liaison Officer (ILO) program—a corps of intelligence collectors to be stationed inside US embassies and local law enforcement offices in origin and transit countries in Latin America but also in the key air transit hubs of South Africa and the Gulf States of Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Corps officers would vet the information collected from migrants upstream and downstream about themselves and their smugglers. They would also collect intelligence information from local sources on modus operandi and routes used by SIA smugglers in their regions.
– Invest in retraining and increasing staff in the US Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) asylum officer corps so its agents can begin to extract intelligence information and leads from the SIA asylum seekers who reach the US border during “credible fear” interviews. They also would begin to help detect asylum fraud that is ubiquitous among SIA arrivals. Currently, USCIS officers only conduct brief interviews that are not security related.
- Use state and local law enforcement agencies associated with fusion centers in U.S. states that border Mexico to interview apprehended SIAs and report to federal investigators, as federal authorities are unable to conduct security interviews of all apprehended SIAs. Thought the national fusion center network, local police have been designated as partners in counterterrorism. They are vetted and trained to share information, and often have federal security clearances.
Tracing the contours of the rarely seen conflict between SIA smugglers and law enforcement in distant lands can powerfully inform future strategic choices,perhaps in unanticipated ways. Data has revealed smuggler evasion and operational security methods, as well as some American law enforcement tactics that obviously worked, albeit not necessarily from an overarching strategic knowledge-based plan.
Such a strategic understanding of this predator-prey dynamic, when informed by network architecture, behavioral traits of smugglers and likely leverage points, can provide a starting place for American leaders who want to build better strategies, either on the day after a border infiltrator attacks, or preferably,before a San Bernandino-like tragedy.