Editor’s note: This report represents the fourth and final installment of a series about what an epidemic of border-crossing Islamic terrorists who infiltrated Europe means for U.S. border security.
By Todd Bensman as originally published in Townhall December 16, 2019
After working for years in Brazil as a “large-scale” smuggler of U.S.-bound Somalis, Mohammad Ahmad Dhakane decided to cross the Texas-Mexico border himself in 2008 and claim political asylum. He gave U.S. immigration a fraudulent story of persecution of the sort he often gave his smuggled clients.
But an FBI informant positioned inside the Texas detention facility soon discovered and reported that Dhakane was a trained guerilla fighter and trusted senior insider of the U.S.-designated terrorist group al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI), also known as the brutalizing “Islamic Courts Union,” the predecessor of al-Shabaab. He also was so trusted by senior AIAI leadership that he served for six years as its chief “hawaladar,” by which he used the U.S. Treasury Department-banned terrorist finance network known as al-Barakat to transfer millions in off-book funds to AIAI.
Whatever it was, if anything, that Dhakane was planning once across the Texas border with U.S. asylum never happened because, of course, he was serendipitously caught first. However, his 2008-2011 prosecution showed that he also facilitated the crossings of at least “several” AIAI operatives across the Texas and California borders whom he knew, from long discussions in hotel rooms along the way, were “ready to die for the cause.”
From the public disclosure of other border-entrants with dark terrorist pasts like Dhakane’s, the several AIAI clients he smuggled in, and at least 20 suspected extremists on terrorism watch lists also reported caught each year, the American public can definitively know that this threat exists on some arguable scale and cannot be dismissed as merely theoretical even absent actual attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Theory-turned-proof-of-concept is especially the case now, in light of new Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) research documenting that 104 Islamic terrorists infiltrated European borders as migrants between 2014-2018, completed 16 attacks and plotted 25 thwarted ones. The epidemic of death, destruction, and public cost from terrorist border infiltrations, which continued in Europe during 2019, is hardly notional there. Nor should it be here.
Five Solutions Government Can Implement without Congressional Approval
But what should American homeland security leaders do now that we know about the emergence of a new global terror travel tactic that terrorist organizations and operatives could not possibly have not noticed? As explained in Part II of this Townhall series based on the CIS research, American homeland security did build counter-smuggling, detection, and interdiction cordons in the years after 9/11 to partially filter the roughly 4,000 migrants from Muslim-majority nations, known in government parlance as “special interest aliens (SIAs),” that annually reach the U.S. southern border. But the whole effort, as I reported, is “neglected and easily defeatable,” leaving a persistent elevating threat unmitigated.
Following are five solutions that American homeland security authorities should and can immediately implement to help apprehend more Dhakanes and thereby reduce the threat.
Resurrect a 2016 initiative from Obama-era DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to bring together all DHS agencies, as well as the FBI and military intelligence components of the U.S. Southern Command, in a coordinated campaign to target and disrupt SIA smuggling over the American border.
In 2016, Secretary Johnson recognized the border threat from SIAs and ordered a comprehensive plan to apply the powers of all homeland security agencies in a coordinated way to disrupt this flow. Its purpose was to create common definitions, and finally integrate disparate intelligence with law enforcement efforts to vet SIAs at the border and to dismantle their smuggling networks in Latin America. After the election of President Donald Trump, the initiative lost traction and is no longer driven by leadership as a priority. The Democratic appointees’ plan is fundamentally bi-partisan and should be resurrected.
Direct and prioritize a surge of SIA smuggling investigations in Latin America by ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); ensure more HSI units exclusively target SIA smuggling in South America, in Central America, and in Mexico.
As described in Part II and the CIS research, ICE-HSI conducts most SIA smuggling investigations in Latin America, but is under-resourced and too often diverted to drug trafficking investigations. SIA smuggling investigations are time-consuming, expensive, and complex because they must occur in conjunction with the law enforcement and intelligence services of sovereign host countries. However, research shows that because SIA smugglers are uniquely specialized in terms of multilingualism and bi-nationality, and access to mandatory fraudulent identity documents, their removal can disrupt smuggling networks for longer periods of time than would the removal of typical contraband smugglers.
Require U.S. Attorney offices to prioritize prosecution of asylum fraud; direct agencies to prioritize asylum fraud detection and investigation involving claims made by SIAs.
As described in Part III, SIA smugglers rely on U.S. unwillingness to detect, investigate, or prosecute asylum fraud to ensure that migrants achieve legal status after arrival. SIA smuggling business continuity relies on successful asylum claims to justify fees paid in origin countries; therefore, smugglers coach clients in how to craft fake persecution stories to get U.S. approval. However, a 2015 GAO report found that U.S. Attorney offices usually decline to prosecute asylum fraud investigative referrals, so investigators won’t make cases. Directing an emphasis on asylum fraud investigations — and prosecution — for SIA smugglers would do real damage to the business.
Require that ICE ERO, the FBI, and other government agencies conduct personal security threat interviews of all SIAs detained inside the United States, as well as in Mexican and Central American detention centers, to assess individual risk before migrants are feed.
In past years, ICE intelligence officers and FBI agents were guided by a goal of 100-percent, in-person security vetting assessments of detained SIAs and to collect intelligence on their smugglers. However, these efforts are now largely episodic inside U.S. detention centers and in those of allied countries such as Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica. The release of SIA detainees absent security interviews vastly increases the potential that unknown extremists will be among them and valuable intelligence on their smugglers is uncaptured. Prioritize and direct as many interviews as possible while arranging for extended detention time and bed space to allow the time necessary.
Fund large-scale migrant repatriation flights of SIAs from Mexico and Central American transit nations, to include funding for detention facility infrastructure and air transport.
Mexico, Panama, and several other common SIA transit countries practice catch-and-release of SIA migrants as this video from my reporting last year in Panama and Costa Rica shows, with only a rare few undergoing security threat interviews. The two countries provide food, shelter, and medical attention for 10-21 days and then arrange bus travel to their northern borders. Both countries, because they are geographic smuggling chokepoints, are logical staging grounds for repatriation flights to home countries, which would profoundly deter future smuggling. In addition to their geographic advantages for repatriation flights, Mexico and Panama are U.S. allies with longstanding collaborative histories in intelligence and law enforcement operations.
Unfortunately, governments place traffic lights and stop signs only after fatal car crashes mark the spots in blood. Europe and the capture of far too many people like Dhakane at the U.S. border are blinking now like red dummy lights on the car dashboard.
Ideally, common-sense solutions like the five described above would be implemented preemptively, without Congressional approval, using security assistance aid and other foreign assistance funding. But, if political leadership cannot bring itself to act preemptively, these solutions will be available on the Day After a border infiltrator attacks, just like in Europe.
Consider this series that clarion call.