- - Sunday, February 19, 2017

Nationals from seven countries listed on a travel ban issued by President Trump have participated in ongoing terrorist plots against the U.S., according to congressional and law enforcement reports that challenge the widely circulated media criticism that no one from those nations has ever staged an attack on American soil.

A Senate Judiciary Committee report last year found that of the 390 foreign nationals arrested on terrorist-related charges since the Sept. 11 attacks, 67 come from the countries listed in the travel ban.

Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and an analyst on Islamic terrorism, said the Cato Institute study cited repeatedly in the mainstream media is an “oversimplistic and inadequate” assessment of the terrorist threat. Jihadis driven from their strongholds in other countries are using the banned countries as refuges and jumping-off points for their next missions, he said.

The Homeland Security Department “is seeking to project where [the Islamic State] will go as they lose territory in Syria and Iraq. Countries in chaos or which lack any security relationship with the U.S. are the likeliest destinations,” Mr. Humire said.

Terrorist groups based in Yemen and Somalia have plotted to attack and infiltrate the U.S. for years. Iran’s intelligence service has also tried to mount high-level assassinations, military-type assaults and cyberattacks.

One of the most noted cases involved a 2011 plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador by bombing a fashionable restaurant in Washington where he often had lunch.

Iran’s special operations service, the Quds force, contracted third-country nationals for the planned attack, including Latin American hit men and an Iranian businessman who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, according to the FBI. The plot was foiled when a Mexican bomb maker contacted by Iran turned out to be a U.S. informant.

Had the plot proceeded, Iranian intelligence officers would have needed to enter the U.S. to exercise control over its execution, perform certain support tasks and supply key components, terrorism analysts say, something that would have been harder or perhaps impossible had Mr. Trump’s order been in effect.

When Iran bombed a Jewish cultural center in Argentina in 1994, it hired local agents and sympathizers of Hezbollah while Iranian officers using diplomatic cover closely supervised the operation, which killed 85 people.

Mr. Trump’s proposed temporary bar on the entry of nationals from the seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria — believed to be under total or partial control of terrorist groups generated a massive public outcry and a fierce legal battle. The administration is drafting a revised executive order this week that should allow its implementation, Mr. Trump revealed at his Thursday press conference.

But opponents of the policy have pressed their argument that even a revised order is pointless and even counterproductive for U.S. security, since no national from any of the blacklisted countries has ever carried out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The 9/11 attackers, they note, came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon — none of which is on the banned list.

Somali threat

Somalis are among largest group of foreign nationals arrested on terrorism-related charges in the U.S., according to the Senate report.

Somali-Americans have tried to join the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group, which controls part of Somalia and has conducted transnational operations, including a 2013 shopping mall massacre in Kenya.

At the same time, al-Shabab militants from Somalia have been caught trying to the enter the U.S. through Mexico, said Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security.

A subcommittee hearing last year examined findings by the Texas Department of Public Safety on a Somali caught trying to cross into the U.S. who said he had been trained for a suicide bombing but wanted to quit al-Shabab.

Another al-Shabab-affiliated Somali, Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2011 on charges of helping to move an unknown number of suspected militants into the U.S. through the southern border.

The Obama administration Justice Department in 2010 investigated a massive human trafficking operation that involved the movement of 268 Somalis through Latin America for eventual entry into the U.S. The probe found that they were traveling with Cuban visas, allowing them to transit through Mexico and several other Latin American countries in hopes of coming to the U.S.

The Cuban government said two of its consular officers in Kenya who issued the visas were fired.

The repeated string of incidents gives far more weight to the arguments of Mr. Trump and his aides that the seven countries targeting by the temporary ban present a clear terrorist threat to the mainland. Administration officials note that the seven countries were first flagged as security concerns under the Obama administration. The pipeline from the terrorist centers in the Middle East to Latin American countries only strengthens the argument, Mr. Humire said.

The U.S. government “may need to look more closely at Latin America as a possible staging area and transit point,” said Mr. Humire, who has obtained official records of passports and visas issued to members of extremist groups by the anti-U.S. socialist government of Venezuela.

The Obama administration largely ignored southern infiltration routes when it drew up the list of countries now targeted by the travel ban.

President Obama downplayed Latin America as a security risk as his government pursued a diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba and strongly backed the Colombian peace talks with leftist FARC rebels.

The number of Colombians arrested on terrorist-related charges in the U.S. over the past 15 years equals that of Somalis, according to the 2016 Senate committee report, which found that most of them were members of FARC.

A CNN Spanish documentary broadcast this month reported that Venezuelan embassies operate a black market for passports that are sold for $15,000 each and allow for unimpeded travel throughout Latin America, Asia and Europe.

Tareck El Aissami, the new Venezuelan vice president who was the target of unprecedented Treasury Department sanctions because of drug trafficking charges last week, reportedly issued 173 Venezuelan passports to Syrians, Iraqis and others listed in the ban when he was interior minister.

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