- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

TEHRAN — In a grimy teahouse on a dead-end alley, Afghans who sneaked into Iran plot their next moves: safe houses, secret border crossings, slipping like shadows along ancient smuggling routes that crisscross the globe.

Al Qaeda operatives used such means to enter Iran as they fled Afghanistan, Iranian authorities say. The United States and other countries such as Syria, Iraq and Greece — which is the host of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games — point to growing evidence that terrorists are following longtime immigrant and drug-smuggling trails.

At the closet-sized teahouse teeming with bearded Muslims, the topic of discussion is a favorite smuggling route and the faraway goal of jobs: over the mountains into Turkey, then to Istanbul and on to Greece, a member of the European Union.

A smuggler, who gave only the name Amir, described borders as “just lines drawn on a map.”

“We can pass over them like wind,” he said.

Iran has felt this brew into a storm.

“An open wound” is how Iran’s top police official, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, described the clandestine paths last week.

He urged greater international cooperation to combat cross-border smuggling of humans, an appeal Iran once reserved for fighting drug trafficking. Tehran says it holds many al Qaeda suspects who apparently used smugglers’ routes out of Afghanistan after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime about two years ago.

Iran’s intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, said in July that his country was holding “a large number of small- and big-time elements of al Qaeda.” Iran refuses to identify the detainees or allow Western interrogators access to them, but Saudi officials believe the suspects include Saad bin Laden, a son of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Iran has promised to cooperate in the international hunt for al Qaeda, apparently fearing U.S. wrath and diplomatic snubs from Europe. But Washington maintains that anti-U.S. fighters have continued to enter Iraq from Iran.

Syria faces similar accusations. Its president, Bashar Assad, said it is impossible to control the country’s 310-mile desert frontier with Iraq.

“There is arms smuggling and persons [crossing the border] and we don’t know who they are,” he told the newspaper Al Hayat last week. “Of course the Americans say that they are terrorists. … Maybe, for them, any Arab is a terrorist.”

The smuggling routes — created expressly to avoid detection, away from official border crossings — traverse the globe and carry drugs and millions of illegal immigrants seeking work or stability in quests as old as poverty and war.

From the Middle East to the Rio Grande to Australia’s tropical north coast facing Asia, border patrols have been bolstered and captured illegal immigrants are being increasingly evaluated for any terrorist ties.

In Greece, a main destination in Asian and Middle Eastern trafficking of humans, officials last week opened an investigation into a person suspected of smuggling immigrants and having al Qaeda links.

“This is a very serious issue,” said Greek government spokesman Christos Protopapas.

Other terrorist footprints on secret immigrant routes include the following:

• Turkish authorities arrested three al Qaeda suspects who entered from Iran last year using fake travel documents said to have been provided by smugglers of people. Turkish officials say they were headed to Israel for suicide bombings.

• Romanian police last month detained an Egyptian man suspected of links to the militant group Islamic Jihad. The suspect, who was held for three days and released, was said to have been trying to sneak into Hungary. Romanian officials say the suspect is still under investigation.

• In Milan, Italy, a judge indicted five Tunisians in July suspected of links to al Qaeda. A sixth man, arrested as part of the group, entered a plea bargain to lesser charges of forging documents and smuggling illegal immigrants.

• Two Algerian illegal immigrants in Britain were convicted in April of raising funds and recruiting for al Qaeda.

Experts wonder whether this could be just the beginning, as terrorists seek a back door around even the most seamless security.

“In some ways it’s a perfect cover,” said Saeed Laylaz, a security and political analyst in Tehran. “A terrorist pretends to be an economic migrant with no papers. Even if you’re caught, you’re usually just sent back and able to try again.”

The immigrant routes could be part of a reshaping of strategies by al Qaeda and other groups in response to worldwide security clampdowns, some experts believe. Instead of hiding in plain sight, as the hijackers in the September 11 attacks on the United States managed to do, terrorist cells increasingly may adopt underground tactics: no inspections at border points, no paper trail to track, the anonymity of the undocumented.

In the United States, some officials see the country’s long land borders as weak points in the nation’s reinforced security edifice.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary terrorism subcommittee, has pressed for easing environmental restrictions that limit patrol areas along the Mexican border.

“If I were a terrorist trying to get into the United States, it wouldn’t take me long to hire one of the coyotes in northern Mexico and come in,” Mr. Kyl said at a news conference this year, referring to smugglers of immigrants. “Our border is so porous, you’d have a pretty good shot of making it the first time.”

In July, a top investigator at the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement suggested possible links between human-smuggling rings and terrorists.

“Terrorists and their associates are likely to align themselves with specific alien-smuggling networks to obtain undetected entry into the United States,” Charles Demore, the bureau’s interim assistant director of investigations, told the Judiciary Committee.

Stopping them is another matter.

“All you have to do is look at the success, or really lack of it, that the U.S. has had stopping drug trafficking to realize that borders are almost impossible to fully control,” said Ted Carpenter, a foreign-policy specialist at the Cato Institute in Washington. “It’s a very big world, and people will always find ways to get from one country to another.”

Officials from Canada and northeastern U.S. states agreed in July to share antiterrorism intelligence as a way to tackle the problem. In Asia, police chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations promised stronger antiterrorism measures in September, including monitoring illegal border movements.

Some experts see an alliance of convenience developing between smugglers hungry for cash and terrorists willing to pay the going rates, whatever they are.

“There are very highly organized human-smuggling networks out there,” said Walter Purdy, director of the Terrorism Research Center in Burke. “They will move you, move your equipment, move your people, move anything you want to move. This is a huge problem staring us in the face.”

Other experts say using smuggling routes is a gamble.

“Immigrant smugglers are, by nature, outlaws. You have to be very desperate to trust them,” said Ahmet Icduygy, a researcher on illegal immigration at Koc University in Istanbul. “I think terrorists won’t really start using immigrant-smuggling routes unless there is no other choice and they feel airports and legal land borders are too risky.”

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