A smuggling network has managed to sneak illegal immigrants from Middle Eastern terrorism hotbeds straight to the doorstep of the U.S., including helping one Afghan who authorities say was part of an attack plot in North America.
Immigration officials have identified at least a dozen Middle Eastern men smuggled into the Western Hemisphere by a Brazilian-based network that connected them with Mexicans who guided them to the U.S. border, according to internal government documents reviewed by The Washington Times.
Those smuggled included Palestinians, Pakistanis and the Afghan man who Homeland Security officials said had family ties to the Taliban and was “involved in a plot to conduct an attack in the U.S. and/or Canada.” He is in custody, but The Times is withholding his name at the request of law enforcement to protect investigations.
Some of the men handled by the smuggling network were nabbed before they reached the U.S., but others made it into the country. The Afghan man was part of a group of six from “special-interest countries.”
The group, guided by two Mexicans employed by the smuggling network, crawled under the border fence in Arizona late last year and made it about 15 miles north before being detected by border surveillance, according to the documents, which were obtained by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican.
Law enforcement asked The Times to withhold the name of the smuggling network.
It’s unclear whether the network succeeded in sneaking other “special interest” illegal immigrants by border officials, but the documents obtained by Mr. Hunter confirm fears of a pipeline that can get would-be illegal immigrants from terrorist hotbeds to the threshold of the U.S.
Just as troubling, the Border Patrol didn’t immediately spot the Afghan man’s terrorist ties because the database that agents first checked didn’t list him. It wasn’t until agents checked an FBI database that they learned the Afghan may be a danger, the documents say.
“It’s disturbing, in so many ways,” said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s chief of staff. “The interdiction of this group … validates once again that the southern border is wide open to more than people looking to enter the U.S. illegally strictly for purposes of looking for work, as the administration wants us to believe. What’s worse, federal databases weren’t even synced and Border Patrol had no idea who they were arresting and the group was not considered a problem because none of them were considered a priority under the president’s enforcement protocol. That’s a major problem on its own, and it calls for DHS to figure out the problem — and fast.”
Mr. Hunter wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson this week demanding answers about the breakdowns in the process.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the chief agency charged with sniffing out smuggling networks, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol and initially failed to find the terrorist connections, declined to comment. Homeland Security, which oversees both agencies, didn’t provide an answer either.
The group of six men nabbed inside the U.S. — the Afghan and five men identified as Pakistanis — all made asylum claims when they were eventually caught by the Border Patrol. Mr. Hunter said his understanding is that the five men from Pakistan were released based on those claims and have disappeared.
The government documents reviewed by The Times didn’t say how much the smugglers charged but did detail some of their operation.
Would-be illegal immigrants were first identified by a contact in the Middle East, who reported them to the smuggling network in Brazil. That network then arranged their travel up South America and through Central America, where some of them were nabbed by U.S. allies.
In the case of the Afghan man with terrorist ties, he was smuggled from Brazil through Peru, then Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
He was caught near a ranch 15 miles into the U.S. after his group’s movements were detected by one of the Border Patrol’s trucks. He told agents his group had crawled under the border fence near Nogales.
In the documents obtained by Mr. Hunter, Homeland Security officials said they considered the case a victory because it showed how they can use apprehensions on the southwest border to trace smuggling networks back to their sources.
But the documents had worrying signs as well. When agents first ran the man through the Terrorist Screening Database, he didn’t show up as a danger. Indeed, KNXV-TV in Arizona reported in November that authorities said “records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals.”
That turns out not to be true, according to the documents. The Afghan man was listed in the FBI’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database as having suspect relations.
Mr. Hunter told Mr. Johnson that the discrepancy between the databases was troubling.
The government documents also said some of the special-interest aliens caught at the border were previously identified by authorities in other Latin American countries — but had different sets of biometric identifiers associated with them. That raised questions about whether those countries are sharing accurate information with the U.S.
Networks capable of smuggling potential terrorists have long been a concern, but the Obama administration tamped down those worries, arguing that the southwest border wasn’t a likely route for operatives.
Still, evidence has mounted over the past couple of years, including a smuggling ring that sneaked four Turkish men with ties to a U.S.-designated terrorist group into the U.S. in 2014. They paid $8,000 apiece to be smuggled from Istanbul through Paris to Mexico City, where they were stashed in safe houses before being smuggled to the border.
At the time, Mr. Johnson said the men were part of a group fighting the Islamic State and questioned whether they should have even been designated as part of a terrorist group.
But behind the scenes Mr. Johnson’s agents were at work trying to roll up smuggling rings under an action dubbed Operation Citadel.
Lev Kubiak, assistant director at ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ international operations branch, testified to Congress this year that Operation Citadel resulted in 210 criminal arrests in 2015. One part of the effort, known as Operation Lucero, dismantled 14 human smuggling routes, including some operations designed to move people from the Eastern Hemisphere to Latin America and then into the U.S., he said.