Terror-Linked Migrants Channeled Into
Migrants Channeled Into
smuggling pipelines through Latin America and
men flocked to the cafe under the sign with the cedar tree, symbol of their
would come, sometimes dozens a month over a three-year period, to find Salim Boughader Mucharrafille (search) - the cafe owner who drove a
Mercedes and catered to some of
his arrest in December 2002, Boughader smuggled about
200 Lebanese compatriots into the
they had the cedar on their passport, you were going to help them. That's what
my father taught me," Boughader told The
Associated Press from a
"What I did was help a lot of young people who wanted to work for a better future. What's the crime in bringing your brother so that he can get out of a war zone?"
A report released by the Sept. 11 commission staff last year examining how terrorists travel the world cited Boughader as the only "human smuggler with suspected links to terrorists" convicted to date in the United States.
after Boughader was locked up, other smugglers
Another smuggling network that is controlled by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebel group - a U.S.-designated terror organization - tried sneaking four Tigers over the California-Mexico border en route to Canada not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator Steven Schultz said. The four were caught along with 17 other Sri Lankans, all posing as Mexicans, attempting to enter ports at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.
AP investigation found these are just some of the many pipelines in Central and
Even when caught, illegal immigrants from those countries and other nations are sometimes released while awaiting deportation hearings, then miss those court dates, according to the AP's investigation, which also documented deep concerns about security threats along the lightly patrolled, 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada border.
AP reviewed hundreds of pages of court indictments, affidavits, congressional
testimony and government reports, and conducted dozens of interviews in
of the travelers, unassociated with any extremist group, genuinely came fleeing
war or in search of economic opportunity. But some, once in the
Worse, the boldness of the smuggling enterprises, the difficulty of shutting them down and their potential to be used as terrorist conduits trouble many security officials.
carpenter Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, smuggled in over the
At least one Al Qaeda-linked man smuggled himself over the border. Nabil al-Marabh, a now-deported Syrian citizen once No. 27 on the FBI's list of terror suspects and accused by Canadian authorities of having connections to Usama bin Laden's network, was caught sneaking from Canada into New York in the back of a tractor-trailer in June 2001 with a fake Canadian passport.
"Several Al Qaeda leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry," Jim Loy, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional committee in February. Further, he said, "entrenched human smuggling networks and corruption in areas beyond our borders can be exploited by terrorist organizations."
The Boughader case and others show just how easy it would be - even now, nearly four years after Sept. 11.
weeks ago, a federal grand jury in
"Today they could be smuggling people, tomorrow weapons," said John Torres, deputy assistant director for smuggling and public safety investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. "The vulnerability there is a criminal or terrorist organization could take advantage of that existing infrastructure."
What the records reveal is a labyrinth of networks, which use established routes frequented for years by migrants of many nationalities.
employ recruiters and facilitators in such "special-interest"
smugglers use staging areas and transportation coordinators in such places as
have moved people by plane - into suburban
They have partnered with other smugglers transporting Mexican or Central American migrants, sometimes swapping clients and transferring immigrants from "special-interest" countries and other migrants in the same loads.
is really a word-of-mouth business," said Laura Ingersoll,
"People from places in the Middle East will hear about who to go through, and they tend to be people from their same country, but once you get into the system we saw associations that really were driven by, `What's the most effective way for me to move my product?'" she said. "I may call someone else and essentially sell my load to somebody who's got a boat or a truck or something going out. It's just like sacks of potatoes."
"A Mafia," is how one of Boughader's clients, Roland Nassib Maksoud, once described the business.
a liquor distributor, traveled from
When Maksoud found the cafe, three Lebanese men were out front eating.
"Salim is inside," they told him in Arabic.
Boughader was meticulous about both his professions. He kept a spiral notebook with the names of his smuggling clients, their phone numbers and the date they arrived at his restaurant. In a separate ledger, Boughader told the AP, he recorded the names and numbers of his cafe customers and their favorite dishes.
He went over instructions with his newest client. Maksoud was to get a room at a nearby hotel, which he would share with another Lebanese man waiting to cross. The fee would be $2,000 up front, plus another $2,000 once Maksoud was in the States.
In January 2001, Maksoud was taken to a house on the Mexican side where other migrants were awaiting passage - "different people from different nationalities," he told investigators.
One morning at 1 o'clock, he was awakened, crammed into the trunk of a vehicle and told not to make a sound as the car made its way through the border port of entry, a five-minute ride.
journey north was more arduous for other Boughader
clients. One stated in a Mexican court document that he trekked for four hours
over the hills into
people-couriers use altered passports to fly clients to the
and South America are popular transit points because of their proximity to the
United States and the relative ease with which migrants from countries with
terrorist ties can obtain tourist visas there - either legally or through
bribery. Assadi, an Iranian, worked from
Bribery is another common tool for the organizations.
May, the former director of immigration in
Ramos, a former
Sesi, an assistant ombudsman for the city of
Some, including prosecutor Ingersoll, discount human smuggling as "a risky road" not likely to be traveled by terror operatives. But a former Sept. 11 commission counsel, Janice Kephart, said smuggling already is a chosen transportation mode for such groups.
suggests that since 1999 human smugglers have facilitated the travel of
terrorists associated with more than a dozen extremist groups, according to the
Sept. 11 commission's terrorist travel report Kephart
helped write. Prior to Sept. 11, Al Qaeda employed smugglers to get jihad
groups, including Al Qaeda, "use human smugglers and document forgers to a
great extent," Kephart said. "They know
their value. It only makes sense that they would transfer that to infiltrate
Others noted that post-Sept. 11 security measures - more stringent visa requirements and security at airports and ports of entry - have made it tougher for terrorist operatives to seek legal passage.
you're a terrorist group looking to do something ...
why not send them another route?" said Walter Purdy, director of the
groups smuggling people from countries with terrorist ties is a priority, said
Boughader's arrest, smuggling of Lebanese through
The information was passed on to Mexican authorities, who made some arrests.
Others have made it through.
who helped raise donations for Hezbollah, entered the
month, Kourani was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison
for conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group. His lawyer,
William Swor, said Kourani
is not a member of Hezbollah and hasn't spoken in years with the brother who
has a leadership role in the group. Prosecutors alleged the brother directed Kourani's
spokesman Manny Van Pelt refused to confirm that Boughader
smuggled Kourani. Boughader
himself couldn't specifically recall Mahmoud Kourani, though he noted he moved a number of people with
the last name "Kourani" who were from Mahmoud Kourani's hometown of
acknowledged transporting a Lebanese man who worked at al-Manar,
a global satellite television network owned and operated by Hezbollah. The U.S.
State Department added al-Manar to its Terror
Exclusion List in 2004, meaning anyone associated with the station may be
refused entry or deported from the
"For us, Hezbollah are not terrorists," said Boughader, a Mexican of Lebanese descent, echoing the feelings of most Lebanese. "I regret that what I was doing is against the law, but I don't regret what I did to help people."
Along the border, people are still getting such help day in and day out.
Sept. 11, Boughader said, "I changed my phone
numbers and told my sister if a Lebanese showed up at the restaurant to turn
him away. But they kept coming." And, for at least nine more months, he
kept smuggling, he admitted when he pleaded guilty in the
"The checks they do at the border are still very bad," he said, "because, regardless of everything, it is still easy to cross."
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