Afghan sus­pected in ter­ror plot nearly dodges cus­tody

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

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 Brazil­ian­based 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 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.

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