The four-part report (which concludes today) traces the flow of illegal immigrants from high-risk countries and the potential security threat they pose. Express-News reporter Todd Bensman spent six months working on the series, traveling to Syria, Central America and the Mexican border, following the trail of "special interest aliens." That's the term used by federal officials to describe immigrants who come from 43 nations where terrorist groups operate. The fear, of course, is that these same organizations are sending operatives across our borders, to launch new attacks in the United States.
As Mr. Bensman notes, these "special interest aliens" constitute a relatively small percentage of the millions who flood across the border every year, but they are a cause for concern. In recent years, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have intercepted several illegals with apparent terrorist connections. They include:
Mahmoud Kourani, convicted in Detroit as a leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Using a visa obtained by bribing a Mexican official in Beirut, the Lebanese national sneaked over the Mexican border in 2001 in the trunk of a car.
Nabel Al-Marahb, a reputed al-Qaida operative who was No. 27 on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list in the months after 9-11, crossed the Canadian border in the sleeper cab of a long-haul truck.
Farida Goolam Mahammed, a South African woman captured in 2004 as she carried into the McAllen airport cash and clothes still wet from the Rio Grande. Though the government characterized her merely as a border jumper, U.S. sources now say she was a smuggler who ferried people with terrorist connections. One report credits her arrest with spurring a major international terror investigation that stopped an al-Qaida attack on New York.
One U.S.-bound Pakistani apparently captured in Mexico drew such suspicion that he ended up in front of a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay.
"They are not all economic migrants," said attorney Janice Kephart, who served as legal counsel for the 9-11 Commission and co-wrote its final staff report. "I do get frustrated when people who live in Washington or Illinois say we don't have any evidence that terrorists are coming across. But there is evidence."
How many special interest aliens are in the U.S.? Citing government statistics, Mr. Bensman reports that the Border Patrol and Customs Service have apprehended more than 5,700 immigrants in that category since 2001. But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Over a four-year period (2001-2005), other law enforcement agencies arrested more than 34,000 emigres from Syria, Iran, Sudan and Libya, after it was determined they were in the country illegally.
More disturbing is the fact that many are never caught. Based on rule-of-thumb estimates used by homeland security agencies, somewhere between 20-60,000 special interest aliens have slipped across our borders since 2001, and the government (of course) has no real idea where they are, or what their plans might be. And our enemies are well aware of our lax border security; Bensman cites a recently-declassified intelligence report which says Al Qaida views crossing the border illegally as a "secondary" alternative for smuggling operatives into the United States.
While some officials downplay the threat--a Hispanic state representative in Texas says he isn't worried because the Middle Easterners arrive in "onesies and twosies"--Mr. Bensman's series raises troubling questions. He follows the efforts of a single Iraqi Christian to enter the U.S., noting that if he could do it (at a cost of roughly $4,000), then why couldn't an equally-determined, and presumably, better-financed terrorist?
Why indeed? The infrastructure is already in place; smugglers and middlemen in places like Damascus can provide legal or forged travel documents to get the aliens to countries like Guatemala, which has become a way station on the path to our southern border. In some cases, the documents are approved by "honorary consular" officers that represent Latin American nations in Middle East capitals. And while those officials claim that they interview all applicants for travel visas and other documents, the Express-News investigation suggests otherwise.
The series also highlights some successes in keeping terrorists from crossing the border illegally. The government of Mexico is providing (surprisingly) strong support, realizing that any major terrorist attack on U.S. soil with a "Mexican connection" would mean the end current "relationship" between the two countries. Mexican authorities have arrested scores of Middle Easterners passing through their country, and they allow U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials to question the detainees. Anecdotal evidence suggests the recent crack-down has reduced the flow of Middle Eastern aliens into the United States.
But the system is far from perfect. Readers are left with the realization that for every terrorist (or would-be terrorist) who is intercepted in Mexico or along our southern border, others are getting through. And we can only imagine what their intentions might be.
Mr. Bensman's reporting is not unsympathetic to the Middle Easterners who try to enter the U.S. The immigrant profiled in his series--a young man names Boles--seems to be the prototypical Iraqi refugee that would receive sanctuary under a recent White House proposal. But the Express-News series also provides more evidence that the administration-backed reform plan is fatally flawed. Any notion of "fixing" the current system should come after our borders are secure, and we have a better handle on the "special interest aliens" already living in this country.