Breaching America: Continued, part 2

Web Posted: 05/20/2007 12:01 AM CDT

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Homeland Security and a former assistant director of the FBI, said the nation's vulnerability from this human traffic is unassailable — even if not a single terrorist has ever been caught.

"This isn't a partisan issue," McCraw said. "If the good guys can come, you know, then so can the bad guys. We are at risk."

Though most who cross America's borders are economic migrants, the government has labeled some terrorists. Their ranks 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.

The government has accused other border jumpers of connections to outlawed terrorist organizations, some that help al-Qaida, including reputed members of the deadly Tamil Tigers caught in California after crossing the Mexican border in 2005 on their way to Canada.

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."

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehension numbers, agents along both borders have caught more than 5,700 special-interest immigrants since 2001. But as many as 20,000 to 60,000 others are presumed to have slipped through, based on rule-of-thumb estimates typically used by homeland security agencies.

"You'd like to think at least you're catching one out of 10," McCraw said. "But that's not good in baseball and it's certainly not good in counterterrorism."

Other federal agencies besides the Border Patrol have caught thousands more of the crossers inland after it was discovered they were in the country illegally, including 34,000 detainees from Syria, Iran, Sudan and Libya between 2001 and 2005, according to a homeland security audit last year of U.S. detention centers for immigrants. Then there is an unknown number caught by Mexico — an inveterate partner, as it turns out.

Texas accounts for a third of all the special-interest immigrants caught by the Border Patrol since 9-11, including 250 apprehended between March 2006 and February.

Efforts to stop the traffic are, in some ways, beyond U.S. control. Corrupt foreign officials and bureaucrats in Latin American consulates and in the Middle East have sold visas. Others hand them out without taking U.S. security concerns into account.

Anti-U.S. sentiments run deep in nations across the globe, creating steppingstones to America for those whose illicit travel plans sometimes are abetted with delight.

The story of Boles' journey to America — born over a plate of tabbouleh, orchestrated by a polite smuggler and culminating with an early-morning river crossing at Los Indios — serves as a lens on the pipeline and raises troubling questions.

If an Iraqi Christian with few resources and little more on his mind than fleeing a war for a better future in America can make his way from a designated state sponsor of terror like Syria for less than $4,000, then why couldn't a well-financed Muslim terrorist of equal determination?

Who else besides Boles has crossed the Rio Grande, and with what intent?

The answers figure to inform public policy for years to come.

Top U.S. political leaders have repeatedly cited the prospect of terrorist infiltration to double public expenditures on the borders from $4 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion now; to deploy National Guard units; and to launch nationally divisive immigration reform.

Lesser-known American enforcement initiatives abroad have involved the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

(The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, D.C., did not reply to phoned and written requests for comment on this series.)

Many question the extent of the threat, especially opponents of various immigration-control proposals.

There is evidence, primarily a decline in traffic, that the border crackdown is discouraging illegal immigration. Would-be immigrants in Guatemala and Syria told the San Antonio Express-News they didn't want to risk getting caught and so had decided not to try crossing the border.

For a terrorist who wants to infiltrate, "It is high risk, being smuggled in, because there is an active effort to clamp down," said Laura Ingersoll, an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington who has prosecuted many smuggling rings.

A newly declassified Homeland Security Department survey of 100 captured Iraqi, Somali and Eritrean migrants cites intelligence that al-Qaida planners view border infiltrations as a "secondary" alternative to entering legally with official documents.

Though the Texas Legislature this month passed Gov. Rick Perry's $100 million border-security proposal, some lawmakers have belittled the idea that terrorists might blend in as a politically expedient cover for a racist anti-Mexican agenda.

Texas Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, who commanded a National Guard unit in the Laredo area, said Middle Eastern immigrants don't worry him because they only come across in "onesies and twosies."

"Is it possible that someone could cross our border and come into Texas and do bad things? Absolutely." Noriega said. "But then you have to deal with probability. I'm extremely skeptical of painting the picture that the reason we're doing border security is so terrorists don't come across. I don't think you scare the public using 9-11. That's a little old."

The strangers within

Noriega's reservations notwithstanding, few in America question whether U.S. policymakers and counterterrorism officials should react somehow to the influx of immigrants from Islamic countries. As the Fort Dix case suggests, there are strangers among us whose hearts may ultimately be unknowable.

Among the defendants in the Fort Dix case, all of whom are from the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, three were in America illegally, reportedly having crossed the Texas border near Brownsville with their families as children in 1984.

Uncertainty about the allegiance of immigrants is illustrated by the Boles case.

Who or what is he and why did he come to America?

How can his story be vetted, his mind and motives plumbed?

Boles told U.S. authorities that he is a Chaldean Christian from the Iraqi town of Bartella, near Mosul — a persecuted ethnic minority with origins in the Eastern Christian tradition but with long ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

A federal prosecutor in South Texas would test Boles' religious beliefs by grilling him about the Bible, Jesus and Christian practices such as communion.

Here's the story of Boles' life as he tells it.

Before the Iraq war, he, his parents, two sisters and brother scraped by on what was left of a once-productive farm that had been mostly confiscated by the regime of Saddam Hussein and distributed to Sunni Arab Muslim herders.

His father and brother ran a taxi service to bring in extra cash.

After the war started, Islamic extremists began preying on Iraqi Christians, uprooting them from schools, jobs and businesses, often on the charge that they were "infidels" collaborating with U.S. forces. The extremists kidnapped some Christians and killed others, focusing on the men.

As Boles later would say, "The Muslims would decapitate me for belonging to Christianity."

In January 2004, Boles' father sent him to Syria with a large portion of the family's savings: $5,000. It was enough, perhaps, to buy passage to America, where he would be safer.

Six months later, Boles' brother died in a car crash and his father ordered him not to return, lest he lose his only remaining son. A kidnapped uncle was murdered even though the ransom was paid.

Boles never had given much thought to living in America, though he had an uncle in Sterling Heights, Mich. And it wouldn't be easy leaving Syria; the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Damascus, which has been the target of suicide bombing attempts that ended in gunbattles, wasn't giving out many visas.

Boles was trapped.

As did hundreds of thousands of others who fled to Damascus when sectarian violence in Iraq broke out, he had settled in among the tiny tenement apartments in a suburb known as Jaramana.

Locals today call the neighborhood "Little Fallujah" because of the influx of Iraqis. Small Iraqi-run bakeries, Internet cafes, hair salons and laundry cleaners had sprung up all over town, many of them bearing the Iraqi national flag painted on their windows.

Boles lived on the sixth floor of a building that housed a garment shop where he worked 12-hour days ironing clothing bound for the big markets, or souks, of Damascus. Even though such shops are all over Little Fallujah, Boles was lucky to find a job in one. Steady-paying jobs anywhere in Syria are hard to come by and jealously guarded by working-class Syrians.

For most refugees, returning to Iraq was, then as now, out of the question. So was staying in Syria and Jordan, where local economies couldn't absorb them. But almost every other country in the world, including the United States, was handing out legal visas only grudgingly.

Not surprisingly, smugglers had picked up the slack.

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