Home inFocus Border Security and the Terrorist Threat

Border Security and the Terrorist Threat

Jon B. Perdue Fall 2010

On October 14, 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a provocative trip to Bint Jbeil, a strategic city about two and a half miles from Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. Called “the capital of resistance” by Hezbollah and its supporters, Bint Jbeil was the hub for Hezbollah terrorist actions during the 18 years that Israel controlled the area before withdrawing in 2000.

Iran, perhaps more than any other terrorist-supporting country, understands the importance of operating on the borders of its enemies. In asymmetric warfare, borders become the forward edge of the battle area. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran has exploited the use of proxy forces on Israel’s southern border with Lebanon, Egypt’s southern border with Sudan, and the United States’ southern border with Mexico.

Iranian “Subversive Activity”

In an asymmetric war, the smaller entity enjoys the advantage of utilizing his enemy’s borders strategically and at will, while the larger entity is at a disadvantage and is required to patrol his long border areas at all times, or be exploited by the smaller enemy. Borders become a problem of logistics and will for the larger of the two actors in an asymmetric contest.

Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that Iran was engaging in “subversive activity” in Latin America. And in April of this year, the Pentagon sent a report to Congress warning that Iran was sending additional Qods Force troops to Venezuela. Predictably, Venezuela denied the presence of these external operatives, but subsequent reports and a book by Spanish undercover investigative reporter Antonio Salas confirmed the charge.

The Qods Force is the special forces division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and is tasked with “exporting the Iranian revolution” by utilizing foreign radical movements as proxies. It is speculation as to what an increased Qods Force presence would be doing in Venezuela, but it can be extrapolated that it is most likely training proxies under the aegis of President Hugo Chavez to replicate its successes in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Chavez has assiduously pursued his ends in neighboring countries, illegally financing the campaigns of fellow leftists and building the so-called ALBA houses in Peru with the aim of recruiting and indoctrinating new adherents to his cause from within their walls. Chavez has sent invitations to the mayors of small towns near the tri-border area of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil in order to probe for areas that are either friendly to his scheme or, if not, at least corruptible. The strategic importance of the area is that it is a redoubt for the FARC—a terrorist group that has has been tied to Chavez since it began sending him funds while he was imprisoned after his failed coup attempt in 1992.

A more well-known tri-border area—the intersection of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay—has long been a staging point for Iranian terrorist activity. In 1994, the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community center in Buenos Aires was planned and launched from this tri-border area. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s Minister of Defense under Ahmadinejad and a former commander of the IRGC, is accused of having participated in the planning of the AMIA bombing. When the Argentine government and Interpol revealed the accusation against Vahidi and four other Iranians for the bombing, the Iranian government called it a “Zionist plot”—the closest thing in Iran-speak to an admission of guilt.

Hezbollah Close to Home

In September, the Simon Wiesenthal Center told the German press agency DPA that, “A reliable official U.S. source with which we held a meeting last week confirmed to us the existence of dormant terrorist Hezbollah cells in South America, who await signals to come into action in Argentina.” And Representative Sue Myrick of North Carolina recently called for a task force on Hezbollah on the southern border with Mexico, stating, “Our intelligence sources have really clarified that they are in Mexico, that there is an operation that is quite large in place there, and it’s very frightening to me because this is national security.”

On Hezbollah’s collaboration with Hugo Chavez, Myrick stated, “We know some of them have gotten across the border in the past, and now we know that there are people from Iran who are going to Venezuela. They are actually learning Spanish, and then they come up through Mexico to cross our border. So they’re working in cahoots with Venezuela as well.”

On Hezbollah closer to home, a former DEA chief of operations, Michael Braun, stated: “Hezbollah relies on the same criminal weapons smugglers, document traffickers, and transportation experts as the drug cartels… They work together; they rely on the same shadow facilitators. One way or another, they are all connected.”

Even closer to home, Mexican police recently mounted a surveillance operation on Jameel Nasr, a Hezbollah operative living just across the border from San Diego. Nasr was observed traveling to Lebanon numerous times and talking to Hezbollah commanders, as well as to several countries in Latin America. More tellingly, police say Nasr spent two months in Venezuela in the summer of 2008.

Though the Department of Homeland Security does not release capture statistics on the Mexico border, a Freedom of Information Act request by several groups recently elicited a startling report on the number of border crossers that emanated from countries listed as “state sponsors of terrorism.” This was underscored by a Congressional report that confirmed that members of Hezbollah had crossed the border. The report contained photos of military clothing abandoned on the border with insignias written in Farsi, including one patch that depicted a plane crashing into the twin towers.

The lack of seriousness in addressing this problem is reflected in U.S. government policy toward OTMs (Other Than Mexicans) that are caught crossing illegally into the United States. Government policy requires that even if these captured OTMs are from terror-sponsoring countries, they must be treated the same as illegal aliens from any other country. In other words, if an OTM from Syria or Somalia doesn’t have a criminal record, doesn’t show up on government watch lists, and doesn’t act suspiciously when interviewed by law enforcement, that person is typically released with a risible notice to show up for a later immigration hearing.

Border Relations

Illegal immigration waxes and wanes in proportion to the economic strength of the United States and Mexico. But it is only recently that the border has become more important as a national security issue than a political one, because of the fact that Mexico’s war against narco-traffickers happens to be taking place simultaneously with Islamist terrorists attempting to infiltrate the U.S. And what should be a catalyst for increased security cooperation between Mexico and the U.S., has instead become a point of contention between the two because of domestic politics in both countries.

In 2005, Mexican President Vicente Fox called the U.S. border fence “shameful.” His successor, Felipe Calderon, a few months before taking office, called it a “grave mistake.” All of that was before Mexico launched its shooting war against narco-traffickers in the country. Setting aside the political hypocrisy of criticizing U.S. laws on immigration, Mexico has adopted far more draconian immigration laws, and is now constructing a wall of its own along its southern border with Guatemala.

The Suchiate River, which divides Mexico and Guatemala, serves both as a crossing point for illegals and as a smuggling route for all types of products that avoid paying Mexican import duties. The head of customs for Mexico’s tax agency told reporters that the purpose of the wall was to keep out contraband products, but was forced to admit that, “It could also prevent the free passage of illegal immigrants.”

According to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), half a million people from Central and South America cross the Suchiate River into Mexico every year, most of them attempting to reach the United States. But Mexico’s need to protect its border is also in response to the fact that a drug pipeline was re-routed through its southern border due to the “corset effect”—the displacement of drug routes as a result of increased enforcement and interdiction efforts in Colombia and the Caribbean.

American Surrogates

What remains to be seen is whether the Merida Initiative, in which U.S. taxpayers have given $1.3 billion in aid, will be utilized similarly to Plan Colombia and successfully combat the traffickers. Under Merida, the U.S. donates Black Hawk military helicopters, night-vision equipment, and armored vehicles for Mexican police and judges. But the situations are quite different between terror-torn Colombia a decade ago and Mexico today.

In Colombia, there were clear ideological lines drawn between the military and the drug-trafficking Marxist insurgency, as well as a 40-year history that set the boundaries between groups somewhat clearly. In Mexico, the lines are far less clear, as drug traffickers have been able to infiltrate police and military organizations rather easily. Moreover, Mexican drug cartels have been able to subcontract their enforcement inside the U.S. with the use of incarcerated gang members in U.S. prisons, who show no compunction about ordering assassinations from the solitude of their cells.

Mexican cartels must walk a fine line, logistically insuring that their products reach the U.S. without arousing the ire of citizens and law enforcement on the U.S. side of the border. For this reason, the use of surrogates becomes a logistical necessity. The National Drug Threat Assessment that was released in February 2010 by the Justice Department asserted that gangs were operating in every state in the U.S. and that they maintained an increasing influence over drug smuggling on the border with Mexico.

In 2009, federal prosecutors charged 36 members of California’s Mexican Mafia gang for racketeering. The case connected the gang with the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana, Mexico, and the gang members were charged with carrying out kidnapping and murders, as well as coordinating the distribution of the cartel’s drugs throughout California.

Al-Qaeda on the Border

According to the 2008 State Department Country Report on Terrorism, “Over the past five years, however, smuggling rings have been detected moving people from East Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia to Honduras or through its territory. In 2008, there was an increase in the number of boats arriving on the North coast, ferrying people from all over the world seeking to enter the United States illegally via Guatemala and Mexico.”

This is the territory of the infamous gang Mara Salvatrucha, where much interest has been focused since a visit there by Adnan Shukrijumah, recently named by the FBI as al-Qaeda’s new chief of global operations. Shukrijumah, whose father was a Brooklyn imam and who was raised in a Miami suburb, has reportedly taken the place of his old boss, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

On May 27, 2004, Shukrijumah was reported to have met in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with some of Mara Salvatrucha’s leaders from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, and Panama. From there, Shukrijumah moved north to Belize and then to Quintana Roo, Mexico, where he remained until late summer. Later in August, reports placed him in Sonora, Mexico, near what is referred to as “terrorist alley,” a notorious area where many illegals from terror-sponsoring countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, and the Sudan have entered the U.S.

Investigators grew more concerned about Shukrijumah’s presence in Mexico in November of 2004 when Sharif al-Masri, a key al-Qaeda operative, was apprehended in Pakistan. Al-Masri, who was closely connected to Ayman al-Zawahiri, admitted that al-Qaeda was plotting to smuggle nuclear materials and compact tactical nuclear weapons into the U.S. via Mexico, with help getting across the border from “a Latin street gang.”

Author Paul L. Williams, in his book The Al Qaeda Connection, reported that, “By 2002 Al Qaeda and [Mara Salvatrucha] officially became partners. Their partnership was simple: “In exchange for safe passage across the border, shelter within the states, and a bogus matricula consular, Al Qaeda – through its cells in South America – agreed to pay Mara Salvatrucha from $30,000 to $50,000 for each sleeper agent.”

Gaining Perspective

The U.S. now has confirmation of Iranian Qods Force troops operating in Venezuela, Hezbollah in the Southern Cone, and al-Qaeda operatives forming alliances with Latino gangs that reach from Central America to California. It may be foolhardy to suggest that America’s perspective on the issue of the southern border and illegal immigration be altered. It is the politics of immigration, rather than security, that tend to put the issue into the news cycle and thousands of marchers into the streets.

What is certain, however, is that it should not be a terrorist incident, propagated across our porous southern border, which finally places the issue into its proper perspective.

Jon B. Perdue is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The War of All the People.