For the past eight years there has been a running debate between conservatives and liberals over the potential threat of terrorists using the US-Mexico border to enter or attack America.
The Obama administration has largely played down the threat, while conservative critics have issued a steady drumbeat of warnings.
Although there have been no terror attacks in the American homeland linked to the US-Mexico border, the threat of terrorists using the border to gain access to the US is not merely hypothetical.
What follows are 10 examples from criminal cases that highlight the issue of terrorism and the US-Mexico border.
In 2001, Mahmoud Kourani was smuggled across the Mexican border and into the US in the trunk of a car. According to federal court documents, Mr. Kourani was a member, fighter, and fundraiser for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
He settled in Dearborn, Mich., as an unauthorized migrant, raising money for Hezbollah until he was ordered deported in 2003.
Adnan El Shukrijumah
After Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Adnan El Shukrijumah spent more than a decade at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. The US government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
He was believed to have been hand-picked by Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to plan and launch follow-up attacks against the US and other Western countries. Federal agents were determined to find him before he could carry out a mass-casualty operation.
Mr. Shukrijumah, a green-card holder from Saudi Arabia who had lived for many years in Brooklyn and south Florida, disappeared shortly before the 9/11 attacks.
The US government first learned his name during the aggressive interrogation and waterboarding of Mr. Mohammed in 2003. The following year, officials at the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez received a tip about “suspect Arab extremists who have been smuggled through Mexico to the United States/Mexico border.”
The tip is contained in a once-secret State Department document released in December 2015 in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch.
“The confidential source stated his family member, who is a human trafficker, knows the exact whereabouts of three Arabs who are currently being hidden in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico,” the heavily redacted document reads in part.
It goes on to say that one of the three men is “likely Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, alleged to be a Saudi Arabian terrorist cell leader thought to be in Mexico.”
The city of Agua Prieta is on the US-Mexico border adjacent to Douglas, Arizona. Although there is a fence separating Agua Prieta from Douglas, it is possible, even today, to walk around the end of the fence and into the US.
It is not clear what actions the US and Mexican governments took in response to that 2004 tip. Nonetheless, Shukrijumah managed to elude capture for more than a decade.
In 2012, he was named in an 11-count indictment for his alleged role planning and authorizing what was to be a three-man, coordinated suicide bombing attack in 2009 on the New York City subway system at rush hour. Officials arrested the would-be bombers before they could launch the attack.
Shukrijumah was shot and killed during a 2014 raid by the Pakistani military in a tribal area near the Pakistan-Afghan border.
For $3,000, Ahmed Dhakane promised his clients he could smuggle them into the US across the Mexican border.
Mr. Dhakane ran a human smuggling operation based in Brazil that specialized in migrants from Somalia and other parts of East Africa.
At least five of his clients were supporters or members of Al Shabab or associated Somali terror groups – and at least three of them made it into the US, according to federal court documents. One of Dhakane’s clients had a nickname, “Al Qaeda.” He went to California.
From his conversations with his clients, Dhakane knew they were supporters or members of Somali terror groups, court documents say.
“Dhakane stated he did not know their exact reason for wanting to enter the United States, but cautioned that he believed they would fight against the US if the jihad moved from overseas locations to the US mainland,” according to a sentencing memorandum filed by prosecutors in Dhakane’s case.
“All of these individuals are ready to die for the cause,” he told federal agents.
Dhakane himself was a member of Al-Ittihad Al-Islami and had worked as a money manager at Al-Barakat. Both Somali groups are designated by the US government as terror organizations. Both are associated with Al Shabab, the Somali-based militant Islamic organization.
In his Brazilian smuggling operation, Dhakane provided false passports and other forged travel documents. In addition, according to his federal court file, he bribed Brazilian immigration officials and instructed his customers how to make false asylum claims once they arrived in the US.
Dhakane was arrested after he tried to smuggle himself into the US by claiming refugee status.
As part of the ruse, he forced a Somali juvenile to pose as his wife. The girl, one of Dhakane’s smuggling clients, “told agents that [Dhakane] kept her locked away and repeatedly raped and impregnated her prior to coming to the United States,” according to court documents.
The documents continue: “[Dhakane] stated that it would better his asylum chances if he had a pregnant wife.”
In April 2011, Dhakane was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of making false statements on his application for US asylum.
Miguel Santana Vidriales
In 2012, federal agents in California arrested three men who were planning to travel to Mexico on their way to joining Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
The three decided to fly from Mexico City rather than a US airport to conceal their plans from the government. What they didn’t know was that they were already under surveillance by federal agents.
They were arrested after one of the men bought three plane tickets for a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul, Turkey.
The investigation began in January 2012, when one of the men, Miguel Santana Vidriales, was questioned by an alert US Customs and Border Patrol officer while reentering California from Mexico.
The man had a copy of Inspire magazine, a publication of the terror group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The magazine was produced to encourage Muslims to engage in acts of violent jihad. Mr. Santana told the agents that he had converted to Islam in 2010.
The FBI initiated an undercover investigation and discovered that Santana, a Mexican national with a pending application for US citizenship, wanted to join Al Qaeda and engage in jihad.
Asked about his recent trip to Mexico, Santana told an undercover FBI employee that he went to Mexico to “train.” He said he “learned how to use, fix, and shoot a lot of different kinds of guns, and I was practicing with explosives, learning how to use and make them,” according to federal court documents.
Santana later told the undercover source that he wanted to become a sniper. He said he also tried to follow the instructions in Inspire magazine to make a home-made bomb. The magazine article is entitled: “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Santana and a second man pleaded guilty. They were both sentenced in March 2015 to 10 years in prison.
Two others involved in the plan to join militants in Afghanistan went to trial. They received 25-year prison terms.
Jason Michael Ludke
Jason Michael Ludke wanted to join ISIS in the worst way, but he had two interrelated problems: He had a bracelet with a GPS tracker affixed to his ankle, and he needed a passport to travel overseas.
In September 2016, he turned to social media to reach out for a contact inside ISIS who might help him travel from Milwaukee to Raqqa, Syria, to join the group.
What Mr. Ludke didn’t know is that the person he befriended online was an undercover employee of the FBI who was posing as an ISIS supporter.
Ludke, a 2003 convert to Islam, confided to his new online friend that he was tired of living in the “land of the infidel,” according to federal court documents.
He said that because of his criminal past he would need to travel to Mexico where he hoped his brother-in-law would help him obtain travel documents and plane tickets.
In an effort to smooth his anticipated eventual arrival in Syria, Ludke sent a self-recorded video to the undercover FBI employee in which he pledged his loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He also asked the FBI employee if there might be likeminded Muslims in Mexico who could help him.
In an internet exchange on Oct. 4, 2016, the undercover FBI employee told Ludke that “people would be ready to receive him in Mexico and may have passports for Arabic countries available.” The FBI employee advised Ludke not to attempt a trip to Mexico until the supposed Mexican contacts were ready to receive him.
The ploy didn’t work. Ludke and another man were already on the move somewhere south of Milwaukee. He had cut the tracking device off his ankle. The two were driving to the border while spending nights sleeping in their car in mosque parking lots along the way, according to court documents.
The FBI located Ludke and the other man in San Angelo, Texas, on Oct. 5. Ludke was charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. He was 400 miles (six hours by car) from where he planned to cross the border into Mexico.
Guled Ali Omar
All they wanted was a chance to be heroes on the battlefield.
Eleven young men – members of the Somali-American community in Minnesota – dreamed of the many daring acts of courage they would perform as soldiers. But unlike most young men their age in the US, their dreams of battlefield heroism sprang not from service in the US Army Special Forces or the Navy Seals. They dreamed of fighting in Syria as soldiers of ISIS.
But first they had to get to Syria.
Guled Ali Omar knew that a number of individuals had been arrested trying to fly from the US to join ISIS. So he decided to travel to Mexico for his flight overseas to help conceal his travels from US law enforcement officials.
Partway through his planning, he discovered a potential benefit to ISIS of his anticipated trip across the border with Mexico. He could identify contacts and smuggling routes in Mexico that would help ISIS members from overseas to easily infiltrate the US homeland.
“You know what I had in my head,” he asked his friends about the planned trip from the US into Mexico. “[We could] go through Mexico to learn all the spots there, make connections there, send some brothers back over there,” Mr. Omar said during secretly recorded conversations on file in federal court.
“And I know some dudes [in ISIS], if they get determined to come through back to this country and do something here, [I swear to Allah] they will take it,” he said.
“[I swear to Allah] scope it out for them, bro. Just learn the routes, everything,” he said, according to a transcript.
“Imagine that, like six brothers, those dudes… from like from Iraq coming to Mexico. They already look Mexican. They’re Arab. They are coming into this country as immigrants. Imagine [what they might do],” he said. “They’ll do crazy damage. [I swear to Allah], we have a big opportunity.”
That was Omar’s assessment of the potential benefit of using the Mexico border as a way for terrorists to enter the US undetected. The recorded conversation took place in March 2015.
Omar never did get to Syria – or Mexico. Before he could make the trip, he was placed under arrest and charged with attempting to provide material support to a terror group.
On Nov. 16, 2016, Omar was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Anthony Joseph Tracy
Noor Services was a travel business in Nairobi, Kenya, that offered a very specific kind of assistance to its clients. The company specialized in helping would-be travelers from Somalia obtain visas to Cuba.
They weren’t making the trip to the Caribbean island to enjoy the hospitality of Havana, its food and music, or the nearby beaches. Instead, according to federal prosecutors, Cuba was seen as a doorway to the US-Mexico border and an illicit crossing into America.
The business was set up by Anthony Joseph Tracy, a US citizen and Muslim convert, who told federal agents that he had helped 272 Somalis travel illegally to the US, according to court documents.
Federal prosecutors were concerned about more than just illegal immigration. During a polygraph examination, Tracy admitted to investigators that he’d been approached by members of the Somali terror group Al Shabab.
He passed that portion of the polygraph. But he failed the part when asked whether he helped members of the terror group travel to the US, according to court documents.
A prosecutor complained to the judge in Tracy’s case that investigators had “no idea who these individuals are that he assisted.” She suggested Tracy’s clients might pose a risk to national security.
Tracy pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiring to induce non-citizens to enter the US without legal authorization.
Under the conspiracy outlined in court, Tracy helped his clients produce fraudulent documents to support their visa applications. He also paid bribes to a clerk at the Cuban Embassy in Kenya who issued the visas.
Clients flew from Kenya to Dubai to Moscow to Cuba. From there they would fly to Belize and then travel to Mexico to make their way across the US border.
During a search, investigators found an email from a prospective client asking for Tracy’s help, according to court documents. Tracy sent a reply that reads in part: “i helped a lot of somalis and most are good but there are some who are bad and I leave them to ALLAH….”
Tracy told investigators he’d made about $90,000 during his nine months in business.
Abdullahi Omar Fidse
Not everyone who uses the Mexico border to try to sneak into the US does so in remote areas.
In June 2008, Abdullahi Omar Fidse crossed the Rio Grande by walking across the bridge from Mexico to the official port of entry at Hidalgo, Texas. There he declared himself a refugee from Somalia and requested asylum.
He told US officials that his father had been killed by Al Qaeda and that he would be in grave danger if he returned to Somalia.
While federal agents investigated his request for asylum, Mr. Fidse was held in an immigration detention center. There he befriended another Somali detainee and began to talk about his life. Eventually he revealed to his new friend that he wasn’t a refugee at all.
He told the Somali detainee that he supported Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and Al Shabab. He also said he had purchased an armored vehicle and weapons for militant Islamic fighters in Somalia, but that the vehicle had been destroyed in a battle.
Tipped off to Fidse’s deception, the FBI sent a second confidential informant into the detention center to befriend the would-be refugee. The two men discussed a passage in the Koran that calls on Muslims to gather up their weapons and “terrorize” the infidels. Fidse told the confidential informant that he agreed with the militant interpretation of the passage, according to federal court documents.
“We are terrorists,” Fidse declared.
Fidse was denied asylum. Instead he was prosecuted and sentenced to eight years in prison for lying to federal agents.
The investigation revealed a long list of lies. Fidse’s father died of natural causes, not at the hands of Islamic militants. Fidse had not lived his entire life in Somalia before coming to the US, as he claimed. Instead, he lived for almost eight years in Kenya after leaving Somalia – a fact that would undercut his asylum claim.
Most important, he had denied any connection or support for terrorism despite recorded conversations from the detention center suggesting otherwise. Agents searched a cell phone memory card that belonged to Fidse and found the telephone number of a man arrested for involvement in a series of suicide bombings in 2010 carried out by Al Shabab in Kampala, Uganda.
In requesting a lengthy prison sentence, prosecutors told the judge that despite everything the FBI learned about Fidse and his militant beliefs, he still might be allowed to live in America after serving his prison term.
“Because of the historical inability of the government to deport criminal aliens to Somalia, it is extremely likely given the state of the law that [Fidse] will eventually be released from [Department of Homeland Security] custody and set free on the streets of the United States,” federal prosecutors told the judge in a court filing.
Fidse is scheduled for release from federal prison on May 13, 2018.
There is money to be made in human smuggling. Rakhi Gauchan knew this better than most.
She had run smuggling rings for 11 years in Europe and Asia. Now the Nepalese national was based in Mexico City. She told an undercover informant that in Mexico her operation smuggled about 10 individuals per months into the US.
She charged up to $40,000 for someone living in India and $3,000 to $4,000 for someone who had already made it to Mexico, according to court documents.
Ms. Gauchan would instruct her clients to turn themselves in to US officials and apply for asylum. She also provided a critique of their “life story” and offered suggestions of how to make the story more compelling to boost their chances of being granted US asylum.
These details repeated by the informant were interesting, but what got the attention of US law enforcement officials is when she told the undercover informant about one particular client from Pakistan who she suspected might be a terrorist or a drug trafficker.
Despite those suspicions, it didn’t stop her from taking his money and helping him enter the US.
In November 2012, Aslam Khan Waqas paid her $3,500. For that he was flown from Mexico City to the border and then driven to a spot near the official border crossing at Nogales, Arizona.
Mr. Waqas crossed the US border at Nogales on Dec. 27, 2012 and requested asylum. He was allowed to reside in the US pending determination of his asylum request.
Federal agents tracked him down to determine whether he was, in fact, a terrorist or drug trafficker. In addition, they needed his testimony to prosecute Guachan.
She was arrested in December 2013 when she traveled from Mexico City to San Antonio. Guachan eventually pleaded guilty to one count of human smuggling. After spending a year in jail in pre-trial detention, she was sentenced to time served.
The case is an example of how some smugglers are motivated solely by money and despite their hunch that a client might be a terrorist, they nonetheless take the money and look the other way.
Irgan Ul Haq
When federal agents set up a sting operation to catch an Ecuador-based human smuggler, the agents decided to up the stakes. They told the smuggler that his would-be client was a member of a terrorist group.
The targeted smuggler, Irgan Ul Haq, did not blink.
He told undercover operatives that it was not his “concern what [his clients] want to do in the United States – hard labor, sweep floors, wash dishes in a hotel, or blow up. That will be up to them,” he said, according to federal court documents.
Mr. Haq’s smuggling ring charged $50,000 to $60,000 per person to smuggle an Indian or Pakistani national into the US, including provision of forged passports and Pakistani exit visas.
Haq and two of his associates were arrested in 2011 in Miami as part of the sting operation. All three pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terror group. Haq was sentenced to 4 years in prison. His two accomplices received three-year prison terms.