In January 2005, the FBI was on the lookout for four Chinese men and two Iraqis who were thought to have access to a dirty bomb bound for the US that was being smuggled through Mexico.
In November 2005, Zapata County, Texas Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said it's not a matter of "if," but "when," a terrorist will enter the United States through Mexico with a dirty bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction (WMD).
Around the same time, Adnan Shukrijumah – an important Al Qaeda operations member, according to US intelligence officials - was suspected of hatching a plot to smuggle a dirty bomb - or materials to manufacture one - across the US-Mexico border. Fortunately, there is no indication that Shukrijumah’s purported dirty-bomb plot ever got very far.
According to the CIA report, “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al Qaeda,” “[redacted sentence or sentences] Within months of his arrest, Abu Zubaydah [an operations planner as well as senior facilitator for Al Qaeda operatives captured by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques] provided details about Al Qaeda’s organizational structure, key operatives and modus operandi. It also was Abu Zubaydah who first brought Al Qaeda operative “Ja’far Al Tayyar … to the FBI’s attention when Abu Zubaydah named him as one of the most likely individuals to be used by Al Qaeda for operations in the United States or Europe. [Mostly redacted paragraph] … that was key to uncovering Ja’far’s true name.
His “true name” is Adnan G. el Shukrijumah, and on March 26, 2003 the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a Material Witness Warrant for his arrest. The FBI has a $5 million reward for his capture “in connection with possible terrorist threats against the United States.”
At the time of his arrest warrant, the federal government had launched a massive global manhunt to find Shukrijumah, who is believed by counterterrorism officials to be an "imminent threat to US citizens and interests [who is] suspected of planning terrorist activities."
According to declassified CIA reports, Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks - provided detailed intelligence indicating Shukrijumah may be involved in plotting another 9/11-syle attack on US soil. He remains at large.
According to reports, Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in September 2009 on charges that he planned a suicide bombing of the New York subway system, had met with Shukrijumah in a camp in Pakistan.
While we know that individuals associated with terrorist groups like Hezbollah have entered the United States through Mexico, there is no evidence that any of those individuals were “operational”—meaning they came across the border with plans to blow something up.
While media reports of dirty bombs potentially coming across our southwest border have died down considerably since 2005, that doesn’t mean that concern over such a scenario isn’t there anymore.
But are homeland security officials looking for that threat in the wrong direction?
One has to wonder why any terrorist in his right mind would pick our southwest border as the best option for entering the United States surreptitiously. While there’s much that needs to be done before that border can be called “secure,” there are more agents, police, and electronic devices monitoring the US-Mexico border than any time in history.
It’s also very important to understand how human smuggling networks in Mexico operate. There are groups who specialize in smuggling Special Interest Aliens (individuals from countries associated with terrorism; see, “What Can We Learn from Trends in 'Special Interest Alien' Migration into the US?”) and charge exorbitant fees for the extra trouble. These groups - as well as regular human smuggling organizations - often use the same routes to and across the border that drug traffickers use. The cartels, more formally known as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), own these “plazas.” And not only do they impose a piso, or a passage fee, on human smugglers, but they know about all activity that occurs along these routes.
Association with terrorist groups is very bad for business, for drug smugglers and human smugglers alike. It’s one thing for the US government to know that it’s only catching a small percentage of illegal drugs entering the country, but allowing even one operational terrorist to sneak across the border is completely unacceptable. And the discovery of such an alliance between smugglers and terrorists would bring the wrath of the US government down on the TCOs and their illicit border activities like never before.
Neither the TCOs nor the Mexican government want this kind of negative impact on their finances, so it’s in both of their best interests to make sure that doesn’t happen.
By the very nature of the terrorism business, terrorists look for the path of least resistance: times when there’s less on-site security; buildings that are easy to get into; highly populated areas with public access; etc. Looking at the process that an operational member of Al Qaeda would have to go through to get into the United States via the southwest border, it’s not as easy as one might think. Enter the highly porous, lightly patrolled and barely scrutinized northern border with Canada.
Of course, comparing the southwest and northern borders is like comparing apples and oranges. There’s no drug war going on in Canada that might spill over into the United States, and there aren’t millions of Canadians trying to cross the border illegally every year. Resource allocation for the northern border is determined based on the threat and necessity, and there just hasn’t been a need to fortify the northern border with a fence or thousands of Border Patrol agents.
Unfortunately, that’s the strategy that makes the United States more vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists entering from Canada.
The ease of smuggling drugs south from Canada is one example of the border’s porous nature. A recent Associate Press article told the story of a tiny airport in Sandusky, Michigan, where small airplanes loaded with illegal drugs can more or less come and go as they please. The airport isn’t staffed at night, and the planes come in flying low with their transponders off. All the Border Patrol could do was put up two signs asking people to call and report any suspicious activity.
Cross-border travel by boat is another example. There’s no way that law enforcement agencies can patrol every square mile of the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, much less the miles and miles of lakeshore. Individuals arriving in more remote parts of the Great Lakes from Canada on pleasure boats are merely directed to declare their arrival by using videophones operated by Customs and Border Protection.
Terrorists who want to enter the United States for nefarious reasons don’t need to resort to stealthy means if they have time on their side. Canada has relatively lax immigration requirements; individuals only have to live there for two years (legally) before they’re eligible for permanent residency.
By contrast, the Mexican government requires that individuals live in Mexico for five years before applying for residency, and the process can take years. This means that terrorists can evade a significant amount of scrutiny by spending only two years in Canada and coming across the border as permanent residents, rather than tourists or students.
There’s no doubt that it’s impossible to monitor every square mile of border on either side of the country. The bottom line is that homeland security agencies need to rely on good, solid intelligence to point them in the right direction.
But obtaining credible sources of information – and especially actionable intelligence - inside both extremist groups and TCOs has historically been exceedingly difficult.
But never has it been more necessary. Otherwise, our government is merely putting its figurative finger in the dyke - securing a few spots on the vast northern border, just to leave others open and vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.