Center for Immigration Studies
Wednesday September 5, 2018
Takeaways from the latest ICE effort to shut down bridges that connect Muslim-majority nations to the U.S. Southwest border
The first border-crossing migrant to allegedly conduct an ISIS-inspired attack in North America was a Somali named Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, who somehow first made his way to Tijuana and across the California border, as I recently detailed. Sharif went on to carry an ISIS flag while conducting two September 30, 2017, vehicle-ramming attacks in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, that injured five people. Among the questions I identified as unasked and unanswered, was: How did Sharif get all the way to Tijuana? Knowing how he and other Somalis get to our border serves the tactical purpose of helping border security agencies interdict more migrants coming from such terrorist-harboring countries so that they can assess character and intentions. But the ongoing smuggling of non-Mexican migrants symbolized by the Sharif attack case also should serve to remind policy-makers, homeland security leaders, and the general public, as they contemplate immigration reform, that illegal immigration enforcement is often also straight counterterrorism with a priority national security purpose. Any change to immigration enforcement should be handled with the inclusion of this fundamental strategic understanding.
One reliable way to learn how Sharif and others from the Horn of Africa get to our border is to pay close attention to what ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division is up to. You wouldn't know it from all the talk about disbanding ICE, but its HSI division is the tip of the spear going after the smugglers of "special interest aliens" (SIAs) and potentially ill-intentioned extremists among them trying to reach the U.S. southern border from countries that harbor Islamist terrorists. As I wrote recently in describing the prosecutions of a Brazil-based Pakistani SIA smuggler and of a Jordanian one based in Mexico, these unsung ICE-HSI counterterrorism operations provide rare footage, so to speak, of a largely unseen corner in America's war on terror right where it blends with illegal immigration enforcement.
The latest ICE-HSI smuggling case, a rare and valuable instrument of public knowledge, is now partially unveiled (I can only count 22 such prosecutions since 9/11). An August 8, 2018, criminal probable-cause complaint shows not only how an accused Somali ISIS attacker like Sharif might have gotten to California, but also how many dozens of others from East Africa actually did. The glimpse comes in the matter of United States v. Mohamed Abdi Siyad, aka "Hassan" in the Southern District of California. Investigating HSI Special Agent David Whitacre describes how Hassan, from his base in São Paulo, Brazil, provided the connecting bridge by which many dozens of Somalis and other Horn of Africa migrants — extremists potentially among them — traveled from the African continent through Latin America and on to both the California and Texas borders.
It's not clear yet how many migrants he helped in total or for how long Hassan was in business, though there seems little doubt that he was prolific. Whitacre testified that, since opening the investigation in February 2017, he reviewed the transcripts from "hundreds" of interviews and that he personally interviewed 50 aliens who identified Hassan as their main smuggling facilitator.
The document explains that Hassan's network in Brazil was one of three interconnected cells that worked in concert to move travelers through their regions. One Africa network, for example, charged $2,500 to transport a client by air to Hassan's network in Brazil, which in turn fed a third network through Central America and Mexico. From his base in São Paulo, Hassan would receive and stage his clients in safe houses for subsequent legs northward. Hassan's methods and tactics are revealed, which can inform future counterterrorism operations like this. For instance, Hassan would typically snap a photograph of his client with a cell phone and send it to smuggling associates down range using the WhatsApp application. These associates would show the photograph to the travelers as proof that they were part of Hassan's trusted network.
Hassan usually charged $500 to get them to a Colombia-based smuggler who would move them through Peru, Ecuador, and into Colombia via taxi, bus, horseback, boat, and air. In addition to WhatsApp, Hassan used Facebook for general communications and also to provide direction on the best entry points into the United States.
SIA smuggling court records never include sensitive and probably classified information such as whether any of those smuggled were involved in terrorism. Whitacre appropriately notes in his affidavit that it "does not set forth all of the information known by myself and other law enforcement officers in this investigation." What matters most anyway, in homeland security thinking and spending, is that SIA smuggling networks indisputably provide the capability for terrorist travelers to reach the border and must be tended to on that basis alone.
The Center for Immigration Studies has developed an interactive map illustrating an emblematic route that one of Hassan's customers followed and some of the methods used. The map is based on Whitacre's interview with a cooperating migrant witness "D.H.A." Clicking on each checkpoint provides additional information about techniques and tactics that were used to keep D.H.A. moving, ultimately to California.
This prosecution of Hassan is still in its infancy. Hassan himself does not appear to yet be in U.S. custody, but a sealed arrest warrant can be found in the public record, indicating an intent to bring Hassan to trial for "Conspiracy to Induce and Encourage Aliens to Enter the United States for Financial Gain".
So more information is coming on the Hassan case — and also another new one involving a Jordanian with permanent Mexican residency named Moayad Heider Mohammad Aldairi, who transported at least six Yemenis over the Texas border. I'll share what I learn as both of these counterterrorism prosecutions develop.