The First Border-Crosser to Attack in North America: Finally, an Update

Answers to lingering questions come in a new 3,500-word report on the 2017 Edmonton, Alberta, vehicle attack

By Todd Bensman on October 3, 2018

A terror attack by a border-crossing migrant in North America was unheard of. So when Somali national Abdulahi Hasan Sharif in September 2017 conducted vehicle-ramming attacks while carrying an ISIS flag in Canada's Edmonton, Alberta, it should have been treated as a lesson-learning precedent about terrorist border infiltration not unlike the border-crossing migrants attacking in Europe the past several years. Sharif originally made his way to Canada after first crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. That this North America precedent disappeared into the ether before it could be exploited was one reason I posed seven outstanding questions that ought to be answered first. The smuggling methods, missed detection opportunities, and inter-agency collaboration, to my thinking, could surely help our own leaders shore up a southern land border the U.S. State Department has deemed "vulnerable to terrorist transit".

Now we know more about the Sharif case, thanks to Edmonton Journal/Edmonton Sun reporter Jonny Wakefield, who stepped up to ask hard questions. Wakefield's 3,500-word anniversary story on September 28 was titled "Everything we know about the man charged in Edmonton's truck attack from the woman who knows him best". We don't see this kind of news reporting effort about terrorism cases very often, and Wakefield's comprehensive effort, which involved interviews with Sharif, his lawyer, girlfriend, ICE, FBI, local police and many others, is both impressive and commendable.

Wakefield's findings considerably raise the question as to how current immigration enforcement systems in both Canada and the U.S. aid the free movement of future unvetted  "special interest alien" migrants from countries of terrorism concern coming over the border.

Much was left unasked and therefore unanswered about how Sharif first achieved his intercontinental journey from Africa and cleared vetting systems at both borders several years prior to his reported radicalization, and what was in his heart, when.

The quick bottom line: There is new information here about how Sharif was able to journey to the Mexico-California border and then, once across and legally present on a probable asylum petition that ended with a deportation order, still managed a successful northward crossing of the U.S.-Canada border without apparently raising any flags. Significant information gaps about all of that and other issues remain, of course. For instance, Sharif's claimed personal history in Somalia, provided under the watch of his defense lawyers, is somewhat suspect since he's awaiting trial. We also are denied any clue as to when in his life Sharif might have embraced an ideology that would have him carry out vehicle-ramming attacks with an ISIS flag — just before his journey to the American border, or much later? When and where radicalization happened is important because it would inform at what junctures border security agencies might deter, detect, or properly vet others coming from countries of concern like Somalia. On these issues, Wakefield wrote, in reference to an interview with Sharif's girlfriend:

Samantha Labahn, Sharif's lawyer, advised the woman against speaking about some details of the case — specifically the flag and a previous RCMP investigation into alleged "extremist" views earlier espoused by Sharif.

To be fair, the 31-year-old Sharif is in custody awaiting a criminal trial in Edmonton on five charges of attempted murder, so Wakefield was running against legal wind as he landed or attempted interviews with just about everyone involved. These produced an unverified and presumably self-serving story for prospective jurors and judges — but a first on-public-record story nonetheless — that Sharif had fled his homeland after the terrorist group al-Shabaab twice kidnapped and abused him. As explained, almost no testimony provided by Somalis Sharif's age can be confirmed because checkable records do not exist in Somalia.

Sharif's defenders also continued to suggest that psychological problems made Sharif do what he did in Edmonton even though, as Wakefield points out, lengthy court proceedings on those claims ended with doctors and judges finding him fit to stand trial, scheduled for October 2019.

Following are some other summarized highlights from Wakefield's various interviews:

Sharif's Travel Path Now Mostly Explained

Sharif left Somalia in about 2008, first to Kenya where his mother still lives and where large refugee camps were set up at the time. From Kenya, Sharif made his way to Tanzania, then Zambia, Namibia, and, finally Angola. There he apparently found a smuggler and with an unspecified amount of family money, joined "a group that was traveling to Brazil".

Wakefield correctly points out that Brazil is a common starting point for African migrants in the Americas because "it's easier to get visas there." Sharif stayed on in Brazil for a while, finding work with a company that processes chickens before moving on.

Sharif's travel route from Brazil to Mexico is hazy, but court records-based research about how Somali migrants have traveled to the American southern border show that Zambia and Angola are on established smuggling routes from East Africa, to include Somalia and Kenya. From the capital of Luanda, Angola, Somali migrants then find it easy to use bogus identity documents to gain Brazilian visas (sometimes using smugglers who buy them from corrupt consular officials elsewhere in Africa) and to board flights to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From Brazil, many U.S. border-bound migrants then find their way to Colombia and then through Central America to Mexico.

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Because distances are so great, usually only professional smugglers can provide the visas, travel documents, airfare, physical needs, and navigation necessary to cover the ground. And so it's highly likely that Sharif hired just such a smuggler in Kenya or Ethiopia and paid for one of these guided journeys. Court cases I have studied from smuggling prosecutions show that smugglers of migrants from Somalia often fish for clients in the Kenyan refugee camps or certain Nairobi neighborhoods populated by Somalis. They arrange for disembarkation to Zambia and Angola, where smugglers or their subordinates arrange for overcoming the biggest hurdle: flying west over the Atlantic. Flying the Atlantic is a hurdle because any international airport requires visas and identification documents, not to mention airfare and someone to fetch them at very alien destinations. If Sharif landed in Brazil, as reported, he almost assuredly used a smuggling organization.

Once in Brazil, smugglers of Somalis house them in private residences or hotels while they and local subordinate smugglers prepare the legs of the northward journey to come. Wakefield reported that Sharif stayed for a while in Brazil working, no doubt to earn money to pay fees to continue on a northward journey. These legs involve travel along well-established routes to Colombia and then Panama, and on through Central America to Mexico, by bus or taxi, boat, and foot.

What we know is that on July 12, 2011, Sharif arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry across from Tijuana, Mexico. He had no documents and no legal status to enter the United States, so he was detained for three days. Wakefield cites ICE in saying Sharif was found to have "no criminal history". (Of course he would not since Somalia had no police force that would have made an arrest and no government that could have recorded criminal history even if there were arrests.)

Court records from four U.S. prosecutions, as well as from other sources, show that exploiting weaknesses in the American asylum processes was embroidered into smuggling operations. They took pains to coach their clients in fraudulent stories of persecution most likely to dupe overburdened American asylum officers once migrants like Sharif reach the border. This buys a legal foothold and time inside the country while securing their huge sunken smuggling fees because deportation means the money you paid was for naught. But Sharif had the time he needed, even if his asylum claim was rejected. With the time and opportunity that even rejection would have afforded Sharif, he would have the time and freedom to go to Canada and seek refugee status there instead.

Exploiting Canada and U.S. Systems

For reasons that Wakefield was unable to clarify — not for lack of trying — a U.S. immigration judge ordered Sharif deported to Somalia. This couldn't be done because no government or processes had developed enough to accept him. One of my seven questions was why Sharif was ordered deported to Somalia after what almost certainly was an asylum claim. Wakefield actually used the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to get a one-page redacted summary of Judge Carmene "Zsa Zsa" Depaolo's order. But it didn't say why Sharif was ordered deported.

It's still not entirely clear to what extent U.S. and Canadian authorities communicated with one another about Sharif as he decided to leave while under a U.S. deportation order and to mount a fresh refugee claim with Canada.

As Wakefield correctly points out, no government in Somalia was available to accept Sharif's deportation, so he was released into the United States on an order of supervision in late 2011. He was supposed to report to ICE in San Diego on January 24, 2012, but never showed up.

Reportedly, ICE in San Diego "could not locate" Sharif after he missed an appointment. That would no doubt be because, by the time he was supposed to be reporting to ICE, Sharif was in Canada already. Maybe he had gotten excellent legal advice in San Diego on how to game both systems. On January 9, 2012, Sharif crossed at the Fort Erie, Ontario, port of entry, Wakefield learned. To arrange that trick as soon as ICE San Diego released him, Sharif had traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., "to try his luck in Canada" with a refugee claim.

It's unclear if he had permission to go so far from San Diego. But if he had permission to be in Buffalo, it likely would not have been granted had ICE or DHS known what he was going to be up to there, though it wouldn't have been hard to guess. Whether he was in New York with the knowledge of U.S. government agencies in San Diego is not known. But while in Buffalo, Sharif found plenty of help with his Canada quest. A refugee support group helped place Sharif in Vive La Casa, a shelter for people awaiting refugee claim appointments with Canadian immigration officers.

A "Safe Third Country Agreement" between the United States and Canada would have disqualified Shariff for refugee status on grounds that he had already tried his luck in the United States and was under a deportation order and supervised release. But the agreement has an exemption for those with family members. A media report says Sharif had a brother in Toronto, so if that is true - it's been described elsewhere as heresay - then in all likelihood, Sharif may have cited that. Or he lied to get through. Still it's unclear if Canada ever checked with U.S. counterparts to make sure there was no derogatory information behind his U.S. deportation or from anywhere else. Sharif spelled his name differently on his Canadian documents than he did on his U.S. documents.

Sometime later in 2012, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board granted Sharif refugee status, a Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson told Wakefield. Such status is given on claims that applicants are unable to return to home countries because of a "well-founded fear of persecution". Canadian adjudicators evidently did not consider that Sharif could have found sanctuary in several of the countries he passed through over the years, including Kenya, Brazil, Namibia, and even Mexico. Canadian immigration leaders said immigration found no information about Sharif that would have raised red flags. Again, that's a sure finding every time with Somalis because no records exist on Somalis in their home country.


Knowing more about Sharif's travel tactics and ideology could help American homeland security authorities learn how to prevent the entry of others who routinely show up at the border from Somalia and other countries where Islamist terrorist organizations and their supporters live. The Sharif case also continues to stand as a reminder that American policy-makers should consider measures to reduce illegal immigration from such countries and significantly improve vetting at the land borders rather than only at refugee camps in foreign countries and consulate offices.