Two Recent Smuggling Cases Provide a Rare Glimpse of a Terrorism Threat at the Southwest Border and What ICE Is Doing About It

By Todd Bensman on August 13, 2018

As I described in a recent Backgrounder, the U.S. homeland security establishment — under Republicans and Democrats alike — has long regarded the notion that terrorists could infiltrate through the nation's land borders and later attack as a real thing. Congress and those who do homeland security for a living have quietly worried about this enough, anyway, to justify years of treasure and effort in largely unknown and unheralded operations to reduce this immigration-related terrorism threat.

They have worked at it in tandem ways: First, by investigating and arresting the foreign-based human smugglers who run extreme long-haul transport operations that routinely bring in to the Southwest border migrants from terrorist-harboring nations of the Middle East, North and East Africa, and South Asia. These smuggling networks are a high-value target because they demonstrate a capability for Islamist terror operatives to reach the southern border, as many have in Europe. This counterterrorism mission has fallen to the men and women of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) division, as I'll soon show.

The second way is that Border Patrol and CBP inspectors on the border tag apprehended migrants in a higher risk category known as "special interest aliens" (SIAs) and put them through an enhanced national security screening regimen.

Investigating the smugglers and screening their clients are two distinct operations that work in tandem. The screening at the border improves the chances of knowing if a given SIA poses a terrorism problem and, at the same time, can produce intelligence information ICE-HSI can use to go after smugglers. ICE-HSI does these investigations in joint partnership with the Justice Department's Criminal Division under the Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force program.

None of this is very well known and only rarely attracts shallow media coverage. But every once in a while, a public glimpse of this counterterrorism struggle is made possible when ICE-HSI makes a bust, and all you have to do is look, which we'll now do, to see what the most recent two SIA smuggling busts have to offer.

Moayad Heider Mohammad Aldairi

This first one is so fresh it's still just unraveling. But what we know right now is that on August 4, 2018, ICE-HIS agents busted Moayad Heider Mohammad Aldairi, 31, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Aldairi is accused of smuggling at least six migrants from Yemen across the Texas border through Mexico, from his base in Monterrey, between July 1 and December 12, 2017. The Yemenis illegally crossed near the Texas border town of Eagle Pass.

He is a Jordanian national with dual Mexican citizenship. This is typical of SIA smugglers. Prior court prosecutions of SIA smugglers show that many of them hold dual citizenship and are multi-lingual, the combination of skillsets almost necessary to run this kind of alien smuggling business. What we know so far mainly comes from a Department of Justice press release and a criminal complaint from the U.S. District Court's Western District of Texas, where much more will be learned as the prosecution progresses (look for updates on this blog).

HSI agents interviewed all of the Yemeni migrants. According to the complaint, they told HSI they paid Aldairi "varying amounts" for the smuggling and identified him from a photo lineup.

Whether any of the Yemeni migrants had terrorism connections is left unsaid at this point. However, the State Department's most recent Country Reports on Terrorism show how reasonable it is for homeland security to worry about human smuggling from Yemen these days. An ongoing civil war in the country features al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS's Yemen branch. AQAP has held significant territory in Yemen, and in 2016 the group managed to get its hands on "unprecedented resources" by raiding the central bank and levying taxes, the State Department report says.

Analytically speaking, the six smuggled Yemenis might have fled victimhood perpetrated by these terrorist organizations and came to Texas border with an arguable need for lawful asylum. But perhaps also AQAP or the ISIS affiliate sent them and paid their smuggling fees from seized central bank money. From a purely homeland security perspective, the legitimate point of singling out migrants from countries of interest like Yemen, flagged for added national security screening, is to learn which is the case. Arresting their highly specialized, multi-lingual, dual-citizenship smugglers makes even that risk-fraught difficulty unnecessary going forward in that the ability to travel such long distances is diminished, at least for a time.

Without explaining any of this context, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department's Criminal Division still succinctly explained the significance of the bust: "Alien smuggling puts our national security at risk."

I'll share what I know as I attend Aldairi's court hearings once he is transferred to Eagle Pass, Texas, for prosecution.

Sharafat Ali Khan

ICE-HSI's second most recent counterterrorism smuggling case was against Pakistani SIA smuggler Sharafat Ali Khan.

Khan ran a global human smuggling network that transported between 25 and 99 illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan from Brazil to Texas and California. The majority were fellow Pakistanis.

Again, this prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment in 2017 provided a rare and revealing look at a smuggling pathway that homeland security authorities believe terrorists from Pakistan or Afghanistan could have used any time. A trove of court records tells some of the story.

ICE-HSI finally got cuffs on Khan in July 2016 after an international investigation, and he was sentenced in October 2017. As we know, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are home to al Qaeda, ISIS affiliates, and many other U.S.-designated terrorist groups. The court records do not indicate whether any of Khan's paying customers were extremists planning harm in the United States; such records typically would not include sensitive intelligence information like this. That doesn't mean Islamic extremists were not among Khan's up to 99 clients. Maybe none were. But it could be that federal authorities don't know; in part, because there were so many to track down and investigate. Or if ICE-HSI did know of terrorism connections, they had good reasons to not disclose such information in court records to protect other investigations or sources.

In any case, Khan was uniquely situated to provide the travel capability that any extremist from his home region could have exploited for $15,000 or less. He is a 33-year-old native of Pakistan with permanent legal residency in Brasilia, Brazil, and an Ecuadoran passport. ICE-HSI Investigators learned he worked full-time at the Sao Paulo, Brazil, international airport. He preferred that paying customers call him "Dr. Nakib". The dual residency, multiple passports, and airport job would have really helped Khan communicate in Urdu with other smugglers at home and to conduct multi-national operations. Khan charged his clients between $3,000 and $15,000 for the Brazil-U.S. border travel as part of a broader network based overseas, likely in Pakistan. He ran a network of smugglers all through Latin America, who guided his customers by bus, foot, and airplane to the U.S. border along variations of a Brazil-Venezuela-Peru-Ecuador-Colombia-Panama-Costa Rica-Nicaragua-El Salvador-Guatemala-Mexico route. The trip could take as long as nine months.

We learned that HSI agents interviewed 81 foreign nationals for this case in many different countries; among them were many of Khan's clients after they had crossed into the United States, demonstrating one pretty clear value for singling out migrants as special interest aliens for interviews. For instance, one (referred to only as "UA1") was interviewed at the Pharr, Texas, border port of entry. First, UA1 was flown from Pakistan to Sao Paulo, Brazil, after which UA1 rested up in a residence in the city of Brasilia controlled by Khan. Smuggler and client kept in touch by phone and WhatsApp at various points. From afar, Khan would tell UA1 where to go, who to contact, and when to give more money to Khan confederates along the way, like a shorter-range smuggler in Guatemala. Khan told UA1 to delete all the WhatsApp conversations and to not mention his name if caught at the U.S. border.

Of course, despite Khan's encouragement not to discuss him, some obviously told investigators everything they knew. They clearly worked the case hard and also had some breaks. They obtained the text messaging from at least one Khan client, while other sources got up close and personal with recording devices. Brazilian federal police, as part of an unrelated investigation, raided Khan's house in Brasilia. They took cell phones, a ledger documenting payments for his smuggling services, Western Union receipts, and the passports he would take from Pakistani customers. Khan fled the country in June 2016, using his Ecuadoran passport for travel. But he got caught in Doha while waiting for a connecting flight. Eventually, he was extradited to the United States and arrested. In October 2017, Khan was sentenced on a guilty plea to alien smuggling and received a 31-month sentence.

An Idea

The national policy debates surrounding immigration enforcement, to include abolishing ICE, has somehow bypassed accounting for impacts on the agency's counterterrorism work abroad. Talk about what to do with ICE should include consideration as to who else guys like Khan and Aldairi would be smuggling if the agency disappeared. Or, conversely, with much greater investment in ICE, how many other Khans and Aldairis its agents could put in jail.