Spooks on the Rio: U.S. Spy Agencies’ Little-Known Homeland Security Role

CIA, DIA, FBI, satellites, military play major parts in U.S.-based globe-spanning network

By Todd Bensman on April 4, 2021

SpyTalk.com, April 4, 2021

In 2017, an informant for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) inside Mexico reported that three suspected Pakistani al-Qaeda operatives were about to cross the border. The alarming report landed on my desk because I worked for DPS’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where I managed an analytical team that worked such threat matters alongside federal agencies inside the Austin-based Texas Fusion Center.

Within a few days, U.S. Border Patrol agents picked up three Pakistanis near Laredo and reported it to my team. Per usual with reports of a possible terrorist crossing, red flags zipped up the pole to the governor’s office, who wanted a full assessment — yesterday.

So I, a civilian employee of the State of Texas with a DHS-sponsored security clearance, hopped in a truck with an intelligence officer whose partnership with a local law enforcement worker like me, on U.S. soil, might surprise people. He was with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. military’s spying and analysis arm. I had been working closely already with the DIA officer for three years on terrorist-infiltration reports like this, and on other matters besides.

We drove together down to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Pearsall, Texas, about 50 miles south of San Antonio, where the Pakistanis were detained. Side by side, we took turns grilling two of the Pakistanis, with the aid of a Pashtun-speaking interpreter on the speaker phone, while the FBI took a first crack at the third one and then reworked our two after we finished.

The officer and I both agreed on the analytical result: Some Pakistani terrorists may have been en route to the U.S., but these guys surely weren’t them. My report: let’s keep looking.

But aside from any surprise people might feel that Pakistanis cross the border from Mexico, this small episode, one of many just like it, underscores a broader truth about a border security effort that is barely known to the American public, policy-makers and elected leaders: For more than 15 years, agencies of the U.S. intelligence community have been deeply involved in securing the southern border from terrorist infiltration.

As revealed at length in my new book, America’s Covert Border War, The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, IC agencies have long been an unheralded centerpiece of a largely unknown, global U.S. homeland security effort. And not only in out of the way places like Pearsall, Texas, where U.S. intelligence agencies work alongside state agency people like me in what I call “the near war.” IC agencies are also working with the law enforcement and intelligence services of Latin American governments in the so-called “far war” of monitoring and disrupting the smuggling routes that originate in the Middle East and South Asia and snake north through their territories to the U.S.

Mayorkas Surprise

During a televised House Homeland Security Committee hearing on March 17, newly confirmed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — probably quite unintentionally — confirmed the existence of the covert border war against jihadist border infiltration described in my book. It was an exceedingly rare and surprising disclosure that escaped notice by major news organizations.

Mayorkas revealed that a “multi-layered security apparatus” was catching suspected jihadist infiltrators, while responding to a congressman’s question about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s much-disputed report that Border Patrol in New Mexico caught four immigrants on the U.S. terror watch list – three Yemenis and a Serb.

“A known or suspected terrorist — KST is the acronym that we use — individuals who match that profile have tried to cross the border, the land border, have tried to travel by air into the United States, not only this year but last year, the year prior and so on and so forth,” Mayorkas testified. “And it is because of our multi-layered security apparatus, the architecture that we have built, since the commencement of the Department of Homeland Security, that we are in fact able to identify and apprehend them and ensure they do not remain in the United States. “And so we actually deny them entry based on our intelligence and based on our vetting procedures, which have only grown in sophistication throughout the years.”

All of that is entirely accurate, if not very specific. The multi-layered security apparatus and architecture that Mayorkas said has denied terrorist entry at the land borders is, of course, the effort at the heart of America’s covert border war. While the secretary promised to explain specifics to lawmakers in a classified briefing, my book had already described, for the first time in public, a great deal of what they would hear.

One of those revelations was the description of U.S. intelligence agencies that have taken seats in this “multi-layered apparatus” erected to detect and neutralize known or suspected terrorist travelers. Beyond the DIA presence on the U.S. side, this transnational enterprise also has drawn in, to varying degrees: the FBI; the CIA; the intelligence groups of the military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM); the United States Special Operations Command - North (SOCNORTH); the Coast Guard; and the U.S. Navy. Border control component agencies of DHS, whose jurisdictions are often thought limited to U.S. soil, work mostly abroad on the infiltration threat in dozens of Latin America nations: At the tip of that very long spear are ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office and the Customs and Border Protection Office of Intelligence and Border Patrol representatives, all stationed in U.S. embassies throughout the Americas.

So Far Away

Broadly speaking, America’s covert border war is divided into two complementary component parts. The “near war” most often involves flagging “special interest aliens” from “countries of national security concern” for questioning. The Pakistanis that the DIA officer and I interviewed in 2017 fell into that category, but there have been several others — like the Yemenis caught in New Mexico since October 2020, or the 11 Iranians caught recently after crossing the Arizona border. Each year, in fact, some 3,000 to 4,000 special interest aliens are apprehended at our southern border, often with no identification and from countries incapable or unwilling to run background checks for the U.S. Only a minority of them will ever turn out to be associated with Islamic terrorism.

Mainly, the intelligence community agencies and the governor of Texas want to know whether the detention-house security investigations of these special interest aliens reveal a terrorist connection. But even if the “near-war” security checks (which include examinations of cell phones and pocket litter) result in a finding that the travelers are probably just benevolent asylum seekers, the intelligence collected from the investigations feeds “the far war.”

The far-war effort, from Mexico to the tip of South America, mostly involves law enforcement and intelligence operations to disrupt special-interest-alien smuggling networks that bridge the Atlantic Ocean from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. As it turns out, many migrants who make it to the U.S. border have no qualms about ratting out the kingpins of the human smuggling networks, almost always multilingual, multi-citizenship entrepreneurs.

While working at Texas DPS, I and my team interviewed countless special interest aliens in custody and mainlined our reports about routes, methods, and kingpins through DIA or DHS intelligence & analysis officers, straight into IC classified databases and to those executing the far war.

The combined efforts, as both Mayorkas and I agree, began soon after the 9/11 attacks.

Back to the Future

The first hunt-and-capture operations, with such code names as “Operation Southern Focus” (2002) and “Global Thunder” (2003), extracted Iraqis and other special interest aliens from smuggling ships moving off the coast of South America to Mexican drop-off points. These early, aggressive multinational operations employed U.S. satellites, Coast Guard cutters, the U.S. Navy, and the intelligence services of several South American governments.

Those early operations rolled up large smuggling organizations involving malign actors with names like Fagr Ibrahim Mohammed Almat, Amin Omar Said Ahamad, and Ashrah Ammed Abdallah Bashar, Middle Easterners who were helping to run the smuggling operations. And then there was Feda Ahmed, a dodgy Afghan who almost succeeded in reaching the U.S. southern border after journeying on one of the well-known smuggling ships from Ecuador.

Ahmed was captured in Mexico in 2003 and deported to Afghanistan, where a U.S counter-terror team interrogated him and, based on his questionable responses, eventually had him shipped to Guantanamo. After further questioning and multiple polygraphs, he was judged “an enemy combatant ... based on information possessed by the United States that indicates the detainee is associated with al Qaeda.” The smuggler who brought him to Mexico, a Jordanian by the name of Maher Jarad, who had connections to Egyptian and Lebanese terrorist organizations, was eventually prosecuted in the United States for his activities.

Feda Ahmed, the client, and Maher Jerod, the smuggler, stand as just two of the first captives in the early days of America’s covert border war. A great many others have joined those two in the years since, as is documented in the files of America’s intelligence agencies. As I report in my book and elsewhere, some 100 migrants on terror watch lists have been apprehended on their way or at the U.S. southern border between 2012 and 2017, or about 20 per year. All undoubtedly involved U.S. intelligence activities.

Likewise with the recent Mexican government claim that between 2014 and 2019, it apprehended and deported 19 terrorism suspects from the country. Among them were terror suspect migrants from Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Further to the south, Panama’s Senafront border agency told a group of journalism students in 2020 that since 2011, the agency had logged “more than 49 alerts on people from different countries linked to terrorist groups.”

U.S. intelligence agencies would almost certainly have had some role in each of those arrests and alerts as well. It maintains close relations with friendly services. In this “multi-layered apparatus,” intelligence agency collaboration with U.S. law enforcement abroad and at the border has proven itself irreplaceable in another sense: It has prevented terror attacks on the homeland from this southern flank — so far.