Immigrants who pose a potential threat to American national security are increasingly trying to enter the United States through “illicit pathways” in Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Mexico, according to a new report by the House Homeland Security Committee.
Cuba is mentioned once in the report, which cites the 2011 case in which a suspected terrorist associate claimed that he and his wife reached the U.S. via Russia, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Guatemala and Mexico.
Below are excerpts from the report, entitled, “Stopping Terrorist Travel Through Illicit Pathways to the Homeland.”
Since September 11th, 2001, America’s national security officials have focused on preventing another catastrophic attack on our homeland by defeating the terrorist threat. This has made it harder for nefarious actors of all different backgrounds to enter the United States. As a result, those who wish to bring harm to America have to explore non-traditional ways of entering our country.
Today, those known as Special Interest Aliens (SIAs) are discovering new and creative routes to cross our border. One such way is through the exploitation of illicit pathways throughout the Western Hemisphere. Offering solutions to close these routes and shut off entry ways into America for SIAs must be a priority moving forward, since some of these migrants have been affiliated with foreign terror groups and organized crime.
While ISIS has lost at least 90 percent of the physical territory it previously captured, the terrorist group has not been fully defeated and remains committed to inspiring attacks against the United States and the West. The protracted civil war in Syria, the impending removal of U.S. troops in Syria, and ongoing instability in Iraq continue to provide the conditions for ISIS and other terror groups to persist and thrive online.
Additionally, the spillover effects from the near elimination of the physical caliphate have changed the nature of the threat. This includes a foreign fighter diaspora—consisting of individuals who have either returned home, often undetected by law enforcement, or who have gone to or are in search of the next jihadi theatre (e.g. Africa)—which poses a heightened threat around the globe and to the Homeland.
Russia had the largest number of citizens travel to Syria and Iraq to become foreign fighters, with an estimated 3,417, including 400 who have returned, followed by Saudi Arabia with roughly 3,244, of which 760 have returned, then Jordan with approximately 3,000, of which 250 have returned, Tunisia followed with 2,926, of which 800 have returned, France with 1,910, of which 271 have returned, and lastly, the United States had more than 250 foreign fighters attempt to join ISIS, with less than 129 foreign fighters actually joining the fight, of which 7 have returned.
ISIS will continue to use propaganda and multi-platform communication channels in its “virtual caliphate” to recruit fighters to follow former senior ISIS leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani’s message to kill Western disbelievers “in any manner or way, however it may be” across the globe.
Recently, the terror threat has spread from the greater Middle East to the West, particularly in Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of State (DOS), our Latin American neighbors have problems dealing with “porous borders, limited law enforcement capabilities, and established smuggling routes.” Furthermore, “these vulnerabilities offered opportunities to local and international terrorist groups and posed challenges to governments in the region.”
In fact, one terrorist organization that is growing at an alarming rate in Latin America is Hezbollah. Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department, Hezbollah has been operating in Latin America since the early 1990s when it worked with Iran to carry out the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. Hezbollah continues to operate in the region, which is an issue that garnered the attention of this Committee in a 2012 report entitled, A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border.
The Lebanon-based FTO is especially active in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, which is also home to significant Shia Islam and Lebanese diaspora communities. Analysts argue that “Hezbollah in Latin America continues to focus on raising significant sums of money through illicit business and smuggling in the TBA and other free trade zones in the region” with a focus on money laundering and narcotics trafficking to build financial support for its worldwide activities. Recently in July 2018, Argentina’s Financial Intelligence Unit froze the assets of 14 Lebanese nationals and residents of the TBA, who were affiliated with Hezbollah and the Barakat clan, for money laundering. The investigation was conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and follows the arrest of two Lebanese nationals in Paraguay suspected of ties to Hezbollah in May and June 2018. These cases demonstrate that the actions and intentions of major terrorist organizations often extend far beyond their areas of origin and can occur much closer to home.
What is a Special Interest Alien?
Generally, a Special Interest Alien (SIA) is a non-U.S. citizen from a country outside the Western Hemisphere who, based on country of origin and travel pattern, poses a potential national security risk to the United States. Multiple federal agencies use varying definitions of the term, because there is not an agreed-upon or uniform definition across the U.S. government for the term “Special Interest Alien.” Also, the term is yet to be defined in federal statute. As former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly explained, “We face very real threats from so-called Special Interest Aliens that move at great expense from vast distances outside the hemisphere along the network into the United States. The ‘special interest’ is that they are from parts of the world where terrorism is prevalent, or nations that are hostile to the United States.” While this is not an official definition, it gives a good understanding of what the term is meant to encompass. Furthermore, in response to questions for the record on the official definition of an SIA, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) Richard Glenn stated, “The lack of specific definition for ‘Special Interest Aliens’ is not a significant obstacle” to the State Department’s work on SIAs.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims that no single definition exists for an SIA because each department uses the term differently for their respective purposes. According to Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Director for International Operations Raymond Villanueva:
There is no single U.S. government definition for Special Interest Alien (SIA); each Department defines and uses the term slightly differently for their operational activity. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established the following to define SIA: Definition: Non-U.S. Persons who, based on analysis of travel patterns, potentially pose a national security risk to the United States or its interests. Criteria: The individuals or groups are employing travel patterns known or evaluated to possibly have a nexus to terrorism, and the travel patterns include a point of origin or segment that is tied to current assessments of national and international threat environments.
While the Committee understands this position, DHS should at least maintain a general working definition of the term and a list of the countries that are considered “of special interest,” consistently updating the latter. The general definition given above, combined with former Secretary Kelly’s words, is a good starting point. The inclusion of a country on the list will need to be based on the terrorist threat emanating from that country and the level of security cooperation the United States has with that country. Therefore, the country list will most likely need to be classified and maintained by both DHS, DOS, and other partners.
Current Threat Landscape
As recent events have shown, terrorist groups will stop at nothing to pursue attacks wherever they see an opening. As recently as December 11, 2018, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told U.S. partners in Latin America that, “Transnational terrorism poses an immediate threat to us here in the Western Hemisphere. Although the perceived center of gravity seems far away, groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, Lebanese Hizballah operate wherever they can find recruits, raise support, operate unchecked, and pursue their terrorist agendas.”
The movement of SIAs into the Western Hemisphere is neither a new phenomenon nor a new focus for DHS and the interagency. In March 2016, DHS Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Alan Bersin, testified before Congress that:
DHS apprehensions of special interest aliens, or extra-hemispheric migrants, have increased in recent years. This population consists of unauthorized migrants who arrive in the United States from, or are citizens of, several Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries. While many citizens of these countries migrate for economic reasons or because they are fleeing persecution in their home countries, this group may include migrants who are affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations, intelligence agencies, and organized criminal syndicates.
DHS and the interagency rightly continue to prioritize the SIA threat as one of the top threats to the Homeland. This is due to the consistently large number of individuals from “special interest” countries that travel to the Western Hemisphere using illicit pathways. Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) facilitate illicit travel in the region along established drug and migrant smuggling routes. On a recent Committee staff delegation trip to Latin America, Panamanian officials communicated to Committee staff that tens of thousands of SIAs have entered Panama since 2014. Colombian officials communicated similar numbers to Committee staff, stating that hundreds of SIAs have entered Colombia each year for the past few years. In both countries, nearly all the SIA migrants were headed to the United States and originated from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa—including Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Eritrea, and many others. Additionally, encounters with these special interest individuals resulted in the seizure of tens of thousands of fraudulent documents—including passports and visas—that facilitated travel from their countries of origin through the Americas.
Latin America and the Caribbean are the major initial entry points to the Western Hemisphere for SIAs. Many countries in the region continue to face economic and governance challenges, as well as consistently high levels of violent crime. Additionally, many of the countries in the Americas have lenient visa and immigration policies in place, even for individuals from “special interest” countries. Lastly, the frequency of international flights from “special interest” regions around the world into Latin America and the Caribbean continues to increase. These regional issues create an attractive environment for illicit travel of SIAs and other nefarious actors into the Western Hemisphere with the end goal of reaching the United States.
While there are multiple points of arrival into the Western Hemisphere, Brazil is the top destination for SIAs entering the region. This is due to the ease of international travel into São Paulo, as well as the relaxed visa, immigration, and asylum policies of the country. From Brazil, SIAs continue their travel north through South America, passing through multiple countries that often overlook their movement for various reasons, sometimes with the help of TCOs and smugglers. There are a variety of routes that can be used to reach Central America given the size and diverse geography of South America. Due to the natural chokepoint of the Darien Gap from South America into Central America, Colombia and Panama are critical partners. Their strategic location ensures that nearly all SIAs seeking to enter Central America from South America will have to transit one of these two countries. Thus, the United States has rightly prioritized ensuring that Colombia and Panama are among our strongest law enforcement allies in the Western Hemisphere, along with our southern neighbor, Mexico.
The 31-page report is dated January 2019. The Cuba-related case it mentions involves Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2011 for “two counts of making false statements under penalty of perjury to federal authorities concerning his association with terrorist organizations after pleading guilty to lying on his asylum application,” the report said.
Dhakane was a “member of al-Barakat and Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI), both designated by the Department of Treasury as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) with links to al-Qaeda.”
He “also ran a large-scale human smuggling enterprise in Brazil and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.” See press release about his 2010 indictment.
Federal records show he was released from prison on Nov. 19, 2018.