Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A U.S. lawmaker says elements of the war on terror are now spilling across the nation’s southwestern border, and that colleagues he’s spoken to who have seen the problem first-hand, as he has, say they felt safer “during trips to Iraq than they would have in a pickup truck on our southern border.”
Rep. John A. Culberson, R-Texas, also says there has been an increase in apprehensions of so-called “special interest aliens,” or SIAs – aliens from countries where al-Qaida is known to be in operation – along the U.S.-Mexico border, and that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are aware of it.
Further, an increasing number of Texas law enforcement officials are reporting al-Qaida-related arrests and activity, and say the nation’s porous borders are making it easier for suspected terrorists to infiltrate the U.S.
In testimony Nov. 10 before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, Culberson – a member of the congressional Immigration Reform Caucus headed by Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo – told the panel, “I am particularly concerned that aliens from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Indonesia and the Sudan are entering our country illegally.”
He went on to tell members he questioned FBI Director Robert Mueller Jr. during a hearing before the House Science, State, Justice, Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee in March and asked him specifically “about SIAs entering the United States across the southern border.”
“… He testified under oath that this was in fact occurring,” Culberson said, according to his testimony transcript, a copy of which was obtained by WND. “Specifically, [Mueller] stated that ‘[t]he FBI has received reports that individuals from countries with known al-Qaida connections have attempted to enter the U.S. illegally using alien smuggling rings and assuming Hispanic appearances. An FBI investigation into these reports continues.’”
“We are concerned, Homeland Security is concerned about special interest aliens entering the United States,” he said.
Culberson went on to testify that SIAs were trying to thwart authorities by scrapping their Arabic surnames and adopting Hispanic ones, “to elude detection and blend into the flood of illegal immigrants coming across the southern border.”
Because of this and other findings, Culberson declared, “I am convinced that our porous borders present the most serious national security threat that America faces.”
During a border visit last month, the Texas Republican said he “met with a number of sheriffs from the counties along the border” who then “briefed me in detail on several cases involving terrorist activity, narco-terrorist activity, violent gangs such as MS-13 and the increased violence in their counties.”
After returning to Washington, he said he had spoken with a number of colleagues, sharing “stories and pictures.”
“I was not surprised to hear that many of them said they felt safer during trips to Iraq than they would have in a pickup truck on our southern border,” Culberson told the House panel.
In particular, “increased violence in towns such as Laredo is frightening,” he testified. “Business centers are closing down, tourism is declining, and the general population is demoralized by the level of lawlessness.”
Laredo and its sister city directly across the border in Mexico – Nuevo Laredo – have been hard hit by drug-related violence. But authorities are not sure all the killing is related to drug cartels battling for turf and influence.
“I am now convinced that you do not need to go to Baghdad to see the war on terror – you can go to Laredo,” Culberson told the panel.
In an earlier interview with the Del Rio News Herald, Culberson was pointed in his criticism of lax border security, saying, “I’m concerned that one day I’m going to wake up to the news bulletins that there have been multiple massive truck bomb explosions in our major cities, set off by al-Qaida terrorists, and that we let them walk over the southern border while they pretended to be Hispanic immigrants.”
Culberson’s warnings come on the heels of information regarding the recent arrest of a suspected al-Qaida operative in Mexico.
Tony Essalih, a spokesman for Culberson, told WND the alleged al-Qaida figure was picked up by Mexican authorities and had been held south of the border for a time before being moved to the United States.
He also said Culberson had been told of “paramilitary training camps” near Matamoras, Mexico – a city located across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas – which are allegedly being operated by special forces officers trained in Nicaragua and Guatemala and contain “terrorists and drug smugglers.”
Essalih’s claims were confirmed by Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County, Texas – the state’s third-largest county, located about 86 miles east of El Paso – who told WND the al-Qaida suspect was “residing in a community across the river and had been residing there for a while” before he was arrested.
It was not clear how authorities identified him.
West said that, according to information he was provided by Mexican authorities, it appears as though the suspect was monitoring border activity. He said communications found on him were in “code” to make it appear as though he were tracking migratory birds.
“He was part of al-Qaida,” West said, adding, “The written communication that we were able to obtain was … in the nature of code words.” He said the alleged operative was transferred from Mexico to Brewster County, which borders Hudspeth County, “in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service.”
As to the camps, West said fellow law enforcement officials said they consisted of “several different nationalities,” including Arab and “Chinese” ethnic groups.
“Basically, they are building up little communities,” West said, adding he wasn’t sure about any training but that the camps “were real secretive.”
He said it wasn’t clear if the Mexican government was tracking activity within the camps, but that nearby Mexican authorities keep him up to speed.
Word that al-Qaida operatives have been detained along the U.S.-Mexico border surfaced last week in quotes attributed to U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., by the Charlotte Observer.
“Our main concern is: Who’s in our state? This is a critical issue today. They just arrested, down on the border, a couple of weeks ago, three al-Qaida members who came across from Mexico into the United States,” she said in announcing the introduction of legislation aimed at preventing illegal aliens from getting driver’s licenses.
But this week her office retracted that statement, saying Myrick was citing old information.
“It turns out she was reading information from the previous year,” spokesman Andy Polk told WND.
“There is no threat to the border from al-Qaida that we know of, or anything like that,” Polk said. “The staff had given her some reports, a couple of news articles she had mixed up together, and when she reported that at a news conference, she thought it was current … and factual.” He did not elaborate.
Despite Myrick’s reversal, however, a veteran Texas sheriff says his biggest concern about lax border security doesn’t lie with the thousands of illegal aliens who cross into the United States every month per se, but rather the ease with which terrorists could get into the country.
Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., sheriff of Zapata County, which is east of Laredo, says despite the federal government’s creation of the Homeland Security department in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, little has changed along the border in terms of enhancing security. In comments delivered to attendees of a San Antonio conference last week, Gonzalez said the “federal government has failed its citizens’ by failing to protect its borders.”
“Illegal immigration is the least of our concerns. We’ll deal with illegal immigration,” he said. “What I worry about is the dangerously violent narcotics gangs and especially the terrorists. There are people from countries of interest to the United States which could easily come over this border. They may already be in the country. We don’t know.”
Drug-related violence in Mexico’s Nuevo Laredo has declined in recent weeks, but, according to local reports, drug gang-related deaths remain high. The city has logged more than 30 killings since early September, a level “that would be a crisis most anywhere else,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
Worse, analysts say, as Mexican authorities expend resources to combat drug-related violence, they have fewer assets available to monitor terrorists or terrorist activity.
Adm. James Loy, deputy homeland security secretary, told Congress in recent months al-Qaida operatives believe they can pay to get into the country through Mexico and that entering illegally is “more advantageous than legal entry.”
Other Texas law enforcement officials have raised the possibility that terrorists or, at a minimum, well-armed gangs are using the porous southwestern border as an infiltration point.
As WorldNetDaily reported in March 2003, Sheriff Erasmo Alarcon Jr., of Jim Hogg County, Texas, published a letter in a local newspaper to alert citizens of reports he said he has received for years from area ranchers who say they have spotted unknown paramilitary looking forces, equipped with “professional backpacks” and walking together in a military cadence.
In an interview, the county’s deputy sheriff, Guadalupe Rodriguez, told WND he believed the armed men were foreign and were not drug smugglers.
“They are not your regular traffickers that you get,” he said, adding he didn’t want anyone to “draw conclusions” or “get worked up” about the report.