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Monday, April 22, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: America’s Covert Border War and Special Interest Aliens

The following is a chapter from America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration by Todd Bensman about Special Interest Aliens (SIAs), defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “a non-U.S. person who, based on an analysis of travel patterns, potentially poses a national security risk to the United States or its interests.” Bensman is a contributor to HSToday and previously discussed his book on an HSToday webinar.


Cat and Mouse: The Kingpins

Despite the heroic efforts of our law enforcement colleagues, criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders. While there is not yet any indication that the criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking are interested in supporting the efforts of terrorist groups, these networks could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives…toward our borders, potentially undetected and almost completely unrestricted. In addition to thousands of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, foreign nationals from countries like Somalia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Pakistan are using the region’s human smuggling networks to enter the United States. While many are merely seeking economic opportunity or fleeing war, a small subset could potentially be seeking to do us harm. —Gen. John F. Kelly, U.S. Marine Corps Commander, U.S. Southern Command testifying before Congress, 2015[1]

On March 10, 2011, HSI investigators at the Miami International Airport closed the books on the final chapter of a long, high-wire war-on-terror investigation. Their longtime quarry, 37-year-old Iran Ul-Haq, a Pakistani legal resident of Ecuador they’d been tracking across the globe for months, stepped off the plane from Quito. No drama; Ecuadoran officers handed him off to HSI agents, who slapped cuffs on and took him to jail in Washington D.C. to face terrorism charges. A secret, high-wire intercontinental undercover sting, an outcome of a covert American counterterrorism strategy in Latin America about which the U.S. public knows next to nothing, was finally over. The path that led Ul-Haq to cuffs at the Miami airport and into a D.C. jail was a serpentine one. Born into a family of two brothers and five sisters, his father was a leather salesman who could barely support them all in Pakistan. Ul-Haq worked hard to get an education as a youth. He graduated from high school, managed to earn an undergraduate degree, and then even an advanced graduate degree. He worked at various entrepreneurial endeavors in Dubai, Cyprus, Turkey, Venezuela and finally Ecuador, where he picked up a third language, Spanish (besides Urdu and Arabic) and also discovered that these skills almost perfectly suited the true calling he discovered in South America: human smuggling.[2]

For years, Ul-Haq used his language skills and dual passports to occupy the apex of a profitable international human smuggling network that had transported scores of his fellow Pakistanis into Quito, Ecuador and then northward through Latin America all the way to the US southern border.[3] He charged them between $30,000 and $60,000 a head. With the proceeds, he could afford two wives and two sets of children, one in Pakistan and one in Ecuador, in line with accepted Islamic practices. The far-flung investigation run by ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) out of the US attaché office in Quito had proven complicated, lengthy, and expensive but nothing new to them; HSI had been hunting and arresting smugglers of special interest aliens like Ul-Haq since about 2002. But what they did in this case was unique; the agents decided to test a theory about SIA smugglers. Was Ul-Haq willing to smuggle avowed terrorists into the US?

To test the proposition, three undercover informants posing as smuggling brokers proposed to Ul-Haq that he transport several fictitious members of the notorious terrorist group Terik-e-Taliban, known as the Pakistan Taliban, across the US-Mexico border. They explained that Pakistan had “blacklisted” the terrorists. The first one was willing to pay $35,000. Ul-Haq didn’t bat an eye.

He responded that he could care less about what the terrorists would do once in the US – hard labor, sweep floors, wash dishes in a hotel…

“Or, blow up. That will be up to them.”

Ul-Haq took the cash. He then arranged for the first reputed terrorist to secure a bogus Ecuadorian passport, ensuring that it bore someone else’s fingerprints, lest the terrorist’s real ones flag in a database along the way. He then planned the trip from Lahore, Pakistan to Dubai, UAE, then onto Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti for the final leg to the U.S.

In January 2012, Ul-Haq was sentenced to 50 months in prison on a charge that was rare for an alien smuggler: material support for terrorism. In an FBI press release largely ignored by American media, senior homeland security officials, one after the other, emphasized the national security stakes of this case but also hinted at an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between an American proxy army in Latin America and other smugglers like Ul Haq.[4]

“Mr. Haq conspired with others to smuggle into the United States an individual who was believed to be a member of a foreign terrorist organization,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Brewer. “Such conduct presents a serious threat to our national security, and we will continue to work closely with our domestic and international law enforcement partners to prevent human smugglers from operating at home or abroad, and to punish them for their crimes.”

The Kingpins of Ultra-Distance Smuggling

The prey at the heart of America’s counterterrorism “away game” referenced by Mr. Brewer is an exotic smuggler like no other smuggler. They are what I would call “kingpins” of multi-continental realms where they routinely orchestrate complicated needs-fulfillment that result in the delivery of human beings to the U.S. border with political asylum claim stories that insure they get in and stay in.

Unfortunately, for them, their unique attributes mean they are never easily replaceable. And that makes them a prime HSI target. Knocking out one of these smugglers is akin to blowing the bridge in conventional army-on-army warfare since, at least for a time, advances over the water are ended.

SIA smugglers like Ul Haq are that bridge, metaphorically speaking. They neutralize the key difference between SIA travel to Europe and to the United States: The Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the boats and overland transportation necessary for Europe-bound SIAs, U.S. border-bound migrants have to fly across an ocean to get within hemispheric striking distance of the United States. Making it over this hump, the obstruction de jour, is a first order of business. Travelers of limited personal horizons who may never have ventured far from homelands, as well as jihadists who would want to slip the radars of governments along the way, need the SIA smugglers and their copyright-able knowledge.

In this kind of extreme-distance smuggling business, handshake bargains are struck for journeys on other continents for false identity documents to board transatlantic flights, to pay bribes at Mexican consulate offices in Beirut, to illegally buy real visas in Middle Eastern casabas and in Kenyan refugee camps, and to pay Brazilian airport inspection officers to look the other way for a moment. SIA smugglers coordinate a high complexity of components over greater distances to navigate a constantly shifting labyrinth, made riskier by the entrance of American hunters. The unique skillsets of SIA kingpin smugglers make them far less replaceable than conventional smugglers of drugs and contraband – and therefore more prized to the American HSI investigators hunting them with vetted local proxy units.

SIA smugglers get their clients out of international airport customs in the Eastern Hemisphere and through customs in the Western Hemisphere. But that high-price achievement is only the first marketable commodity. The real journeying then occurs, seen and unseen, in the unpoliced jungles of Colombia and Panama, in speedboats off the Pacific coast of Guatemala, through the ungoverned borderlands of developing African nations by foot or horseback, and in the bus depots of Bolivia and Peru. The smugglers and their clients are wily prey, the territories through which they move often ungoverned places where corruption, incompetence, and indifference are the rule. To bridge such vast geographies, with their diversity of customs, border inspections, visa requirement regiments and American agents with their informants, the SIA smugglers have to be more sophisticated, innovative, and elusive than any drug-smuggling network.

Once migrants land in the Western Hemisphere, they need places to stay, transportation north, and guides to navigate not only landscapes but the different kinds of border controls of countries through which they’ll transit. These smugglers arrange it all, often with confederate subordinates and in league with indigenous Spanish-speaking groups.

My study of these human smugglers and the global networks their cash mortars together comes from what investigators learned about them, and prosecutors later allowed to be put in the court records of more than 25 cases prosecuted in the United States. For starters, SIA smuggling is not simply one-stop shopping. Like any other industry, fees and services cater up or scale down depending on clients’ ability to pay. Those wishing to reach the United States may choose services that range from all-inclusive, doorstep-to-doorstep guided journeys, to more piecemeal arrangements that cost less.

During the Syrian civil war 2011 to present (2020), a number of wealthy Syrians paid $100,000 to be transported in first class flights through passport-controlled airports, five-star hotels, luxury vans for long road trips, a two-week luxury rest vacation in Cancun, and then delivery over the California border with well-practiced asylum persecution stories. Such full service, guided, origin-to-destination journeys are arranged in advance. The kingpin smugglers usually field sales forces in origin countries to recruit and vet customers. Next, they provide travel documents, air tickets, lodging, and accompanied transportation along each stage.

It doesn’t take much for smuggler and client to find one another. During a reporting trip to Syria in 2007, which was awash in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi war refugees willing to buy new lives in Western countries, I interviewed dozens of refugees who knew the price lists and services for U.S. border trips well enough to recite them by heart.

“If you are an Iraqi and you stand by the corner of the Grand Mosque (in the Old City of Damascus) they’ll come right up to you and say, ‘When do you want to go?” said one refugee who had saved enough money for such a smuggler and was getting ready to go. “All you have to do is stand there.”

These smugglers bring to bear pre-existing collaborative relationships with a multitude of independent networks, often Spanish-speaking but not always, that work sections of the route and to whom the travelers are handed off like batons in a long team foot race. One of the first ICE takedowns, Detroit-based smuggler Neersan “Nancy” Zaia’s case, exemplifies the full-service organization type. A dual U.S.-Jordanian citizen, Zaia moved Middle Easterners into the United States for $50,000 each until her 2004 arrest.[5] Zaia’s organization controlled a travel agency in Jordan, which recruited clients with advertisements and through word-of-mouth. A subcontractor provided fraudulent passports and purchased airline tickets. Other subordinates accompanied paying customers to South Africa, handing them off to other subordinates who cared for and then accompanied the migrants to Ecuador. From there, additional conspirators took over at the airport, accompanying them on the next leg of travel. The operation proceeded this way in an unbroken, guided journey to the U.S. border, where still other conspirators would meet them and transport them to various American cities.[6]

I interviewed several Bangladeshis in ICE detention, for instance, who described how the smuggling kingpin had them don blue baseball caps when they arrived in Latin American bus stations so that new Spanish-speaking local smugglers could recognize and collect them for the next trip to another country, where they would put on a red cap for the next smuggler pickup.

Some SIA smugglers specialize in one segment of the route. The Americans don’t discriminate; they’ll arrest those too if they are moving SIAs, such as the Somali smuggler Mohamed Abdi Siyad, aka “Hassan,” who was indicted in August 2018 but staved off U.S. justice by slipping into Canada and successfully battling extradition.[7] From his base in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Siyad provided the connecting bridge by which hundreds of Somalis and other Horn of Africa migrants – extremists almost certainly among them – traveled from the African continent through Latin America and on to both the California and Texas borders. His network in Brazil was one of three interconnected cells that worked in concert to move travelers through their regions. The originating Africa network, for example, charged $2,500 to transport clients by air to Siyad in Sao Paulo, which then fed them to a third network through Central America and Mexico. Siyad would snap photos of his clients and text them down range using the WhatsApp application. Siyad usually charged $500 to hook them up to a Colombia-based smuggler who moved them through Peru, Ecuador and into Colombia via taxi, bus, horseback, boat and air.

Another example of SIA smugglers who ran a route segment were Bangladeshis Moktar Hossain and Milon Miah, both busted in 2019 in a joint HSI-Mexico counter-smuggling investigation.[8] Both Bangladeshis were affiliated with other Bangladeshis on the assembly line south in Brazil, including the one run by Mohamed Abdi Siyad just described. Miah worked out of a restaurant in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula just 30 miles from the Guatemala border. Miah would fetch Bangladeshis fresh in from Guatemala, house and feed them. Then, he would buy them airline tickets to the northern Mexican industrial city of Monterrey where his partner Hossain would greet them and arrange drivers to transport them the two or three hours north to the Rio Grande.

Similarly, a small Mexico City-based group run by Rakhi Gauchan, a dual citizen of Mexico and Nepal and career smuggler.[9] Until HSI agents arrested Gauchan in 2013, her network maintained alliances with other networks to the south that guided Pakistanis and other South Asians into Central America. From her Mexico City base, Gauchan would accept an average of 10 referred migrants a month in Guatemala and Belize and transport them to the Texas border for about $3,500 each.

Reflecting the very lowest end of the scale are those who provide the single service of providing a visa or identity document enabling a self-propelled SIA to cross the Atlantic. Sometimes, the smuggler’s primary competitive advantage is marketing a single key service, such as trading on relationships with corrupt consul offices or document-forgers and passport thieves to provide lower-budget, self-propelled clients with visas or the identity documents they need to cross the Atlantic. What they do beyond that is not of concern.

An Iraqi I met at the Texas border described hiring a smuggling organization’s bribed purchase of a Guatemala visitor’s visa for $750 in Jordan and a detailed itinerary for after he got there, but that was as much as his money could buy him. It was just enough. The visa enabled him to fly over the Atlantic into Guatemala City. He then piecemealed together an unprotected journey the rest of the way to Texas. Total cost: $4,000.  The U.S. citizen and convert to Islam Anthony Joseph Tracy, as mentioned earlier, was convicted of providing identity documents to 270 Somalis before his 2010 bust, while he was living in Kenya. These were fraudulently obtained Kenyan passports, which would enable the migrants to land in South America and in Central America countries that accepted Kenyan visitors but not so much Somalis, who usually had no passports. Tracy had a highly valuable service to trade after which these customers were left to their own devices. To get his clients the Kenyan passports, Tracy used local collaborators to create fake identity cards, bank records and citizenship documents to defraud the Kenyan passport offices, all necessary to exit the region by air and reach the Western Hemisphere.[10]

Most journeys sit somewhere in the middle of the sliding scale in partial-service variations of one or two journey stages.

An apt example involved a family of Iraqi Christians who described to me their Syria-to-Texas journey to me in 2007.[11] The Iraqi couple had taken refuge from the war in Damascus, Syria with their two young boys. They took an offer by a Jordanian man. For $10,000, the Jordanian provided authentic Guatemalan and Cuban visas likely obtained from Guatemala’s consulate office in Amman and from Cuba’s embassy in Syria. The smuggler also provided Damascus-Moscow-Cuba-Guatemala City airline tickets, and then a referral to a woman who ran a safe house in Guatemala City. That’s as much as the $10,000 bought. But through the woman who ran the safe house, they found an unaffiliated local smuggler who, for $15,000, brought the family of four the rest of the way to the Rio Grande, which they swam into Texas.

Sophisticated Internationalist Entrepreneurs

Instead of the comprehensive vetting process required by immigration law, smugglers of course do not vet the backgrounds of the people they smuggle, except to determine how much money they will pay to enter the U.S. illegally. – Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Rybicki, speaking at an April 29, 2019 press conference announcing the sentencing of an SIA smuggler. [12]


Most of these men and women are, at heart, international entrepreneurs and not motivated by Islamic extremist ideologies. As smugglers go, they are sophisticated, multi-lingual internationalists who understand the value of dual citizenships and bi-hemispheric residencies. Their maneuverability makes them slippery adversaries. The full-service SIA smuggling kingpins get ICE agents the most bang for their buck, based on the belief that the full range of capabilities simply go to jail with them and are not easily replicated, at least not as quickly as ordinary drug traffickers.

Actually, it’s unclear how long it takes for successors to replace arrested SIA smuggling kingpins or for restoration of their operations; that’s a subject worthy of future study. As mentioned previously, SIA smuggling remains fairly consistent from one year to the next despite busts and disruptions. Still, the thinking that SIA arrests can sever a bridge over the Atlantic and, with constant law enforcement pressure suppress overall volume, holds merit. Perhaps the fact that SIAs continue to arrive in steady numbers testifies more to a need to flood the zone with more investigators and resources. A U.S. immigration officer provided one entirely anecdotal clue when he testified in a Mexican court prosecution of the Tijuana-based Lebanese smuggler Salim Boughader-Musharaffille in 2003. That organization had moved hundreds of Lebanese into California for years, to include several Hezbollah-affiliated migrants. The U.S. officer said that “several months” passed before other smugglers returned to helping Lebanese enter California from Tijuana, [13] though it was unlikely in the high numbers as before Boughader-Musharaffille’s arrest. Other case records revealed that underlings do lie in wait for kingpins to be deposed, although timelines were not available to indicate delay times. For instance, the 1997 arrest of a “legendary” Ecuador-based alien smuggler named George Tajirian, responsible for smuggling hundreds of Middle Easterners into the United States during the 1990s, was followed by a competition for the helm among numerous successors. [14] The Iranian smuggler Assadi won out and ran his own highly lucrative network until his own 2002 arrest.

My research shows these men and women lead less by violence and intimidation than by centrally controlling cash flow, communications, key competitive advantages such as corrupt government officials and major logistical decisions such as when and where travel will occur.

Most of the 25 cases I have analyzed showed their greatest competitive advantages to be that they hold dual passports, maintain bi-national residencies, and are multilingual. Many also have developed singular relationships with corrupt officials and document forgers. With these specialized skills and assets, they legally maneuver through origin and transit nations at will, manage clients and underlings, and personally direct recruitment, staging, and all the needs associated with long-haul travel. A case in point was Moayad Heider Mohammad Aldairi, sentenced in 2019 to three years in prison for running the smuggling network that brought Yemenis over the Texas border,[15] including several on the U.S. terror watch list. Aldairi was a Jordanian who obtained Mexican citizenship and lived in Monterrey, Mexico. He kept residences in Mexico and in Jordan. In addition to Arabic, Aldairi spoke Russian, Spanish and English. He could speak to his clients and to other smugglers as necessary, comforting both and enabling relationships.

Another case in point is the Pakistani smuggler Sharafat Ali Khan, a classic kingpin operator who moved illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghainistan from Brazil to Texas and California until his 2016 arrest. Among his smuggled clients were several linked to terrorism, DOJ noted in one of its press releases about the 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. The 33-year-old smuggling entrepreneur had legal residency in Brasilia, Brazil, and an Ecuadoran passport. HSI investigators learned he worked full-time at the Sao Paulo, Brazil international aiprot. The dual residency, multiple passports and airport job helped Khan communicate in Urdu with other smugglers in Pakistan and to conduct multi-national operations. Khan charged his clients between $3,000 and $15,000 from the Brazil-U.S. border travel. He ran a sub-network of smugglers all through Latin America who guided his customers by bus, foot and airpoane to the U.S. border along variations of a Brazil-Venezuela-Peru-Ecuador-Colombia-Panama-Costa Rica-Nicaragua-El Salvador-Guatemala-Mexico route. The journey could take as long as nine months.

Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim, a Ghanaian citizen who co-managed a major SIA smuggling network from Mexico City, while a partner coordinated in Belize, that moved hundreds of Somali and Eritrean migrants through to the U.S. border. He was a naturalized Mexican citizen who spoke fluent Spanish and was able to travel frequently between Mexico and Africa without raising alarms. SIA kingpin smugglers used their travel and linguistic flexibilities in a range of countries to access document fraud infrastructures, corrupt officials, safe houses or hotels and associate smuggling organizations.

Prosecutors described the versatility of Eritrean smuggler Halbtom Merhay this way: “The defendant is believed to be a citizen of Great Britain, to reside in the United Arab Emirates, and to travel frequently to London, England” and therefore “has contacts with fraudulent document vendors, human smugglers, and travel agents in numerous countries.”[16]

American and British passports, given their acceptability in the widest range of nations, proved to be of particular value to Merhay and several other kingpin smugglers. For example, the Ecuador-based Syrian smuggler Nizar Kero Lorian held U.S. citizenship but maintained residences in Guatemala and Mexico, enjoying ease of legal travel throughout Latin America and the United States. Investigators noticed that the American passport of naturalized U.S. citizen Neeran Zaia, who was also a citizen of Jordan and speaks Arabic, Spanish, and English showed extensive travel to the Middle East and throughout South America. Most of the smugglers appeared to make significant use of their knowledge of other languages, particularly Spanish and English. The prolific Iranian smuggler Mohammed Hussein Assadi, who lived in Ecuador, for instance, was fluent in Arabic, Spanish and “other languages” as well.[17]

The Americans are after the full-service SIA smugglers but will take down middle-men they find along the way, providing false visas and documents, if they can.

Non-ideological but Dangerous

SIA smugglers are skilled entrepreneurs and internationalists but do not seem particularly motivated to do what they do out of devotion to violent jihad.

What I have done was motivated by money and what I have earned so far exceeds my qualification,” the Bangladeshi smuggler Moktar Hossain told a Bangladeshi HSI agent after his November 2018 arrest in Mexico and deportation to them at George H. Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. “I did  help people coming to this country; whatever I did, I did it for money.”[18]

As a motivation, sympathy for the jihad can’t be entirely ruled out, of course. Enough Somalis on the U.S. terrorist watch list for their al Shabaab involvements seem to trace to a smuggling ring in Zambia. Abdulahi Sharif, the Somali terrorist who entered California in 2011 and went on to conduct a double-vehicle ramming attack in Edmonton, Alberta was smuggled from Zambia, as was the Somali caught in Costa Rica’s El Golfito camp in 2017, among several other who traveled with him. Any reasonable observer would wonder if that network is controlled by the terrorist group for the purpose of moving its operatives. The Somali smuggler Ahmed Dhakane, who came across the Texas border in 2008 after smuggling scores of East Africans from Brazil, not only was an AIAI guerilla fighter and the group’s trusted banker but also later admitted that he smuggled men whom he knew were ready to die for the jihad inside the United States the moment they were asked.

What seems far more certain, however, is that a single-minded thirst for profit among SIA smugglers makes them a danger to U.S. national security, whatever their personal affiliations or ideological predilections. As discussed above, Ul Haq seemed more interested in his $35,000 fees to move Pakistani Taliban terrorists than whether any of them might decide to blow something up in the United States.

In the court prosecution files, federal prosecutors most often wrote of the motivation in boilerplate language, as in the case of Jordanian smuggler Maher Jarad, that he did it “for the purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain, knowing and in reckless disregard of the fact that said aliens had not received prior official authorization to enter.”[19] In the prosecution of the Iranian smuggler Muhammad Hussein Assadi, prosecutors wrote that, “evidence at trial clearly showed that Assadi was driven in his illicit business purely by monetary gain and exercised no discretion at all with respect to the character or potential motives of those whom he helped smuggle into the U.S.”[20]

Even the smugglers were aware that their pursuit of wealth endangered U.S. security. One of the earliest U.S. SIA smuggling prosecutions after 9/11 showed that Iranian-American smuggler Mehrzad Arbane actually did something about it, albeit out of naked self-interest. Arbane, who for years prior to 9/11 moved Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Jordanians into the United States, switched entirely to cocaine smuggling after the attacks because, as he told an associate, he feared he “may have smuggled two of the hijackers who flew the planes into the towers in New York on September 11, 2001.”[21] That turned out not to be the case, court records show, but Arbane’s associate was so alarmed that he became a U.S. government informant and helped investigators in 2002 arrest Arbane for his new cocaine smuggling enterprise and also the earlier SIA smuggling.

Gachan, the Mexico City-based Nepalese smuggler who charged clients up to $40,000, told an undercover HSI agent in 2013 that she believed a Pakistani client she smuggled into Arizona from Mexico was a terrorist, but she transported him anyway for the $3,500.[22] This information prompted yet another belated FBI hunt for the migrant. Later, American investigators confirmed the Pakistani was real. They found him. He was from the embattled region of Kashmir and had been granted asylum. Agents interviewed him, but the court records did not indicate if Gauchan’s instinct was correct.

SIA smuggling kingpins are considered a U.S. national security danger for another reason too; because of language and cultural affinities, their clients tend to come from their home countries, where violent jihadist groups proliferate.

In the examined court cases, smugglers choose their fellow citizens and co-religionists for recruitment, likely due to shared language and culture but also because they are positioned to understand local demand back home and exploit community ties to recruit business. Such ethnic affinity was in evidence in almost all of the 25 cases I studied. SIA smugglers transported compatriot clients from their own home tribes, countries, or geographical regions. Their multilingualism served the business well. They only opportunistically strayed from this business model. The Guatemala-based Egyptian smuggler Ashraf Ahmad Abdallah, regarded in 2004 as one of ICE’s most wanted smuggling kingpins, for instance, recruited clients from the area around his home community of Bata in the Egyptian province of Qaubiya; he transported at least 100 of them through Guatemala and Mexico over several years.[23]

The Indian smuggler Kaushik Jayantibhai Thakkar mostly transported fellow Indians.[24] Sammy Lovelace Boateng and Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim were natives of Ghana operating a smuggling network from Mexico City and Belize City that moved hundreds of Africans to the U.S. border during the mid-2000s until their 2008 arrests.[25] In one case, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Jordan to Detroit used her ties with immigrant communities in Michigan to recruit clients in Jordan.

The rule is not without exceptions, though, since smugglers were regarded as primarily profit motivated. The Associated Press once quoted Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Ingersoll, who has prosecuted numerous SIA smuggling cases for the U.S. District of Columbia,  as saying that “people from places in the Middle East will hear about who to go through, and they tend to be people from their same country, but once you get into the system we saw associations that really were driven by, ‘What’s the most effective way for me to move my product?’”[26]

Another key difference between SIA kingpin smugglers and drug traffickers is that they do not generally behave as violent organized crime bosses. In one instance, the Ecuadoran-based smuggler Nizar Lorian told an undercover agent, who asked what would become of a migrant if his family did not deliver $24,000 in overdue fees, that “There’s no fucking around with me, on me” and to tell the smuggled migrants that if they try to leave “I tell them you are going to be our barbecue tonight if anything!” In none of the court cases did information suggest that Lorian follow through with any physical coercion.

There was one case that almost surely caught the attention of investigating ICE agents; The smuggler Nancy Zaia discovered her plotting to murder the ICE agents who investigated her.

There is some information to suggest that an established kingpin smuggler based in Brazil threatened the Somali underling smuggler Ahmed Dhakane, who as we’ve seen was an AIAI operative who decided to quit his smuggling business in Brazil and come over the U.S. border himself. Dhakane’s boss threatened him after learning that he had been transporting clients and taking their fees without the boss’s knowledge, always a no-no.

For the most part, SIA smuggling kingpins relied on finesse; personal relationships, and negotiations to get business done.

But the SIAs keep coming despite HSI agents and their proxies in Latin America busting them. In addition to having deployed too small an army in too vast an area, another plausible explanation is that the smugglers know how to evade in worlds that are more hospitable to them than to their American hunters.

Antennae for Change and Evasion

Evidence presented during prosecutions indicated that SIA smugglers figuratively deployed antennae sensitive to any information about environmental change in threat and opportunity pictures. After 9/11, several of the major SIA smuggling networks knew the Americans would come for them wherever in the world they lived and worked. They were correct in that, of course. But the smugglers also very quickly learned that agents along the physical land border had begun systematically working their former customers for intelligence about them too.

The smugglers adapted to the new environment. This is a typical development in all interplay between cops and robbers. But if the cops are always a step or two behind the robbers, this classic elasticity is likely exaggerated in the Latin America battlefields, given how vast, ungoverned and unpredictable are the geopolitical circumstances. The telltale indicator that something is not right: fairly steady SIA apprehensions at the border despite the American counterterrorism program that aims to dismantle these long-haul smuggling organizations.

The organizations morphed and anticipated after 9/11 and continue to do so, ensuring American vulnerability if nothing changes on the cop side. For instance, one smuggler more pointedly had his clients dress and look like Europeans to avoid U.S. law enforcement profiling they presumed would follow the attacks; women were told to dye their black hair blonde, the men to shave their beards, and for both genders to discard any personal artifacts that might make them “appear Arab.”[27] As mentioned above, one SIA kingpin got out of the business altogether, wrongly suspecting he had transported two of the 9/11 hijackers.

Most put a wet finger to the wind and pivoted as needed to keep going.

When one of his East African clients expressed concern that a new American border fence would foil his crossing, the Mexico-based Ghana smuggler Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim showed he had already shifted gears. Ibrahim replied to the worried migrant by email in 2007, after the U.S. Congress approved funding for border wall construction: “There is a lot of rumor here, but there is still a way to enter. Don’t worry about that. The wall will start building next year. It is still OK from now to February next year.”[28]

In May 2005, a change in Ecuadorian government caused corrupt airport officials to charge substantially more to let Syrian smuggler Lorian’s clients exit the country by air. So Lorian ordered an associate to establish a new smuggling route from Lima, Peru and to quickly transfer a large group of clients to it. Lima was chosen not only to avoid excessive payoffs in the post-9/11 Ecuador, but because it was the only Peruvian city with direct flights to U.S. cities, comporting with Lorian’s business model at that time of flying clients directly into those cities.

SIA smugglers learned American agents were interrogating their clients at the border and would become potential informants and witnesses against them. So most of the smugglers coached, exhorted, or financially threatened clients to bite their tongues once they were apprehended at U.S. destinations or in transit. Smugglers started using aliases to cloak nationalities they believed would draw attention to them after 9/11. The Egyptian smuggler Ashraf Abdallah told clients to wire money to him in the name of “Juan Manuel.”[29] The Eritrean smuggler Samuel Abrahaly Fessahazion tried to obscure his African origin by alternatively using the names “Sammy,” “Alex,” and “Alex Williams.” Mehrzad Arbane went by the name “El Turco,” “Achi Saba,” or just “Tony.”

Some of the smugglers admonished or threatened their clients into silence once the Americans were interviewing them. The smuggler Rakhi Gauchan, who used the alias “Niki,” told her clients “not to provide detail to U.S. immigration officials about being smuggled to the United States or otherwise cooperate in human smuggling investigations. Gauchan also has said she believes she could be prosecuted and imprisoned for human smuggling if arrested by the United States.”[30] Other smugglers demanded that, for the final U.S. crossing, clients eliminate phone numbers from cell phones, throw away notes, and destroy any fraudulent travel documents to eliminate clues. The Ghanan smuggler Boateng emailed a subordinate on September 4, 2006 stating, saying in part, “They should not carry any phone number from USA or Belize and Mexico. They are only vacation here…No mention of my name.”[31]

Some also sought to forcefully leverage the silence of clients caught en route. The smuggler Jarad, who used a wide variety of aliases, instructed one migrant, who later testified against him at trial, that if he or other members were apprehended in Guatemala or Mexico, “they should not provide his name to the authorities as being involved in smuggling them, warning that if they did they would lose their money, and Jarad would not attempt to smuggle them to the United States.”[32] The smuggler Assadi told clients that they should destroy all of their fraudulent passports and documents and “surrender to U.S. immigration without disclosing either their true place of origin or Assadi’s role.”[33]

The smugglers started using operational security methods to better hide their communications and money transfers too. Most used Western Union offices throughout Latin America and the United States to receive and send money, but also sometimes commercial mail services like DHL and Federal Express. Some ordered wire transfers in small amounts, believing they would not attract the attention of regulators and investigators. The Syrian smuggler Lorian, worried about law enforcement detection, told his underlings in late 2001 not to deposit more than $9,000 at a time “because after $9,000 there is always an investigation and so…deposit eight, or seven, five, or eight.”[34]

Kingpin smugglers used false names or subordinates to send and receive money, again to mask nationalities they believed would raise national security flags. The smuggler Lorian once sent a $2,000 Western Union wire to a KWIK Check Mart in Houston, Texas under the name “David Philippe Paul Gouman,” in hopes that such a name might not attract law enforcement attention.[35] Sometimes, smugglers used real names, if the sums to be transferred were small. The Eritrean smuggler Fessahazion had one of his subordinates instruct “Alien T.W. to have $400 wired to Guatemala in the name of Samuel Abrahaley.”

That Which Worked

Understanding what law enforcement methods worked and to what extent is necessary to inform future resource needs and for what tactics.

Perhaps the most prevalent and important source of criminal information about SIA smuggling came from the people who were smuggled, underlining a key value in the detention center threat assessment interviews. Despite exhortations by their smugglers that their clients not inform on them, they consistently did just that during the detention center interviews that began after 9/11 and which me and my Texas DPS team often conducted. But staffing was often insufficient to ensure every SIA was interviewed, which suggests a flaw in the system, given that SIA testimony often figured prominently in SIA smuggler prosecutions.

For example, during the 2016-2017 HSI investigation of Pakistani kingpin smuggler Sharafat Khan, who as already mentioned wittingly or not smuggled at least several migrants linked to terrorism over the Texas border, well over 100 of his Afgan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh customers dimed him out, including some of his subordinates.[36]  One customer, for instance, spilled the beans at the Pharr, Texas border port of entry. He described how Khan flew him from Pakistan to Sao Paulo and rested up in Khan’s house in Brasilia and how Khan would tell him via WhatsApp where to go, whom to contact and when to give more money to Khan confederates along the way. Khan also told the witness to delete all of the WhatsApp conversations and to not mention his name if caught at the U.S. border.[37]

The investigation and 2014 prosecution of Habtom Merhay relied on 14 cooperating witnesses, all of whom Merhay smuggled. Their bits of independent testimony helped investigators piece together Merhay’s operation. In an Assadi case government-sentencing memorandum, prosecutors credited Assadi’s former clients for candidly describing the smuggler’s role in their transportation, adding, “but for these cooperating witnesses, who represent but a fraction of the aliens smuggled by Assadi, the government would have been unable to bring Assadi to justice.”[38] In addition to testimony at court, some of the smuggled have been used as active participants in investigations against their smugglers. In 2009, for instance, “ALIEN P” agreed to let law enforcement agents in Houston consensually monitor and record a conversation with a major co-conspirator in the Gerard smuggling network, enabling investigators in Florida to arrest the suspect two days later.[39]

SIA interviews did not only take place on U.S. soil, as I have shown. Mexico City-stationed U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents, accompanied by Mexican counterparts, usually conducted these interviews. Also, an agreement at the time allowed Mexican intelligence officers from the National Security Investigation Center to conduct as many interviews as they could when the Americans were unavailable, providing fingerprints and names that could be checked against terror watch lists and fingerprint databases.

The Informants

The court case files suggest that many investigations began as a result of tips from law enforcement informants, sometimes in foreign countries, but also that informants were key to investigative and prosecutorial success. For example, a confidential informant working with ICE’s Attaché office in Mexico City provided some of the earliest information that Gauchan’s principal occupation was smuggling people into the United States. It was a confidential informant who, concerned that the smuggler Arbane was worried that he had smuggled in two of the 9/11 hijackers, went to law enforcement authorities and became involved in ensuing investigation. Also, when the U.S.-based Iranian smuggler Zeavadale Malhamdary, who once inside the United States himself smuggled as many as 60 Iranians in behind him, went to Mexico to shop for a smuggler, he was introduced to a confidential informant for the United States named “Gabriel,” who broke open the investigation.[40]

Sometimes, one of the greatest sources of tips and leads were rival SIA smugglers who had been arrested and were willing to inform on their rivals. A number of them cooperated with investigators in exchange for lesser sentences or other benefits. Smugglers were inclined to turn on one another once in custody, as in the case of against the Ghanan smuggler Boateng. In a memorandum arguing for a lesser sentence, Boateng’s defense attorney argued, “He has provided the government with as much information as he possessed and held nothing back, including his own use of false travel documents. Likely, his willingness to testify played a role in the decision of his co-defendant (clearly a more culpable participant) to plead guilty.”[41] During the 2002 District of Columbia prosecution of the Ecuador-based Iranian smuggler Assadi, prosecutors had the smuggler Ecuador-based Jordanain smuggler Maher Jarad testify against his former associate.[42]

As discussed previously, the Ecuador-based Pakistani smuggler Irfan Ul-Haq was arrested and convicted on terrorism charges after ICE deployed three local Ecuadorian undercover informants to help him smuggle a blacklisted terrorist from Pakistan to the United States. This was one of about a dozen cases since 9/11 in which U.S. law enforcement inserted sworn undercover agents or paid confidential informants into SIA smuggling operations. The method collected evidence that may not have otherwise been available, given the natural camouflage and mobility smugglers enjoy in distant jurisdictions. Once undercover agents were accepted into a network, however, they were able to discover highly granular operational details. They often recorded phone calls, stored email and other communications, videotaped direct observations, identified otherwise hidden co-conspirators, and developed new leads. Undercover agent operations have also enabled search warrants for smuggler cell phones, email, computers, homes, and businesses.

One case in point involved a long-term, deep undercover insertion of ICE undercover agents into the organization of Ecuador-based Nizar Kero Lorian, which was responsible for moving hundreds of Middle Easterners to the U.S. border. Over time, the agents collected audio and videotaped documentation that revealed the organization’s inner workings, to include manner and means of smuggling, hierarchy, identification of other individuals who worked for Lorian, money transfer habits, and fees.[43] Through a recorded telephone conversation with an undercover operative, U.S. investigators learned that the Arizona-based Iranian smuggler Malhamdary was selling Mexican visas for $12,000 each to fly Iranians into Mexico for transport over the Arizona border.[44] American agents were able to manipulate smugglers to travel to U.S. territory so they could be arrested and prosecuted. The was also the case with an undercover agent inserted into the Nepalese smuggler Gauchan’s organization, running a Mexico City-based arm of a larger network. Posing as a prospective business partner, the El Paso, Texas-based agent in 2012 lured Gauchan to enter the United States for a business meeting; she was arrested instead, avoiding a time-consuming extradition process.

In two separate important terrorism infiltration cases already described in these pages, paid FBI undercover informants of Somali descent were inserted into Texas detention facilities, where they collected intelligence about Somali SIAs that led to the terrorism-related immigration fraud prosecution of Ahmad Dhakane, Omar Fidse, and his wife, Deka Abdalla Sheikh. It was a lucky strike because it turned out they were hard-bitten terrorists.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.


[1] John F. Kelly, Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee (Washington, DC: United States Southern Command, 2015), http://www.southcom.mil/
[2] United States of America versus Irfan Ul Haq, Criminal case 1:11-cr-00056-JDB, Motion for Downward Departure and Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing, Document 86, filed 1/3/12
[3] United States of America v Irfan Ul Haq, Criminal case No. 11-00056 (JDB), Document 48, Factual Proffer in Support of Guilty Plea, United States District Court for the District of Colombia, September 12, 2011
[4]Pakistani Citizen Sentenced to 50 Months in Prison for Conspiracy to Provide Material Support to the Pakistani Taliban,” U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, FBI Miami Division, January 5, 2012
[5] United States v. Neeran Zaia et. al., 35 F.3D 567 6th Cir. Ct. (D.D.C. 1994), Indictment
[6] Ibid; Neeran Zaia case
[7] US versus Mohamed Abdi Siyad, Case 3:18-mj-04365-JLB, Document 1, Criminal Complaint, August, 8, 2018, U.S. District Court Southern District of California
[8] United Staves v. Moktar Hossain and Milon Miah, Case 5:18-cr-00912, Indictment, Document 62, July 30, 2019, United States District Court, Southern District of Texas Laredo Division
[9] United States v. Gauchan, Criminal Complaint, Document 3
[10] United States v. Anthony Joseph Tracy, 4th Cir. Ct. (E.D.Va., 2011), Document 132
[11] Todd Bensman, “Out of Iraq: An Illegal Flight of the Chaldean Christians to America,” San Antonio Express-News, May 2007, 1.
[12] Todd Bensman, “Why the Case of Jordanian-Mexican Smuggler Who Transported Yemenis over the Texas Border is Important,” Center for Immigration Studies, May 1, 2019
[13] Pauline Arrillaga and Olga Rodriguez, “Investigation: Smuggler Pipelines Channel Illegal Immigrants into the U.S.” The Associated Press, July 3, 2005
[14] United States v. Assadi, Case 1:2002-cr-00030 DCDCE Government Motion for upward Departure
[15]Jordanian National Sentenced for Conspiracy to Bring Aliens into the United States,” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs press release,” October 29, 2019
[16] United States v. Merhay, Government Motion for an Order to Seal, Document 2.
[17] United States v. Muhammad Hussein Assadi, 223 F.Sup.2d (2008), Government Trial Memorandum.
[18] United Staves v. Moktar Hossain and Milon Miah, Case 5:18-cr-00912, Government’s Response to Defendant’s Motion to Suppress, Document 42, May 18, 2019, United States District Court, Southern District of Texas Laredo Division
[19] United States v. Maher Jarad, U.S. Dist. Ct. (D.D.C., 2007), Indictment
[20] United States v. Assadi, Government Trial Memorandum
[21] United States v. Mehrzad Arbane, 11th Cir. Ct. (S.D. Fla., 2003), Case complaint; Scott Wheeler, “Drug Smuggler Claims He May Have Snuck 9/11 Hijackers into the U.S.,” CSN News, May 24, 2004, http://www.crosswalk.com/1264391/.
[22] United States v. Rakhi Gauchan, 5th Cir. Ct. (W.D. Tex., 2014), Criminal Complaint, Document 3; Indictment; Government Motion for Upward Departure, Document 27
[23] United States v. Ashraf Ahmed Abdallah, U.S. Dist. Ct. (D.D.C., 2001), Indictment
[24] United States v. Kaushik Jayantibhai Thakkar, 5th Cir. Ct. (S.D. Tex., 2012), Plea Agreement
[25] United States v. Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim and Sampson Lovelace Boateng, U.S. Dist. Ct. (D.D.C., 2007), Factual Proffer, Document 18.
[26] Ibid; Arrillaga and Rodriguez, “Investigation.”
[27] United States v. Assadi, Indictment
[28] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Ghanaian Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy and Alien Smuggling Charges,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, April 22, 2008, http://www.ice.gov/news/
[29] United States v. Abdallah, Indictment
[30] United States v. Gauchan, Indictment.
[31] United States v. Boateng, Factual Resume
[32] United States v. Jarad, Indictment
[33] “Iranian Convicted of Running Profitable Alien Smuggilng Operation in South America,” Department of Justice, October 3, 2002, 3
[34] Unitd States v. Lorian et al., Criminal Complaint
[35] John F. Kelly, Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee (Washington, DC: United States Southern Command, 2015), http://www.southcom.mil/
[36] United States vs Sharafat Ali Khan, Case 1:16-cr-00096-RBW, Transcript of Hearing before Honorable Reggie B. Walton, July 26, 2017, page 15, September 1, 2017
[37]Foreign National Extradited and Pleads Guilty to Human Smuggling Conspiracy,” Department of Justice Press Release, April 12, 2017; “Foreign National Sentenced to 31 Months in Prison for Leadership Role in Human Smuggling Conspiracy,” Department of Justice Press Release, October 17, 2017; United States v Sharafat Al Khan, Case 1:16-cr-00096-RbW, Criminal Complaint, Document 1, June, 3, 2016, United Stated District Court for the District of Columbia; United States v Sharafat Al Khan, Case 1:16-cr-00096-RbW, Government’s Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing, Document 38, June 30, 2017
[38] United States v Mohammed Hussein Assadi, Government’s Trial Memorandum
[39] United States v. Dhanraj Samuel, 5th Cir. Ct. (S.D. Tex., 2009), Criminal Complaint Affidavit.
[40] United States v. Zeayadale Malhamdary, 9th Cir. Ct. (D. Ariz., 2005), Second Superseding Indictment, Document 42. United States v. Malhamdary, Case Sentencing Memorandum
[41]United States v. Boateng, Defendant’s Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing
[42] Ibid.; “Iranian Convicted of Running Profitable Alien Smuggling Operation in South America,” Department of Justice, October 3, 2002.
[43] United States v. Lorian, Criminal Complaint
[44] United States v. Zeayadale Malhamdary, 9th Cir. Ct. (D. Ariz., 2005), Second Superseding Indictment, Document 42.
author avatar
Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.
Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.

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