(Treasury Department)

PERSPECTIVE: Striking at Smugglers of Migrants Who Potentially Pose National Security Risk

As a mass-migration wave overwhelms the southern border, the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of the Treasury have brought hammers down on a Pakistan-based human smuggling organization that continues to illegally ferry to the southern border foreign nationals “who pose a threat to national security.”

The recent government moves against the Abid Ali Khan human smuggling network represent the latest salvo in an ongoing homeland security effort to combat jihadist border infiltration (the subject of my book America’s Covert Border War). The actions against Khan also came just days after U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced two separate California apprehensions of Yemeni migrants who were already on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, one of whom also was on the No Fly List, and underscore terrorism threats exacerbated by the ongoing mass-migration crisis.

An April 7 federal indictment alleges that, since at least 2015, Abid Ali Khan has operated his network from Nowshera, Pakistan, which is known as a troubled center of violent Islamic militancy.

The Khan network allegedly still smuggles mainly Afghan and Pakistani immigrants (which homeland security categorizes as “special interest aliens,” or SIAs) to Brazil by air, then overland through Central America for $20,000 per head.

Neither Khan nor the key subordinates in his smuggling network apparently are arrested. So in a rare secondary move to “help stop Khan and his network from allegedly continuing to smuggle persons to the United States,” the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Khan and three others in his network, one Afghan and two Pakistanis, as a Transnational Criminal Organization. The designation allows the U.S. to disrupt the Khan network’s finances. Because OFAC designations are rarely, if ever, used against SIA smuggling networks, the move indicates the danger with which U.S. homeland security views Khan’s operation at this stage of the border crisis.

The involved U.S. agencies did not say where Khan or his alleged co-conspirators are today. But the U.S. actions reportedly prompted Pakistan to find and question Khan in Pakistan., where he has insisted he is not involved in smuggling. He told local media that someone based in Mexico had appropriated his name, and that he planned to march down to the local U.S. embassy with a lawyer and demand answers for why he is accused.

A National Security Threat at the U.S. Southern Border During Border Crisis

Rarely does the U.S. homeland security establishment publicly acknowledge when suspected terrorists are smuggled over the border, although America’s Covert Border War provides extensive detail about many who have.

In a surprise departure from that tradition, however, on April 5 U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a detailed press release acknowledging the separate January and March apprehensions of two Yemenis who were already on the FBI’s terrorism watch list when they were caught near Calexico, California. CBP removed the document the next day after many on social media began citing it as evidence of a national security threat inherent in the current border crisis. CBP told me it had not gone through proper “review” but did not disavow its accuracy. (An intelligence community source with direct knowledge of the cases told me the release was accurate.)

Announcements of ICE Homeland Security Investigation’s probe and indictment of the Khan organization came only a day later, going largely unreported by U.S. media. In them, federal officials characterized the Khan smuggling organization as a live, continuing national security threat to the United States at the southern border. Treasury Department officials did not respond to my emailed inquiry by publication time.

But Miami HSI Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury did note in one of the releases that the Khan network transported “people with nefarious motivations” into the United States. Salisbury reiterated that his Miami team was committed to prosecuting individuals like Khan who “pose a threat to national security.”

Likewise, Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas L. McQuaid of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division noted in the same statement that the government moves sought to prosecute Khan and smugglers like him “who seek to profit from … jeopardizing our national security.”

Asylum Fraud and Threats to U.S. National Security Vetting Processes

Part and parcel to how many “people with nefarious motivations” Khan smuggled over the southern border is the question as to how they are able to obtain legal permission to remain once crossed. That typically happens when special interest aliens apply for U.S. asylum.

As I detail extensively in chapters One and Four of America’s Covert Border War, SIA smugglers and Islamic terrorists who illegally entered European Union nations then abused an asylum system that was structurally incapable of detecting their deceits, especially during the 2014-2018 mass-migration crisis that beset Europe. As many as 150 Islamic terrorists who illegally entered the EU over its external common land and marine borders went on to conduct terror attacks throughout Europe or were caught plotting them.

SIA smugglers and Islamic terrorists also have exploited the highly similar U.S. asylum system’s inability to verify even the identities and stories of strangers who show up with no identification or bogus passports. Like the one in Europe, the U.S. asylum process tend to bestow benefit-of-doubt on asylum claimants and is not built to detect fraud or terrorism associations.

SIA smugglers often provide their clients with fake persecution stories carefully designed to get them through the initial screening processes and inside the United States with legal status that can last for many years, I report in the book.

In line with these findings, the government alleges that the Khan organization relied on counterfeit identity documents and altered stolen passports to claim asylum. These methods, it appropriately noted, “significantly impair appropriate immigration vetting processes,” and “undermines the credibility of the U.S. asylum system, damaging public confidence in the vetting process.”

Elevated Dangers During a Mass Migration Crisis

Hundreds of Pakistanis have crossed the southern border in recent years, and they are among the top 10 SIA nationalities who do so. CBP encounter statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reflecting both those who cross at established ports of entry and between them, show that 1,653 Pakistanis were encountered between 2008 and 2019. Some 175 were caught at the southern border in 2019 crossing through the brush.

Federal intelligence and law enforcement officers typically try to interview all Pakistani border-crossers, check pocket litter and dump cell phones and run information through national security databases looking for evidence of terrorism associations or criminality.

But the process is imperfect and still vulnerable to deceit even in the best of times. These are not.

At issue now is that the vetting process in place for SIAs is at risk of becoming sidetracked and swamped to incapacitation during the mass migration crisis now underway. The process of learning who illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan really are, a challenge even in ideal times, enters a red zone when detention centers are overrun, Border Patrol agents are distracted by processing children, and asylum officers hopelessly backlogged with the largely ineligible asylum claims of economic migrants from Central America.

As Europe’s catastrophe shows, those same factors can combine to become a perfect terrible storm here in the United States. These government moves against SIA smugglers like Khan hedge against that growing probability.

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.

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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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