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  • Article: Threats to Our Nation's Borders by Nolan Rappaport

    Threats to Our Nation's Borders

    By Nolan Rappaport

    Hearing Before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, A Line in the Sand: Assessing Dangerous Threats to Our Nation’s Borders (November 16, 2012)."[i]

    Opening Statement from Chairman Michael T. McCaul (R-TX).[ii] In 2006, this Subcommittee began an investigation on the growing problem of crime and violence along the Southwest border of the United States. The culmination of this effort was the issuance of the Subcommittee interim report titled: A Line in the Sand: Confronting Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border.[iii] It describes growing concern that terrorist organizations will exploit burgeoning relationships with Latin American drug traffickers to infiltrate the Southwest border undetected. For instance, Iran is attempting to lay the foundation for military and covert operations within the United States by partnering with Mexican drug cartels. No better example illustrates this danger than the Iranian Qud Force’s [iv] attempt to work with the Los Zetas Cartel to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States on American soil.

    Comments. According to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador was directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Iranian Quds Force. It failed because the Quds Force was dealing with an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).[v]

    The Quds Force is a special operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is Iran’s most powerful military, economic, social and political institution. The Quds Force has carried out activities in other countries, such as the training and arming of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq.[vi]

    The Los Zetas organization was established in the late 1990s as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel drug trafficking organization to protect and expand the Gulf Cartel’s operations. Consisting of highly trained soldiers who defected from the Mexican Special Air Mobile Force Group, the Zetas have evolved from a wing of the Gulf Cartel into their own drug trafficking organization.[vii]

    Iran’s strategic migration and its relationships in Latin America are a clear and present danger to American national security. Should tensions mount over Iran’s nuclear program, these relationships possibly could result in strategic platforms for Iran to unleash terror operations on the U.S. homeland.

    Threats at our southern border also persist from the increasing sophistication of drug cartels. From elaborate underground tunnels costing more than $1 million to construct to mini-submarines used to circumvent our maritime security, these cartels will stop at nothing to ensure their products enter our homeland.

    The U.S. Border Patrol also faces the challenge of identifying and apprehending special interest aliens; these are aliens from countries designated by intelligence agencies as potential threats to our security. From fiscal years 2006 to 2011, Border Patrol officers apprehended nearly 2,000 special interest aliens.

    With the Calderon government’s tough stand against organized crime in Mexico, we also have witnessed the increasingly ruthless violence that the cartels employ to strike fear into those attempting to stop them. For example, in May 2012, twenty-three residents of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, were brazenly executed; nine of the bodies were hung from a bridge at a busy intersection only a 10-minute drive from Texas. Moreover, some of this violence has spilled onto American soil.

    Comments. The Director for Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr., has made an interesting prediction. According to Lovelace, given the ever-increasing brutality of the cartels, we should expect a new wave of migrants coming from Mexico as narco-refugees. Such large-scale violence in other countries has led people to seek safety by crossing an international border. This is beginning to happen with Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States.[viii] And the Immigration Court is granting such asylum applications.[ix]

    Despite these growing threats, efforts to secure the southern border have been mixed. Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST teams)[x]have combined federal, state, and local resources and had a significant, positive impact since their creation in 2005, such as seizing more than 13,500 weapons and investigations resulting in more than 4,500 convictions. Texas Department of Public Safety initiatives also have had an effect on reducing border crime, apprehending illegal drugs, and fostering improved law enforcement relationships resulting in improved information sharing.

    Notwithstanding these successes, our efforts to secure the border have experienced challenges. The most high profile of which, the Secure Border Initiative[xi]Network or SBI-Net, failed to meet expectations and resulted in little return on its $1 billion dollar investment. The Administration abandoned the goal of securing the Southern border to instead focus first on the Arizona border, but we might be years away from effectively securing Arizona and no definite timeframe exists for securing the rest of the southern border. DHS reported in late 2011 that it could respond to illegal activity along only 44% of the Southwest border, leaving 7,500 border miles inadequately protected.

    Comments. Arizona encompasses 24% of the entire 1,969-mile shared border with Mexico and houses six ports of entry. The Arizona/Mexico border provides many smuggling opportunities for the Mexican drug cartels. It is a primary transshipment zone for methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana destined for United States markets.[xii]

    Statement of Ambassador Roger Noriega (Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute).[xiii]I head a project to examine and expose the dangerous alliance between the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chávez and Iran. To date, we have conducted dozens of interviews with experts from throughout the world and with eyewitnesses on the ground in the region regarding Hezbollah’s offensive in the Americas.

    Comments. Hezbollah is a Shiite military, political and social organization in Lebanon with strong ties to Iran and Syria. It has transformed itself from a shadowy militant group known primarily for terror attacks to the country’s pre-eminent political and military force. The United States regards Hezbollah as a terrorist group financed by Iran, which has supplied as much as $200 million a year, and by Syria. But as Iran’s economy buckles under sanctions related to its nuclear program, and Syria wages war on a domestic opposition, that aid has diminished. The result has been a deeper reliance on criminal enterprises, especially the South American cocaine trade.[xiv]

    While much attention has been paid to the bloody confrontation between authorities in Mexico and several Central American countries with the transnational narcotrafficking organizations, there is virtually no recognition of the simple fact that, for the last six to seven years, much of the cocaine from South America makes its way northward with the material support of the government of Venezuela. Also, although some have taken note of anecdotal evidence about the troubling links between narcotraffickers and Hezbollah, most observers have failed to follow that evidence to Iranian-backed Hezbollah elements that operate throughout Latin America, right up to our Southwest border, from a safe haven in Venezuela.

    In recent years, Mexico has arrested numerous individuals associated with Hezbollah engaging in criminal activities – including smuggling of persons across the U.S. Southwest border. For example, in September, a Lebanese-born U.S. citizen, was convicted in 2010 for a credit card scheme that raised $100,000 for Hezbollah.

    Hezbollah cells and representatives of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel operate in key cocaine transit corridors in Venezuela. The world’s most powerful cocaine smuggler and head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Archivaldo El Chapo Guzmán conducted his business from Venezuela for much of 2010, living in a suburb of Caracas and on Margarita Island until early last year under the protection of Venezuelan security officials working for Chávez.

    Comments. The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most dominant cartels involved in drug trafficking operations in the United States. It controls the production of large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine; it has sophisticated, well-developed transportation and distribution networks; and it has an extensive network of associates to facilitate U.S. trafficking operations.[xv]

    In the aftermath of a bizarre plot discovered in October 2011, in which Iranian agents conspired with supposed Mexican drug cartel leaders to commit a terrorist bombing in the heart of our Nation’s capital, Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, revealed that Iranian officials at the highest levels are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States. Iranian officials have made no secret of the regime’s intention to carry its asymmetrical struggle to the streets of the United States.

    The Hezbollah/Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland.

    Comment. I am afraid that it constitutes a threat to comprehensive immigration reform too, and to our civil liberties. Consider the extent of our reaction to 9/11. What would you expect the reaction to be if Hezbollah entered the United States surreptitiously across the Southwest border and launched a devastating attack on a major American city?

    Statement of Frank Cilluffo (Director Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University).[xvi] In addition to an evolution of the traditional challenges to border security, we are seeing a convergence of the forces of crime and terror. This is particularly threatening to the United States. The pipelines and pathways used to smuggle drugs into this country also can be used to smuggle in people (including terrorists) and weapons. Put another way, smuggling is smuggling is smuggling. Terrorists can tap the distribution networks and routes that drug trafficking organizations have established. After all, the distribution routes are the same regardless of what is being moved illicitly.

    Comment. This is the point at which concern about criminal activity intersects with illegal entries by immigrants who come to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families. If the immigrants can enter illegally, so can the criminals.

    The threat picture grows yet more complex and vivid when we contemplate further which terrorist organizations are now heavily involved in the drug trade. The former head of operations for the DEA testified earlier this year that both Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah are now heavily involved in the global drug trade. Their participation in that effort presents them with myriad opportunities with which to build their terrorist and criminal capacity in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere. The Commander of U.S. Southern Command, General Douglas M. Fraser, has observed convergence based on convenience between terrorist and criminal organizations in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

    Matthew Levitt has observed that Hezbollah derives major funding from these activities and facilitates drug trafficking for other smuggling networks, including those of the Colombian terrorist group FARC. Hezbollah has leveraged its criminal ties to support operational objectives, including trading drugs for intelligence from Arab-Israeli criminals and moving weapons or explosives through drug smuggling networks.

    Comments. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, more commonly known by its acronym FARC, is a Marxist-Leninist-inspired peasant army claiming to represent the rural poor in a struggle against Colombia’s rich and powerful. It is a guerrilla organization that is financed primarily by kidnappings and drug trafficking. The United States government has designated it a terrorist organization.[xvii]

    Moreover, both the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Intelligence have underscored concern about Iran and their proxies, suggesting respectively in recent testimony that Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism and is now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States.

    Concern about Iran and its proxies is all the more disturbing given Iran’s ongoing drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability, and the recent statement of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to the effect that there will be no distinction drawn between Israel and the United States in terms of retaliation. If Israel targets Iran, America bears responsibility.

    Hezbollah’s nexus with criminal activity is greater than that of any other terrorist group. In the United States, there were 16 arrests of Hezbollah activists in 2010 based on Joint Terrorism Task Force investigations in Philadelphia, New York and Detroit. And Hezbollah has attempted to obtain military equipment in the United States, including Stinger missiles, M-4 rifles and night vision devices.

    Kidnapping is nothing new to terrorists. They have been taking hostages since day one to gain media attention and ransom money. Now, however, more and more terrorists take hostages for money, not for publicity. Kidnapping has become big business.

    Statement of Mr. Douglas Farah (Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center).[xviii] The case of Ayman Joumaa, the Lebanese national and Hezbollah supporter, provides clear evidence of new types of overlap among criminal and terrorist groups. Joumaa has been able to work on behalf of Latin America transnational organized crime groups, including Los Zetas and Hezbollah, dealing in both cocaine and weapons. These alliances of convenience among highly trained groups with complementary skill sets, with the new levels of state protection being offered, present a much more dangerous and volatile panorama.

    The willingness of multiple criminalized and corrupt states in the region to issue legitimate passports (including diplomatic passports) to officials and agents of a state sponsor of terrorism such as Iran makes securing the U.S. border ever more complex.

    Comment. This is one of the reasons why I doubt that an increase in the enforcement of our immigration laws would assist significantly in the war against terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers entered the country with legitimate nonimmigrant visas and now foreign governments are issuing passports to criminals to assist them in entering the United States. In the absence of intelligence information identifying such aliens as terrorists, there is virtually no way to learn who they really are or why they are coming to the United States.

    The almost unlimited pool of violent, well-armed and increasingly well-trained gang members who operate daily from our border is truly bi-directional and bi-national. Not only do they cross the border regularly, but they also maintain structures in hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada, which gives them broad reach to carry out harmful activities on behalf of whomever will meet their prices.

    Statement of Mr. Marc Rosenblum, Ph.D. (Specialist in Immigration Policy,
    Congressional Research Service).[xix] With the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and the interception of the millennium bomber in 1999, counterterrorism became an important focus of U.S. border security during the 1990s and the top concern after September 11, 2001. But it is not the only focus.

    While most unauthorized migrants enter the country between ports of entry or by overstaying nonimmigrant visas, many illicit drugs are smuggled into the United States at ports of entry, hidden within cargo containers, private vehicles, or in other non-commercial vehicles. As a result, the enforcement tools targeting unauthorized migration—personnel and infrastructure between ports of entry, worksite enforcement, Secure Communities—likely do little to reduce narcotics smuggling, and vice versa.

    Comment. This is the proverbial elephant in the room. We cannot secure our border just by sealing the areas between ports of entry. We have to prevent illegal entry and smuggling at the ports of entry too.

    Border threats may be divided into actors and goods. The main types of threat actors are terrorists, transnational criminals, and unauthorized migrants, although certain actors may fall into more than one category. In addition, some people may threaten U.S. interests without falling into any of these categories, including for example a legal migrant who (knowingly or unknowingly) carries a virus that threatens U.S. public health.

    With respect to the likelihood of terrorist threats at the Southwest border, the State Department reports no known operational cells of Hezbollah or Al Qaeda in the Western Hemisphere; and CRS is not aware of any publically available evidence of ties between Mexican organized crime groups and homegrown terrorists.

    Comments. I would expect such information to be classified.

    Terrorists may see crossing the Southwest border between ports of entry as a high-risk strategy, because 30-50% of unauthorized Mexican border crossers are apprehended at least once while attempting to enter the United States. Thus, some analysts consider other modes of entry to be at greater risk of terrorist incursion. This intuition is backed up by data on apprehensions of unauthorized aliens from special interest countries: 2.3% of aliens apprehended at the Northern border in Fiscal Years 2006 to 2011 were from special interest countries, compared to 0.05% of aliens apprehended at the Southwest border.

    A terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) may be particularly unlikely because of the technical and practical challenges to obtaining WMD materials and in designing a delivery system. Yet the potential consequences of a successful WMD attack on U.S. soil are sufficiently catastrophic that lawmakers may take such a threat very seriously. One estimate suggests that a 10-kiloton nuclear detonation at the Port of Long Beach, CA would kill 60,000 people in its immediate aftermath and cost more than $1 trillion dollars. The release of a lethal biological agent in an unprotected population could cause an untold number of deaths and economic costs exceeding $1 trillion dollars. Even without a WMD, the 9/11 attack claimed 2,753 lives in New York City alone, and has been estimated to have caused $55 billion in destroyed and damaged property. The broader economic impacts likely ranged between $40 billion and $122 billion.

    In sum, DHS’ border security mission is broader than any single type of border threat. Policies to combat terrorism, criminal networks, unauthorized migration, and other illegal flows likewise are broader than border security per se, as they include enforcement within the United States and abroad. Understanding the differences among these threats, their relative risks, and how policies may be designed to respond to them is a logical starting point for a conversation about how to allocate scarce enforcement resources.

    [i] Subcommittee Hearing: A Line in the Sand: Assessing Dangerous Threats to Our Nation’s Borders

    [ii] Statement of Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX)

    [iii] A Line in the Sand

    [iv] Iran’s Quds Force

    [v] Iranians Accused of a Plot to Kill Saudis’ U.S. Envoy

    [vi] Quds Force

    [vii] Los Zetas

    [viii] Mexico’s Narco-Refugees

    [ix] Asylum based on fear of gang violence.

    [x] Border Enforcement Security Task Forces

    [xi] Secure Border Initiative

    [xii] Arizona border with Mexico

    [xiii] Statement of Ambassador Roger Noriega

    [xiv] Hezbollah

    [xv] Sinaloa Cartel

    [xvi] Statement of Frank Cilluffo

    [xvii] FARC

    [xviii] Statement of Mr. Douglas Farah

    [xix] Marc Rosenblum, Ph.D.

    About The Author

    Nolan Rappaport was an immigration counsel on the House Judiciary Committee. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals. He also has been a policy advisor for the DHS Office of Information Sharing and Collaboration under a contract with TKC Communications, and he has spent time in private practice as an immigration lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson. He is retired now, but he welcomes part time and temporary work. He can be reached at nolanrappaport@aol.com


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