DEARBORN, MI. – Three years have passed since FBI counterterrorism agents raided the house at 6050 Argyle that sheltered one of Hezbollah's top U.S. leaders.
Among the materials seized inside Mahmoud Youssef Kourani's house in this predominantly Arab immigrant neighborhood were audio-tapes beseeching listeners to "Rise for Jihad! Rise for Jihad! I offer you, Hezbollah, my blood in my hand." A photo showed one of Kourani's minor children wearing a necklace hung with a photo of Hezbollah General Secretary Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Now that the house has been bulldozed, all that remains attesting to any Hezbollah presence here is a vacant lot, as conspicuous as a missing tooth, on an otherwise densely-packed street. As though someone tried to knock out even the memory of it.
Court records say Kourani was a ranking Hezbollah insider in Lebanon who had received "specialized training in radical Shiite fundamentalism, weaponry, spy craft and counterintelligence in Lebanon and Iran. The government described one of his brothers as "Hezbollah's Chief of Military Security for Southern Lebanon."
But Kourani holds a rarely acknowledged distinction: He is one of only a handful of Middle Easterners smuggled over U.S. borders to have been convicted of terrorism charges in American courts.
His distinction as a confirmed terrorist border crosser is one that goes to the heart of a central question regarding just how much of a national security threat is posed by a small category of border-jumping migrants known in homeland security agencies as "Special Interest Aliens."
When border restriction advocates, including the Bush administration, cite special interest immigrants to justify post 9-11 border security initiatives, scoffing critics often throw down this challenge: Show me a single terrorist who has ever sneaked over the border.
There is Kourani. But there are others who are known to have sneaked over U.S. borders - from both Canada and Mexico - since Al-Qaeda began the campaign of bombing American targets in the mid-1990s that culminated in the 9-11 attacks.
NINE MORE TERRORISTS
Kourani got into Mexico during the height of this Al Qaeda campaign, in February 2001, by paying a $3,000 bribe to an official in the Mexican consulate in Beirut, court records show. Then, on Feb. 4, 2001, a now-shuttered Tijuana-based smuggling ring that had moved hundreds of other Lebanese nationals drove him over in the trunk of a car.
Kourani never set off any bombs, and there's no indication he planned violent actions on behalf of his kin in Hezbollah. But there is no doubt he was well-trained to do so, in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere. And Detroit prosecutors say no one knows for sure what he might have been capable of had he not been discovered.
Kourani is not the only convicted Hezbollah terrorist smuggled from Latin America. Three of nine Charlotte, N.C. Lebanese nationals convicted in 2005 of operating a multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling operation for Hezbollah were smuggled by air into the country from Venezuela on bogus passports, according to the FBI.
According to unearthed intelligence reports, court records, interviews with federal agents and a variety of open sources, other border jumpers that can be publicly tied to terrorism since Al-Qaeda began its international bombing campaign against American targets in the mid-1990s are:
-- Kuwaiti national Nabil al-Marabh. Listed as number 27 on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists for alleged links to the 9-11 hijackers and other plots. Canadian authorities alleged repeatedly in court documents that he was connected to Osama bin Ladin's organization. He was known to have crossed back and forth over the Canadian border several times, getting caught on more than one occasion. For instance, in June 2001, he hid in the sleep compartment of a long-haul truck over the Canadian border to Lewiston, New York, according to court records. He was caught but later convicted of illegally entering again near Niagara Falls. American authorities mistakenly deported Al-Marabh and have never been able to recapture him.
-- Palestinian Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer. Found guilty of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction after authorities uncovered his 1997 plot to bomb a New York City subway. He had been caught crossing the Washington State border illegally three times before he finally succeeded on his fourth try.
-- Ahmed Ressam. Convicted of plotting the 1999 "millennium" bomb attack on the Los Angeles International Airport after he was caught trying to cross into Washington State in a car loaded with explosives and bomb components. What is not widely known to the public is that co-conspirators plotted with him after sneaking over the border themselves.
-- Algerian Abdelghani Meskini and Abdelhakim Tizegha. Convicted of charges related to the thwarted 1999 "millennium" plot. Both described sneaking across the Quebec-Vermont border, through woodlands, in 1997. The plot unraveled when an accomplice, Ahmed Ressam, was discovered.
-- Mohmoud Khalil and Ziad Saleh. Among a group of men, including members of the designated terrorist group Hamas, arrested in January 2005 in connection to a wire fraud, trademark violations and alien smuggling investigation. Khalil and Saleh told authorities they paid $10,000 to a smuggler in Mexico to transport them into the U.S., according to a Homeland Security Operations Center daily report.
-- Ahilan Nadarajah and Saluja Thangaraja. Reputed members of the Tamil Tigers caught at the Mexico border in 2001 after being smuggled through Thailand, South Africa and Brazil en route to Toronto Canada. They were held in U.S. custody as terrorists, though without charges, for four years pending deportation to Sri Lanka. Counterterrorism experts suspect logistical and financial links between the highly organized and deadly Tamil Tigers and Islamic terrorist organizations.
A FORGOTTEN SOUTH AFRICAN CAUGHT IN TEXAS
Perhaps the most notorious instance of a terror scare near the border was the Texas arrest of a South African Muslim woman at the McAllen airport in July 2004. She was discovered trying to board a flight with wet clothes, thousands in cash and a mutilated passport. The capture of Farida Goolam Ahmed briefly made international headlines that summer. As a media story, it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared.
Top intelligence officials quickly killed the story with ardent denials that Ahmed had anything to do with terrorism. Reporters went away. Ahmed was charged with a simple illegal entry offense and quietly deported back to South Africa.
But those official denials about Ahmed's link to terrorists now turn out to have been false. There was much more to learn.
Documents in her Houston court file remain sealed to this day, and Department of Justice officials still refuse to publicly discuss it, citing the secrecy rules that go with national security investigations.
This writer, however, has learned the case of the South African Muslim woman set off a bona fide transcontinental terrorism investigation, one that may have rolled up an advanced-stage bombing plot and definitely put a stop to one smuggling avenue for Middle Easterners into the U.S.
Despite the U.S. government's official denunciations of a terror link in the summer of 2004, a Dec. 9, 2004 U.S. Border and Transportation Security intelligence summary of the case stated Ahmed was "linked to specific terrorist activities." And government officials familiar with the case now confirm that Ahmed was a smuggler based in Johannesburg who specialized in moving Middle Easterners into the U.S. along a United Arab Emirates-London-Mexico City-McAllen pipeline.
Houston-based federal prosecutor Abe Martinez, chief of the Southern District of Texas national security section in the U.S. Attorney's office, was asked if she or anyone she smuggled might have been involved in terrorism.
"Were they linked to any terrorism organizations?" Martinez said of those Ahmed smuggled. "I would have to say yes."
Martinez and a number of Texas-based FBI officials declined to elaborate. But a former FBI official with direct knowledge of the investigation said Ahmed's husband was a confirmed member of a well-known Middle East- based terror organization. The former agent said no more could be disclosed.
More chilling public reports about Ahmed' crossing in 2004 fell on deaf ears and attracted no media attention. An August 2004 report that appeared in the Washington D.C.-based Homeland Security Today quoted several unnamed government counter-terrorism officials saying Ahmed was ferrying "instructions" from a Mexico al-Qaeda cell to another cell in New York City that was planning an attack in Manhattan.
The multiply-sourced article reported that Ahmed's arrest led to dramatic actions abroad, inspiring for instance a CIA operation that captured two Al-Qaeda members in Mexico and several Pakistani Al-Qaeda members in Pakistan and in Britain. All, the article said, were part of the plot to attack targets in New York that were contingent on the instructions Ahmed was ferrying through Texas.
The Homeland Security Today story could not be independently corroborated. Its author, senior reporter Anthony Kimery, who has covered intelligence for 15 years, said the information came from "raw," or "unfinished" intelligence at the time that his sources said was used to roll up a major plot.
"I do know there were some very, very serious concerns about her," Kimery said. "Whether she was an actual operative or a terrorist, we don't know. But they use people like that to transport information."
A PAKISTANI SENT FROM MEXICO TO GUANTANAMO BAY
Most instances in which terror watch list checks trigger alarms in Mexico never become publicly known; Mexico, after all, is a country whose citizens have no open records laws to invoke.
But one such case has come to light.
A U.S.-bound Pakistani Muslim man captured in Mexico apparently was considered so dangerous he was remanded to military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, testifying about his Mexico travels before a tribunal. The partial story of the Pakistani is revealed in a heavily redacted hearing transcript that was one of thousands the government was forced to release on a web site after an Associated Press Freedom of Information lawsuit in May 2005.
One of the government's allegations was that the Pakistani had close business ties to "an individual known to help coordinate smuggling operations for members of Hezbollah and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya," an Egypt-based group.
The prisoner denied knowing about any such smuggling operations and insisted he was merely an economic migrant, like everyone else.
"Yes, I did try to be smuggled into the United States. I was going to find a job to make some money," the prisoner insisted to the tribunal.
The Pakistani detainee testified that he had taken a plane from Pakistan to Guatemala, and "from there I traveled by foot and vehicle to Mexico." He recalled crossing some rivers but not much more.
He acknowledged a smuggler helped arrange the journey from Pakistan eight months before his capture on a promise to pay about $18,000 worth of rupees.
"This would get paid when I got to the United States. My father owns a tanker (oil truck), which he would sell to make the payment."
The story rings as unlikely, however, since professional human smugglers rarely work on credit. More likely, the prisoner was himself a smuggler as tribunal attorneys suggested.
It's unknown whether the man remains in detention.
FIREWALL OF SECRECY
Confidentiality laws have restrained professional counterterrorism administrators in the years since 9-11 from disclosing just about anything they have accomplished to interdict terrorists south and north of U.S. borders. The ongoing silence may have reinforced the public perception that open borders pose no terror risk.
But a variety of these officials have clearly strained to push that envelope, hinting repeatedly, sometimes with surprising specificity, of classified intelligence they say shows that well-financed terrorist organizations have been trying hard to infiltrate U.S. borders for years.
Last year, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell told The El Paso Times that terrorists have been caught trying to cross the Mexican border and that these interdictions saved American lives.
"Coming up through the Mexican border is a path. Now are they doing it in great numbers, no. Because we're finding them and we're identifying them and we've got watch lists and we're keeping them at bay," McConnell told the newspaper. "There are numerous situations where people are alive today because we caught them (terrorists).
But McConnell had to stop short of providing details.
"The vast majority," he continued, alluding to confidentiality rules that surround intelligence operations. "You don't hear about."
James Loy, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2005.
"Recent information from ongoing investigations, detentions and emerging threat streams," he testified. "strongly suggests that al-Qaeda leaders believe operatives can pay their way into Mexico and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons."
FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying before a Congressional committee in 2006, said a number of Hezbollah terrorists had crossed into the U.S. from Mexico but offered no details.
During an early 2007 swing through San Antonio, he told reporters: "We have had indications that leaders of other terrorist groups may be contemplating ...having persons come across assuming identities of others, and trying to get across the border. It is intelligence that indicates there have been discussions on that."
When pressed for details, men like Mueller and Loy have to demur, citing official secrecy rules designed to protect investigations while in play, as well as intelligence-gathering methods, confidential informants and sources so as to keep terrorist targets from figuring out how they've been compromised.
The bottom line: either the authorities are exaggerating the threat or the public may not be allowed to know about it yet.
The dearth of elaboration about intelligence or disclosure of arrested terror suspects fuels speculation that government officials are raising the level of fear to underwrite controversial immigration reform measures.
Yet the warnings keep coming. Often, it is about the danger of South America and the communities of Middle Easterners that reside throughout that continent.
Janice Kephart, a lawyer who served as counsel to the 9-11 Commission and co-wrote the final report, testified in March 2005 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about a classified document she'd seen while serving on the commission. She was free to discuss it publicly because it had just been declassified.
She said the document was a Border Patrol report about meetings in Spain between members of Al Qaeda and a Columbia guerilla group. A topic of discussion at the meeting, Kephart said, was the use of Mexican Islamist converts to infiltrate the U.S. across the southwest border.
"If you want to conduct another operation after 9-11 you don't want people to know who you are," she said. "And the best way to be anonymous is to come across the border."
A CHORUS JOINED FROM THE SOUTH
Before and after 9-11, top Mexican officials were quoted as saying they believe terror networks had long operated inside Mexico. For example, in May 2001, Mexican national security adviser Adolfo Aguilar Zinser told the BBC that "Spanish and Islamic terrorist groups are using Mexico as a refuge. ... In light of this situation, there are continuing investigations aimed at dismantling these groups so that they may not cause problems in the country."
In January 2002, the Monterrey-based El Norte newspaper quoted National Institute of Migration official Felipe Urbiola Ledezma as saying that "six or seven" known terrorist organizations were operating inside Mexico.
"We have in Mexico people linked to terrorism and we are constantly observing unusual immigration flows ... people connected to ETA, Hezbollah and even some with links to Osama Bin Laden," he told reporters.
Mexican officials have since toned down such talk. But others elsewhere in Latin America have not. In January 2006, Colombia's Attorney General announced the dismantling of a false passport ring with connections to al-Qaida and Hamas militants that had helped smuggle citizens of Middle Eastern countries into the U.S. Among those arrested, Attorney General Jorge Armando Otalora announced, were people wanted for working with al-Qaeda.
Also in 2006, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, commander of the U.S. Army's Southern Command, warned the House Armed Services Committee of indications of Islamic extremist groups throughout South America, among them Hezbollah, Hamas and Egyptian Islamic Gama'at.
"Despite increased partner nation cooperation and some law enforcement action, enclaves in the region generally remain a refuge for terrorist support and fund-raising activities," he testified. "We remain concerned that members and associates in the region could move beyond logistical support and actually facilitate terrorist training camps or operations."
One territory where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, known as the "Tri-Border" region, home to tens of thousands of Arab immigrants, has been under unrelenting scrutiny by American intelligence services since 9-11.
The U.S. Treasury Department in December designated nine people and two organizations in the Tri-Border region it says "provided financial and logistical support to the Hezbollah terrorist organization." A department fact sheet accuses some of the men of trafficking in weaponry, another of running Hezbollah front businesses in Chile. Another man is named as an expert in illegally acquiring Brazilian citizenship and bogus Paraguayan travel documents.