Terror Threat on the Southwest Border

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, recently spoke out about rumors that ISIS fighters had been apprehended on the U.S./ Mexico border.  Johnson denied that any fighters had been apprehended on there.  But, regardless of whether any ISIS fighters were apprehended, when we analyze the possibility of this occurrence using law enforcement records, we see this threat is very legitimate. 


In order to accurately assess this threat, we need to analyze travel patterns, criminal networks, and funding mechanisms.  Perhaps the best example comes from the Somali terror group, Al-Shabab, which is an Al Qaeda affiliate.   While widespread attention is currently being given to the Islamic State (ISIS), as of 2011 Al-Shabab indictments had been unsealed in 38 of 50 U.S. states.  With approximately 85% of all Somalis seeking asylum entering the U.S. in San Diego, the city ranks fourth among U.S. cities that are home to known or suspected terrorists.    

According to FBI Criminal Complaints and Indictments, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, Abdiweli Yassin Isse, and Farah Mohamed Beledi were part of the Minneapolis cell of Somali-Americans who had traveled to Somalia to engage in jihad.  These men traveled by rental car from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, and then ultimately to the San Ysidro, CA border crossing where they crossed into Mexico and were last seen in October 2009. 

Of special interest, Faarax had previously tried leaving the U.S. in March of 2009 but was denied boarding his flight in Portland, OR.  It also appears that Beledi presented a fraudulent passport in order to cross the border.  Further investigation determined that these men traveled to the Southwest border for the sole purpose of leaving the U.S.

And this is not the only example.  In 2010, Shaker Masri also attempted to travel from Chicago to Somalia via the U.S. Southwest border.  As stated in Masri’s Criminal Complaint:

“... Masri stated that rather than traveling directly to Jordan, they should travel from Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA, from where they could drive to Mexico. Once in Mexico, Masri explained, they could fly either to Venezuela or Panama…before heading onward to East Africa."

Although all these men were exiting the U.S., the larger issue is that they clearly adopted their travel plans and documents based on U.S. homeland security measures. 

Other examples involving the Southwest Border include:

  • Osama bin Laden wanted to utilize Mexican smuggling routes into the U.S.
  • Abdirahman Ali Gaal, another Somali, was on the “No Fly List” and was arrested after he was on a flight from Paris to Mexico City.  Gaal was suspected of having ties to Al-Shabab and admitted that he submitted a false refugee claim in Canada in 2008.
  • Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, also a Somali member of Al-Shabab, admitted that he ran a large smuggling operation in Brazil from 2006-2008.  Dhakane’s operation specifically smuggled East Africans into the U.S.  Dhakane also admitted that he was aware that some of those who he smuggled into the U.S. were members of Al-Shabab.
  • In 2012, Ralph DeLeon and two other men were arrested after they planned to drive from California into Mexico and ultimately travel to Afghanistan in support of Al Qaeda.  
  • Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, was a member of Hezb’allah, who snuck across the border on Feb. 4, 2001 on his way to Dearborn, MI.
  • Said Jaziri, a controversial Muslim cleric, was caught in 2011 as he tried to sneak into the U.S. in the trunk of a car near San Diego.  More importantly, Jaziri, flew from “Africa to Europe, then to Central America and Chetumal, Mexico, on the Mexico-Belize border, where he took a bus to Tijuana.”  He then paid a Mexican smuggler to bring him into the U.S. 
  • Salim Boughader-Mucharrafille, smuggled Lebanese nationals, sympathetic to the terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezb’allah, across the Southwest border and into the U.S.
  • In 2004, Mark Walker, fled Wyoming after his jihadist intentions were exposed.  He was then arrested a few days later at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry near El Paso, TX.  Walker admitted that he was attempting to travel to Somalia to bring supplies to those waging jihad against the Somali government.
  • The city of San Diego has experienced numerous terrorist-related arrests, investigations, and radical Islamists. 
  • In April 2014, El Mehdi Semlali Fathi was arrested after plotting to fly a remote-controlled airplane into a university and federal government building in Connecticut.  Although the attack was to occur in Connecticut, Fathi stated that he could acquire all of the necessary supplies “in Southern California on the border.”

Cartel and Terrorist Relationships

A recent article discounted the relationship between drug cartels and terrorist groups, despite many arrests showing otherwise.  In 2011 a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. was uncovered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  An undercover DEA Agent posed as a member of the Los Zetas drug cartel and agreed to murder the Saudi Ambassador at the request of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  The plot ultimately was foiled.    

The article referred to this plot as “bumbling”.  I find it hard to describe this plot as bumbling when it involved the payment of $100,000, international travel, and lasted several months.  In addition, the defendant, Manssor Arbabsiar, admitted to the plot during a post-arrest interview, implicated members of the IRGC, and has since been found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

A very complex investigation also resulted in the arrest of Lebanese drug kingpin, Ayman Joumaa, in 2011.  Joumaa “conspired with others to coordinate shipments of tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Colombia through Central America for sale to Los Zetas drug cartel. The ultimate destination of the cocaine was the United States.”  Furthermore, some of these drug profits benefited Hezb’allah.  

More recent was the arrest and conviction of Dino Bouterse in 2013, who was a Commander of the Suriname counter-terrorism unit.  Bouterse was initially charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S. However, an additional charge was added after a DEA investigation revealed that Bouterse had plotted to bring Hezb’allah operatives to Suriname. Once in Suriname, these operatives would conduct attacks against U.S. targets, and provide protection for Bouterse. In exchange, Bouterse would supply false passports to the operatives for the purpose of entering the U.S.

As we can see, there is ample evidence of terrorists exploiting our Southwest border. 

While the great majority of past terrorists have flown directly into the U.S., we should not conclude that future terrorists will use the same methods.  As the U.S. progresses towards an entry-exit system at our ports of entry utilizing biometric identification, we must strongly consider that terrorists will attempt to enter the country by illegally crossing borders. 

Terrorists do not live in a vacuum.  If hundreds of thousands of people can enter the U.S. by illegally crossing our SW border, we can be certain that terrorists have taken notice of this as a viable option for entering the U.S. to execute an attack.

Matt Ernst is a law enforcement officer and independent national security analystMatt can be reached at ernst1997@hotmail.com  Follow him on Twitter @MattErnst1997