Terrorist hunters cast nets on immigrant smuggling

Monday, October 13, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- In a grimy tea house on a dead-end alley, Afghans who sneaked into Iran plot their next moves: safe houses, secret border crossings, slipping like shadows along ancient smuggling routes that crisscross the globe.

Al-Qaida operatives used such means to enter Iran after fleeing Afghanistan, Iranian authorities say, as the United States and other countries like Syria, Iraq and Greece -- with the coming Olympic Games -- point to growing evidence that terrorists are following longtime immigrant and drug-smuggling trails.

At the closet-size tea house teeming with bearded Muslims, the topic of discussion is a favorite smuggling route with the faraway goal of jobs: over the mountains into Turkey, then to Istanbul and on to European Union-member Greece.

A smuggler who gave only the name Amir described borders as "just lines drawn on a map."

"We can pass over them like wind," he said.

Iran has felt it brew into a storm.

"An open wound" is how Iran's top police official, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, described the clandestine paths this past week.

He urged greater international cooperation to combat cross-border human smuggling -- an appeal Iran once reserved for fighting drug trafficking. Iran says it holds many al-Qaida suspects who apparently used smugglers' routes out of Afghanistan following the Taliban's fall two years ago.

Iran's intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, said in July that Iran was holding "a large number of small and big-time elements of al-Qaida." Iran refuses to identify the detainees or allow access to Western interrogators, but Saudi officials believe the suspects include Saad bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden.

Iran has promised to cooperate in the international hunt for al-Qaida, apparently fearing U.S. wrath and diplomatic snubs from Europe. But Washington maintains that anti-U.S. fighters have continued to enter Iraq from Iran.

Syria faces similar accusations. Syrian President Bashar Assad said it was impossible to control the country's 310-mile desert frontier with Iraq.

"There is arms smuggling and persons crossing the border and we don't know who they are," he told the newspaper Al Hayat last week. "Of course, the Americans say that they are terrorists. ... Maybe, for them, any Arab is a terrorist."

The smuggling routes -- crafted expressly to avoid detection away from official border crossings -- traverse the globe and carry drug cargo and millions of illegal immigrants seeking work or stability in quests as old as poverty and war.

From the Middle East to the Rio Grande to Australia's tropical coast facing Asia, border patrols have been bolstered and captured illegal immigrants are being increasingly evaluated for possible terrorist ties.

In Greece -- host of next year's Summer Olympics in Athens and a main destination for human traffickers from Asia and the Middle East -- officials last week opened an investigation into possible al-Qaida links to a suspected immigrant smuggler.

'Serious issue'

"This is a very serious issue," said Greek government spokesman Christos Protopapas.

Other terrorist footprints so far on secret immigrant routes include:

Turkish authorities arrested three suspected al-Qaida militants who entered from Iran last year using fake travel documents allegedly provided by human smugglers. Turkish officials say they were headed to Israel for suicide bombings.

Romanian police last month detained an Egyptian man with suspected links to the militant group Islamic Jihad. The suspect, who was held for three days and released, was allegedly trying to sneak into Hungary. Romanian officials say the suspect is still under investigation.

In Milan, Italy, a judge indicted five Tunisians in July for alleged links to al-Qaida. A sixth man, arrested as part of the same group, plea-bargained to the lower charges of forging documents and smuggling illegal immigrants.

Two Algerian illegal immigrants in Britain were convicted in April of raising funds and recruiting for al-Qaida.

Experts wonder if this could just be the beginning as terrorists seek a back door around even the most seamless security.

"In some ways, it's a perfect cover," Saeed Laylaz, a security and political analyst in Tehran, told The Associated Press. "A terrorist pretends to be an economic migrant with no papers. Even if you're caught, you're usually just sent back and able to try again."

The immigrant routes could be part of a reshaping of strategies by al-Qaida and other groups in response to worldwide security clampdowns, some experts believe. Instead of hiding in plain sight -- as the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers managed -- terrorist cells may increasingly adopt underground tactics: no inspections at border points, no paper trail to track, the anony-mity of the undocumented.

In the United States, some officials see the country's vast land borders as weak points in the nation's reinforced security edifice.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's terrorism subcommittee, has pressed for an easing of environmental restrictions that limit patrol areas along the Mexican border.

"If I were a terrorist trying to get into the United States, it wouldn't take me long to hire one of the coyotes in northern Mexico and come in," the Arizona republican said at a news conference earlier this year. "Our border is so porous you'd have a pretty good shot of making it the first time."

In July, a top investigator at the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement suggested possible links between human smuggling rings and terrorists.

"Terrorists and their associates are likely to align themselves with specific alien smuggling networks to obtain undetected entry into the United States," Charles Demore, the bureau's interim assistant director of investigations, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Stopping them is another matter.

"All you have to do is look at the success -- or really lack of it -- that the U.S. has had stopping drug trafficking to realize that borders are almost impossible to fully control," said Ted Carpenter, a foreign police specialist at the Cato Institute in Washington. "It's a very big world and people will always find ways to get from one country to another."

In an attempt to tackle the problem, officials from Canada and northeastern U.S. states agreed in July to share anti-terrorism intelligence. In Asia, police chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations promised stronger anti-terrorism measures in September, including monitoring illegal border movement.

Some experts see an alliance of convenience developing between smugglers hungry for cash and terrorists willing to pay whatever it takes.

"There are very highly organized human smuggling networks out there," said Walter Purdy, director of the Terrorism Research Center in Burke, Virginia. "They will move you, move your equipment, move your people, move anything you want to move. This is a huge problem staring us in the face."

Other experts say using smuggling routes is a gamble.

"Immigrant smugglers are, by nature, outlaws. You have to be very desperate to trust them," said Ahmet Icduygy, a researcher on illegal immigration at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey. "I think terrorists won't really start using immigrant smuggling routes unless there is no other choice and they feel airports and legal land borders are too risky."


KEY HUMAN TRAFFICKING ROUTES:

TO EUROPE:

Central and South Asians often pass through Pakistan and over smuggling routes in Iran and on to Turkey. From Middle East, main routes to Turkey via Syria or from Lebanon coast.

From Turkey, Greece top target over land-mined border or transported on small boats to Aegean islands. Italy, Spain and France front-line nations for vessels carrying North African immigrants and others.

Growing traffic through Balkans into central Europe.

TO UNITED STATES:

Over Mexican border.

Some Asian smuggling rings use Canada or attempt to reach coast on cargo ships.

South Florida target for Caribbean boats.

TO AUSTRALIA:

Boats from Indonesia and other Southeast Asia nations seek to reach northern coastline.

Increased flow from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan using smuggling routes to reach Australia-bound vessels.

Source: The Associated Press

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