Kheire had fled Somalia willing to do to anything necessary to reach US soil.
If he could, what's stopping al-Qaeda or al-Shabab from shadowing his trail and turning Mexico into a future front in America's "War on Terrorism?"
Kheire had been deposited in San Diego, California, where officials say hundreds of Somalis applied for political asylum in 2009. Most are rejected, though they aren’t immediately deported because of the difficult return trip. After all, should America really fly Somalis back to a war zone or dump them on the beach?
"The U.S. has closed most of the doors for Somalis to come in through the refugee program so they've found alternative ways to get in," said Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for policy and programs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "This is their new route.”
But many end up languishing in an immigrant detention center, like Kheire, while they await a judge for their case. Kheire carried no identification and had lost contact with his family who could vouch for him. His full story was only heard once he shuffled into an immigration court.
After selling his taxi and jumping to Kenya, a smuggler arranged fake documents for Kheire to travel to Dubai, then Cuba. He then traveled to Ecuador and Colombia, “where he boarded a small boat with about 20 African migrants,” until they reached Costa Rica. Their demanding voyage took a week. They only traveled by night, forced to hide during the daytime in mangroves and other vegetation along the shoreline, and bailed out water as they drifted along.
In Nicaragua, “Kheire was herded into the back of a sweltering truck container for 18 hours, fearing he would die of suffocation or be caught by police.”
He then crossed a river from Guatemala into Mexico, where he was held for 12 days until ordered to leave the country within a month. The end of the journey proved easiest - Kheire took a plane to Tijuana and a taxi to San Diego. Said Bob Montgomery, director of the San Diego office for the International Rescue Committee, “I always call it the back door.”
The American people are well aware of Mexico’s porous border. The question is when the government wake up: before or after the attack?
It’s within possibility that al-Shabab could ironically exploit Kheire’s route, one used to flee Somalia's chaos. At some point flights will be necessary, but not to America or Europe and much of the crossing will be done by shanty boat up the South American coast. Taking the long way to America could dramatically reduce attention.
"To get a flight from Africa to Europe is very hard,” said Yahya Idardo, a Somali who fled last year after his family was killed. “The easiest place to go is America. Africa to Latin America is easy... when you are going to Latin America, no one is concerned about you, no one is asking, so it is easy to go there and cross all these countries."
An al-Qaeda or al-Shabab sleeper cell would certainly have skill, awareness, determination, and motivation to attempt a South American transit. Of course they would secretly cross the Mexican border rather than taxi into the San Diego city limits. The Mexican border has always been vulnerable, the problem for al-Qaeda has been getting there.
Some reverse engineering demonstrates just how real the threat could be.
Last September Mexican authorities claim they seized a weapons shipment from Los Zetas, Mexico's premier paramilitary drug cartel, to José Manuel Hernandez and his Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). The EPR, which formed in response to the Aguas Blancas Massacre in 1995 that left at least 17 Mexican farmers dead at the hands of policemen, is currently directing attacks on Mexican oil infrastructure.
Los Zetas is also said to be moving on the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel after two brothers, Arturo and Carlos, were killed and captured by Mexican forces. The Beltran Leyvas had increasingly relied on Los Zetas for protection and now that the brothers are down to two, the Zetas know they have the muscle to take over.
It’s all an attempt to stir up trouble elsewhere as distractions to President Felipe de Jesús Calderón’s expanding drug war.
SinceLos Zetas has more use for internal chaos, there’s little reason to believe they would arm a potential terrorist attack or aid al-Qaeda's infiltration. Raising the alarm on the border would be counterproductive to their goal of smuggling drugs into and guns out of America. Then again, these are militant drug lords and thus hard to predict.
We also know that all Mexican cartels are in contact with the FARC and other cocaine traffickers in Colombia, shrinking as that relationship may be under US military and surveillance operations in Central America and the Caribbean.
And the FARC has just been linked to al-Qaeda.
"As suggested by the recent arrest of three alleged al Qaeda operatives, the expansion of cocaine trafficking through West Africa has provided the venue for an unholy alliance between South American narco-terrorists and Islamic extremists," said Jay Bergman, DEA director for the Andean region of South America.
Several months ago the three West African men in question were arrested for attempting to purchase drugs from an undercover DEA agents posing as a FARC member. This fact alone suggest the link is tentative and no connection has actually been made, but that's all the more reason to be on guard.
America can’t wait for the connection to be made or before the bomb goes off to respond to this potential alliance. Bergman added, "For trafficking organizations to survive, they first and foremost have to be flexible and make adjustments quickly to law enforcement efforts. West Africa is that current alternative."
Flexibility and adaptation are al-Qaeda’s strengths, and it could very well make contact with the FARC if they're both trying to link up. Bergman said all big Colombian cocaine traffickers are using Africa - al-Qaeda territory - to reach Europe including the FARC. He added that Mexican cartels import chemicals from Africa, creating the potential for a narco-terrorist underground highway between the two continents.
al-Qaeda to the FARC, to Mexican cartels, and under or over the US border.
By then it would be too late for America to respond properly. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab and his Yemen backers caught Obama by surprise, with the result being typical overreaction. Instead of maintaining composure, Obama spawned protests in over half the countries he ordered to deploy extreme airport security measures, gaining little and losing much in the process. Now average Yemenis are worried about becoming the next Afghanistan.
A 9/11 reaction on the Mexican border would be disastrous. Border lock-down would jam immigration flow, leading to a multitude of unintended consequences. Economics will be disrupted, new walls will go up, US troops might be deployed, and countries like Venezuela, the FARC's staging ground for flying cocaine into Africa, might come under threat of US intervention.
All because of one breach.
To be clear a working alliance between Los Zetas, the FARC, and al-Qaeda is a distant possibility that will take years of gradual development to evade law enforcement. Patience is another al-Qaeda virtue though, and the ultimate goal of counterterrorism is to disrupt potential connections before they securely link up.
But this goal is limited. President Obama must place counter-terrorism and immigration within a global, full spectrum counterinsurgency.
The ultimate goal of US national security is to prevent fronts from opening and conflicts from ever occurring. Obama must befriend all of South America, instead of divide it with a creeping military influence, to shore up weak entry points. He must develop an alternative solution to America’s “War on Drugs,” which South American nations are calling for. He must be proactive, not reactive.
This strategic responsibility is Obama's, not the US military, FBI, or CIA's. America simply cannot allow the Mexican border to become a future front in the "War on Terrorism." The reaction would erode both country’s ways of life exactly as al-Qaeda planned.