In December 2018, the Center for Immigration Studies dispatched Senior National Security Fellow Todd Bensman to Panama and Costa Rica to investigate President Donald Trump’s widely ridiculed assertions that suspected terrorists had been apprehended among Middle East migrants through Latin America. Panama is a geographic chokepoint, or bottleneck, through which migrants from countries of the Middle East, who are moving out of South America, must push on their way to the U.S. border.
The following article is based on Bensman’s on-the-ground research over two weeks. His video reports, photos, and writings from the trip can be found here.
Golfito, Costa Rica — It was here in March 2017, at the main aluminum structure of a government migrant camp, that federal Costa Rican police arrested Ibrahim Qoordheen of Somalia as a suspected al Shabaab terrorist operative on his way to the U.S. southern border.
Qoordheen had been smuggled from Zambia to Brazil, passed through Panama, and was making his way north through Costa Rica when the Americans had him arrested here, 20 miles inside Costa Rica, according to an American intelligence official with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Golfito camp, with a capacity of 250, was set up as a two-day rest station for South America-exiting migrants whom the governments of Panama and Costa Rica register and help move through northward to Nicaragua.
Luckily, the Somali stayed long enough for an American intelligence analyst working with the name he had provided in Panama to unscramble it and match it to a pre-existing intelligence file that identified him as intertwined with an al Shabaab cell and smuggling network in Zambia, the U.S. intelligence official said.
The Americans interviewed Qoordheen at length, but the Somali gave up nothing, the U.S. officer said. The Americans then arranged to have him deported to Zambia, the officer said. It turns out the Qoordheen case was only one of other such episodes about which the American public was never told, where terrorist suspects were discovered migrating through Latin America to the U.S. border.
Terrrorists Know the U.S. Border Is Not Secure
A Costa Rican immigration service official whose jurisdiction includes the Golfito camp disclosed that at least several other U.S.-bound suspected terrorists also were pulled from this camp since Qoordheen’s March 2017 arrest, likewise based on significant derogatory U.S. counterterrorism intelligence. The Costa Rican official declined to provide specifics of the intelligence beyond that it involved terrorism, offering only that: “Most are good, but some are bad.”
The American public was never told that Qoordheen and other suspected terrorists were pulled off U.S.-bound migrant routes in distant Costa Rica and Panama because such information is usually classified or not disclosable, in line with standard practice to protect ongoing investigations and operations.
That necessary opacity, unfortunately, seems to have given life to denialism about President Trump’s claims that terrorists are among migrants from countries of terror concern, like the Middle East. The skeptics have demanded proof then cited Trump perfidy when protected intelligence wasn’t provided. Trump’s assertions were thus ridiculed and dismissed as unsupported fear-mongering.
But the rejectionists, many of whom obviously do not know that a central homeland security practice is threat preemption, are wrong. Down here, on the southern-most leg of migrant routes to the American border, it is they who invite ridicule and eye rolls.
American, Panamanian, and Costa Rican law enforcement and intelligence officials are engaged in actual programs here to hunt, investigate, and deport real terrorist suspects who are, in fact, discovered among the thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Horn of Africa, and South Asia funneling through this section of Latin America—as President Trump said and as I saw and heard on the ground.
They are working at it here because sheer geography pushes tens of thousands of U.S.-bound migrants from all over the world who pass from South America landing zones through these two countries as they push north. Panama and Costa Rica are chokepoints on the migrant trail where “extra-continental” travelers, as they are sometimes called at the American embassies, can become known in the greatest concentrations.
Terror Migrants Pulled From U.S. Border Routes
Some acknowledgements of terror travel through these countries—and of the American efforts to mitigate it—are in public evidence, even if the underlying reporting remains confidential.
A December 19 Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement, for instance, announced the deportation of U.S.-convicted Brazil-based smuggler Sharafat Ali Khan after time served for transporting at least 100 aliens from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh through South and Central America to the United States. The statement offered this nugget, with the usual lack of elaboration: “Several of the individuals smuggled by Khan’s organization had suspected ties to terrorist organizations.”
The new statement seems to comport with earlier reporting by The Washington Times that one of these individuals was an Afghan involved in a plot to attack in the United States or Canada and had family ties to members of the Taliban.
Also in December 2018, an INTERPOL statement announcing the arrests of 49 human smugglers in the multi-nation “Operation Andes,” networks that funneled migrants from places like the Middle East into Panama and out of Costa Rica en route to the U.S. border, said four arrestees were linked to fraud, homicide, “and terrorism.”
Read it all at the link above, and more of Bensman’s reporting at https://cis.org/Bensman. Additional videos below.
Bensman explains controlled flow: