The number of Iraqis seeking asylum as they enter the United States over the nation’s Southwest border has nearly tripled this year compared with last, and the year isn’t even over, said Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, a member of the president’s Cabinet who oversees the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies.
In the 2006 calendar year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted 60 asylum seekers, whereas so far in 2007, there have been 178, according to information provided by McConnell’s office. Many more Iraqis want to immigrate to the United States than have been allowed in recent years, according to media reports, a situation that probably explains some of the activity.
None of the Iraqis have been linked to terrorist activities, but McConnell said the crossings show that more attention is being paid to the Southwest border, including by terrorist groups searching to find entry routes—legal and illegal—with the goal of causing “mass casualties” after they arrive.
They’re coming in because they figured out how to get over the border illegally, McConnell said in an exclusive interview with the El Paso Times last week after speaking at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Border Security Conference.
In fiscal year 2006, which ended in September of that year, 14 Iraqi nationals were caught trying to enter illegally, according to McConnell’s office. So far in fiscal 2007, 16 have been caught.
And although the numbers are classified, McConnell said, a relatively small number of people with known links to terrorist organizations have been caught crossing the Southwest border.
‘Keeping them at bay’
“Coming up through the Mexican border is a path,” McConnell said. “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. There are numerous situations where people are alive today because we caught them (terrorists).”
A recent Associated Press investigation found that “thousands” of people from countries “identified by the U.S. government as sponsors or supporters of terrorism” have been smuggled into the United States over the northern and southern borders. Many of those, it stated, were not associated with extremist groups and came for work or to escape oppressive conditions.
The report also stated that U.S. homeland security officials said they “knew of no cases of al-Qaida operatives using (human) smuggling operations to enter.”
Agent of Hezbollah
As an example, McConnell points to Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who was indicted in 2003 as a trained counterintelligence agent of Hezbollah, which has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed Israelis and Americans and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Kourani entered the country in 2001, reportedly through Tijuana, Mexico. Kourani’s brother, who allegedly directed his actions from abroad while Kourani was in the United States, was the organization’s chief of military security for southern Lebanon, according to court documents.
Kourani paid a Mexican Consulate official in Lebanon $3,000 for a Mexican visa and was smuggled into the United States in the trunk of a car, officials said. In 2005, he was sentenced to 4å years in prison after admitting that he helped raise money for Hezbollah while living in Dearborn, Mich.
When asked about terrorists crossing the Southwest border, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of House Intelligence Committee, said, “It’s not something we would talk about.”