Tue, Jul. 08, 2008
By EILEEN SULLIVANThe Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The intercepted e-mail was alarmingly matter-of-fact for anyone worried about a new terror attack: "getting into U.S is no problem at all. thats what i do best."
The Ghanaian man who wrote it is in prison, accused of smuggling East Africans into the United States via Latin America for economic reasons. But the government worries that such operations also could be used to sneak terrorists into the U.S. now that passports and other travel documents have become harder to acquire and more difficult to fake.
Intelligence officials are focusing new attention on these networks that smuggle people from Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, according to an internal government assessment obtained by The Associated Press.
In the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, U.S. officials caught 372 East Africans trying to get into the country, the assessment said. This is the most from these countries since the Homeland Security Department was formed in 2003. And 159 people from the same countries have been caught trying to enter since Oct. 1 — including 138 from Eritrea, far more than any other country in the Horn of Africa.
"Anytime we shut down a smuggling organization, there’s always somebody there to step in the place," said Scott Hatfield, unit chief of the Human Smuggling division at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "There’s always that potential that a terrorist might use an established network to come to the U.S."
Authorities shut down one major East African pipeline in 2007, according to court documents reviewed by AP.
According to documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the smugglers had associates in Africa, typically corrupt officials. And they chose their routes based on which transit points employ easily bribed authorities.
Routes have included traveling from East Africa to Johannesburg, South Africa, and from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo, Brazil. East Africans also flew from Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Rome to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela in 2007, according to the intelligence assessment.
East Africans are mostly coming to the U.S. because job opportunities don’t exist in their home countries.
One senior intelligence official said there’s little evidence yet of East Africans trying to cross into the U.S. to engage in terrorist activity. The official requested anonymity because the information in the assessment is not public.
As computer chips and biometrics are required more often for travel documents, terrorists will have a more difficult time entering the U.S. and could potentially use these smuggling routes as an alternative, said Hatfield, the immigration official who heads the human smuggling division.