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.
The Federalist 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Dozens of migrants suspected of terrorism involvements are also reaching the U.S. border. As reported for CIS in a paper titled “Have Terrorists Crossed?” intelligence community sources said more than 100 migrants caught at the American southern border, or caught en route, were on U.S. terror watch lists between 2012 and 2017.
An illustrative August 2016 case involved six Pakistanis who entered Panama from Colombia on their way to the American border and were pulled off the route then deported home. The deportations of the six were publicly reported but not the reasons why, so it attracted almost no notice. But Juan Carlos, political editor for La Prensa newspaper in Panama City, said his paper was told the Pakistanis were arrested on suspicions that they were associated with al Qaeda and after they were seen taking photos of sensitive sites around the city, including the Panama Canal.
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On 18 October 2018 the legal advocacy organization Judicial Watch published a article headlined “100 ISIS Terrorists Caught in Guatemala as Central American Caravan Heads to U.S.,” suggesting an alarming confluence of events:
In a startling revelation, Guatemala’s president announced in the country’s largest newspaper that nearly 100 ISIS terrorists have been apprehended in the impoverished Central American nation. Why should Americans care about this? A caravan of Central American migrants is making its way north. Let’s not forget that Guatemala is one of the countries that bombarded the U.S. with illegal immigrant minors under Barack Obama’s open border free-for-all. They came in droves from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala through the Mexican border and for years Uncle Sam rolled out the welcome mat offering housing, food, medical treatment and a free education.