Terrorists at the Door
The idea that terrorists are probing the southern border in the guise of immigrants has recently become part and parcel of Republican border-policy mythology. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and current ranking minority member of the homeland security intelligence subcommittee, told me that "the border is going to be a focus" of extensive congressional investigation. "Who is coming into the country?" he wondered rhetorically in our conversation and added, "There is a massive tide of immigration without control."
Among those furtively crossing the southern border, McCaul believes, are an unknown number of terrorist operatives. This past year, he notes, authorities arrested Anthony Tracy, an American Muslim, and charged him with assisting nearly 300 undocumented Somalis in entering the United States. Tracy told US authorities that a Cuban official in Africa helped provide papers for the immigrants, enabling them to reach Mexico. From there, the Somalis crossed over the southern US border and have now vanished.
Conservative pundits and some media outlets have made much of this, suggesting members of al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group, are now roaming the American countryside. But there is no tangible evidence that any member of al-Shabaab entered the country with Tracy's help, according to an immigration spokeswoman.
McCaul said the Somali case and how the Obama administration let it happen would be a key topic in hearings in which he and other Republicans will demand answers. The real question is: Did it happen at all? Immigration authorities have not only been unable to find members of al-Shabaab who entered the country from the southern border—with or without Tracy's help—they haven't been able to locate any of them the 300 supposed Somalis at all.
The federal judge trying the case, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema of the Eastern District of Virginia, dubbed it "shaky" at Tracy's trial. Absent any smuggled Somalis, she pointed out, the government was unable to prove anything. Given the presence of informers at the center of so many terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, it should come as no surprise that Tracy has a long and mysterious past as an informer for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and possibly the Drug Enforcement Administration as well. What that means in the Somali case remains unclear. It is, however, clear that Tracy served only a four-month federal sentence in the incident and is now chatting up authorities.
Keep in mind that murkiness is a useful political tool. It will certainly be the stuff of upcoming congressional hearings, which will echo the endless rounds of anti-communist hearings that dominated Washington in the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee and similar panels in the 1950s. What can't be seen must be feared, and in the confused darkness, passionate certainty grows.
In that murky vein, Republicans also hope to expose the links they see among Iran, Hezbollah, and Latin American lands, especially Venezuela. Right-wing commentators and military analysts assert Hezbollah is increasingly active in the Colombian drug trade, is working with Mexican drug cartels, and has ties to Venezuelan authorities.
Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has been increasingly vocal in denouncing Hezbollah's reputed march toward the Rio Grande. Earlier this year, she shared her concerns with the Department of Homeland Security. Within weeks, Mexico reported that it had broken up Hezbollah operations, although what "Hezbollah" was actually doing, if anything, is difficult to say.
Nevertheless, the talk of Hezbollah on the border has grown crazily since the supposed arrest of Jameel Nasr, described in second- and third-hand news accounts as a "Hezbollah operative" in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. This arrest, initially reported in July by a Kuwaiti newspaper, has not only not been confirmed, but Homeland Security officials insist that they have no "credible information" of any terror groups on the southern border.
That apparently is not good enough for the American right-wing. They prefer to follow one of the primary laws of the post-9/11 world: whatever can be imagined is in fact true. What "could be" invariably trumps what "is." Is it possible that supporters of Hezbollah are plotting terror attacks from bases in Tijuana? Of course it is, therefore it must be so.
Could Somalis be lining up to travel to Cuba, Mexico, and Texas? It is possible, as so much is possible, therefore it must be so. A corollary to this law is that if a falsehood or rumor is repeated often enough, it becomes so. Hence, Jameel Nasr, Hezbollah operative, who may not even exist, actually was arrested as he plotted terrorist operations for Hezbollah just south of Texas.
A more realistic appraisal of Muslim activity in Latin America comes from an overlooked WikiLeaks document, a classified cable from the US Consulate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which describes "the unique possibilities for Muslim engagement" with the US in that country. Writing at the end of 2009, the consul reported that there were some Hezbollah supporters among recent Lebanese immigrants to Brazil. (That in itself is hardly surprising since Hezbollah is a popular, deeply rooted political movement that controls significant parts of southern Lebanon.)
The consul also informed Washington that such immigrants were surprisingly few in number and were completely overshadowed by the country's mainstream Muslim leaders, who have exhibited a keen interest in and curiosity about the United States, and are opposed to extremist ideologies of any kind. These leaders, he wrote, are eager "to engage, acutely aware of the dangers of radicalism, and had solid achievements in integrating Muslim and Brazilian identities, making them an excellent example of how a unique MMC [Muslim minority community] has, by and large, carved out a positive space within a diverse Latin American country." In other words, in the real world, the vast majority of Muslims in Latin America are eager for the same kind of stability and engagement as Muslims in the US
But this view—and the importance it places on dialogue—does not fit the prevailing nativist mythology in this country or Republican and right-wing efforts to meld terrorism, Islam, and immigration into a single muddy brew (a characteristic of much public debate in the US since 9/11). It appears we have entered a post-analytic world where the point of public discourse is not to make distinctions but to obliterate them.
A tiny group of radical extremists, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have become indistinguishable from a billion and a half Muslims all over the world. A bizarre and convoluted ideology, worked out to justify specific attacks on the US and Egypt, has come to stand in for Islamic sacred texts and holy law. The roughly 50 al-Qaeda fighters remaining in Afghanistan have become a synecdoche for the whole of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia.
Political dissenters in the United States have been absorbed into the terrorism trope as well. Information—which is, after all, what has been disseminated by WikiLeaks—is increasingly viewed as a potential terrorist weapon. Absorbing that information (that is, reading the documents) could even amount to material support for terrorism. In such a world, the counter-terrorism efforts of the US government are trained on the entire civilian population, whether through electronic monitoring or fiddling with everyone's junk.
Former attorney general John Ashcroft noted the importance of blurring all distinctions years ago. "In this new war, our enemy's platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students, and workers," he proclaimed in June 2002. "They move unnoticed through our cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces. They wear no uniforms. Their camouflage is not forest green, but rather it is the color of common street clothing. Their tactics rely on evading recognition at the border and escaping detection within the United States. Their terrorist mission is to defeat America, destroy our values and kill innocent people."
It's all right there, hidden in plain sight. Terrorists are Muslims, Muslims are immigrants, immigrants are residents. Around it goes. Increasingly, immigration enforcement is becoming an anti-terrorism effort. Anyone and everyone is a suspect. That is the reality played out at every airport; it is the narrative touched by every monitored email and tapped telephone call.
We are a fearful nation eating away at itself and the wolves are prowling the southern borders. Welcome to Congress, 2011.
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the
. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Stephan Salisbury discusses the terror dreams of a nostalgic empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.