AUSTIN, Texas — In a court proceeding that passed with little notice this month, a Bangladeshi national pleaded guilty in a Laredo, Texas federal courtroom for smuggling hundreds of fellow citizens through Mexico and over the U.S. Border. But the few isolated media reports about it beg elaboration, as does an unpacked comment by U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick in a prepared Department of Justice press release, that "border security is national security."
Mohamad Milon Miah Hossain, 39, operated his smuggling ring out of the southern Mexican city of Tapachula on the border with Guatemala. Last August, ICE's Homeland Security Investigations agents nabbed him from a flight at Houston's George Bush International Airport, capping a two-year intercontinental investigation that is ongoing.
Mohamad and a Bangladeshi co-conspirator based in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, Moktar Hossain, busted the previous November 2018, formed a final link in a much longer chain that moved hundreds of Bangladeshis to the American border. What the American prosecutors didn't explain was that this migration flow of more than 3,000 just since 2017 poses a national security risk because Bangladesh teems with ISIS and al-Qaeda members, followers of a radical Islamist political party now out of power, homegrown jihadists of other various strands, and foreign terrorist fighters returning from Syria with combat experience. The Muslim-majority country is regarded as so rife with Islamic extremists and violent ideology that its government has mounted a "zero tolerance" campaign to prevent it from becoming a terrorist safe haven, with U.S. backing.
The arrival at the American border of thousands of strangers from that country, whose personal histories are unknown and often unknowable, obviously speaks to the potential for terrorist infiltration, a border vulnerability that is rarely given its due alongside drug trafficking and the mass migration of Central American economic migrants. In the practice of homeland security, it doesn't matter that terrorist infiltration terminating in actual murder and property destruction hasn't happened yet to the United States; it has on a wide scale to Europe in very recent years and is viewed anyway as an ever-present potential warranting time, treasure, and prosecutions like these.
Despite these helpful American busts, the Bangladeshis are still coming. I know first-hand because I met and interviewed some in Costa Rica in late 2018 and again in January when I visited Mohamad's digs in Tapachula. I went to the spot where the Americans and their Mexican federal partners arrested Mohamad and even interviewed his former employer, "Mama Africa," who still runs a restaurant well-known to U.S.-border-bound "extra-continental" migrants as the place to go for advice about the roads north. Bangladeshis still filled the place, and Mama Africa explained that Somalis, Yemenis and Iranians still showed up every day too for their cheap meals and "free" advice.
Terrorism Presence in Bangladesh
Homeland security workers always feel a professional — and moral — obligation to find out who people really are when they're arriving at the Southwest border from countries like Bangladesh.
Intelligence types who work, for instance, in the National Counterterrorism Center, Customs and Border Protection Office of Intelligence, the National Targeting Center, and DHS's Intelligence and Analysis want to know first what's going on in the home country, terrorism-wise. And it's not been looking good these days in Bangladesh, according to the U.S. State Department's most recent Country Reports on Terrorism.
Bangladesh is ground zero in a battle for recruiting grounds seen as rich by rival jihadist organizations. Starting in about 2014, ISIS and AQIS began aggressive recruitment campaigns for adherents, suicide bombers, and fighters for distant campaigns. In 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS and called for militants from Bangladesh, as well as from parts of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to join it, with aspirations of striking the U.S. homeland. By many counts, both groups were pretty successful. Untold dozens of Bangladeshis joined ISIS in Syria while others have committed terror attacks in Europe and in the United States.
After returning to New York from a visit to Bangladesh in September 2017, visa holder Akayed Ullah detonated a bomb at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, prompting the U.S. government to set up a Bangladesh-based "Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime" unit to fight terrorism in that country.
The U.S. embassy in Dhaka became so concerned with terrorist activity in the country that it has ordered employee families removed from the country. Some U.S. special operations forces are now deployed with the Bangladeshi coast guard.
An Awful Responsibility
ICE's Homeland Security Investigations and other agencies, such as the U.S. Southern Command, occupy the tip of a spear countering smuggling organizations that transport migrants from Muslim-majority countries. The agency has logged an impressive series of Latin American smuggling network disruptions over the past year, as outlined in here about another big smuggler bust in Brazil.
Networks that have moved thousands of Bangladeshis into the U.S. are shadowed in mystery.
Each new U.S.-based prosecution of such smugglers (about 25 since 9/11, by my count) offers a unique opportunity for federal authorities to educate the American public about how smugglers present a national security problem at the U.S. border, via the expansive intercontinental bridges over which Islamic extremists could travel there. Networks that have moved thousands of Bangladeshis over the American border are, obviously by design, shadowed in mystery so these are rare opportunities.
Perhaps new smugglers will fill the breach to keep the Bangladeshis conveyor belt moving. But also maybe not when law enforcement heat is obviously set on high.
Either way, it must be noted that HSI and federal prosecutors appropriately frame busts like these, which occur largely out of sight and mind of the American public, as the counterterrorism operations they are and explain, fully, why that is.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.