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 African economic refugees into the United States via Latin America. The U.S. government worries that such operations also could be used to sneak terrorists into the United States now that passports and other travel documents have become harder to acquire and more difficult to fake.
Intelligence officials are focusing new attention on networks that smuggle people from Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan - known havens for terrorists, including al-Qaida - according to an internal government assessment obtained by The Associated Press.
In the 12 months that ended last 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.
"Any time 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 agency. "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.
Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Ghana citizen living in Mexico known as "Silk the Shocker," wrote in an Oct. 24, 2006, e-mail to an associate that he would have no problem smuggling somebody into the United States.
"i will pay my immigration friend 2 days before he comes so that he can be waiting for him immediately he gets out of the flight. that way there is no questioning," Ibrahim wrote in the same e-mail.
All of this would cost $5,000. Ibrahim explained that if the client wanted to pay $2,000 less, he would have to answer questions from authorities himself and not benefit from the corrupt immigration official.
Ibrahim, the alleged ringleader, and his partner, Sampson Lovelace Boateng, a 53-year-old citizen of Ghana living in Belize, known as "Pastor," were arrested last year in Mexico City and at the Miami airport, respectively. Their organization accounted for most of the pipeline from East Africa to the U.S., officials say.
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. In addition, the smugglers have access to fake and real Belizean, Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican, Peruvian and South African visas.
In the Boateng and Ibrahim smuggling cases, people were stored in luggage compartments of buses for as long as 12 hours and driven to the U.S.-Mexican border. The smugglers escorted clients as they walked across the border into the United States between official entry ports.
Ibrahim and Boateng used international carriers DHL and Federal Express to deliver payments and travel documents.
On July 29, 2006, Ibrahim sent an e-mail to an unidentified associate: "i have a visa deal from ethiopia but it is a little bit expensive. I am currently in Belize to collect for some guys. i will get it in 3 days but it will cost 5000usd."
The $5,000 would pay for the visa and corrupt officials, the full smuggling package.
East Africans mostly come to the United States to find better lives because of job opportunities that do not exist in their home countries.
One senior intelligence official said there is little evidence yet of East Africans trying to cross into the United States to engage in terror. 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 country and could potentially use these smuggling routes as alternatives, said Hatfield, the immigration official who heads the human smuggling division.
The number of smuggling networks has remained steady over the past 10 years, with the highest concentration in Latin America, Hatfield said. It is the price and violence that have gone up. Ten years ago, it might have cost $500 to go from Mexico to Texas, whereas now it could cost up to $2,000.
"The competition is now harder for someone to come in illegally," Hatfield said. "The goal of the smuggler is to make as much money as they can."
People with terrorist ties still try to enter the country legally or with fake documents, Hatfield said, but ICE is keeping an eye on other potential methods now that security checks are more stringent. "We're watching those closely," he said.
Terrorists will continue to use whatever means necessary to get into the United States, including smuggling networks, said Janice Kephart, a former counsel on the government commission that investigated government activities before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Because it is much harder to use false documents than it once was, the smuggling networks offer a good way to get into the country anonymously, she said.
The East African countries that Homeland Security is watching have weak enforcement in place for travel documents and have connections to organizations with anti-American causes, Kephart said.
"They do what they need to based on what their end goal is," she said.