Union Tribune

April 9, 2003

Rumors swirl of terrorists crossing border


WASHINGTON – Reports of al-Qaeda terrorists in Mexico poised to penetrate the U.S. border keep popping up, producing brief jolts of sound and fury before being shrugged off by Mexican and U.S. officials who say they signify nothing.

The latest fuss began with a report in Monday's The Washington Times, which said al-Qaeda terrorists are "attempting to infiltrate the United States from Mexico to conduct terrorist attacks in the country." The story cited "officials" who were not identified by name or agency but who said terrorists were in league with Mexican organized crime.

Yesterday, a Justice Department official said an informant told federal investigators that al-Qaeda was working with drug traffickers, but the department discounted the tip.

"We spoke with the informant and nothing came of it," the official said.

He nevertheless added that federal officials remain vigilant because of the porous nature of the border and the possibility that terrorists could try to hitch a ride with traffickers skilled at covert border crossings – even through tunnels such as the one found last week in Tijuana.

"The way we see how these drug traffickers operate – look at the tunnels we are finding – it's something we are concerned about . . . especially now with all the anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and it's pretty easy to cross the border," the official said.

The Washington Times report was briefly a hot news item in Mexico, where the Cabinet secretary in charge of national security, Santiago Creel, dismissed it. Creel said although his office maintains contact with its U.S. counterparts, "we have no knowledge at this moment that persons who have some type of connection with terrorist groups or acts want to enter our territory."

Creel said his agents "are monitoring in a very detailed way" foreigners who enter Mexico.

Mexico's most influential national TV news program on Monday reported the terrorists-at-the-border scare with understated exasperation that Mexico had been tagged as a terrorist conduit. Against a backdrop of photos of the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, anchorman Joaquín López Doriga noted the U.S. government had granted visas to all of them.

In Washington on Monday, a former Canadian official warned that Canada's asylum policies are allowing thousands of people to enter that country, whose 5,000-mile border with the United States is more than twice the length of the U.S-Mexico border.

"There is a huge issue and problem with asylum seekers," said Martin Collacott, a fellow at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver.

"That is the channel through which most terrorists have entered Canada," Collacott said at a forum hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies. "Or if they didn't enter through that channel, when they were found to be terrorists they claimed refugee status and that enabled them to stay on."

In a report issued in spring 2001, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service estimated that 50 groups linked to terrorism abroad were operating in Canada.