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Human Smuggling: Defending Forward Against Dark Networks That Can Transport Terrorists Across American Land Borders



Naval Postgraduate School

Thesis by Todd Bensman - September 2015


Because  of  the  9/11  attacks,  national  legislation  required  America’s  homeland security  agencies  to  dismantle  transnational  human  smuggling  organizations  capable  of transporting terrorist travelers to U.S. borders. Federal agencies responded with programs targeting   extreme-distance   human   smuggling   networks   that   transport   higher   risk immigrants  known  as  special  interest  aliens  (SIAs)  to  the  country’s  land  borders.  SIAs are  identified  based  on  their  citizenship  in  some  35  countries  in  the  Middle  East,  North Africa,  and  Asia  where  terrorist  organizations  operate.  SIA  smuggling  networks  are substantially   different   than   other   human  smuggling   networks   because   they   span  continents and oceans, as well as dozens of nations’ borders over many months. 

Some  American  enforcement  efforts  to  dismantle  SIA  networks  since  9/11  have occurred  in  countries  along  established  smuggling  passages  through  South  America, Central America, and Mexico.

Numerous indicators, however, suggest ineffectiveness of effort;  for  instance,  SIAs  have consistently  reached  the  U.S.  southwestern  border  since 9/11.
This tenacity occurs in a relative void of academic literature; no systematic studies to   date address this   form   of   extreme-distance   human   smuggling—the only  kind
considered a terrorism-related homeland security threat.

This  thesis  stands  as  a  resource for  homeland  security  policy  leaders  in  the  event  of  an  attack  by  an  SIA  who  illegally crossed the U.S. land border, or to mitigate perceived threats prior to any tragedy. But the results  of  this  study  also  should  be  generalizable  to  smuggling of any migrant type  that might replace SIAs as the threat of the day.

This  thesis  asks  how  SIA  smuggling  networks  function  as  systems  working  in complex, diverse geopolitical environments,  so that their most vulnerable leverage points
can  be  identified  for  better  intervention  targeting.

Using  NVivo  qualitative  analysis  software, the study examined unstructured archival data from the total discoverable body of  U.S.  federal  court  prosecutions  of  SIA  smugglers  between  September  2001  and  September  2015.  The  number  of  cases  reached  19.  To  enhance  validity  and  contextual  accuracy,  the  investigation  pursued  a  triangulation  method  using  a  separate  volume  of  non-court  narrative  data,  such  as  the  public  testimony  of  U.S.  security  leaders,  official government  reports,  and  credible  media  information.  The  data  was  entered  into  NVivo and coded into common themes, which emerged during reading and analysis processes.

Further analysis of the resulting themes and patterns produced more than 20 major conclusions about SIA smuggling, to include their internal architectures, routing choices
displayed  in  maps,  and  most  critical  enabling  factors.  For  instance,  the  thesis  provides key   common   traits   of   SIA   smuggling   operators:   their   motivations,   nationalities, leadership  styles,   and specializations.  It  identifies  critical  “enabling  factors,”  without which  the  studied  SIA  smuggling  networks  likely  could  not  have  operated,  including  specific  institutional  conditions  in  the  six  most  frequently  used  Latin  American  transit and staging countries. The most common operational security and evasion methods used by SIA smugglers are detailed, along with the most common law enforcement tactics that were employed to defeat them abroad.

From   the   revealed   behavioral   traits   and   operational  eccentricities of SIA  smuggling,  the  thesis  next  extracts  and  identifies  seven  major  leverage  points  that 
American  targeting  and  intervention  likely  will  yield  the  greatest  disruptive  impacts. 

Among  the  identified  leverage  points,  for  instance,  were  the  reliance  of  SIA  smugglers and  their  clients  on  fraud  vulnerabilities  in  the  U.S.  political  asylum  system,  their acquisition of crucial travel permissions from the Middle East consulate offices of Latin American countries, and the catch-rest-and-release policies of certain transit countries. 

Understanding  these  leverage  points  in  their  proper  contexts  may  inform  future, more  effective  policy  and  disruption  efforts.  Fifteen  strategies  are  recommended  to  pressure  specific  leverage  points;  these  fall  into  two  general  tiers:  significant  new investment in covert intelligence collection operations, and conventional law enforcement investigations, both enabled by redoubled diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives targeting at least six countries.

Lastly, the data was sufficient to paint a rare picture of the conflict between  smugglers  and  law  enforcement abroad.  The  data  revealed  common  smuggler
evasion  and  operational  security methods,  as  well  as American  law  enforcement  tactics abroad  that  worked—a  rarely  revealed  homeland  security  activity.  An  understanding  of  this dynamic cat-and-mouse game in foreign spaces, along with the overview of network architecture and key characteristics of smugglers, provide important insight for American leaders for when they decide to chart better strategies.

Additionally, this thesis aspires to fill a conspicuous void in migration studies andtheory. It argues that ultra-distance people smuggling should be added to the pantheon of
migration   studies   as   a   unique   form deserving   of   further   study,   particularly because  SIA traffic  is  regarded  as a homeland  security  problem justifying  significant  public investments.

Read the entire Thesis at https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=788177