THE ULTRA-MARATHONERS OF 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