Former Dearborn, Michigan, resident Mahmoud Youssef Kourani was a secret Hezbollah agent sent to infiltrate America in February 2001. He stole over the Mexican border into California with a skill set that court records would later describe as “specialized training in radical Shiite fundamentalism, weaponry, spy craft, and counterintelligence,” picked up in Lebanon and Iran.
Kourani got caught in 2004 and thrown in federal prison for raising money and recruits for Hezbollah, which pioneered the modern art of suicide truck bombing by blowing up American Marines in Beirut.
But the enduring significance of Kourani isn’t that Hezbollah was able to implant the likes of him on American soil. It’s how it was done that reveals an insufficiently known national security danger for the U.S. that emanates to this day from a most unexpected source: Mexico’s foreign service embassies, consulate offices, and “honorary” appointed consuls across the Muslim world.
How was a Lebanese national whose brother was known to be “Hezbollah’s chief of military security for southern Lebanon” able to get within striking distance of California?
According to court records and interviews with knowledgeable sources, a $3,000 bribe was paid for Kourani’s travel documents to a corrupt official of Mexico’s Beirut consulate office. He just flew over, then on February 4, 2001, sneaked into California with help from a smuggling ring that had moved hundreds of Lebanese nationals already.
In this one instance at least, the discovery of the smuggling ring and bribery scheme prompted Mexico to quietly purge and prosecute several of its Beirut workers a few years ago. But I have found that Mexican consulates in other sensitive parts of the world, where anti-American Islamic terror groups thrive, are still open for the same kind of business.
Take the Mexican embassy in Mumbai, India. In all the ink expended about the devastating terror attacks there, none was shed for the fact that only months earlier, three Afghan Muslim travelers were caught posing as Mexicans and carrying genuine Mexican passports on their way out of the region. The trio was switching flights in Kuwait using Mexican pseudonyms and flashing valid Mexican passports, on their way to France and beyond, when an alert customs officer noticed they couldn’t speak Spanish. Subsequent investigation in India showed the passports were purchased for $10,000 each from a corrupt worker in the Mumbai-based Mexican consul office. Were these men terrorists? The answer isn’t public.
Recently retired FBI Assistant Legal Attaché James Conway spent four years after 9/11 overseeing the bureau’s counterterrorism programs in Mexico City. He told me that interdicting U.S.-bound travelers from Muslim nations in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa “was our number one concern” because any of them might be a terrorist headed for the U.S. frontier. Mexico-bound travelers from Islamic countries, armed with valid passports bearing security bar codes, are among the most difficult to detect, he explained, because they enable their bearers to easily slip airport inspections.
Conway said that during his post-9/11 Mexico tour the FBI got many “hits” running the names of captured U.S.-bound immigrants from those countries through terror watch list databases. He couldn’t elaborate. But in his last job, Conway learned why gaining entry to Mexico is such a golden ticket.
“If you’ve got a Mexican passport, you can become part of the flood of people who cross into the U.S,” he said. “If terrorists wanted to exploit that infrastructure, they can. It’s there.”
The problem of Mexico’s corruptible foreign service was not lost on the Bush administration, which practically obsessed over plugging the obscure nooks and crannies of national security. In deference to American security concerns since 9/11, the Mexican government — at least officially — has severely restricted visas to travelers from the Arab world. Mexico certainly does have legitimate reason to field embassy offices abroad, what with oil and varied business interests.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for Mexico’s embassy in Washington, D.C., insisted that since 9/11 his government, in deference to American concern from the Kourani case and others, “has applied strong measures and invested considerable resources to continuously improve the security of its travel documents” in those foreign offices.
But such assurances rang hollow when an American national security investigation early last year found that corruption in yet another Mexican consulate office — this one in Belize — had enabled at least 100 Africans from terror-watch countries to make their way to Houston, Texas.
That Washington, D.C., investigation targeted a smuggling ring run by two Ghana nationals, Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim of Mexico City and Sampson Lovelace Boateng of Belize City. The two men confessed to ferrying in dozens of U.S.-bound travelers since 2005 from countries like Somalia and Sudan, a state sponsor of terror where radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda have thrived. The travelers would pay $5,000 each for packages that included the Mexican tourist visas, hotel, and air and ground transport into Texas.
If the Bush administration obsessed enough over such scenarios to push Mexico City to clear out its rat’s nests abroad, it’s less than certain whether the new Obama administration will be as attentive.
Raouf N. El-Far of Amman, Jordan, would probably predict trouble from his neck of the woods. When I met El-Far two years ago, he’d been serving as Mexico’s honorary consul in Amman, Jordan, for three years already, in charge of handling travel applications from local Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrian students and businessmen. But El-Far was candid enough to tell me that huge bribe offers began coming in on his first day in the position from travelers who know they’d be rejected. One Iraqi had just offered a staggering $100,000 a month if El-Far would grant Mexican tourist visas to Iraqi refugees. El-Far insisted that while very tempted, he never caved “because it’s against my principles.”
El-Far explained that his predecessor had showed no such moral restraint. One has to wonder how El-Far’s successor will respond.