Sunday, November 14, 2004

Wake Up Call on Border Security?

Time Magazine serves up more evidence that the US-Mexico border, and the Bush administration's adamant refusal to secure it, has become America's primary vulnerability. According to Time, Al Qaeda operatives have told US intelligence agents of plans to smuggle nuclear materials into the US by sending them to Mexico, where security remains lax, and then across the border (still unprotected three years after 9/11) into the continental US.
[the account of an Al Qaeda operative], though unproved, has added to already heightened U.S. concerns about Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met publicly with top Mexican officials last week to discuss border security and smuggling rings that could be used to slip al-Qaeda terrorists into the country. Weeks prior to Ridge's lightning visit, U.S. and Mexican intelligence conferred about reports from several al-Qaeda detainees indicating the potential use of Mexico as a staging area "to acquire end-stage chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material." U.S. officials have begun to keep a closer eye on heavy-truck traffic across the border. The Mexicans will also focus on flight schools and aviation facilities on their side of the frontier. And another episode has some senior U.S. officials worried: the theft of a crop-duster aircraft south of San Diego, apparently by three men from southern Mexico who assaulted a watchman and then flew off in a southerly direction. Though the theft's connection to terrorism remains unclear, a senior U.S. law-enforcement official notes that crop dusters can be used to disperse toxic substances. The plane, stolen at night two weeks ago, has not been recovered.
Now, there are a number of caveats here. First, the Al Qaeda operative divulging this information has turned his back on Al Qaeda and wants American protection. To secure this he may simply by telling the US something he thinks will garner him that attention - not unlike the "intelligence" provided to the US by many Iraqi defectors during the late 1990's regarding Saddam Hussein's WMD programs, all of which seems to have been wildly inaccurate at best. Second, while reports of Al Qaeda's interest in nuclear weapons has been amply demonstrated, it remains very unlikely that the group has obtained actual nuclear weapons, which are not as easy to build or maintain as Hollywood movies might have you believe. A radiological bomb, which would feature a conventional explosive surrounded by radioactive waste, is somewhat more plausibly within Al Qaeda's grasp. Such a weapon would kill relatively few people, but could contaminate a substantial area, forcing an expensive clean up. The use of such a weapon, though causing little actaul destruction, would very likely have significant shock value, possibly prompting a panic in the affected area that could kill more than the weapon itself.

In any event, even if the Al Qaeda turncoat's information is inaccurate it does indicate that Islamist terror groups are well aware of the US-Mexico border's vulnerability and have at least considered the possibility of exploiting it. That alone should serve as a warning to Washington to act quickly to secure the border before a disaster happens. Don't hold your breath, however. President Bush seems whole-heartedly committed to admitting as many Mexican and Central America illegal immigrants as possible to the country with no apparent regard to the cultural or security consequences of such a policy. Once upon a time, the Dutch left their borders open too, now look at the crisis they face.


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