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Terrorist Man-Hunting in America By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, December 18, 2003


Growing up along the Gulf coast of Florida, I was no stranger to the sport of fishing.  I spent many days with my father and uncle plying the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of scaly fun and dinner.  Sometimes, we would use a cast net along the shore of the Courtney Campbell Causeway of Tampa Bay and catch baitfish before heading out to the main fishing expedition.  Every now and then, among the minnows and sardines, we would snare a barracuda, one of those toothy torpedo-like marine predators swimming among the larger population of harmless little fish.  Those were pre-PETA days, and generally we’d simply kill the ‘Cuda and toss it back, figuring the rest of the fish would somehow appreciate it.    Decades later, in another part of Florida, the net and the catch would be far different.

As the Chief of the INS Investigations Division National Security Section in Miami until my retirement in May of this year, I managed the immigration agency’s south Florida counter-terrorism investigations working with the FBI and other agencies for seven years before and then after the 9/11 terror attacks.  Pre-9/11, counter-terrorism had been for INS senior management something to be barely tolerated, because provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the body of law the INS was charged with enforcing, actually related to national security issues and some Congressional and other political leaders on occasion had the gall to insist that the INS be involved in such matters.  This required then Commissioner Doris Meissner to eventually sanction, in the late 1990s, the formal participation of the INS Investigations Division with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces on a national level and the creation of an INS Headquarters National Security Unit, none of which the INS High Command at the time really favored.  “Kicking and screaming” is a fairly apt description of how the INS was brought into the counter-terrorism arena pre-9/11, notwithstanding the fact that international terrorism by its very definition would involve foreign nationals.  Post-9/11, no one within INS management argued any longer. 

The immediate INS investigative response after the 9/11 attacks was nothing short of extraordinary.  The INS Investigations Division, now part of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security, was comprised of approximately two thousand well trained and highly professional Special Agents who had the misfortune of working within a bureaucracy and chain-of-command structure mired in the 1950s.  The agents themselves, for the most part, tried to do the best they could under often very difficult circumstances imposed by the very agency for which they worked.  The post-9/11 demands placed on INS Special Agents were tremendous.  The mission evolved very quickly.  That mission primarily was to work with the FBI to pursue leads that might be related to the 9/11 attacks or other terrorism threats, identify any potential immigration law violations, and appropriately enforce the Immigration and Nationality Act vigorously and effectively.  The resources were spread thinly and the normally long hours became even longer.  The mission, however, became clear.  The mission was to cast a wide net and capture viable violators.  And in the months following the 9/11 attacks, not many were questioning that rationale.  I still don’t.

Very quickly after the attacks, the combined investigative efforts of the FBI, INS and other agencies identified who the murderous hijackers were, from where they had come, their nationalities and how and when they entered the United States.  It soon became clear that terrorists who were entirely Middle East young men who had entered the United States as non-immigrant alien visitors or students had attacked us.  The U.S. Government quickly, and rightly, decided that leads that surfaced identifying such suspects would be worked as the highest priority.  Those of us involved in the investigative operations knew from the outset that most of the arrests made would be for immigration violations and we knew there would ultimately be criticism from certain quarters for it.  Certain civil rights groups, some of which are merely fronts and apologists for radical extremist groups, and many in the media have not disappointed us in that criticism.  What needs to be said is that every immigration arrest made that I knew of was the result of a specific lead being received, a lead usually from another law enforcement agency or the public or some other outside source.  Before agents ever hit the street, record checks would be conducted and intelligence gathered and analyzed.  This process was standard procedure nationwide.  Yes, most of the leads proved to have nothing to do with terrorism.  But, every lead resulting in an immigration arrest was linked to an immigration law violator.  Exactly what was an INS agent to do under such circumstances?  Look the other way? 

Most leads proved to have nothing to do with terrorism, but some did.  That’s success.  And, there is the concept in multi-agency task force law enforcement called shared source development.  Basically, if one agency develops a source, an informant, the developing agency shares that informant with other agencies within the task force.  Post-9/11, every agent working counter-terrorism matters knew that developing sources and informants was critical.  Casting that wide immigration net, we knew that some of those minnows would have big mouths.  More success.  The net was cast, but there was no random round-up of Middle-East men.  There were concerted multi-agency investigations of many specific leads, investigations that sometimes resulted in arrests for immigration law violations.  I’ve never doubted the righteousness of this effort, and one reason is because after one arrest operation I came face to face not with a baitfish but with a barracuda.  One of the suspects in custody looked the arresting agent in the eye and told him he knew what we were trying to do and, “You got some of us, but you didn’t get all of us.”  The barracuda are still out there.

Bill West is on staff at Steve Emerson's Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism research institute.


Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.


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