Part I: U.S. 'not technically capable' of detecting WMD
WASHINGTON - Terrorists are teaming up with narco-traffickers to try to sneak their operatives and weapons of mass destruction into the U.S. because they may sense vulnerability.
"It's a fairly trivial process to shield that bomb or that material so that it's not picked up by even radiation detection," says Laura Holgate, now Senior Director, WMD Terrorism & Threat Reduction at the National Security Council.
Holgate was interviewed several months ago while she was the Vice President for Russia/NIS Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative produced a movie several years ago called "Last Best Chance." The story is fiction, but every scene in the movie is based on "two notebooks full of documented facts," says Holgate.
Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists have made no secret of their desires to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against the U.S.
Some experts believe a part of the strategy for creating a nexus with global drug traffickers was to take advantage of a vast network or tunnels, technology and human intelligence that achieve their goal without risking exposure.
"When you get to the point where you can smuggle tons of drugs through one border, through another border and though another border, and into the U.S., then you certainly have the capacity to smuggled in weapons of mass destruction or agents that can be used to comprise weapons of mass destruction," says Doug Wankel, the Former Director of the Kabul Counter-narcotics task force at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.
Currently a managing partner at the Spectre Group in Kabul, Wanke says the narco-traffickers can do it because "they have no allegiance to the criminal enterprise other than the ill-gotten dollar."
This was a central theme of the "Last Best Chance." The storyline follows three separate operations to slip weapons of mass destruction into the U.S. and detonate them. Money is the motivator and knowledge of U.S. detection loopholes fuel to drive the whole enterprise.
"In the last crossing scene," says Holgate, "we show a border guard actually taking a Geiger counter to a bomb and not detecting it."
Whether it's the Mexican border or Canadian border, the U.S. is at a huge technological disadvantage.
"Even the systems we have in place today are not technically capable of detecting this type of material," says Holgate.
While the movie was fiction, the factual basis was designed to draw a picture of the nation's vulnerability to the viewer and to stir the creative juices within the U.S. intelligence community.
Holgate says the solution lies in not only mounting a defense where a WMD might come in across the border or the port.
"It lies where the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium sits today, because once it starts to move, it's very easy to slip through."
Part II: Greatest threat to U.S.' coming south of the border
WASHINGTON - Narcotics traffickers have found a new source of profit: Helping terrorists.
Current and former U.S. government officials say drug traffickers are assisting international terrorists trying to penetrate U.S. borders. Dave Gaubutz, a former U.S. military officer and self-styled sleeper cell tracker, says "they're already in the United States -- they've been here for many years."
He says terrorist organizations have set up shop in a number of U.S. locations, including Michigan, Florida, Texas, Nashville, Richmond, Knoxville and California. They are doing what Hezbollah operative Mahmoud Khourani was doing before his arrest near Detroit.
"Khourani's specialties appeared to be weaponry, spy craft, counter-intelligence," says Tom Diaz, a former congressional crime subcommittee staffer and an author.
Khourani was recruiting people who would be trained. They were going to be trained "to make things go bang and to attack," he says.
The alliance between terrorists and narco-traffickers has exploded into a global network of sophisticated and ruthless America-hating operatives that are flooding Latin America, Central Asia and the Middle East.
But another problem has emerged that could have a devastating impact on the U.S.
"This poses the greatest strategic threat that faces our country right now," says Mike Braun, former DEA operations chief, who paints a very vivid picture of the problem.
"As we speak, because of the explosive increase of cocaine abuse in Europe, Colombian and Mexican cartels are all over West Africa."
Cocaine from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia is being moved across the Atlantic, he says.
"Into west Africa, places like Guinea-Bissau, the quintessential example of ungoverned space or permissive environment."
And not only are the cartels there, but Braun says they've got "operatives from Al Qaida, from Hezbollah and Hamas that are occupying the same space at exactly the same time."
Why is he worried?
"This potpourri of global scum is hanging out in the same seedy bars, the same sweaty brothels -- and they're staying in the same shady hotels and they're talking business."
Creating relationships that he believes will come back to haunt the U.S.
"Rest assured, you're going to have a Hezbollah operative that built a personal relationship with a Mexican cartel member in West Africa when they were young. Four or five or 10 years down the road, he's going to pick up the phone and say, 'hey can you help me get my guy into the U.S. or can you help me move some items in the U.S. that I desperately need to move?'"
Whether they're coming from Africa, South Asia or the Middle East, terrorist operatives need a travel plan. Mexican smugglers have it. It starts on the U.S.-Mexican border with families of smugglers who own gateways into the U.S.
"There are probably somewhere between 30 and 40 gatekeepers along our southwest border."
"If you happen to move something across that border unbeknownst to them and they find out about it, there will be hell to pay. If they can't hunt you down -- they'll hunt your family down. They'll torture you first and ultimately kill you."
Braun says they don't care who they bring across the border.
"An operative from Al Qaida or Hezbollah, dark complexion, dark eyes, dark hair. At 2 in the morning, when the coyote is moving you across the border, there's not much due diligence going on out there. If you've paid your fee, he or she is going to move you."
Former CIA director Mike Hayden says that's just what al Qaida needs -- a way to move people from the training camps in Pakistan to here. We were seeing people undergoing training there -- people who would not draw attention to themselves if they were next to you in the customs line at Dulles airport."
Part III: Common Ground in the Underworld
It was November 2002. The nothingness was overwhelming as we trudged through the desolate, dusty camps of El Chaco in the desert of western Paraguay. This barren place was home to poor subsistence farmers.
The scorching heat from the sun radiated skyward, only punctuated on the horizon by a few giant plumes of smoke from fires set by indigenous farmers.
The Paraguayan Chaco is a hot, arid and sparsely populated region of the Río de la Plata basin. It's bordered Bolivia to the Northwest, Argentina to the South, and Brazil to the Northeast.
On assignment with a film crew, our goal to investigate life on the border was complicated by rumors about strange people passing through. Those rumors were peppered with whispered references to al Qaida.
Five hundred miles later, we again encounter hushed tones. We discovered in eastern Paraguay, Ciudad Del Este, a home to a huge cadre of Hezbollah operatives. It was also said to be a place frequented by terrorists, narco-traffickers and weapons dealers.
This area, also known as the Tri-border region, was a key shipment point for the underworld. This is the place where alliances were formed, deals were made, and shadowy alliances were built.
The puzzle was beginning to take shape.
Fast forward to August 2009.
"One of the fears that we've always had is we would we see terrorist organizations trying to take advantage of the infrastructure that narco-traffickers have established to try to move things and people into the United States," said former CIA Director Mike Hayden.
And that fear according to Michael Braun, former DEA operations chief and currently managing partner of the Spectre Group, has long been a reality.
"Either a Hezbollah or al Qaida operative was smuggled into the United States by a human trafficker and drug smuggler out of Tijuana in 2002 or 2003," Braun says. "This high level operative actually made it into the suburbs of Detroit."
His name was Mahmound Kourani.
"Kourani came into the United States through a pipeline that ran from Beirut to, of all places, Tijuana, Mexico," says Tom Diaz, a former staffer on the U.S. House of Representatives Crime Subcommittee.
"He was an operational recruiter for Hezbollah," says Diaz, who wrote about him in his book, "Lightning Out Of Lebanon."
The book also exposes other critical evidence suggesting that sleeper cells, like the one Kourani was working on, are not just content to sneak in and wait. Hezbollah actually plotted to assassinate Tony Lake, the National Security Advisor to former President Bill Clinton.
(Copyright 2009 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)