"We should have secured the Mexican border."
That could be the pitiful lament we hear from negligent U.S. officials if Al Qaeda pulls off an attack on the United States using weapons of mass destruction smuggled across our southern frontier.
Were that horrendous event to happen, leaders in the administration and Congress would be justly hit with the same question that was perhaps unjustly cast at them and their predecessors after the unprecedented Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: Why didn't they connect the dots?
This time, they will have no good answer. We have seen warning signs: Al Qaeda wants to hit the United States with weapons of mass destruction, and it sees the Mexican border as a weak flank in U.S. defenses against such an attack.
Time magazine reported this week that an Egyptian named Sharif al-Masri was captured in August in Pakistan. According to Time, al-Masri told interrogators that Al Qaeda has considered plans to "smuggle nuclear materials to Mexico, then operatives would carry material into the U.S."
Answering my inquiries about Time's report, a U.S. government official who described al-Masri as "a middle man" said the Egyptian's conversations with Al Qaeda operatives took place well before his August arrest, perhaps as long as a year or more ago. It was not clear, the official said, that the Al Qaeda operatives who spoke with al-Masri actually had any weapons of mass destruction, or even that they were talking in particular about nuclear material, as opposed to chemical or biological weapons.
The official said there was no evidence that Al Qaeda tried to carry out a plan such as al-Masri described, or even that Al Qaeda had the ability to try to carry it out.
But the official also said, "This is not the only body of intelligence that has been to this effect."
"We have seen reports," he said, "that indicated, like this, Al Qaeda's desire to potentially use Mexico. However, we do not have any evidence to suggest that they have or are carrying out this kind of plot to use Mexico."
A CIA spokesperson declined to comment about al-Masri.
In August, the State Department issued an alert in Mexico that suspected Al Qaeda operative Adnan el-Shukrijumah might be trying to sneak into the United States from that country. Time reported then that "FBI agents call el-Shukrijumah the next Atta -- after Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the 9-11 attacks." State is offering $5 million for information leading to Shukrijumah's capture. But today, our government has no idea where he is.
"The running joke," the U.S. official said, "is, 'Where in the world is Shukrijumah?'"
On CBS's "60 Minutes" last Sunday, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who once headed the agency's special unit tracking Osama bin Laden, was asked if he believed Al Qaeda was going to try to detonate a nuclear device in the United States. "A nuclear weapon of some dimension, whether it's actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device," said Scheuer. "Yes, I think it's probably a near thing."
Scheuer said that in May 2003 bin Laden had "secured from a Saudi sheik named Hamid bin Fahd a rather long treatise on the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Americans."
I asked the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors and translates Arabic publications, if it had seen anything resembling the treatise Scheuer cited. MEMRI sent me a report it published Nov. 11 that included excerpts from Sheikh Hamed Al Fahd's websites. One was from a tract titled, "Ruling Regarding the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction."
"If a bomb was dropped on them (i.e., the Americans) that would annihilate 10 million and burn their lands to the same extent that they burned the Muslim lands -- this is permissible, with no need to mention any further proof," said the treatise (parenthesis included in MEMRI's translation).
The Department of Homeland Security has drive-through radiation detectors at commercial truck ports of entry. Border Patrolmen now carry pager-sized radiation meters. But it will not be so easy to remotely detect an Al Qaeda footman carrying a backpack full of bio-weapons across the desert.
House Republicans have included significant immigration-enforcement measures in the House version of the intelligence bill responding to the report of the 9-11 Commission. These include doubling the Border Patrol from 10,000 to 20,000 agents, and tripling from 2,000 to 6,000 the number of investigations officers who enforce immigration laws in the interior. House and Senate conferees are now negotiating the final language of this bill. Liberals would like to strip the immigration provisions from it.
President Bush should insist the provisions stay and demand the bill on his desk as fast as you can say, "Bin Laden."