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Why Biden’s State Department Has Offered a Cash Bounty for a Fugitive Smuggler of Afghans

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool

In a move that reveals much of import beyond first glance but repels U.S. media attention, the State Department has offered a whopping $2 million fortune in reward money for information leading to the arrest of a fugitive Pakistani human smuggler whose intercontinental network does something highly worrisome to homeland security professionals: since 2015, the network has smuggled Afghan travelers through South America and Central America to the southern border.

So fretful is the State Department that it last week offered $1 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Pakistani smuggler Abid Ali Khan and another $1 million to anyone who can wreck his finances.

Such a reward is highly unusual for a human smuggler who might, at best, receive well under a decade in federal prison under current sentencing guidelines. But clearly, there is much more at stake with this $2 million bounty that few, if any, American media outlets have reported or explained.

That’s probably because reporting and explaining would require a politically agonizing admission many reporters never want to make: that smuggling network’s like Khan’s can and will smuggle in terrorists from Afghan refugee populations swelling in neighboring countries all the way to an American southern border that is collapsing due to Biden policies.

Make no mistake, though: this reward reveals an important underlying national security story that demands telling as much as does the reward itself deserve publicity in line with traditional media public service practice.

The backstory

As I reported in April, federal prosecutors indicted Khan after a lengthy Miami-based ICE Homeland Security Investigations investigation. The April 7 indictment alleged that, since at least 2015, Khan operated his network from Nowshera, Pakistan, a known center of violent Islamic militancy. Khan and his associates remain fugitives. 

The American government alleges in the April indictment that Khan charged an average of $20,000 to smuggle his clients to the American border. A typical Khan tactic is to disguise his Afghan and Pakistani clients as foreign nationals of other countries and then use false identity documents to fly them by air to Brazil and then overland through Central America and Mexico.

The southern border’s normal management systems were well into their collapse by April under the swell of Central American migrants and migrants from all across the globe by April’s indictment issuance, including from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So worried were homeland security authorities about the Khan smuggling network that, in addition to the indictment, they mounted a rare secondary move that same April. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Khan and three others in his network, one Afghan and two other Pakistanis, as a “Transnational Criminal Organization” or TCO. 

The TCO designation opens the door for US government operations to disrupt Khan’s finances in ways that would cripple his work moving South Asian migrants to the southern border. OFAC designations are rarely if ever, used against smuggling networks like this, which stands as an indication of the danger with which US homeland security viewed the Khan network as the border crisis was ramping up in April. 

But if U.S. homeland security was that worried about Khan back in April, two new developments must have sent them into the red zone.  

One was that in August Afghanistan fell quickly and unexpectedly to the Taliban, triggering massive refugee flows into Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and other countries – and creating vast new markets for the Khan organization. Untold hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are now fleeing the Taliban into Pakistan, the Khan sweet spot for recruiting new travel clients who want to go to the United States but otherwise can’t secure legal visas. Among them will be associates of ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Khorasan network and many other terrorist organizations from the region. 

The second development was that Colombia and Panama reopened the so-called “Darien Gap” migrant passageway from Covid-19 border closures. Since then, historically large numbers of international migrants from around the world – 95,000 in just the first nine months of the Biden administration – have made their way to the southern border through the very same Darien Gap jungle route Khan uses.

What the Khan reward is really about: terrorist infiltration at the broken border

Taking these circumstances altogether, it should come as no surprise that American authorities would choose now to offer such a large and rare reward for Khan on top of the indictment and TCO designation. 

As explained in my new book, America’s Covert Border War, the Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, the American homeland security establishment has long targeted human smugglers like Khan and even created a special term for the migrants they transport, “special interest aliens.” Migrants are called SIAs and regarded as a higher-than-usual threat if they hail from countries where Islamic terrorists operate, such as in Afghanistan and next-door Pakistan.

An elaborate American effort detailed in the book arose after 9/11 to reduce SIA flows toward the southern border by arresting their smugglers. I recently reported that unscreened Afghans are routinely smuggled through the gap to the southern border, including some later found to be a security risk. I predicted an increase following the August fall of Kabul to the Taliban and refugee flight to neighboring countries like Pakistan because smugglers (like Khan) would offer travel packages to the US border. 

A media rebellion against journalistic tradition and duty to publicize rewards 

The State Department reward announcement does not mention terrorism, the fall of Kabul or the historic Darien Gap surge, although it does say organizations like Khan’s “pose high risk.” But various government announcements about the Khan network indicate a reason for its high priority.

Back in April, Miami Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury noted in one government press release that the Khan network transported “people with nefarious motivations” into the United States. He reiterated that his Miami team was committed to prosecuting individuals like Khan who “pose a threat to national security.”

Likewise, Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas L. McQuaid of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, noted in a Treasury Department statement that the government moves sought to prosecute Khan and smugglers like him “who seek to profit from ... jeopardizing our national security.”

The McQuaid and Salisbury statements typify the way U.S. homeland security officials have long danced around this border infiltration threat rather than more descriptively calling it out. Doing that from their insider perches with access to classified intelligence might, after all, arm the bad guys with too much information. 

But my informed guess (I worked for 23 years as a newspaper reporter) is that liberal media writers and their editors refuse to report on these otherwise inherently sexy national security stories out of fealty to the Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, which is polling terribly on the border crisis it created. 

If this is true, reporters and editors are aggravating a public safety danger that is very much non-partisan. 

Traditionally, media outlets report rewards offered by law enforcement, as part of a public service tradition on behalf of the general public welfare. Reward money cannot do its magic if fewer people know about it.

Has American media become so hopelessly partisan for Joe Biden’s Democratic Party that it would abrogate its traditional role of publicizing reward money rather than admit the terrorist infiltration threat that Khan’s organization poses?

I’m guessing the answer is yes and hoping I’m wrong. 

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