HOUSTON – HOUSTON (AP) — An alert issued about a member of a Somali terrorist group trying to enter Texas from Mexico could impede efforts by innocent Somalis living in Latin America who are trying to gain asylum in the U.S., a Somali diplomat said Thursday.
U.S. Homeland Security has asked law enforcement in Houston to be on the lookout for a suspected member of the al-Shabaab group, an al-Qaida ally based in Somalia.
Omar Jamal, first secretary of the Somali mission at the United Nations, said his nation "is in a constant battle with al-Shabaab" and urged American authorities "to be careful who is bad and good in this new alarm."
The impoverished Horn of Africa nation is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and has not had a functioning government since 1991. It also is home to pirates who have been seizing vessels for ransom in the Indian Ocean.
Jamal said his UN mission for months has been fielding inquiries from Somalis who believe missing loved ones throughout Central and South America are trying to flee to the United States.
"We don't want them to get caught in the middle of this war on terror," he said.
He encouraged law enforcement authorities to pursue leads "if they have a lead."
"But they also need to be very careful and vigilant of those who are really innocent," he said.
About 1,500 people showed up at U.S. airports and on the borders seeking asylum during the 2009 fiscal year, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. Somalis accounted for the biggest group — more than 240, more than double the number from the previous year.
Harris County Sheriff's Department officials have confirmed the terror alert but refused to discuss specifics. A Houston Police Department spokesman said the department doesn't publicly discuss such matters. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they don't discuss specific intelligence matters.
Jamal said he learned of the alert earlier this week.
"They're trying to be extra cautious, but we didn't think it was that much of a situation," he said. "We've been working with them on this issue for a very long time.
"It's not the first time."
Raqiya Abdalla of the Fairfax, Va.-based Somali Family Care Network said her advocacy group has no official estimate of the number of Somalis in the U.S., but said a fair estimate would be 200,000.
The alert issued last week came after federal prosecutors added new charges earlier this month against a 24-year-old Somali man, Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, who had been picked up in Brownsville in 2008.
He pleaded not guilty May 14 in federal court in San Antonio to three counts of immigration fraud.
Without elaborating, authorities in Harris County, which includes Houston, have confirmed a connection between Dhakane's case and the Homeland Security alert.
Dhakane is accused of making false statements under oath in support of his application for asylum.
According to his indictment, Dhakane failed to disclose that he was a member or associate of the al-Barakat financial transfer network and Al-Ittihad al-Islami, or the Islamic Union, which wants to impose Islamic law in Somalia. Both are on the Treasury Department's list of global terrorist groups with links to al-Qaida, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges that Dhakane lied about his movements before entering the United States in March 2008. It says he "participated in and later ran a large-scale smuggling enterprise out of Brazil" that smuggled hundreds of people, mostly East Africans, into the United States. Among those smuggled, according to the indictment, were several Somalis affiliated with Al-Ittihad al-Islami.
The indictment also alleges he lied when he told officials that a young girl was his wife, when she actually "was a smuggling client" of his whom he had never married and had "repeatedly raped and impregnated prior to coming to the United States." He threatened to have the girl murdered if U.S. officials learned of the rapes or that he was not her husband, according to the indictment.