In a small South Texas town, an illegal immigrant managing a convenience store aroused suspicion by asking customers about enough explosives to detonate several city blocks. He was also collecting photos of skyscrapers, including ones in Houston, reports the Houston Chronicle. In Corpus Christi, investigators found 30 illegal immigrants from the Middle East hidden in the bowels of a large ship. The stowaways refused to say why they had come. In The Woodlands, the owner of a $350,000 house will be sentenced for leading a double life as an arms dealer for terrorists.
Teams from federal, state, and local agencies are probing these and other incidents they believe could lead to terrorism. The number of such task forces grew rapidly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon to nearly 70 nationwide. “We’ve followed thousands of leads. We get them daily,” said Richard Powers, the FBI agent in charge of Houston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. “Ninety-nine percent turn out to be invalid, but I believe we have also prevented things.” The Houston task force comprises 100 members from 40 agencies. They include FBI agents, a police officer from Baytown, and a detective from Texas A&M University. All are subject to background checks and are given top-secret clearance. They spend the bulk of their time following tips but also network with other intelligence sources.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez, who serves on the task force and heads a regional Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, said the group thwarted attempts by suspected terrorists to cross the Mexican border into Texas. A few days after the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, task force members received intelligence that five Iraqis in Mexico City wanted to exchange millions of dinars for U.S. currency and find a smuggler to bring them across the border near Laredo. They were believed to be planning an assault on President Bush’s Crawford ranch, where they “wanted to blow something up,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Porto, another task force member. The smuggler they approached sought help from two people with links to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which has been named a foreign terrorist organization, Martinez said. “The threat was interrupted and went away,” he said. “I can’t say how.”