Government sources say the FBI and the Homeland Security Department are investigating a South African woman detained at a South Texas airport last month after allegedly entering the United States by walking or swimming across the Mexican border.
"The concern is some of the people associated with her," a government official said, adding that either some of her acquaintances or some of her relatives were suspected of having terrorist ties.
"The government is looking at some possible Pakistani affiliations she may have had," the source said. "People are investigating possible terrorist connections in this case."
Her detention at the McAllen airport, just a few miles from the Mexican border, "set off about half a dozen red flags for the officials," said another government source.
U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) also told the Houston Chronicle that "very credible sources" in the federal government had told him the woman was on a government watch list for suspected terrorists and that concerns had been raised because of her frequent worldwide travel.
The woman, Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed, 48, was carrying a passport that had been doctored, thousands of dollars in cash and a travel itinerary that showed plane trips around the world prior to her journey by foot into Texas. Among her possessions were a pair of wet blue jeans and muddy shoes scored with thorns, a border official said.
Ahmed was detained the morning of July 19 as she was about to board a flight from McAllen to JFK Airport in New York, via Houston, said Eddie Flores, the spokesman for the McAllen sector of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
She was questioned as part of a "routine inspection by our . . . border patrol agents at the airport," Flores said.
According to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in McAllen, Ahmed presented a South African passport that had no exit or entry stamps or other visa endorsements. It was determined later that six pages had been torn out of the passport.
When asked whether she had a visa to enter the United States, Ahmed told two border patrol agents that she had left it in New York, said the affidavit by Daniel V. Delgado, an FBI special agent assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the McAllen FBI office.
Ahmed was transported to the border patrol processing office in McAllen "to query all relevant immigration databases," according to the affidavit. Officers then determined Ahmed had no proof of legal immigration status and no current visas, and she was taken into custody for illegal entry and possible deportation proceedings.
Among her belongings were several plane tickets and itineraries. An Emirates Airlines itinerary dated July 8 showed travel for a Mrs. Farida Ahmed from Johannesburg, South Africa, to London's Gatwick Airport, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A second British Airways itinerary dated July 14 indicated travel from London Heathrow with a final destination of Mexico City.
A hearing for Ahmed was not held until Tuesday, before U.S. Magistrate Dorina Ramos in McAllen. At that hearing, according to the (McAllen) Monitor newspaper, FBI Agent Gary Simmons testified that Ahmed also was carrying about $7,300 in currency: $6,000 in U.S. dollars; a South African Krugerrand gold coin worth $400; and the rest in British pounds and Mexican pesos. Simmons also testified, the Monitor said, that Ahmed had a valid visa in 1996 and had visited a friend in McAllen before.
Michael T. Shelby, the U.S. attorney in Houston, which is handling the case, said Ahmed was being held for "significant violations" of U.S. immigration and criminal law, which included entering the country illegally, altering a passport and making false statements about her status in the United States.
But Shelby added: "Nothing alleged in the criminal complaint filed with the federal court nor any testimony introduced at the detention hearing held on July 27, 2004, suggests that Ms. Ahmed has established ties with any terrorist organization."
Nancy G. Herrera, an executive assistant U.S. attorney in Houston, said the office has 30 days to present the case to a grand jury. If the panel finds probable cause, it could hand up an indictment charging Ahmed with violating federal law by entering the U.S. illegally, altering a passport and lying to federal agents.
Ahmed remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. Attempts to reach her attorney, Kyle Welch, an assistant in the Federal Public Defender Office for the Southern District of Texas, were unsuccessful.