Patches of Terror

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Back in 2005, right-wing media seized on a sketchy account of “terrorist garb” found near the small town of Hebbronville in South Texas. Border Patrol agents had found a ski jacket with three unusual patches attached: One featured a lion’s head, a parachute and Arabic script, another an airplane flying toward a tower and the words “Midnight Mission.” The third patch read “Daiwa.”

One of the most ardent spreaders of the story, Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, told the Cybercast News Service that these “military badges in Arabic” were proof that “Arabic-speaking individuals are learning Spanish and integrating into Mexican culture before paying smugglers to sneak them into the United States.”

The “terror patch” story bolstered the case for building a border wall and ratcheting up “border security” funding as essential to homeland security. But was there anything to it?

Agent Mark Qualia, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the Observer in a recent email message that it was highly probable that an “illegal alien” wore the coat and left it behind. “We see a lot of clothing that is procured at the ‘pulgas’ [flea markets] just before crossing before the border,” Qualia wrote. “Though we can’t speculate on the individual’s nationality or intent, we have not seen any threat or other concern arise from this incident.”

But wait: What did the Arabic script say? What country did that patch come from?

In a second email, Qualia was more expansive: “Agents called a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) translator,” he wrote of the patches’ discovery. “During contact with the translator via phone and facsimile transmission, the investigation concluded that the Arabic script patch read, ‘Defense Center,’ ‘Ministry of Defense,’ or ‘Defense Headquarters.’ The bottom of the patch read ‘Martyr,’ ‘Way to Eternal Life,’ or “Way to Immortality.’ “

As for Daiwa, that’s a well-known international sport fishing company.

The “Midnight Mission” patch was inside the jacket. While the logo appears to show an airplane flying over a building and headed toward a tower—9-11 all over again—a closer look reveals the airplane is flying over an airport with terminal ramps and airplanes on taxiways.

Qualia said that the jacket was determined to have been manufactured in Mexico.

“No link was established to Al Qaida,” he wrote.

Still not satisfied, the Observer reached out to Leah Caldwell, a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The patch came from a branch of the Syrian Armed Forces, she wrote after consulting friends in Syria. The Syrian Armed Forces was established by former President Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifa’t al-Assad. The literal translation, she said, is “Defense Brigades/Martyrdom is the Path to Immortality.”

Rifa’t's defense brigades took a leading role in a 1982 massacre of Hamas partisans in Syria—making the “terrorist” claims attached to the patches ironic as well as overblown.

And so, finally, a mystery is apparently solved. All that fuss was over a military patch from a defunct air brigade in Syria that was anti-Islamist, and another advertising a popular fishing company. But what a fine story it was.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.