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Unraveling the mystery behind the “terrorist patches” in Hebbronville

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Back in 2005 and 2006 several news stories about terrorists and suspected terrorists crossing the southern border circulated in the media and the blogosphere. I seldom see these kinds of stories now, which leads me to believe that it had more to do with the often-ugly immigration debate going on at the time in Washington D.C. which ended up tanking immigration reform.Most of the stories were anecdotal and had very little in the way of credible government sources. I’ve been going back and investigating some of those stories to see whether any credible links were ever made to terrorist organizations. One particular story that really caught my attention back in 2005 was an account that Border Patrol had discovered a  jacket on a dirt road outside of Hebbronville that had two unusual patches on it. One patch was a military looking patch with Arabic script. The other was a crude home made patch which showed an airplane that looked like it was flying into a tower. Overhead it said “Midnight Mission.”  Some equated this with 9-11. Another patch said DAIWA.  Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez has often cited the story about the patches in his congressional testimonies and in media interviews as proof that terrorists have crossed the southern border. Over the years, the right wing blogosphere has also circulated the account as proof of terrorists crossing the border into the United States.I called U.S. Customs and Border Protection to find out whether they were ever able to make any links between the patches and a terrorist group. I spoke with Agent Mark Qualia, a spokesperson for USCBP.  Here’s what Qualia wrote in an email:”As it was abandoned property, we cannot have a concrete sense of how it got there or how long it had been there. It is, however, highly probable that an illegal alien wore the coat and left it in that spot. Moreover, we see a lot of clothing that is procured at the “pulgas” just before crossing the border. 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, which is now nearly five years ago.We work diligently everyday with the intelligence community to better address and understand the threats we face at our borders, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission.”Not content with this general response, I asked Agent Qualia whether he could be more specific about the patches. What did the Arabic script mean? What country did the patch come from?Here is the second email response I received from Qualia:”Agents called a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) translator. During contact and 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”.The “Daiwa” patch is the name of a well-known corporate company, which sells Sport Fishing products with corporate offices in eight countries including Japan, the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Taiwan, Thailand, and the UK. The patch that was located inside the jacket read “Midnight Mission”.  The logo has an airplane flying over a building and headed towards a tower.  A closer look appears to reveal that the plane is over an airport with terminal ramps and airplanes on taxiways. The appearance of the patch led the investigators to believe it is a homemade patch.At a later date is was determined that the jacket that the patches were portrayed on was manufactured in Mexico.No link was established to Al Qaeda.”Still not satisfied,  I decided to look further into the military patch with Arabic script. I reached out to a friend of a friend who speaks Arabic. What she found was fascinating and much more revealing than what I got from Homeland Security. Here is what she wrote in an email:”The literal translation is Defense Brigades/Martyrdom is the Path to Immortality.I did a google search for the Defense Brigades in Arabic and came across the Arabic Wikipedia page that says the DB is a branch of the Syrian Armed Forces that was established by former president Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifa’t al-Assad. Rifa’t al-Assad had a falling out with the Syrian regime after he tried to lead a coup against Hafez’s government years ago. It seems that Rifat’s defense brigades were the troops that were at the forefront in the Hama massacre in Syria in 1982. It would be ironic if anyone were to claim that the Defense Brigades was connected to any type of Islamic movement since they engaged in one of the largest massacres against an Islamic movement!Also interesting is the parachute — implying that this is a paratrooper brigade. The lion is a common symbol in Syria since the president’s last name is Assad, meaning lion. “She went on to contact some friends in Syria who corroborated her findings. “I just talked to both of my friends and they echoed everything I said. Their main perception of the Brigades is that they were a very well-trained/well-paid combat force that was staunchly loyal to Rifa’t al-Assad in the 80s. They also added that the Brigades are no longer operative and they are also infamous for another massacre in 1980 called the Tadmour (Palmyra) Massacre when the Brigades killed thousands of political prisoners (mostly Muslim Brotherhood) at one of the largest prisons in Syria. My friend also added that if the Brigades were a threat to anyone, it was the Syrian people.My friend also emphasized that the popular conception of Rifa’t al-Assad is that he is very pro-peace with Israel and, to some extent, anti-Muslim.Just a note on the use of the term “martyrdom,” I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that by using the term “martyrdom” it implies suicide bombing or anything of the sort. In this way, it means that anyone who dies during war or for God, then he is a martyr.”So there you have it.  We have a military patch from a defunct air brigade in Syria that was anti-Islamist. A homemade patch picturing a plane over an airport runway and a patch with a popular Japanese fishing company on it. No known terrorist-link here but an interesting story nonetheless.

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. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.