From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

While assessing the larger human-trafficking situation in OC for a Garden Grove-based NGO called U.S. International Mission, Cohen made undercover visits to both locations for a shoulder massage in the weeks leading up to the raid. He noted the telltale signs of a sex room—lube, baby oil and lots of Kleenex—"not something you usually find in a medical office," says Dottie Laster. After an undercover officer received a sexual solicitation, police were able to obtain a search warrant. Believing they were observing something bigger than a straightforward pimping-and-pandering case, Westminster P.D. notified ICE, the largest investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security, which sent its agents out to gather evidence.

The raid began with teams of seven staking out all three locations in a residential neighborhood. As soon as the ICE agents came in with the warrant, the boss sneaked out and fled in his white Nissan. The cops were ready, and Cohen rode along in a classic chase scene he calls "right out of a movie." They managed to force the Vietnamese suspect onto a dead-end street, where he tried to pass himself off as a customer before being arrested.

Cohen says the police confiscated Singaporean passports, Ecstasy pills and guns, including a stolen Glock 9. All but one of the women, who speaks Chinese, are Vietnamese—and most appear to be licensed acupuncturists and massage therapists who were recruited in Singapore and brought to the U.S. under the pretense they would be given legitimate work. Although to the casual observer it might appear to be just typical cop-show fodder, for Cohen, the foreign passports, involvement of federal ICE agents, and presence of drugs and guns point to something much darker than a run-of-the-mill prostitution ring.

"With 10 beautiful girls, you can make a million dollars cash in a year," he says. "And guess what? You can intimidate their families enough so that they will never testify." Cohen also points to the fact that the women seemed to have been denied contact with the outside world as an indicator of their helplessness. "They were not allowed to leave the house, even for shampoo."

In a discussion I had with him a few weeks before the raid, Westminster P.D. Lieutenant Derek Marsh said that although he and his colleagues have long suspected that Orange County is a point of destination for international traffickers with connections to criminal networks, "We don't have the resources at the local level to pursue them." Marsh was not authorized to comment on the latest case, which he said would be prosecuted under the "more robust" federal trafficking law.

Cohen suggests that intelligence agencies are "failing to acknowledge the centuries-old link" between gangs, arms, drugs and human trafficking. For him, the presence of all four of those at the Westminster bust "means that mafias with access to weapons of mass destruction have access to LA."

He believes, in other words, that the same Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai triads who enslave women work with the thugs moving heroin from its source in Myanmar's Golden Triangle down the Salween and Mekong rivers to southern Thailand and eventually Los Angeles. That scenario has been floated in intelligence circles before. But Cohen takes it a step further by saying those Southeast Asian gangs are also being "branded" by violent terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaeda, such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), whose stated goal is to create a caliphate (Islamic state under sharia law) that would encompass Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines. J.I.'s former operational leader, Hambali, has been in U.S. custody at Guantánamo since 2003, when he was captured in Thailand. Hambali is widely believed to be the brains behind the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200. Early this month, Indonesian police arrested J.I.'s military commander, and on June 15, they announced they were also holding Zarkasi—the network's supreme leader, who had replaced Hambali.

"The terror machine is on," Cohen says gloomily. "When you look at the expansion of terrorist operations in Southeast Asia, it's really easy to see that the connection is heroin."

Firsthand experience notwithstanding, Cohen says he owes the mafia-branding theory partly to the work of Steven Emerson (who directs the think tank Investigative Project on Terrorism and has been criticized by some for his "anti-Muslim stance"). Emerson has sounded more than one false alarm, but he can take credit for telling the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1998 that the "followers of Osama bin Laden" posed a significant threat to U.S. security.

In his latest book, Jihad Incorporated, Emerson argues that despite the warning of 9/11, "The American public and the West at large seem to have settled into a dangerous complacency, still unaware of the nature of the diffuse threat that faces our society and our way of life." He goes on to demonstrate the extent to which he believes Islamic radicalism has pervaded our cities, charities and governments.

So even though Vietnamese gangsters bringing girls, guns and drugs into Little Saigon may not overtly share the jihadist ideology of terrorist militias, Cohen thinks they are all too willing to do their benefactors' bidding—for the right price. That worries him. It should also, he says, scare the hell out of the rest of us.

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