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Asian women forced into sexual slavery in California
June 14th, 2012
08:48 PM ET

Asian women forced into sexual slavery in California

By Traci Tamura and Thelma Gutierrez


The pursuit of the American Dream was what brought Soo (not her real name) to the United States from South Korea. It was 2001, when she befriended a group of people who offered her the chance to invest in a business opportunity in California. Soo jumped at the chance to live and work in the U.S. Shortly after Soo arrived in the States she realized that her friends were operating prostitution-related massage parlors. They took her ID and passport after bringing her up to San Francisco, where they told her she owed them $15,000. Her dream was slowly turning into a nightmare. She was left at a massage parlor and forced to prostitute herself to pay off the debt. The pain of having to sell her body against her will, and the treatment she received from clients, are still fresh in her mind. "They would like to choke me and people pulled my hair and hurt me. When I scream nobody hears and nobody comes," Soo remembers.

Soo tried to refuse prostituting her body but without her legal documents or English language skills, and not knowing where she was, she was vulnerable to their threats of being reported to the authorities and sent to jail. So she says she complied and was even beaten into submission if she tried to flee or seek help from the patrons. Soo and 30 other women were forced to work around 20 hours a day selling their bodies for the repayment of debts. If they didn't, there was a price to be paid. "In the beginning, I said no all the time and I got beaten a lot. Even with all of my bruises I still had to work. Sometimes, I would plead to my customers, even though I don't speak English. I'd try my best but I'd just plead with my customers. But they would just tell my manager and then I'd get into more trouble."

It's been five years since Soo was able to escape from her situation with the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, but the memories are just as vivid as if it was yesterday. When we sat down to talk to her about her experience, the anguish and pain are evident. The reason Soo decided to come forward and tell her story was to help others in her situation and give them hope that there is help out there. And her message to the men who are customers of these types of establishments: think of the women you are dealing with. "We are humans. We are not animals. I want to tell them we are not machines. It's so hard for me to live my life. It's very hard to live. Please think of us as your child. Just once think of us as your child."

Soo is still pursuing the American Dream but it's been altered now. The trauma she suffered being forced into sex slavery has taken its toll on her emotionally. Everyday continues to be a challenge for Soo, but she finds solace in her tiny apartment filled with rescue cats and dreams of having her own pet grooming business someday. For now, she is thankful for her freedom but is still held hostage to the memories.

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Filed under: backstory • CNN Freedom Project
April 6th, 2012
08:25 PM ET

Deportation after dark

by Traci Tamura

CNN Producer

Recently, I traveled to Nogales, Mexico to work on a CNN story with reporter Thelma Gutierrez and Senior Photojournalist Gregg Canes, about what happens to undocumented immigrants who are deported from the United States back to Mexico at all hours of the night. We spent a couple of nights on the border to meet some of the recent deportees.

We first ran into Mario, who had just been deported from a detention center in Arizona. This family man with three children was living and working in construction when he was first detained in Washington state. Mario had lived in the United States for 25 years, but now all he had to show for it was a backpack filled with dirty clothes and his weathered Bible. Mario told us he has been away from his family for almost two years and one of the things he misses most is his four-year-old son. His eyes welled up when he told us every time he calls home, his young son says, "Daddy, I want to fly over in a helicopter to pick you up and bring you back home."  Mario knows that won't happen but lets his son hold on to that dream for the time being.

Next, we met 19-year-old Ariel. His mother brought him into the U.S. at the age of two, and he grew up as a typical Southern California beach boy. When we found Ariel, he was wearing his hooded sweatshirt and sitting outside a humanitarian aid office for migrants. He was a scared, dazed and confused young man who only had a backpack with a few pieces of clothes, a cell phone that had run out of minutes and a single picture of his beloved mother – who was also deported back to Mexico. Ariel was lost and not sure what he would do next since he was essentially a stranger in his strange "home" land. But as scared as he was about himself, what struck me most was how concerned he was about leaving his younger sister – who is an American citizen – behind. The love and paternal feelings he had toward his sister made him seem older than his years. But when he talked about how terrifying the whole deportation experience was for him, he seemed just like an American teenager from San Diego.

One of the last people we met on our journey was Karla, a single mother deported from Phoenix who was forced to leave her two sons – both American citizens – behind in Arizona. Without relatives to care for them, the boys ended up in the custody of Child Protective Services.  Karla was brought to the U.S. with her sister and mother when she was a teenager. She’d made a home in Phoenix for 26 years until she was detained after a domestic dispute with her boyfriend. Talking through tears at one of the few shelters for deportees, she told us she misses her kids dearly but knows she can’t offer them a better life in Mexico. She tells us that if it came down to it she would rather give them up for adoption than subject them to a dangerous life on the streets where she can’t protect them. As if to punctuate our conversation, gunshots rang out in the night as we talked to Karla. We all jumped a bit. Karla told us that happens all the time and is precisely why she would not bring her children with her.

The fear of being across the border in Mexico at night lessens when you meet and talk with people who are still in the midst of their journey. When we were done with our story we had the liberty to simply drive back across the border… but it's hard to forget the people we met.

French killings refocus fears on 'solo' acts of terror
Getty Images/Police Surround Toulouse Shooting Suspect
March 21st, 2012
08:25 PM ET

French killings refocus fears on 'solo' acts of terror

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, CNN

(CNN) - Mohammed Merah is the sort of radicalized individual who makes Western counterterrorism officials very apprehensive: someone who is determined, trained, living legally in Europe or the United States and operating alone. One of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of militants either unknown to authorities or suspected of plotting a terrorist attack but whose real intentions and movements are difficult to track.

Merah is wanted in connection with the killings of seven people in the past 10 days. He twice visited the Afghan-Pakistan border area, in 2010 and 2011, French officials said Wednesday. And after the standoff began in Toulouse, he claimed to have been trained by al Qaeda, they say.

Paris prosecutor François Molins said Wednesday, "He has traveled to Afghanistan without using the networks known by French and foreign intelligence services, which means he went there by his own means and without going through facilitators known by intelligences services, and without going through countries usually monitored."

But Merah had appeared on the security services' radar, according to Molins. During his first trip to Afghanistan, "Afghan police checked his ID during a traffic stop, and as a result he was handed over to the U.S. Army, who then put him on board the first plane heading to France," Molins said. (A senior U.S. official gave a different account, saying Afghan forces had actually handed him over to French troops, who had him repatriated.)

Merah had been under surveillance by French intelligence for years, according to Interior Minister Claude Gueant. Even so, he was apparently able to visit the Afghan-Pakistan region a second time and then accumulate weapons after returning home, including an Uzi machine pistol and an assault rifle, plan a series of attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, and force the French government to step up security precautions nationwide.

The jihadist trail

French authorities believe that between 20 and 30 French nationals are tied to jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. However, one French intelligence estimate in 2010 put the potential number as high as 200 or 250.

In 2008, a group of militants traveled from France to Pakistan's tribal areas, where they joined al Qaeda, including Hamza el Alami, a French citizen of Moroccan descent. Alami was killed in fighting in the border region.

In fall 2010, another militant returning from the region and suspected of meeting with al Qaeda operatives was arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack in France.

France's growing Pakistani diaspora has added to concerns about travel flows to Pakistan. French intelligence services have invested heavily in keeping tabs on nationals who have made the trip recently.

In April 2011, two French nationals were arrested in Lahore, Pakistan, after meeting with Umar Patek, an Indonesian al Qaeda-linked operative. The two - one of whom was of Pakistani descent, and one of whom was a convert to Islam - met Patek so he could transport them for training in North Waziristan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Radicalization in Europe

What is unclear is when and how Merah was radicalized, whether online or through membership of a radical Islamist group in Europe. Gueant said Wednesday that Merah became radicalized amid a small salafist group in Toulouse and had connections to a group called Forsane Alizza ("Knights of Pride"). But there is no evidence that any of its members was involved in or aware of his plans.

Forsane Alizza was outlawed in January by the French government, which alleged that it was a terrorist organization training members "for armed combat." For its part, the group said its mission was to fight Islamophobia and has said it will contest the government's decision.

But its website used militant language such as calling for "soldiers" to defend Muslim women. And while there is no evidence that Forsane Alizza has been involved in acts of violence, it has certainly promoted the threatening rhetoric of others, glorifying Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year.

One member suggested that the right-wing Swiss politician Oskar Freysinger deserved a "bullet in the forehead." Freysinger has campaigned against permitting minarets on mosques in Switzerland.

Forsane Alizza also seems to be tied to a group called the Force de Défense Musulmane sur Internet, which campaigns to have Islamophobic material removed from websites.

Forsane Alizza appears to have been strongest in Paris and the central French city of Limoges, where several of its members were arrested in 2010 after invading a McDonald's restaurant and shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The group has also protested a French law banning women from wearing a full veil in public places and posted a number of well-produced videos of its protests in French cities.

Its outlook appears very similar to other radical Islamist groups in Europe, such as Islam4UK in Britain and Shariah4Belgium, as well as Revolution Muslim in the United States. Videos purportedly produced jointly by Shariah4Belgium and Forsane Alizza have been uploaded to YouTube in the past month.

Islamic radicalization increased in France in the 2000s, fueled by growing militancy in social media, the role of French troops in Afghanistan, and the Palestinian issue. Bleak socioeconomic prospects in the suburbs of French cities where many French Muslims of North African descent live, the rise of the far right in France and the government's ban on the niqab (full veil) has added to the sense of grievance felt by some young French Muslims.

Unlike in the United States or Britain, French laws restricted the ability of French radical groups to freely proselytize, but according to some analysts, the lack of a public pressure valve may have itself been dangerous.

Before his death, Osama bin Laden tried to tap into the grievances of Muslims living in France. In an October 2010 audio recording attributed to bin Laden, he attacked the French ban on the niqab.

"The equation is very clear and simple: As you kill, you will be killed; as you take others hostages, you will be taken hostages; as you waste our security, we will ... waste your security," bin Laden said.

That message, and similar audio and video postings from the likes of Awlaki, resonate with a fringe of marginalized young Muslim men living in the poorer quartiers of French cities, with little prospect of work and regular confrontations with police. According to French officials, Merah had a series of convictions for petty crime and had been turned down for army service.

Al Qaeda changing gears

Al Qaeda propaganda and recruitment efforts have shifted emphasis in recent years, from spectacular attacks on the scale of 9/11 to "do-it-yourself" attacks that require less training and planning. In June 2011, the group's media production arm As Sahab released a video titled "You Are Only Responsible for Yourself,"encouraging followers to carry out acts of individual terrorism in the West.

In the recording, Oregon-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn said it was easy for American al Qaeda sympathizers to go to a gun show and purchase an automatic assault rifle without having to submit to a background check.

Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch has been especially vocal in encouraging lone acts of terrorism. Its English-language magazine Inspire has a section dedicated to helping terrorist sympathizers in the West carry out attacks, including bomb-making recipes.

According to authorities, one such formula, "How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom's Kitchen," has been downloaded by individuals plotting terrorist attacks in both the U.S. and the UK.

November 30th, 2011
08:36 PM ET

Explain it to me: The Iraq Pullout

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq started in the Spring of 2003.  As of this writing some 13,000 American fighters are in the country, down from a one-time high of 170,000.  The deadline for all of those troops to withdraw from Iraq is a little more than a month away, on December 31st.  Convoys of soldiers have already started to ship out.  But as Michael Holmes explains, the pullout has been a long and complicated process.