There’s a true story about terrorism and the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s more like a slapstick comedy than a thriller. In 2011, an Iranian-American used-car salesman named Mansour J. Arbabsiar, who lived in Texas, and his cousin believed they were trying to hire assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. and the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.
However, the plotters were not negotiating with a member of the cartel but with a DEA informant. Arababsiar was arrested, his cousin disappeared and the U.S. government made formal complaints to Iran, even though some U.S. officials believed it to be a clumsy, rogue operation not sanctioned by that country’s government.
There was another oddball scheme by three siblings from Macedonia who came to the U.S. through the Mexican border in 1975 and planned to bomb North Carolina’s Fort Dix Army base 23 years later. Needless to say, they failed
While there’s no way to determine for sure because matters of national security are routinely kept secret, those two incidents are the only known times the southern border had a role in plans to commit a terrorist plot on U.S. soil. Yet, despite evidence to the contrary, there’s a belief promoted by President Trump himself, that the U.S.-Mexico border is a favorite way for foreign terrorists to enter the country. Others dispute that.
“There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Network. “It simply isn’t true.”
Still, Trump and his minions in Congress and the media have portrayed the Mexican border as a wide-open gate festooned with a huge welcome mat for the world’s terrorists. This notion stubbornly persists despite a barrage of evidence that it isn’t true. When Trump promised during his campaign for the White House to crack down on immigration to keep “bad hombres” out of the United States, his comment was not just a slur on the nation’s Latinos. Trump also struck at the American primordial fear of terrorists, considered the baddest hombres in the land to many Americans since the 9/11 attacks.
So, its natural the president would evoke the fear of terrorism in his efforts to cut back on immigration to the U.S. and build his border wall, and it’s worked. 42 percent of Americans polled by Gallup last year said they were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about terrorism.
The White House pushed the terrorism at the border argument early this year, when White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders repeatedly said Customs and Border Protection officials caught nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists “that came across our southern border.” This echoed Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen, and Vice President Mike Pence repeated it the next day on on “Good Morning America.”
But the State Department’s latest summary of global terrorism threats concluded there was “no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups ... sent operatives via Mexico into the United States. …The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”
And, according to Customs and Border Protection data provided to Congress, the agency encountered 41 people on the Terrorist Screening Database from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, along the U.S.-Mexican border. Thirty-five of them were American citizens or lawful permanent residents, and only six were classified as non-citizens or residents. This, of course, does not mean that these six individuals were terrorists, simply that they appeared on the database.
After journalists and others questioned the allegations that thousands of terrorists were caught on the southern border, the White House retreated, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway saying they were “an unfortunate misstatement.”
But Trump administration officials continued to warn of terrorism threats at the border and continue to throw big numbers around.
Rasmussen’s former job as head of the National Counterterrorism Network was to lead efforts to collect and analyze all available information about terrorist threats t and to provide that information to senior decision makers, including the president.
He explained that the Terrorist Screening Database is a list of more than 2.5 million names compiled by the FBI and foreign intelligence sources of people that may have ties to terrorist networks based on their spending activities, travel patterns, family connections or other factors. It is not a list of people who could be criminally charged under terrorism statutes, and it is possible that someone could be stopped because they have the same name as a person on the list. For example, the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., famously was delayed from boarding flights because someone on the watch list used an alias that sounded like his name.
The Department of Homeland Security says that of the 2,554 people on the terrorist watch list who were caught trying to enter the United States in 2017, 355 came by land, 2,170 tried to enter through airports and 49 by sea. It’s unclear how many of the 335 people who tried to enter by land were at the Canadian vs. the Mexican border and whether any of these individuals were true terrorists plotting mayhem and murder.
Rasmussen says the intelligence community acquires information about individuals that points to a potential link to terrorist activity, and those are prohibited from entering the U.S. But he said it should not be assumed that every individual who was denied the opportunity to enter the country because of a potential terrorism link was in fact a would-be terrorist intent on doing us harm. We are certainly not facing a “crisis” of thousands of terrorists trying to cross our southern border, according to Rasmussen. He also says anyone who uses this argument to bolster support for building the wall or any other physical barrier along the southern border “is most likely guilty of fear mongering and willfully misleading the American people.”
Because it is difficult for a terrorist to enter the United States, Rasmussen says organizations like ISIS or Al-Qaeda have turned to a new “business model,” finding it easier to inspire or motivate an individual already inside the U.S. to act on their behalf. Alan Bersin, an Assistant Homeland Security Secretary in the Obama administration, said concern about the southern border began after 9/11, when the U.S. government made an inventory of all of the nation’s potential vulnerabilities. “There was a general concern about security in the entire land,” he said.
Bersin noted border security has been enhanced since 9/11 “and now there are many systems in check to guard” against terrorist infiltration. Like Rasmussen, Bersin said “it is not so easy to get into the United States.”
Meanwhile, Alex Nowrasteh, senior immigration policy analyst at the CATO Institute, said most terrorists who have been able to enter the United States, including the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, have come by airplane on tourist visas, student visas, or some other legal way, and overstayed. “It’s a lot easier for them to come here on a visa than to come illegally,” Nowrasteh said, notwithstanding the Terror Watchlist and Trump’s travel ban on certain Muslim countries.
But even before Trump became president, those who opposed immigration argued the U.S.-Mexico border is a conduit for terrorism. In the summer of 2014, James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, a self-proclaimed “guerrilla journalist” who targets Democrats, donned a Bin Laden mask and sneaked across the Rio Grande in a media stunt meant to expose the vulnerabilities of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m at the Rio Grande river. I’m about to cross into the United States just like thousands of illegal immigrants do every single year,” O’Keefe said in his video.
Trump supporters and those who share his zeal in curbing immigration also propagate the idea that terrorists from the Middle East are pouring in from Mexico, often adopting Hispanic surnames. Late last year, for example, Trump and some administration officials suggested that migrants from Middle Eastern countries might have traveled among the thousands of Hondurans in a U.S.-bound “caravan.” The president said he had “very good information” that Middle Eastern migrants had been traveling through Latin America for a number of years and that “there could very well be” Islamic terrorists in this traffic, and that U.S. Border Patrol has intercepted “some real bad ones.”
The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative group that aims to curtail both legal and illegal immigration, said the president was hampered by national security concerns from providing evidence of his allegations. So the center tried to provide more light on the issues. Using “publicly available” information, it determined that at least 100 migrants from “countries of interest,” whose names were on the terror watch lists were encountered on route or at the southern border between 2012 and 2017.
“The number of such law enforcement land border encounters with such watch-listed migrants has risen drastically each year after 2012, according to the information, which is deemed credible but could not be independently corroborated,” the center said. But once again, a person listed on the watch list or from a “country of interest” is not necessarily a member of a terrorist organization, and the center did not mention that many, many more on the watchlist are apprehended at airports.
Still, the center concluded “while President Trump may have raised the prospect of terrorist border infiltration to gain political advantage, facts would support his contention that Middle Easterners from places like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, as well as from South Asia and the Horn of Africa, do indeed routinely travel the same routes as Hondurans to the U.S. southern border and that some terrorist suspects have traveled among them.”
Todd Bensman, who wrote the above, did not dispute that most foreigners on the watch list were stopped from entering the country at airports, but said he conducted his study because Trump had focused on the border and that he has concluded it provides terrorists an open door into the United States. “There are minds greater than mine that consider it a threat,” Bensman said.
He said he recently traveled to Panama and Costa Rica to conduct “field work” and is convinced dangerous Middle Easterners are following the same path as Central Americans who are seeking asylum in the United States. Bensman differs with Trump in saying that those potential terrorists have probably not joined any “caravan” since those groups of Central American migrants have received such media scrutiny. “They are probably traveling behind or in front of the caravans,” he said. “I don’t see them in the same caravans. I see them on the same trail.”
Norwrasteh scoffs at the idea that Islamic militants, who aren’t likely to speak Spanish, would walk or take buses to travel more than 1,000 miles from Central America to the Rio Grande, then find a coyote to help them make the heavily guarded crossing. As to why some persist in believing the U.S.-Mexico border is a popular way for terrorists to enter the United States, Norwasteh said he has no clue.
“It could be that they actually believe it, or it could be it is the last argument they have to build that wall,” he said.
By Ana Radelat