Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

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Cross-border terrorism: does “evidence to compel” further action exist?

Last November, the Republican Party majority of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management issued a report on border and hemispheric security. A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border alleges, among several other claims, that the U.S.-Mexico border is vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic terrorists seeking to do harm on U.S. soil.

“Of growing concern and potentially a more violent threat to American citizens is the enhanced ability of Middle East terrorist organizations, aided by their relationships and growing presence in the Western Hemisphere, to exploit the Southwest border to enter the United States undetected.”

The report calls on the U.S. government to mobilize against this vulnerability — which it compares to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — before an attack materializes.

“Recognizing and proactively confronting threats has presented a perennial challenge to our country. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, we failed to deal with the Soviet threat before it resulted in a full-blown crisis that threatened nuclear war. Now we are faced with a new threat in Latin America that comes from the growing collaborations between Iran, Venezuela, Hezbollah and transnational criminal organizations. Similar to the Cuban missile crisis, the evidence to compel action exists; the only question is whether we possess the imagination to connect the dots before another disaster strikes.”

The Facts:

To back up its argument that the U.S. government must make an even higher priority of the cross-border terrorism scenario, the Subcommittee cites the following pieces of “evidence to compel action.”

  1. A May 2012 Los Angeles Times blog post, citing an unnamed former U.S. official, reported that Osama bin Laden supported the idea of terrorists with Mexican passports carrying out attacks inside the United States. U.S. intelligence analysts gleaned this from letters and notes seized from the Pakistan site where U.S. Special Forces killed bin Laden in 2011. The official gave no indication of an actual plot in the works; the context was apparently bin Laden’s personal preference that terrorist attackers not be people who had sworn a U.S. citizenship oath.
  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: No
  • Claim of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. A statement from a former U.S. official:

“In August 2007 former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stated that not only have terrorists used the Southwest border to enter the United States but that they will inevitably continue to do so as long as it is an available possibility.”

This claim comes from an El Paso Times interview with former DNI McConnell. He does claim that “there are some” cases of terrorists coming across the Southwest border, but “not in great numbers.” When the interviewer tries repeatedly to get McConnell to be more specific, he replies:

  • “The vast majority you don’t hear about.”
  • “There are some. And would they use it as a path, given it was available to them? In time they will.”
  • “There were a significant number of Iraqis who came across last year. Smuggled across illegally.”
  • “Q: Can you give me any more detail [about the Iraqis]? A: I probably could if I had my notebook. It’s significant numbers. I’ll have somebody get it for you. I don’t remember what it is. The point is it went from a number to (triple) in a single year, because they figured it out. Now some we caught, some we didn’t. The ones that get in, what are they going to do? They’re going to write home.”

It is unclear whether the “Iraqis” McConnell refers to where proven terrorists, or simply migrants.

  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: Yes
  • Examples given: None
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. A statement from a current U.S. official:

“In a July 2012 hearing before the full U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed that terrorists have crossed the Southwest border with the intent to harm the American people.”

When pressed for more detail, Napolitano told Rep. Ron Barber (D-Arizona),

“With respect, there have been—and the Ababziar matter would be one I would refer to that’s currently being adjudicated in the criminal courts—from time to time, and we are constantly working against different and evolving threats involving various terrorist groups and various ways they may seek to enter the country.”

Napolitano provided no further information. As WOLA has noted before, the “Ababziar matter” involved Iranian operatives allegedly seeking help from Mexico’s Zetas criminal organization for a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. But the Iranians, in fact, never ended up making contact with the Zetas.

  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: Yes
  • Examples given: None
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. Apprehensions of migrants from 35 countries that the U.S. intelligence community considers to be of “special interest” because they “could export individuals that could bring harm to our country in the way of terrorism.” According to the Subcommittee, U.S. authorities apprehended 1,918 citizens of these 35 countries in the U.S.-Mexico border zone between 2006 and 2011. There is no indication whether any of these individuals in fact posed a terrorist threat, or whether they were merely would-be migrants.
  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: No
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. The case of Said Jaziri, a Tunisian cleric captured in the trunk of a vehicle in San Diego, California in January 2011. Jaziri was not accused of plotting any terrorist activity. He had been convicted in France “for assaulting an individual whom he believed to be a less-devout Muslim,” and while in Canada had “called for the death” — as the London Daily Mail put it — of the Danish cartoonist whose images of the Prophet Mohammed sparked outrage in the Muslim world in 2006.
  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: No
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. The case of Ahmed Dhakane, a Somali convicted of running “a large-scale smuggling operation out of Brazil that specialized in smuggling East Africans into the United States.” Prosecutors claim that among the migrants whom Dhakane smuggled were three Somalis “whom Dhakane knew to be supporters or operatives of AIAI [Al-Ittihad Al-Islami, a group on the U.S. terrorist list] and of the Somali terrorist organization Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin (al-Shabaab).” The Subcommittee report mentions no intention or plan to carry out terrorist activities in the United States.
  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: Yes
  • Examples given: One, three individuals
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No
  1. The case of Anthony Joseph Tracy, convicted in 2010 for helping “approximately 272 Somalis [to] enter the United States illegally.” Tracy said that members of al-Shabaab had asked for his help getting to the United States, “but that he declined to help them. In spite of this denial, investigators discovered an ominous email message from Tracy where he wrote: ‘i helped a lot of Somalis and most are good but there are some who are bad and i leave them to ALLAH…’”
  • Indication that individuals with terrorist links crossed border: Unclear
  • Examples given: None
  • Evidence of specific terrorist conspiracy: No

The authors of the Subcommittee report are right that the hypothetical scenario of terrorists crossing the border from Mexico demands constant vigilance. It would be irresponsible to dismiss it.

But with the evidence they present — vague official statements, three cases with no mention of any intent to engage in terrorist activity — the authors of the report do not make the case that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be more vigilant than they already are.

The amount of intelligence, military and law enforcement resources available to monitor potential threats is finite. With more immediate concerns in North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan-Pakistan and elsewhere, the resources available to monitor Latin America and the Caribbean are even more limited.

U.S. authorities must choose wisely how these resources get used. Organized crime, money laundering, arms, drug and human trafficking, corruption, and migrant deaths already pose daily challenges in the U.S.-Mexico border area.

Preparing for possible cross-border Islamic terrorism is a significant additional challenge, but the Subcommittee report acknowledges that it requires “imagination” at this point. The State Department, meanwhile, reported last July that “no known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”

In our view, the evidence presented in the Line in the Sand report is not compelling enough to justify diverting resources — whether existing or additional — away from challenges that U.S. personnel already face every day in the U.S.-Mexico border zone.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Terrorism U.S. Congress

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