Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

Posts tagged Terrorism

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Is ISIS Poised to Infiltrate Through the U.S.-Mexico Border?

“Sens. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all argued that increased border security is required to prevent members of the Islamist militant group from slipping across undetected. They say the flood of migrant children over the summer has exposed just how porous the border is.”

The Hill, September 16, 2014.

The Facts:

According to experts who have analyzed its statements, the Islamic State is not prioritizing involvement in the United States (or even Israel). For now at least, the group is targeting the “near enemy,” an August 30 New York Times analysis asserts.

“Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of ‘The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,’ said ISIS had so far consistently focused on what militants call ‘the near enemy’ — leaders of Muslim countries like Bashar al-Assad of Syria — and not ‘the far enemy’ of the United States and Europe.

‘The struggle against the Americans and the Israelis is distant, not a priority,’ he said. ‘It has to await liberation at home.’”

Meanwhile, the 2014 migrant children crisis did not expose “porosity” along the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Border Patrol presence, which has doubled since 2005 [PDF], was sufficient to apprehend and detain the tens of thousands of children arriving across the border, most of whom actually sought out the authorities upon their arrival. (“Generally, the children have been turning themselves in to the first official in a uniform they see after crossing the Rio Grande,” the Associate Press reported in July.) As a recent Border Fact Check post explains, measures of migrant apprehensions and border-zone violence indicate significantly greater security along the U.S.-Mexico border today than ten years ago.

“The recent increase in security at a key Army base near a Mexican border city where Islamic terrorists are confirmed to be operating and planning an attack on the United States indicates that the facility is a target.”

Judicial Watch, September 4, 2014

The Facts:

The increase in security at Fort Bliss, the “key Army base near a Mexican border city” referred to above, is unrelated to the alleged ISIS threat. The Department of Homeland Security cleared this up in a statement: “There is no credible intelligence to suggest that there is an active plot by ISIL to attempt to cross the southern border.”

Lt. Col. Lee Peters, Fort Bliss and First Armor Division public affairs officer, said, “All of the security measures that we emplaced over the Labor Day weekend and we’re emplacing this week are coincidental to anything that’s going on in the world,” stating that the increase in security was instead a response to the recent shootings at Washington Naval Yard, Fort Hood, and Fort Lee. In general, the FBI has planned to increase security at all military bases. These changes have been in progress since 2013, prior to the Washington Navy Yard shooting, but were fast-tracked after the incident. The changes are also unrelated to any supposed ISIS threat.

“[G]overnment sources reveal that the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is confirmed to now be operating in Juarez, a famously crime-infested narcotics hotbed situated across from El Paso, Texas.”

Judicial Watch, August 29, 2014

The Facts:

There has been no threat of ISIS in Ciudad Juárez, according to Mexican authorities in the border city. César Augusto Peniche, the Mexican Attorney-General’s delegate to the state of Chihuahua which includes Juárez, said there was no migration alert, increased violence on the border, or any sort of advisory about the presence of terrorist groups in the city. Additionally, the State Attorney-General’s Office said that until hearing that an internal bulletin from the Texas State Department of Public Safety made this allegation, it was unaware of any supposed threat of a possible terrorist attack from ISIS.

It is worth noting that while Ciudad Juárez has suffered high levels of organized crime-related violence, homicides have declined significantly since 2010, and the violence itself almost never manifested itself across the river in El Paso, Texas, which has the lowest crime rate in the United States among cities of 500,000 people or more [PDF].

“The sheriff said he received an alert bulletin that ISIS — Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — may have formed a terrorist cell in or near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a Mexican border city across from El Paso. He said the alert warned law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for such activity.”

Midland Reporter-Telegram, Midland, Texas, September 6, 2014.

The Facts:

The two sources of information regarding the heightened ISIS risk and the need for increased security are the Judicial Watch website and Midland County, Texas Sheriff Gary Painter. Judicial Watch has not named any sources to substantiate claims of an imminent threat.

The much-cited Sheriff Painter points to the Texas Department of Public Security internal “alert bulletin,” whose text has not surfaced, and the discovery of “Quran books and Muslim clothing” near the border. According to the Midland Reporter-Telegram, “on the issue of distinguishing an ISIS member from a non-extremist Muslim, Painter said he does not know how one would tell ‘one Muslim from the other’ or if there is any difference.” Sheriff Painter’s Midland County, meanwhile, is over 300 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Added September 23, 2014:

In remarks yesterday at the Migration Policy Institute, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, was unequivocal on the ISIS issue:

"We have not one hint of credible information that ISIS or ISIL is poised or is coming across the Southwest border. None whatsoever."

Kerlikowske did recognize that the situation is complex, though. He added, “That being said, over 400,000 people have been apprehended trying to get into this country. That represents over 140 countries.”

—Elizabeth Lincoln

Filed under Terrorism Border Security

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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

2 notes

Are terrorists crossing the border “from time to time?”

“[T]here have been [terrorists crossing our southern border with the intent to do harm to the American people] from time to time.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano

This “time to time” quote was Secretary Napolitano’s response to a question from Rep. Ron Barber (D-Arizona) at a July 25 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. The full exchange was as follows:

Rep. Barber: “As you know, Madam Secretary, there have been anecdotal reports about material evidence of the presence of terrorists along our southern border. My question is, is there any credible evidence that these reports are accurate and that terrorists are, in fact, crossing our southern border with the intent to do harm to the American people?”

Secretary Napolitano: “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.”

The Facts:

Six days after this exchange, the Department of State released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism report. Within the opening paragraph of its Mexico chapter is the following:

“No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”

It would seem that the State and Homeland Security Departments need to get their story straight on this very important national security issue.

By Adam Isacson

Filed under Terrorism Border Security U.S. Congress DHS