Todd Bensman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Senior National Security Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, spoke to participants in a July 17 Middle East Forum webinar (video) to discuss his recent study on jihadi border infiltration into Europe and the takeaway lessons for America.
President Trump faced tremendous blowback from the "punditocracy" after voicing concern in 2018 and 2019 that Middle Eastern terrorists could be infiltrating the U.S. southwestern border. America's history of domestic terror attacks occurred largely as a result of visa fraud perpetrated by jihadists entering the country on flights into the U.S., but the administration missed the opportunity to spotlight the parallels between jihadi penetration into Europe and America's vulnerability. The skepticism about jihadists infiltrating U.S. borders was also mocked in the media for days, despite the fact that this new "terror travel tactic" was being successfully employed by jihadists in Europe during 2018 and 2019, and continues to present day.
The upheaval in Muslim countries that began with the Arab Spring in 2012, and continued with the huge onslaught of Muslims flooding in to Europe on foot and by boat since 2015, enabled jihadists to pose as refugees and migrants among the hundreds of thousands fleeing war zones and persecution seeking asylum. As a result, embedded terrorists conducted a string of attacks "from one end of the continent to the other." Infiltrators among the mass migration included Europeans convicted in absentia for joining the ISIS fighters in Syria who could no longer take flights back to their host countries. ISIS operatives who were from its external operations division comprised a team of 27 who penetrated European borders and launched attacks, the most significant of which occurred in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016.
The Bensman study analyzing the time period from 2014 to 2018 counted at least 104 terrorists who "camouflaged" themselves among migrants to penetrate Europe's borders. The jihadi infiltrators were men of military age, the youngest 16, the oldest 65, with an average age of 26. The jihadis were responsible for 28 successful attacks resulting in casualties in 11 countries of the European Union.
At least 37 other jihadis were arrested or killed in thwarted attacks, and 39 more who had infiltrated into Europe were arrested for prior terror involvement, including engagement in "ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities" with ISIS. 22 of these jihadis arrested in police raids were found in migrant shelters. During the four years included in Bensman's study, ISIS deployed 40 jihadis into migrant caravans, not including lone actors who may have been acting on instructions from ISIS handlers in Syria or Iraq.
In April 2020 alone, three terror plots took place or were uncovered across Europe, proving that the terror threat continues unabated. One of the most wanted terrorists in Europe, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, infiltrated by boat among Algerian migrants but was caught in Spain. Germany is by far the most vulnerable due to the inability of its overwhelmed intelligence agencies to vet the massive number of migrants that flooded the country. Five Tajiks who had come to Germany by land and applied for asylum were arrested after it was discovered they had stockpiled firearms and explosives in a plot to attack two U.S. air bases there. In the south of France, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who wounded and killed victims in a knife-slashing attack was arrested and is awaiting trial.
The jihadis use "long-haul smugg[lers]" to enter from as far away as Afghanistan and Somalia. Last year alone, 140,000 migrants from Muslim-majority countries arrived in Europe, with the probability that threats from plotters and attackers will likely persist. As Bensman observed, "maybe a couple hundred jihadists" out of 3 million Muslim migrants have had "long lasting consequences." Europe today "looks like a war zone ... where there used to be tourist districts."
Since 9/11, America's Homeland Security took note that our porous southern border was an obvious target for jihadist infiltration and boosted border patrol numbers and bolstered surveillance systems. Bensman credits these programs with limiting the numbers of attacks, even though "we continue to see people who are on terror watch lists reach the border." The U.S. "rolled out programs to counter that traffic and try to interdict and vet the people ... apprehended at the border." Although distances are greater and the expenses higher for jihadists to infiltrate here, "they certainly have the capability."
The U.S. border has "entrenched smuggling organizations and routes that involve moving people from the very same countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and thirty other ... Muslim-majority countries ... where terror organizations operate." Many fly to South America on a routine basis, and Bensman estimates that three to four thousand a year reach America's southern border from those countries. He credited Homeland Security investigations and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in particular for disrupting the long-distance human smuggling organizations, but said more must be done to disable them. "They're basically the bridge over which those migrants are still able to come by the thousands every year to the southern border. That bridge needs to be blown."
Although jihadis infiltrating across the southern border haven't carried out any successful terror attacks yet, Homeland Security professionals are very aware that "success breeds copycats" and requires a greater degree of vigilance to guard against others trying to emulate the new "terror travel tactic" employed in the European attacks. The key for the U.S. to avoid the dangers now plaguing Europe is to reinforce stringent security vetting at the border. In Bensman's words, "... [W]e have to know who these people are" in order to keep America's borders and its citizens safe.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.