AUSTIN, Texas – Having covered the politically taboo threat of Islamic terrorist border crossings and even written a book about it, I have long had to contend with ungenerous government agencies that jealously guard all information about it from public disclosure.
So few other people could have been more surprised to find a brand new section on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection "Enforcement Statistics" page titled, "Terrorist Screening Database Encounters." In other words, there's now a public page where any American citizen can, for the first time, go to see the number of times federal agents have encountered an immigrant at both northern and southern land borders who was on the FBI's terrorist watch list, formally known as the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB).
One way to measure the significance of CBP providing such raw information to the general public is that, in the recent past, major American newspapers and television networks have staked their reputations on insisting that no terrorist suspects ever cross the border and that anyone who says otherwise, like former President Donald Trump did in 2018, is a big, fat, fear-mongering, racist liar. Otherwise, they refuse to report government evidence when it does make it to the public.
The controversy over whether terrorist suspects cross the land border has left many Americans confused over the years as to what is and isn't a phony political narrative about this one of many border threats.
And yet there it is now in black and white on CBP's public-facing statistics page, right between "Gang Affiliated Enforcement" and "U.S. Border Patrol Recidivism" rates.
The statistics page can be improved. It lists just the raw numbers of encounters per fiscal year of known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) who showed up at a border port of entry, like a bridge over the Rio Grande, and also between ports of entry, meaning illegal entrants Border Patrol agents had to catch. Further breakdowns would be helpful.
The two categories differ significantly in meaning and implication.
Port of Entry Encounters
From the provided data, you can't read too much into the numbers at a controlled port of entry. These might, for instance, be individuals who drive a long-haul truck back and forth from Canada to Detroit, flagging on the database multiple times a week, or an American importer who frequently moves between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo. So those numbers are way higher than the ones reflecting illegal border-crossers.
"POE totals may include multiple encounters of the same individual," the new section notes in the postscript.
Most hits at a POE probably are not foreign nationals without legal status from beyond Canada, Mexico, or the United States. They may be Canadians or Americans or Mexicans who have legal status to travel back and forth, thus not overtly trying to run and hide as terrorists. (As a quick aside, agents see the watch list flag on their station's computer screen and report the encounter and any other observable details back to the FBI Screening Center without letting the traveler know they've been flagged. The intel very helpfully goes straight to the case agents working the investigations.)
Perhaps more concerning might be POE encounters with new foreign national travelers on the terror watch list who show up for the first time to claim asylum, which will raise bigger alarms (and isn't supposed to work out well for the asylum claimant). These individuals are usually denied entry.
The new statistics page doesn't break any of this down but CBP might consider doing so later for greater clarity.
Terror Suspects Caught in the Brush
By contrast, those on the FBI watch list who are caught in the brush or woods between ports of entry raise different questions. Often enough, these individuals don't even show up with real identification. Homeland security agencies are left to figure out a lot of things from ground zero. Chances are that these individuals got on the watch list in a distant foreign nation, probably as a result of derogatory intelligence information coming from allied foreign services, the deployed American military, or an FBI investigation or CIA intelligence case. None of that is good. Most will claim asylum but be deported instead.
Except in this case I wrote about recently of a Lebanese-born Venezuelan who swam the Rio Grande River in December. ICE headquarters inexplicably overruled an FBI recommendation that he be detained as a flight risk and ordered him released to freedom in Detroit, where I last heard he was pursuing an asylum claim. The reason? He was overweight and at risk of catching Covid-19 in the detention facility.
Remember that not all terrorism-linked "special interest aliens" coming from nations of national security concern get as far as nomination and approval for the FBI terrorism watch list, which involves a lengthy, multi-tiered process.
Some 3,000 to 4,000 special interest aliens are caught between ports of entry every year from the same countries as those who do make the FBI terrorism watch list. Terror links may not come out until much later, after the individual is in the country. For example, a Somali who crossed into California, was flagged on no list, and went on to conduct a double-vehicle ramming attack carrying an ISIS flag in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Something else to keep in mind is that, as my CIS compadre Andrew "Art" Arthur has recently figured out from records in a federal court case, more than 650,000 immigrants who crossed the border since Biden's inauguration were never caught. They are known as "got-aways".
Lastly, not all of those on this database might even be suspected Islamic terrorists. In recent years, the FBI started to include members of transnational criminal organizations and "known affiliates" of watch-listed individuals. That's no reason to rest on their laurels. They all "represent a threat to the United States", a postscript note states, but their inclusion without a separate breakout makes it difficult to analyze the data as either a terrorism issue or an issue of dangerous transnational criminal aliens coming in.
Hot and Cold Biden Administration Decides to Go with Hot
It's not clear why the Biden administration decided to do this. One official told me it was because media and members of Congress were increasingly demanding information about KST border crossings amid the historic ongoing mass migration crisis at the border, so why not lighten the work load?
As I reported recently, Fox News broke a story that DHS logged 23 terrorist encounters in the 2021 calendar year (the new CBP site lists just 15 but that's per fiscal year through October 1). Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) got a return on an information demand for terrorist border encounters: 43 at both at and between ports of entry for the time period he requested (the beginning of the Biden administration).
I emailed a question to CBP public affairs, but didn't hear back right away.
For whatever reason, the page went up and kudos go to the Biden administration, which has proven either hot and cold on whether to ever acknowledge this threat.
As I wrote last year, the Biden administration went icy cold in April 2021, when it quickly quashed a CBP press release that provided exquisite detail about two Yemeni terror suspects caught in Calexico, Calif., in January and March 2021. The press release lasted a single day but still resides in the Internet archives.
The administration went hot last March, when Biden-appointed DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted to a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing (listen to his comments here, at about the 1:48:00 mark) that KSTs "have tried to cross the border, the land border ... not only this year but last year, the year prior and so on and so forth." No one reported that but me, of course.
Then the Biden people turned as cold as December when that month Yuma Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Chris T. Clem tweeted an announcement that his agents apprehended a potential terrorist from Saudi Arabia linked to several Yemeni subjects of interest.
He was forced to remove the tweet amid unknown circumstances (Saudi Arabia later denied the man was its citizen).
Whatever this statistics page's vagaries and weaknesses, it shows the administration is hot at the moment. Until this page is disappeared to the graveyard of tweets and CBP press releases about terrorist border crossers, at least the public has something — anything — to argue about now besides whether suspected jihadists actually do cross the land borders. That science is settled, but you better screen shot it fast.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.