AUSTIN, Texas — In 2018, when President Donald Trump said Islamic terrorist suspects were crossing America's southern border among Central American caravans — just about everyone with a megaphone called him a fear-mongering, anti-immigrant liar.
But the sound of silence is overwhelming now that Democrats are saying the same thing. President Joe Biden's Department of Homeland Security is just out with two new revelations about the national security border threat posed by jihadist infiltration, putatively fake when Republicans asserted them.
One revelation came by way of a Fox News Freedom of Information Act request to DHS. The agency's return said that between January 20 and December 27, 2021, Border Patrol encountered 23 border-crossing migrants caught in the brush who matched the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the terror watch list. Serious, vetted intelligence information is necessary nowadays for anyone to get nominated and approved for the TSDB.
A second piece of information came by separate information request from Texas Congressman Chip Roy (R-Texas). DHS reported back that between Inauguration Day and December 31, 2021 federal authorities caught 42 watch-listed immigrants at ports of entry and in the brush between ports of entry. The overlap between the Roy and Fox News information is not clear. It's also not clear whether the ports of entry referenced here are on the border or might reference interior international airports. But we do know - from what Democrats should regard as an indisputably credible source - that as few as 23 and as many as 42 suspected terrorists were encountered at the American border last year, and not according to Donald Trump.
These demand at least some discussion in context before U.S. media and punditry do their best to ignore them into oblivion — or until a terrorist finally attacks. As the author who wrote the only book about this threat issue, America's Covert Border War, the Untold Story of the Nation's Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, I volunteer for duty.
Three Things to Know
First, know this: any illegally crossing immigrants on the FBI's terror watch list, for whatever reason they got on it, are disqualified for entry into America under any circumstance and must be deported.
Second, illegal immigration from nations where Islamic terrorist groups operate happens all year every year. This is a steady-state smuggling flow into South America or Central America, where Biden's U.S. Customs and Border Protection says they enter into the northbound smuggling lanes to the American border, although certainly only a minority will be involved in terrorism.
Third, jihadist entry over the southern border is a fundamentally non-partisan homeland security threat issue that should unify parties in public acknowledgement that we have a problem Houston.
Even current Biden-appointed DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted suspected jihadists were crossing the southern border. He did so on March 16, 2021 at a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing. (Listen to his comments here, at about the 1:48:00 mark). Here's what he said when a Republican lawmaker asked if terrorists cross the border:
"A known or suspected terrorist — KST is the acronym that we use — individuals who match that profile, have tried to cross the border, the land border, have tried to travel by air into the United States, not only this year but last year, the year prior and so on and so forth," Mayorkas testified in an unusually candid moment about that sensitive topic. Mayorkas disclosed that the American homeland security establishment has fielded a "multi-layered security apparatus" since 9/11 to catch and neutralize land border-crossing migrants from countries of terrorism concern.
"And it is because of our multi-layered security apparatus, the architecture that we have built... that we are in fact able to identify and apprehend them and ensure that they do not remain in the United States."
All Systems Failing
But that is I normal, non-crisis times. The nation is in the grips of an historic mass migration crisis that, in my view, had seriously degraded that apparatus. Consider this:
As I mentioned above, in normal, non-crisis times, between 3,000 and 4,000 foreign nationals from 25–35 countries of national security concern get flagged as "special interest aliens" when they reach the American southern border. They are coming from places such as Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Syria. I have met and interviewed special interest aliens for years, photographing and videotaping from Panama and Nicaragua to Guatemala and southern Mexico.
The majority are likely economic migrants but DHS and the FBI consider this a higher risk category of migrant, owing in no small part to the fact that 23–42 terrorist watch listed migrants traveled in this flow in a single year. Don't be calmed by the small number. Remember that it only took 19 al Qaeda hijackers to send America to war in Afghanistan for 20 years.
The 23–42 number for 2021 is in line with my investigative findings for America's Covert Border War, where I reported that an average of 20 terror-watch-listed illegal immigrants are apprehended each year either at the southern border or en route in Latin America.
Thankfully, America has suffered no terror attack from any of them or those who evaded the Border Patrol cordon, although one Somali who crossed through California went on to conduct a 2017 double-vehicle attack in Edmonton, Alberta carrying an ISIS flag. I attribute America's safety from this back-door threat to the counterterrorism apparatus Mayorkas referenced. These require that intelligence officers conduct enhanced interviews and investigations with special interest alien migrants. Almost always, when they are on the FBI terrorism watch list, the migrants are deported. A second aspect of American counterterrorism programs has American investigators scouring Latin America for terror travelers and disrupting the unique long-haul smuggling organizations that ferry them across the Atlantic.
Normal border control management systems have all but collapsed under this historic onslaught.
The system works well when immigration flow over the border is manageable. But the border is overrun now. More than 2.5 million apprehensions are counted since January 2021 — the most since the United States began keeping records in 1960. More worrisome are the 620,000 more border-crossers who simply got away into the American interior. Normal border control management systems have all but collapsed under this historic onslaught.
Evidence of Apparatus Failure
Two recent cases suggest that Mayorkas' "apparatus" as detailed in America's Covert Border War is are off the rails.
As I recently reported, a Lebanese Venezuelan migrant who swam the Rio Grande from Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas in early December flagged on the FBI terror watch list. Amid the border chaos that month, the FBI still managed to interview him, according to internal documents I have. The agents found "substantial derogatory intelligence" on the Venezuelan and counted him as a "high risk" and a "flight risk," recommending that he remain in custody. Normally, such individuals are deported. But instead, ICE headquarters ordered the man released for fear that, due to his weight, he might catch Covid. He is now free pursuing an asylum claim in Detroit.
This case strongly suggests the crisis caused a failure in the handling of this case because, remember, Mayorkas told Congress that all such individuals are supposed to be deported, and they are as far as my research to date showed.
But so does another case that happened on the Mexican side. According to other documents leaked to me, Mexican immigration in April 2021 caught a watch-listed Yemeni named Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed (pictured below) just as he was about to cross into Del Rio, Texas. U.S.-Mexico collaboration on terrorist travel threat issues runs deeply. For instance, between 2014 and 2019, Mexico deported 19 suspected migrant terrorists in very probable collaboration with the FBI stationed in-country.
But not in this case. Mexico ended up deporting him after the FBI-Mexico station presumably finished. In July 2021, a moment when the border was swamped on both sides, the Yemeni came back. Rather than deport Ahmed, as I reported, the Mexicans simply let him go to clear out detention centers. A Be On the Lookout went to law enforcement along the U.S. border, which I have. It's unclear if American law enforcement ever found him.
Back when Trump first started talking about this threat, a smaller mass migration crisis was underway with caravans coming out of Central America, creating some chaos on the American side. American institutions ridiculed him and guffawed about just another weird, untrue thing Trump said.
But the nation scoffs at greater peril now, with a border this wildly out of control and the protective covert border war apparently sputtering and misfiring. Good luck to us all.
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.