WASHINGTON—As the number of illegal border crossings increases, experts are warning that the sheer volume makes it easier for potential terrorists to slip through the cracks.
An average of about 3,000 people were arrested every day in January after crossing the southern border illegally, according to the latest statistics from Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“I think the threat may very well be elevated and escalating,” said Todd Bensman, senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and author of “America’s Covert Border War.”
“I believe that we are at the front end of another mass migration crisis on our southern border.”
Bensman said attention should be focused on the current changes being made to the U.S. asylum system and any subsequent gaps that are created.
“We should remember, most of the terrorists that infiltrated the European borders abused that asylum system—made up fake names and fake stories—and got in [during] the crisis,” he said during a panel discussion on Feb. 10.
“It created a catastrophe from one end of that continent to another that has continued to this day.”
Concerns mounted in Europe in 2015 and 2016, when terrorists began to infiltrate the massive refugee flows coming mostly out of Syria.
In a two-year span from the end of 2015, more than 300 people were killed and thousands more were injured in attacks inspired by the ISIS terrorist group, including those in Paris (mass shootings and suicide bombings), Brussels (two suicide bombings), Nice (truck attack), and Barcelona (van attack), and at the Berlin Christmas markets (truck attack), the Manchester Arena (suicide bomb), and the London Bridge (van and stabbings).
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an average of 10 known or suspected terrorists are prevented from entering the United States every day. These are individuals flagged on a U.S. terror watch list; most are encountered at airports or even while still overseas as they apply for a visa.
In addition, 3,000 “special-interest” aliens were apprehended at the southwest border in 2018, according to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Special-interest aliens (SIAs) are labeled as such for their travel patterns and behavior. They hail from dozens of countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, where terrorist groups operate.
Any citizens from those countries entering the U.S. illegally are considered SIAs and are subject to an enhanced level of screening.
“They’re showing up at the border without any identification very often, moving through South America, Latin America, using human smugglers,” Bensman said.
On Feb. 1, CBP arrested 11 Iranians who had crossed the border illegally near Yuma, Arizona.
“Right now, things are sensitive because the Iranians have promised retaliation for the assassination of [Iranian commander Qassem] Soleimani,” Bensman said. A U.S. drone strike killed Soleimani in January 2020.
“The likelihood that these are bad guys is probably fairly low,” he said, adding that it’s also possible some may be abdicators from the military or from an administrative department in the Iranian regime that might prove useful to the United States.
In general, terrorists have very long memories, said Norman Townsend, former FBI supervisory agent for the Laredo, Texas, joint terrorism taskforce.
“Their mission could be years into the future,” he said. “We’ve also had examples of people who have come here legally and then been radicalized later on.”
Townsend said the heightened focus on the southern border over the northern border is critical because the Mexican government has “ceded their border security, basically, to the cartels.”
A common pathway for SIAs is to fly to Latin America, then travel up through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico to the U.S. border.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has teams in Latin America and beyond to identify and disrupt those smuggling pathways.
The seven- to 10-day walk through the inhospitable Darien jungle, which extends into Panama from Colombia, has become a common route for SIAs.
“In 2011, there were four individuals from Pakistan who walked through that jungle. We looked at it and we said ‘What’s going on here? Why would you do that?’ And so we started to pay attention to it,” said Edward Dolan, a former HSI special agent.
He said in 2011, fewer than 1,000 migrants were walking through that jungle, but in the past few years, that has spiked to between 20,000 and 30,000 migrants.
“None of them brought passports, but every one had a cell phone. And you would ask them, ‘What happened to your passport?’ ‘I lost my passport in the river.’ Yet they have their cell phone,” Dolan said.
The governments of Panama and Costa Rica have a policy called “controlled flow,” which essentially helps the human smugglers push their cargo toward the U.S. border, Bensman said in a previous video.
The policy means the two governments provide migrants, including special-interest aliens, with accommodations, food, medical treatment, and transport northward to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico—”where organized smugglers can take over again,” Bensman said. The idea is to move the migrants out of their respective countries as quickly as possible.
He said their goal is to apply for asylum once they reach the United States.
Human smuggling organizations are very different from other criminal organizations such as drug cartels, said James Dinkins, former executive associate director of HSI, who oversaw Latin American efforts to dismantle the specialized long-haul smuggling networks.
Drug cartels, he said, are very territorial, and they fight among themselves, while smuggling organizations will share resources to move humans through the system in the most efficient way.
“They’re more decentralized organizations that will share resources amongst each other. If they have a way into a country … or it’s a vulnerability that they can exploit, or maybe through corruption, they’ll use those services for multiple other organizations,” Dinkins said.
Bensman heralds the programs in Latin and Central America as the reason that no terror attack has occurred in the United States from anyone who has crossed the southern border.
But he warned of the impact of the predicted upcoming mass migration to the U.S. southern border.
“This collapses our border control systems and the border,” Bensman said. The ability to vet people gets compromised when all systems collapse, “and we’re unable and incapable of maintaining the connections and investigations and intelligence collection. I see that as happening at a very bad time right now.”