Thousands of Suspected Terrorists Try to Enter America Each Year

The porous southwest border—where Border Patrol says it catches just 35 to 40 percent of illegal crossers—poses a major security threat
January 9, 2019 Updated: January 9, 2019

WASHINGTON—Every day, an average of 10 known or suspected terrorists are prevented from entering the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 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.

On top of that, 3,000 “special-interest” aliens were apprehended at the southwest border last year, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Jan. 4.

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.

“This does not mean that all SIAs are ‘terrorists,’ but rather that the travel and behavior of such individuals indicates a possible nexus to nefarious activity (including terrorism) and, at a minimum, provides indicators that necessitate heightened screening and further investigation,” DHS said in a statement on Jan. 7.

“Often these are individuals who have obtained false documents, or used smugglers to evade security across multiple countries. In addition, some have engaged in criminal activity that could pose a danger to the United States, and some are found to have links to terrorism, after additional investigative work and analysis by CBP personnel.”

And SIAs are using the porous southwest border to get into the United States.

Nielsen said the number of terror-watchlisted individuals who are encountered at the southwest border has increased over the past two years.

In fiscal 2018, Border Patrol agents apprehended a total of nearly 400,000 aliens crossing the southwest border illegally—the vast majority of whom were Central Americans seeking asylum.

But those are only the ones who are caught.

Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, said in congressional testimony in March 2015, that “at best, we apprehend 35 percent to 40 percent of the illegal immigrants attempting to cross. This number is even lower for drug smugglers, who are much more adept at eluding capture.”

At the end of 2017, Cabrera said he believed that percentage hadn’t increased.

If so, that would mean 1.14 million individuals crossed the southwest border illegally in fiscal 2018, with 400,000 being apprehended, while 740,000 others evaded capture.

In April 2017, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly said that the United States still faces the highest terror-threat level in years.

“We face very real threats from so-called special-interest aliens that move at great expense from vast distances outside the hemisphere along the network into the United States,” Kelly said.

“These individuals pay TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] huge sums of money to transport them from, for example, the Middle East or Asia, through South and Central America and into the United States,” he said.

“We don’t get to vet them. We don’t know their intentions. We don’t know they’re here. They slip into our country unnoticed, living among us, and we are completely blind as to what they are capable of.”

border security
Migrants rush past riot police at the foot of a bridge leading from the migrant camp to the El Chaparral pedestrian entrance at the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Controlled Flow

Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, has been following the phenomenon of special-interest aliens for years.

“The capacity for terrorists to reach the U.S. southern border has been hiding in plain sight,” said Bensman, who served for nine years as a counterterrorism intelligence manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.

“But still, the threat and response to it likely remain unevaluated as a whole, perhaps due to its existence outside the main lanes of public consciousness and comprehension,” he said.

Bensman recently returned from Panama and Costa Rica, which are both common travel corridors for special-interest aliens on their way to the U.S. border.

“Panama and Costa Rica have essentially become human smugglers, moving thousands of migrants to the U.S. border,” Bensman said in a video.

He said the governments of Panama and Costa Rica have a policy called “controlled flow.”

The policy means the two governments provide migrants, including special-interest aliens, with accommodation, 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.

Controlled flow was put in place around 2016, when large numbers of Haitian migrants were heading to the United States. However, aside from a few Haitian families, Bensman only saw young males in the migrant flow during his trip.

“For anybody to say that they’re not coming or that they don’t exist, I interviewed them, I saw hundreds of them, all coming to the U.S. by land,” Bensman told The Epoch Times. “They’re all going to apply for asylum—it gets them in the door. It’s totally the golden ticket.”

During his trip, he interviewed migrants from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Bensman said a Panamanian military official told him that they collect 700 migrants a week from the Darien jungle in southern Panama after they exit Colombia. The migrants are placed in a camp near the main Panamanian highway and then bused to Costa Rica. The military official said he didn’t know if terrorists were among the migrants.

The United States does have a footprint down there, though. Bensman said the biometrics of the migrants are taken on U.S.-bought equipment in both Panama and Costa Rica.

“I’m told numerous terrorist suspects have been caught as a result,” Bensman said. One example is Ibrahim Qoordheen, a Somali who was detained in Costa Rica in March 2017, after the United States discovered he had  possible ties to al-Shabaab.

In 2016, six Pakistanis with suspected ties to al-Qaeda were deported after being discovered in Panama en route to the United States.

On Dec. 19, 2018, Sharafat Ali Khan, 33, was deported to Pakistan after serving a short prison sentence for facilitating an alien-smuggling operation from Brazil, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Khan helped smuggle at least 100 aliens from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh through South and Central America to the United States, according to ICE.

“Khan and his co-conspirators charged each alien between $3,000 and $15,000 to facilitate their travel to the United States. Several of the individuals smuggled by Khan’s organization had suspected ties to terrorist organizations,” ICE said.

It’s difficult to find public information to corroborate Homeland Security’s large numbers of known or suspected terrorists, or special-interest aliens, because terrorism-related cases are usually classified due to the sensitivity of using foreign intelligence networks.

“So what happens is, we catch them at the border or en route, they’re on terror watchlists, they’re dealt with in secret, and the public almost never learns about them,” Bensman said. “There’s a whole other kind of national security infrastructure that’s brought to bear for SIAs, that doesn’t apply to any other kind of migrant.”

boston bombing terror
A makeshift memorial for victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in Boston, on April 21, 2013. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Why Haven’t We Seen Another 9/11?

Bensman puts it down to luck and the work beyond the public eye as to why another 9/11-type attack hasn’t occurred.

“We’re catching some of these guys and we’re getting them out back home, and getting rid of them before the American public even becomes aware of it,” he said. “There’s no metric for an explosion that never happens.”

Brad Johnson, a retired CIA operations officer and president of Americans for Intelligence Reform, said the structure of terror networks also changed after 9/11.

The very vertical, highly organized structure of al-Qaeda has given way to a more horizontal, free-for-all type of terror organization such as ISIS.

ISIS has advocated for lone-offender attacks in Western countries. Recent ISIS videos and propaganda have specifically advocated for attacks against soldiers, law enforcement, and intelligence community personnel, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Subsequently, the more common terror attacks in recent years have been individual or small group attacks using a variety of methods.

The Islamic terrorist Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people and injured 11 others when he drove a rented pickup truck into cyclists and runners on a bike path in lower Manhattan, New York City, on Oct. 31, 2017.

Saipov had emigrated legally to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010, when he was given a green card through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program—a program that President Donald Trump has said he wants to end.

In April 2013, two brothers killed three people and wounded more than 260 others with two homemade pressure cooker bombs placed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, cited Islamist beliefs as the motivation for carrying out the attack.

“Certainly, Islamic extremism is the bedrock of the terrorism that we face today,” Johnson said. “[It’s] mainly driven by Islamic terrorists, but in cooperation with a lot of other individuals who believe that the United States needs to be damaged or destroyed or at least minimized.”

terror attack
Flowers mark the location where terrorist Sayfullo Saipov crashed into a cyclist along a Manhattan bike path ending a rampage with a truck last Tuesday afternoon on November 7, 2017 in New York City. Eight people were killed and 12 were injured when 29-year-old Saipov intentionally drove a truck onto a bike path. Since the incident security has been heightened throughout the city and new police barriers have been placed along the bike path. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

FBI Open Cases

The FBI had about 1,000 open ISIS-related investigations across 50 states in the United States in 2018, according to Wray.

“We’ve made hundreds of arrests of terrorism subjects,” he said at a Senate hearing on Oct. 10, 2018.

“Those include things like the arrest of a guy plotting to attack San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf on Christmas Day with a combination of vehicles, firearms, and explosives, or the arrest … of a Wisconsin woman maintaining a virtual library of instructions on how to make bombs, biological weapons, and suicide vests to assist self-proclaimed ISIS members. We’ve also disrupted a plot to blow up a shopping mall in Miami or to blow up a number of these celebrations of July 4th in Cleveland.”

International Versus Domestic Terrorism

The FBI classifies terrorism as “international” or “domestic.”

International terrorism is an attack inspired by, or associated with, a foreign terrorist group, such as ISIS. Examples include the Saipov truck attack, the 2015 San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 and wounded 22, and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 and injured 53. All perpetrators announced allegiance to ISIS.

Domestic terrorism is perpetrated by individuals or groups that are inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse “extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature,” the FBI states.

Examples include the 2015 racially based Charleston church shooting by Dylann Roof that killed nine, and the 2014 Las Vegas shooting of two police officers and a civilian in an ambush-style attack by a married couple who held anti-government views and wanted to start a revolution.

Mentally deranged individuals whose goal is to kill as many people as possible—such as the mass shootings at the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, school, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, and Virginia Tech—aren’t classified as domestic terrorism.

Travel Ban

The Immigration and Nationality Act states that the president may “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” whenever he “finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Early in his presidency, Trump attempted to weed out potential terrorists by adding a higher level of scrutiny to travelers from several terror-prone countries.

While his first executive orders to that effect, commonly known as the “travel ban,” were blocked by federal circuit judges, the final version was eventually allowed by the Supreme Court to go into full effect while lower courts work out appeals.

Each of the eight countries identified has tailor-made restrictions, but citizens from most of them will be unable to emigrate to the United States under the new ban. The countries are: North Korea, Syria, Chad, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, Venezuela, and Iraq.

There are also terror threats who are already legally residing in the United States, often by lying on visa or green card application forms—which directly ask about ties to organizations that are against the United States.

In January 2018, the Department of Justice and DHS issued a joint report about convicted terrorists and the immigration system.

The report found that approximately three of every four individuals (402 out of 549) convicted of international terrorism-related charges between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were foreign-born individuals who entered the United States through the immigration system.

A significant number of terrorists have entered the United States solely on the basis of family ties and extended-family chain migration, of which the joint report provided several examples.

Mufid Elfgeeh, who benefited from chain migration, was sentenced in 2016 to more than 22 years in prison for attempting to recruit fighters for ISIS.

Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, who entered the United States as a relative of a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in 2016 to attempting to provide material support to ISIS.

Epoch Times Photo
Customs and Border Protection agents check pedestrians as they exit Mexico into the customs area of the United States on the east side of the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 19, 2018. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Obama Policies

Johnson blames the policies of former President Barack Obama for the creation of ISIS.

“When Obama took power in the United States, he kind of came up with a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, he took his foot off the throttle, if you will, on counter-terrorist operations,” Johnson said.

At the same time, Obama “reached out the hand of friendship to terrorist groups in, in essence—certainly a lot of the Islamic movements and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“And, of course, into that vacuum is where ISIS was created.”

Johnson said the worldwide “lone wolf” attacks seen around the world are one of the results of those policies, but acknowledging that would be politically damaging to the left.

“So you have a certain number of people certainly in the press and so on that don’t want to damage the reputation of President Obama.” Johnson said. “So there’s a lot of hesitancy to admit that ISIS does a lot of these attacks.”

Epoch Times Photo
Brad Johnson, retired CIA operations officer and founder of Americans for Intelligence Reform, in Washington on Dec. 20, 2018. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

International Links

Johnson said it’s a mistake to think terror-related attacks on the West aren’t linked.

“There’s an attack in San Bernardino, there’s an attack in Orlando, there’s an attack here and there, and they’re taken as a U.S.-centric thing. There’s an attack in France in Strausberg and it’s taken as a French-centric thing,” he said.

“From the terrorist perspective, that is just simply untrue. The people doing these acts are not tied to a country. They’re tied to a philosophy. So their perspective is: take it to the West, wherever and whenever you can. So of those taking place, almost all, if not all, are taking place as part of a coordinated effort.

“Yet on a world stage, we have all of these attacks taking place weekly or monthly, all over the world using all of the precise same methodology and everyone looks at it … like, oh, that’s nothing to do with us. That’s all separate, unrelated, but if the MO is the same, how can you possibly conclude they’re unrelated? It’s dangerous stupidity in action. And it’s politically driven.”

Concerns mounted in 2015 and 2016, when terrorists started to infiltrate the massive refugee flows mostly out of Syria and into Europe.

In a two-year span from the end of 2015, more than 300 people were killed and thousands more were injured in ISIS-inspired attacks, including those in Paris (mass shootings and suicide bombings), Brussels (two suicide bombings), Nice (truck attack), Berlin Christmas markets (truck attack), Manchester Arena (suicide bomb), London Bridge (van and stabbings), and in Barcelona (van attack).

Epoch Times Photo
L-R: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Russell Travers, acting director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Counterterrorism Center, testify at a Senate hearing in Washington on Oct. 10, 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Will We See More Attacks?

The goal of the seemingly random terror attacks is to claim a political victory by forcing a nation into a state of alert, or a state of fear, Johnson said.

The FBI’s Wray said that, despite significant losses of territory, “ISIS remains relentless and ruthless in its campaign of violence against the West and has aggressively promoted its hateful message, attracting like-minded extremists.”

“Unlike other groups, ISIS has constructed a narrative that touches on all facets of life, from family life to providing career opportunities to creating a sense of community,” Wray said Oct 10, 2018. “The message is not tailored solely to those who overtly express signs of radicalization. It is seen by many who click through the internet every day, receive social-media notifications, and participate in social networks. Ultimately, many of the individuals drawn to ISIS seek a sense of belonging.”

Wray said that although al-Qaeda maintains its desire for large-scale, spectacular attacks, counterterrorism pressure has degraded the group.

“In the near term, al-Qaeda is more likely to focus on supporting small-scale, readily achievable attacks against U.S. and allied interests in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region,” he said.

“Simultaneously, over the last year, propaganda from al-Qaeda leaders seeks to inspire individuals to conduct their own attacks in the U.S. and the West.”

Still, Johnson said, it’s difficult to gauge and quantify just how much of a threat exists with terrorists.

“Are they a real threat today? Absolutely. Are they dangerous? Absolutely. Are they killing people? Absolutely,” he said. And terrorists are “absolutely” coming into the United States—this is something certainly well-established through many venues.”

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo