President Trump’s recent claim that some Middle Easterners might be among caravan members moving north from Honduras provoked a storm of inquest seeking proof. The president had none to immediately offer. Scorn followed. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, in one emblematic expression, dismissed the idea of Middle Easterners and potential terrorists among them as “pretty much a canard and a fear tactic.”
When reporters pressed a few days later, the president said he had “very good information” that the caravan included Middle Easterners, but “There’s no proof of anything.” Sunday night, a group of mostly male caravan members charged the U.S. border throwing rocks and shouting “Yes, we can,” according to Fox News. In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the port of entry between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego.
While President Trump may well have employed the prospect of terrorist infiltration as election messaging, Middle Easterners from places like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt do indeed travel the same routes as Hondurans to the U.S. southern border, and rising numbers of suspected terrorists have, in fact, been apprehended at the border or en route in recent years.
One public case-in-point is Somali national Ibrahim Qoordheen, caught in Costa Rica in March 2017 after passing through Panama on a northward route. Costa Rican authorities publicly announced that U.S. officials requested his detention to investigate him as “connected to an international terrorist organization.”
Qoordheen is among growing ranks of suspected terrorists now being encountered on well-known U.S. border-bound land routes, or at southwest border itself. In fact, intelligence community sources with access to this information tell me that more than 100 migrants from “countries of interest” were apprehended between from 2012 through 2017 at the border or en route who were on U.S. terrorism “watch lists”— namely, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), or the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB).
Much of this kind of information is classified, since all such encounters spark law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering that could be ruined by public disclosure. But quite a few instances over the years have become public to include border-crossers connected to al-Shabaab of Somalia, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami of Bangladesh.
For instance, in December 2012, U.S. prosecutors convicted Somali national Abdullahi Omar Fidse for asylum fraud after he traveled through Latin America to a Mexico-Texas port of entry in 2008. An FBI counterterrorism investigation found he had served as an al-Shabaab combat operative, possessed the cell phone number of a terrorist implicated in the 2010 Uganda bombing that killed 70 soccer fans, and knew detailed operational knowledge of an aborted plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
In June 2014, another Somali crossed the Mexico-Texas border and admitted al-Shabaab had trained him to be a suicide bomber. Another Somali who crossed the Mexico-California border in 2011 went on to conduct a vehicle-ramming attack in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada in September 2017 while carrying an ISIS flag in his car.
In 2010, two Bangldeshi migrants reached the Mexico-Arizona border together. One admitted to being a member of a designated terrorist organization Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh. He was deported, but his partner absconded after release pending an asylum hearing that never happened. Court records from a recent material support prosecution against a reputed Hezbollah operative in New York revealed that the defendant’s father, Mohammad Kourani, who also was involved in the terrorist group’s activities, had illegally entered the United States through Mexico.
Other examples are too numerous to mention here. I have conducted face-to-face interviews with Middle Easterners who undertook this kind of migration. I have traveled from Syria and Jordan to Guatemala and Mexico investigating how they achieve these fantastic journeys and where the routes run. I have also analyzed thousands of court records from 22 U.S. migrant-smuggling prosecutions confirming the travel and revealing that a full-bodied American homeland security response to it has been quietly underway for years on the informed assumption the threat is real.
It is not just Middle Easterners traveling to the southern border, as the president said. Migrants from countries in South Asia such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh routinely make the U.S. border trip too, as do those from the Horn of Africa like Somalia and Sudan.
In fact, a Univision reporter found Bangladeshis in the current caravan and marveled at how they had made it so far from home. Homeland security agencies today identify these migrants as “special interest aliens” if they were from some 30 or so “countries of interest” where Islamist terrorist organizations fester, influence, and recruit.
Thus migrant flows from these parts of the world do have the potential to carry terrorist travelers. The idea, then and now, was that if benevolent migrants fleeing bad conditions in Muslim-majority countries could make it all the way to Mexico, then so could the malevolent. The threat derives mainly in the fact that most migrants arrive without any prior vetting or identification documents to help our border security people distinguish the malevolent from the benevolent.
This shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp. Nor does this idea reside in right-wing nativist conspiracy territory; the threat concept been mainstreamed for years at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, and the FBI. Terror travel over the United States’s land border was soberly warned of in the 9/11 Commission Report. One 2006 National Counterterrorism Center intelligence report characterized the thinking like this: “Terrorists could try to merge into SIA smuggling pipelines to enter the U.S. clandestinely…”
The threat is also bipartisanly recognized. Just two years ago, President Barack Obama’s DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson apparently had become so concerned about special interest alien travel over the southern border that he ordered a massive intelligence community-wide initiative to counter the migrants as “potential national security threats to our homeland.”
Dismissal and ridicule are perhaps made easier when no attack on U.S. soil from a border-crossing special-interest alien since 9/11. But what’s been happening in Europe lately, with its migrant caravans moving terrorists to its borders, must be mentioned. There, terror group operatives and sympathizers conducted significant numbers of plots and attacks, such as in Paris and Brussels, after traveling camouflaged with caravans of illegal immigrant asylum seekers.
Pundits can mock and ridicule, but they do so out of an unnecessary and easily remediated ignorance. They also do so to the faces of those in homeland security who work every day to reduce this infiltration risk, often in faraway lands and at personal risk.