On the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it’s a good day to remember than NONE of the terrorists who attacked crossed illegally over the US-Mexico border. Further, there are no cases of a successful terrorist attack by Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or any other foreign terrorist group occurring on US soil in which the attacker entered through Mexico or the Caribbean. There are good reasons to improve border security against terrorist threats, but the historical record up to this point is that the terrorist threat to the US has not come via the border.
In recent months, I’ve been asked numerous times what my assessment is of ISIS entering the US via the border to commit an attack. While it’s possible, it’s not likely for at least four reasons:
1. Attacking the US is not the main focus of ISIS.
ISIS is more focused on its local fight in the Middle East than it is on hitting the US homeland. While there have been discussions within the group about hitting the US, it’s a distant secondary goal compared to winning and controlling territory within the “caliphate” they have established in Syria and Iraq. The US is concerned about ISIS eventually building up enough strength and enough of a safe-haven to be a threat to the US homeland (and for good reason), but the group’s goals are more local for now. That reason isn’t directly related to the border, but it reduces the chances of attackers coming via that route.
2. Traveling through Latin America and crossing the US border illegally is hard, particularly for a non-Latin migrant.
There is a mistaken perception that because thousands of people annually cross the US-Mexico border illegally, that it is somehow easy to do. It’s not. It’s a difficult, costly and dangerous journey that has become much more difficult in recent years as border protections and technology have improved. As a sign of how much border protections have improved, this summer’s surge of Central American refugees was notable in that many of the people crossing were not attempting to evade US border protections. They were actively turning themselves in to border guards to be processed, something that an ISIS terrorist would probably not do.
It becomes even more difficult for someone trying to come from the Middle East or North Africa into Latin America for that trip. Imagine some random Egyptian jihadi attempting to take a flight to Venezuela, hop on a bus to Colombia, work his way up the Central American coast or Pan-American highway to Mexico, get on the Beast train and then sneak across the border at night. What do you think the percentage success rates and failure rates on that sort of trip are, even with a willing and well-paid coyote? Certainly there are instances of people (nearly all economic migrants) attempting that trip and some succeeding, but the failure rate is high enough that if terrorists were attempting it in any significant numbers, the US or its allies in Latin America would be catching them on a regular basis. We’re not.
3. Most (but not all) of the cartels and coyotes who facilitate the trafficking wouldn’t want to traffic a terrorist. It brings too much attention of US authorities and is bad for business.
The major cartels and trafficking groups, including the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel, are incentivized to not move a real terrorist through the border area. They are fully aware that trafficking a terrorist into the US would be the quickest way to gain the full attention and reaction of the US government. Even the Zetas, who aren’t particularly cautious in their use of brutality and force, aren’t dumb enough to think they could survive a focused US effort to beat them if we were ever motivated to do so by a terrorist attack.
Now, just because the top leadership of the big cartels know that it would be a really bad idea to smuggle a terrorist or WMD doesn’t mean that every freelance coyote agrees. The message has likely gotten around to the smaller level traffickers. As Sam Logan (my business partner) tells Fusion
, ”If a coyote were responsible for a [smuggling] route being shut down, that person is going to pay the consequences, which in this world could be a bullet to the head.” Even then, there are probably a few out there willing to make a quick buck on the deal assuming they could dodge the consequences, and those people definitely concern me. However, we’re talking about a relatively small percentage of the illicit trafficking facilitators who are going to be willing to do this sort of activity. It’s not as if any terrorist could walk into a marketplace in Honduras, ask to be moved across a border and find a willing coyote to do so on the first try. That person is going to attract attention.
4. There are easier, legal routes to enter the US than illegally crossing the border, particularly for potential terrorists with US or European passports who are a top concern for counter-terrorism officials.
If someone has a US or European passport, then they aren’t going to be crossing the US-Mexico border under the cover of darkness. The reason counter-terrorism experts worry about those people is that they have the documents to potentially make a legal border crossing or enter through an airport. A terrorist with decent documents is not going to risk the trip through Zetas' territory (probably kidnapped and extorted in the process) and then try to sneak past border guards. They’re going to try to come in legally right under our noses or use someone recruited virtually who plans an attack without ever leaving the country.
So, in spite of the four points above, why would ISIS try to travel through the US-Mexico border?
1. The border is a high-value soft target.
Creating psychological fear, interstate tension and economic damage are all goals of a terrorist attack. With the US-Mexico border having a million legal crossings and a billion dollars of trade per day, committing an attack via the border route, or simply against border infrastructure that slows or shuts down that border would be a psychological and economic blow. ISIS is certainly aware of the debate about the US border and the political tensions that exist on immigration and the economic importance of trade to the US. For those reasons, a high-profile attack that can force the US to close its border may be a tempting target.
2. Bad guys make mistakes.
Sure, I know that illegally crossing the border is harder than some politicians’ and media rhetoric makes it sound. I know that many trafficking groups wouldn’t want to help and that the US works with its allies (and even some antagonists) around the region to prevent this exact terrorist trafficking scenario. But does the average ISIS terrorist know that? Or do they believe the hype (as do way too many US citizens) that our border is insecure and that there are criminal groups and governments eager to help them cross illegally around the region? The potential that they could make the attempt due overconfidence and succeed through a combination of luck and skill remains a concern, which is why the US should be vigilant to the threat without overhyping it.