ISIS and the National Security Vulnerabilities of an Insecure Border

If they’d attack Putin and Iran, what will stop them from attacking our homeland?

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 9, 2024

Any number of experts are warning about potential terrorist threats to our homeland, but missing from most analyses is the source of such threats. The group you should be most worried about is Islamic State (ISIS) and especially its subsidiary, ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K), which has both the motive and — thanks to President Biden’s border policies — the opportunity to strike the heart of America. Worse, ISIS-K has few concerns about the ramifications of its actions: Militants from the group recently carried out attacks in Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they are not afraid of Putin or the mullahs, there’s no reason to think they’d hesitate to attack us.

ISIS, Syria, Iran, Russia, and the United States. In 2004, notorious terror mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi founded an al-Qaeda offshoot, al Qaeda in Iraq or “AQI”, a Sunni coalition of former Iraqi military and foreign fighters opposed to the U.S. occupation of that country.

Al-Zarqawi himself was killed in a U.S. attack in 2006, and AQI fell victim to its own brutal tactics (which alienated many of its would-be adherents), but the group quickly reinvented itself as Islamic State of Iraq.

A 2007 U.S. military surge managed to undermine the new group’s effectiveness, but ongoing sectarian strife in majority-Shia Iraq and instability in Syria provided an opening for the group to engage in yet another 2013 rebranding as “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, known variously as “Daesh”, “ISIS”, or “ISIL”.

In June 2014, ISIL declared an Islamic caliphate in a vast region of western Iraq and Syria under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, headquartered in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and it is at this point that the story gets strange.

Ever since 1970, Syria has been controlled by the Assad family, first by Hafez al-Assad and after his death in 2000 by his son, erstwhile London-based ophthalmologist Bashar al-Assad. Both Assads are members of a religious Muslim minority, the Alawi sect, in a country that is 74 percent Sunni.

The United States supports an oppositionist group there known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also has the backing of the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries. SDF was created to oppose ISIL, and the United States has been assisting in that effort since around 2014.

You can read the U.S. State Department’s October 2023 factsheet, “U.S. Relations With Syria”, and see how confusing all of our assistance to various entities in the country has been, but suffice it to say that our government is officially both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS there.

Meanwhile, Iran has been providing the Assad government with military assistance since at least 2012, and they were joined in that effort (for various regional and economic reasons) by the Russian government in 2015.

In an August 2023 paper, the Institute for the Study of War explained that the Syrian-Iranian-Russian coalition is actively attempting to push the United States out of Syria, even while opposing an ongoing ISIS threat.

ISIS-K. Meanwhile, around 2014, a group of disaffected al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan formed ISIS-K, pledging loyalty to the ISIS effort then gaining ground in Iraq and Syria. As NPR has explained, “the group has sought to distinguish itself among jihadi fighters by adopting a radical Islamic worldview more militant and uncompromising than its rivals”.

ISIS-K has already launched one major attack against the United States. During the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021, suicide bombers from the group set off explosions outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and approximately 150 Afghan civilians.

Then, in January, the group claimed responsibility for two bombings that killed about 100 and wounded 200 more during a ceremony in Kerman, Iran, commemorating the third anniversary of the death (in a U.S. airstrike) of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Next, in March, the group took credit for an attack on the Crocus City Hall, a venue near Moscow, when four assailants dressed in fatigues opened fire during a concert that killed more than 140 and wounded countless others.

Apparently, the United States gave both Tehran and Moscow a heads-up prior to both of those attacks, to no avail.

ISIS Threat to the United States? One could view the ISIS-K attack at Karzai airport as purely opportunistic, given that the group is hostile to both the Taliban and American interests, but does ISIS pose a threat to our homeland?

On the one hand, Gen. Michael Kurilla, leader of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee days before the Crocus attack that “ISIS-K ... is rapidly developing the ability to conduct ‘external operations’ in Europe and Asia”, but “will not be able to strike the U.S. homeland in the near future”.

On the other hand, days after that attack, Max Abrahms, associate professor of political science at Northeastern University, opined:

The United States would be considered a very juicy target for ISIS and any of its affiliates or supporters around the world. I suspect it’s just a matter of time before there is another ISIS attack in the United States.

The Border Threat. In the past, most alien terrorists entered the United States legally but fraudulently, as my colleague Steven Camarota explained in his seminal May 2022 work, “The Open Door, How Militant Islamic Terrorists Entered the United States, 1993-2001”.

That said, at least one would-be terrorist, Jordanian national Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, crossed illegally. Mezer was apprehended three times while entering illegally through Washington state before he was eventually released and travelled to New York, where he was later arrested and convicted for plotting to plant bombs in the New York City subway.

Two factors, however, make it more attractive for terrorists to cross illegally today. First, in the wake of September 11, both Congress and the executive branch tightened the restrictions on aliens seeking to enter legally, largely to blunt the terrorist risk.

That’s not to say that aliens with terrorist intent wouldn’t try to exploit our lawful immigration system, but the risks of getting caught are much higher today than they were two decades ago.

Second, the Biden administration has loosened the restrictions on aliens coming here illegally, and in particular has expanded the opportunities for those aliens to be released on their own recognizance and parole.

That has encouraged more aliens to cross the border illegally, which in turn has overwhelmed the ability of Border Patrol to secure the border. That, in turn, has allowed more than 1.8 million aliens — identified in statute as “got-aways” — to evade apprehension and move into the interior illegally since President Biden took office.

Given that — by my conservative estimate — some 88.5 percent of aliens apprehended after entering illegally who weren’t expelled under (the now-expired) Title 42 were released into the country, many of those 1.8 million-plus got-aways likely had a reason to want not to be caught.

As it is, more than 350 aliens on the federal government’s terrorist watchlist have been apprehended after crossing the Southwest border illegally since FY 2021 — nearly 32 times as many as in the prior four fiscal years. Perhaps agents have just gotten better at nabbing terrorists, but this suggests that something more sinister is afoot.

“Motivated by the Logic of Outbidding in its Attacks”. Even by terrorist standards, ISIS-K is exceptionally brutal in its methods. BBC reports that the group has “been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in recent years, targeting girls' schools, hospitals and even a maternity ward, where they reportedly shot dead pregnant women and nurses”.

And the group is interested in making a name for itself. The New York Times recently quoted Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who explained:

ISIS-K has long been motivated by the logic of outbidding in its attacks. ... It seeks to outperform rival jihadis by carrying out more audacious attacks to distinguish its jihadi brand and assert leadership of the global jihadi vanguard.

Consistent with that agenda, German authorities on March 19 arrested two suspected ISIS members who were allegedly plotting to attack the Swedish parliament, the same week that Dutch police arrested a husband and wife from Tajikistan “on similar terrorism-linked suspicions”.

Few ISIS-K attacks would be more “audacious” than one along the lines of — or bloodier than — the Crocus City Hall attack here in the United States. Perhaps it’s time that the “Department of Homeland Security” live up to its name and start securing the Southwest border, and the homeland with it.