In early 2018, a half-dozen staff members of Texas Rep. Michael McCaul's House Homeland Security Committee interviewed me by telephone about my research on special interest alien (SIA) travel to the border. For the uninitiated, SIAs are migrants from countries of terrorism concern who reach the U.S. southern border. At the time, I was still working as the counterterrorism intelligence manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. I'd written an entirely open-source master's degree thesis about SIA travel to the border, and also had my analysts at DPS involved in a program to provide intelligence collected from SIAs to ICE and various national intelligence entities. The committee members let me know my briefing to them was for some kind of report they were going to put out one day.
Well, that day has arrived. "Stopping Terrorist Travel Through Illicit Pathways to the Homeland", released Wednesday, January 2, 2019, is something like a Part III installment to the committee's 2006 and 2012 "Line in the Sand" reports. The "Line in the Sand" reports first publicly outed the fact that migrants from "special interest" countries were crossing the southern border on human smuggling bridges and that these bridges posed a heightened risk of terrorist infiltration. This kind of government, on-the-ground field reporting is important if only because it is so very rare.
Other than organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies, few non-government or media entities ever attempt to address this avenue of approach to the homeland in the illegal immigration context, because reporting about this corner of the problem resides mostly in protected classified realms. Another reason for the under-reporting is because the U.S. information ecosystem is over-weighted with a counterproductive denialism that this kind of migration is even happening. Or that if some Middle Easterners show up at the border without identification, or foreign intelligence reports show links to terrorist organizations, there's really nothing to see here folks because no one ended up specifically convicted in federal courts under federal terrorism statutes, and no attack was carried out because suspects were caught first. (See this Psychology Today article about the social dysfunction phenomenon known as "anti-intellectualism" for more on the denialism of which I speak).
I and the House Homeland Security Committee, at least under the Republican majority control that has just ended, beg to differ. The committee left this report as a parting message to incoming Democrats who likely will put it on a shelf. But before that happens, let's take a quick look-see.
In 2017, McCaul's committee put together a Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry into the United States to evaluate the threat of special interest alien travel. The team received briefings by American and foreign national security officials, analyzed government documents, conducted research, and traveled to six countries in Central and South America (Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Panama).
CIS readers will recognize some of the task force's findings in my own CIS reporting since this summer, particularly from my December trip to Panama and Costa Rica.
The report treads carefully to avoid including classified information and so it is understandably light on quantifying the terrorism threat with details about terrorist suspects crossing the border, restraints CIS has attempted to push against. Following are some findings in the 29-page report that I think are noteworthy, but just as important is the report's list of recommendations:
- The recent migrant caravans originating in Central America have included "several SIAs, and potentially" known or suspected terrorists traveling toward the U.S. border.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security continues to prioritize the SIA threat as one of the top threats to the homeland because of the consistently "large number" of individuals from special interest countries that travel to the Western Hemisphere using illicit pathways.
- Written ISIS materials and publications have encouraged ISIS followers to cross the U.S. Southwest Border.
- DHS Border Patrol Agents "routinely" encounter SIAs at the border using routes controlled by transnational criminal organizations.
- Statistics on the number of known or suspected terrorists on routes to the border are often classified, but the threat posed by "the existence of illicit pathways into the United States" highlights that "border security is national security" as terrorist groups seek to exploit vulnerabilities among neighboring countries to fund, support, and commit attacks against the homeland.
- The report lists five open-source, unclassified cases representing the types of individuals and threats associated with illicit routes to the homeland. (CIS recently compiled and published a list of 15.) A number of heavily redacted cases are included in which biometric enrollment information uncovered suspected terrorists in 2013, 2015, and 2018.
- The frequency of international flights from special interest regions into Latin America and the Caribbean continues to increase due to economic and governance challenges in those countries that create an attractive environment for illicit SIA travel to the U.S. border.
- ICE Homeland Security Investigations is deeply enmeshed in investigations and operations throughout Central America to counter human smuggling organizations that move SIAs in Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Brazil.
- The United States-Canada border "is also susceptible to exploitation by SIAs."
This fall, CIS published my Backgrounder "Eight Recommendations to Congress and the White House to Counter Potential Terror Travel to the U.S. Southern Border".
The Homeland Security Committee lists 10, some of which overlap with mine, which is somewhat heartening, indicating that I wasn't too far out in the weeds.
I list those that overlap with mine, for the sake of emphasis, but the others make good sense and should be read as well.
- Authorize DHS Repatriation Authority. This would open up funding for the detention and removal of SIAs from places such as Panama and Mexico to their home countries, creating deterrence and reducing risk. "Congress should provide DHS the authority to give financial assistance to foreign partners to support the repatriation of individuals that impact the security of the United States. This will be a major tool for thwarting any potential threats before they reach the Homeland, while improving security and decreasing migration flows throughout the Western Hemisphere." To this end, McCaul introduced the Repatriation Assistance Act of 2018.
- Better Support for Transnational Criminal Investigative Units. As I have repeatedly pointed out, ICE Homeland Security Investigations is the tip of the spear in countering SIA smuggling in foreign nations and needs more investigators, intelligence, and resources — as well as a runway cleared of obstacles and distractions — to do much more of this important counterterrorism work. HSI does this counter-SIA smuggling work in close coordination with the law enforcement and intelligence services of host nations as part of joint units. The report hints that ICE-HSI can be "hamstrung" by what it obliquely describes as "jurisdictional or other international challenges". It calls on Congress to ensure that sufficient funding exists for unit training and assistance. Let that be done, but also send more investigators and intelligence analysts to hot-spot SIA transit countries.
- Increase Interagency Coordination Through a Western Hemisphere Task Force. This would help address a solution to a problem that former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson sought to address in 2016: That too many disparate agencies were addressing the SIA travel threat without proper coordination. Johnson proposed a sweeping, whole-of-government coordinated approach to SIA travel, but it only partly got off the ground before a change in administrations. A hemispheric task force, the committee report notes, would provide the framework for "properly sharing information, coordinating efforts and leveraging their existing authorities ... while avoiding pre-9/11 jurisdiction conflicts and stove-piping of information." The report said such a task force would enable all the various agencies with a dog in the hunt to "execute one government-wide mission of protecting the Homeland." Hear. Hear.