What To Make of a Report on ISIS Plans to Breach the U.S.-Mexico Border?

An interview with the author

By Todd Bensman on June 19, 2019

On June 3, Homeland Security Today carried a story that pinched a raw nerve at the vortex of America's culture wars about mass illegal migration, a border wall, and President Donald Trump.

A captured ISIS operative still in Rojava, Syria, told American researchers with the nonpartisan International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) that ISIS recruited him and others to penetrate the U.S. southern border by infiltrating migration routes through Latin America and Mexico.

ICSVE Director and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine Anne Speckhard and ICSVE Research Director Ardian Shajkovci interviewed the operative on May 12 in Syria as part of a four-year ongoing project for which ICSVE has already recorded conversations with 169 ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres. They paused long enough from their work to write the article.

Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said she felt a duty to warn when an ISIS terrorist disclosed plans to infiltrate the U.S. Southwest Border.

The "now-repentant" operative was identified as Abu Henricki, a Canadian with dual Trinidadian citizenship detained by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The captive provided researchers with a 90-minute videotaped interview of his time with ISIS, during which he described how its intelligence division, known as emni, approached several other Trinidadian ISIS operatives in 2016. In turn, they approached him with an infiltration plan hatched by a sympathizer in New Jersey. This sympathizer would help smuggle the group, each of whom Abu Henricki named during his ICSVE interview, over the southern border on false passports for eventual attacks on unspecified financial system targets inside the United States to create economic chaos. Abu Henricki said he refused the assignment and was tortured for refusing, but had no idea whether others had been sent in his stead. He said he thought some of the other Trinidadian plotters had been killed in action before they could leave.

'Really Credible'

In a telephone interview with the Center for Immigration Studies last week in Washington D.C., Speckhard said the captured ISIS soldier was "really credible" and "appeared to be telling the truth about this plot."

She said he claimed he had steadfastly told no one but his wife about the migration plot, not even U.S. and Canadian intelligence officers who interviewed him first. (Western intelligence officers are interviewing as many captive ISIS operatives as possible these days for information and informant-development.) The information about smuggling through Mexico seemed to burst forth from the captive as cathartic relief at the tail end of their interview after a grinding day of such interviews.

From long experience face-to-face with more than 650 Islamic terrorists, and her experience as a psychologist, Speckhard came away somewhat alarmed from this one.

"I think he was unburdening something he had been holding on to for a really long time," she said. "I didn't feel he was lying, and if he was lying, then I wonder why did he wait to the end to lie? Why wouldn't he lead with the story?"

Also, why lie to a non-profit worker about such a plot, rather than U.S. intelligence officers who had already offered benefits in exchange for counterterrorism help?

Having never heard of such a plot in 169 interviews, the information and the way the subject earnestly delivered it so persuaded ICSVE researchers that they alerted the FBI in a rare move and provided information about a potential imminent threat against the country.

"I was really concerned if it was active," as a plot, Speckhard told CIS.

Newly Worried About Terror Infiltration at the Southern Border

Still feeling a duty to warn, Speckhard said they wrote about the ostensible plot to ensure that U.S. policymakers had not become entirely myopic in their preoccupation with mass illegal migration of just Central Americans.

Speckhard described herself as not particularly worried about the southern border being infiltrated by ISIS prior to the interview. The notion that Islamist terrorists would or could infiltrate the southern border alongside such economic migrants had always struck Speckhard as partisan political noise, until now.

"I felt this is a story that is important to get out, that it's not just about Central Americans," Speckhard said of the U.S. border crisis. "We were surprised by this and concerned as Americans. After reflecting on the case, that they [ISIS] would try this no longer seems incredible to me. Our ethic is to report the facts, not pander to either political party."

The partisan warfare did not spare Speckhard for putting out there what they learned in Syria, especially after Donald J. Trump, Jr. tweeted about the article.

Some liberals have attacked on social media, accusing the research director of shilling for President Trump to help him justify his immigration policies. The report, although carefully written, did seem to line up with President Trump's much-maligned claims, starting last October, that the prospect of Islamist terrorist infiltration justifies building a wall. But this was purely coincidental, she said, compounded by the fact that primarily "Republican" media picked up on her Homeland Security Today story, which she regarded as cleanly bipartisan; all other media outlets ignored ICSVE's published warning.

"Our intent was not to support any political agenda," she told CIS. "We don't want this to be used for fearmongering."

Some of the shrapnel that hit Speckhard came partly from an overly distancing Homeland Security Today "Editor's Note". The note pointed out the ISIS suspect's claim had not been corroborated by intelligence sources and that the truth of some details seemed unlikely "from a logistical and tactical perspective".

Enemies leapt on the note. But their criticism is based in ignorance about what intelligence is and how it is developed.

Among intelligence community agencies, ICSVE's reporting would fall under a category known as "raw information", meaning it is by nature unevaluated and uncorroborated when presented just as it was heard. But make no mistake: Raw information is highly coveted. That's because professional intelligence practitioners, through collection and investigative techniques over time, can develop raw unevaluated leads to learn about real threats and to thwart real plots. It's doubtful that enough time has elapsed for Speckhard's raw information to be verified and that its relative validity would ever be made public once it was, since intelligence is rarely used to publicly corroborate research findings as suggested in an editor's note only a couple of weeks later. Therefore, the observation that the report should be disregarded because it is "uncorroborated by intelligence sources" is invalid on its face.

In any case, Speckhard and Shajkovci themselves pointed out in the HST article a point of greater import than whether the plot was real or Abu Henricki was lying.

"This article serves to demonstrate that ISIS has discussed and operationalized ways in which their operatives could infiltrate our borders and cause harm to our citizens," she and Shajkovci wrote. "That said, it would be erroneous — and detrimental to our safety and security — to outright downplay the potential terrorist threats emanating from our borders, similar to the Bush administration casting aside initial warnings about al-Qaeda plots with the result of American citizens eventually suffering the 9/11 attacks."

Analysis of the Report

Speckhard acknowledged that she is not an expert on the issues of terrorist border infiltration threats and, in any case, did not have time to ask Abu Henricki during the interview about the methods and tactics involved in any alleged infiltration plot. She also acknowledged that all participants were exhausted at the end of a long day and not able, due to time constraints, to keep digging once they had a few nuggets.

But Abu Henricki's claims and timeline fit neatly with the fact that, by 2016, ISIS had already successfully deployed dozens of its fighters into long migrant caravans moving into the heart of Europe. The most recent National Strategy for Counterterrorism cites the fact that ISIS sent terrorist squads into Europe along the migrant trails from Syria and Iraq as a warning about U.S. southern border vulnerabilities to the same.

Author Sam Mullins of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, who has documented the border infiltration phenomenon in Europe, recently wrote that "It has now been clearly demonstrated that dozens of terrorists jumped at the opportunity to infiltrate recent irregular migration routes to Europe, directly resulting in numerous, bloody attacks — most notably the marauding jihadist assault on Paris in November 2015."

An external attacks division of ISIS sent them starting in about 2014, organizing their departures with logistical support that involved false passports and transportation as also described by Abu Henricki.

The idea that ISIS would contemplate putting a team together for the U.S. border is more than plausible; it would be surprising if it had it not happened.

As I have often documented, too, (also here and here), the capacity for ISIS operatives to travel from Syria to the southern border is well-established. Smuggling organizations routinely bridge the Atlantic Ocean to link Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq to the U.S. southern border through as many as a dozen Latin America countries. Numerous reputed Islamist terrorists have made the journey, such as a Somali who crossed into California and went on to conduct a 2017 vehicle-ramming attack in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

There's no question at all that ISIS operatives living in Syria, including Trinidadians and Canadians, could have been smuggled through Mexico had they been sent.

That ISIS found plenty of Trinidad and Tobago citizens in its ranks is not surprising, and it is logical to initially assume that ISIS commanders might have thought of them as useful for border infiltration because they are familiar with western hemisphere route nations and might blend in well as Spanish-speaking workers and as English-speaking U.S. residents later.

As I have recently written, at least 130 of Trinidad and Tobago's 1.2 million citizens, including entire families, joined ISIS in Syria and pose an infiltration threat upon return because the islands are close to known smuggling lanes to the border. The U.S. Army's Southern Command has participated in anti-terror raids to capture high-value targets plotting attacks. Island residents have shown up on propaganda films committing murders in Syria. A New York Times article quoted former U.S. Ambassador John L. Estrada as saying islanders "are high up in the ranks" of ISIS. "They are very respected and they are English-speaking," the former ambassador said.

In April, I wrote a column asking whether an ISIS-inspired T&T national living in Maryland, who was arrested for aspiring to a vehicle-ramming attack on Maryland's National Harbor, maintained any associations with radicals in his homeland or abroad. ICSVE researchers have interviewed three Trinidadians from ISIS, now in SDF custody, one who lived for some time inside the United States as legal residents.

The point is that ISIS had available to it a pool of ideologically prepared, trained and willing Trinidadian operatives it could have sent.

Abu Henricki told the researchers the route would somehow involve a stop in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and then on to Mexico for a border crossing. However, none of my research about smuggling routes and networks that move migrants from the Middle East has ever uncovered a Puerto Rico leg, let alone identified the island as a destination. Also, since this is an American territory, Puerto Rico would be a high-risk and unnecessary stop on the way to somewhere else. Why not just attack in Puerto Rico if you can get there, rather than to exit, enter Mexico, then re-enter the United States over its land border?

I'm of the opinion that Abu Henricki got Puerto Rico wrong, the way people do after hearing something a few years earlier, maybe in a second language, and probably meant some other transit country.

Speckhard allows that Puerto Rico "doesn't make total sense" but also figured that her subject was never actually told the route.

"People invited to do attacks don't always know what the plot is. He didn't know," she said.

She also said she and her fellow researcher were exhausted by the end of the interview, could have pressed harder for better answers, and understandably opted to leave because everyone was tired and their prison hosts wanted them to finish up.

Critics have pointed out that, as a reviled ISIS prisoner of war in a tough neighborhood, Abu Henricki would be motivated to make up a story he thought might save him from Iraqi show trials that often end in quick execution, or being sent home to face trial in Canada. (Speckhard noted that ISIS prisoners frequently say the SDF treats them well in custody).

The view that he might lie to avoid prosecution has merit and will need to be sussed out by intelligence agencies over time.

But, again, Speckhard summed it up best when she pointed out that Abu Henricki said he had just been offered an opportunity to work with American and Canadian intelligence — and seemed sincere when he insisted he had withheld the secret of the plot from them but not from her at interview's end. If he was looking to protect himself, why would he tell ICSVE researchers but not the intelligence officers? Sometimes, a good interview is about good personal chemistry between interviewer and interviewee.

In summary, the interview with Abu Henricki represents a raw information lead deserving of intelligence agency investigation and analysis, not criticism and dismissal. She and Shajkovici should be commended for recognizing its potential import to homeland security authorities and bringing it to attention both privately and publicly.

Whatever becomes of the inevitable investigation or Abu Henricki, the published report about what he said should serve as a wake-up call to American decision-makers and voters, regardless of partisan sentiment, to look at the border crisis as about much more than Central Americans with children.