What the New White House 'National Strategy for Counterterrorism' Says about U.S. Border Security

By Todd Bensman on October 15, 2018

ISIS has been innovative and determined in its pursuit of attacks in the West. The group has exploited weaknesses in European border security to great effect by capitalizing on the migrant crisis to seed attack operatives into the region. ... Europe's struggle to screen the people crossing its borders highlights the importance of ensuring strong United States borders so that terrorists cannot enter the United States.

— 2018 "National Strategy for Counterterrorism"

The Trump Administration released its National Strategy for Counterterrorism earlier this month. It is the latest iteration of an exercise that has become tradition since the attacks of 9/11. President George W. Bush started the post-9/11 tradition of breaking out the terrorism threat from the broader National Security Strategy with his administration's February 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.

An update was sorely needed because President Barack Obama released the last one in June 2011, and much in the threat landscape has drastically changed since then. Like, for instance, the failure of the "Arab Spring", the rise and fall of an ISIS "caliphate" in Syria, and terrorist border infiltration among refugees on a significant scale in Europe.

National strategy documents are, of course, time-honored and ubiquitous in federal government. They lay out general paths, intended directional momentum, and end states in countering all sorts of national problems, like drug trafficking, cybersecurity, money-laundering, and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, to name a very few. They also inherently act as political communications reflecting presidential inclinations at the time.

But strategy documents also can provide insight into threat perceptions derived from actual intelligence accessible to agency analysts; after all, career subject-matter experts at least build the first drafts before sending them on to political appointees and campaign managers.

That out of the way, for all those interested in border security, a key difference between this month's new counterterrorism strategy and the last one is an emphatic acknowledgement that U.S. land borders are vulnerable to infiltration by Islamist terrorists and should be made less so. Indeed, one of the new strategy's primary four envisioned "end states" is that "Our borders and all ports of entry into the United States are secure against terrorist threats." Two priority actions of the 2018 "National Strategy for Counterterrorism" are to: "Enhance Detection and Disruption of Terrorist Travel" and to "Secure Our Borders From Terrorist Threats".

Among the new trends correctly cited as support for these objectives is one that demonstrates terrorist border infiltration is no longer merely a theoretical prospect to be waved off: that ISIS exploited weaknesses in European border security "to great effect by capitalizing on the migrant crisis to seed attack operatives into the region."

The strategy document goes on to point out (imprecisely) that two of the perpetrators of the 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, France, "infiltrated" the country by posing as migrants.

This is true, but a vast under-representation of what's been happening over there. Stay tuned for an upcoming comprehensive Center for Immigration Studies assessment of the full publicly known extent of terrorist overland migration to reach targets in Europe. Hint: The number of terrorist border infiltrations is surprisingly voluminous and stacking higher by the month.

The 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism goes on to interestingly note (probably sourced from real intelligence information) that ISIS is working to circumvent European infiltration countermeasures by identifying new migration routes into target countries.

The document then goes where no one has gone before. It asserts that what's been happening in Europe holds implications for our own land borders: "Europe's struggle to screen the people crossing its borders highlights the importance of ensuring strong United States borders so that terrorists cannot enter the United States."


It goes on to say why this connection is warranted. A "massive movement of millions of innocent refugees" was underway across the globe with "thousands of terrorists seeking to evade justice" among them. It continues:

As defeated fighters and their families disperse, the United States and our partners must remain vigilant to ensure that terrorists cannot evade our security measures to threaten our people and way of life.

This is not the first time that recent government assessments, initially drafted by professional career analysts, have noted barometric changes in the threat of terrorist border infiltration at the U.S. southwest border. As I pointed out earlier this month, the U.S. State Department's latest "Country Reports on Terrorism 2017" found that "The United States southern border remains vulnerable to terrorist transit." Nothing was mentioned about the European phenomenon. This increased threat at the U.S. southern border was due, it suggested, in large part to porous borders throughout Latin America and the ease with which migrants from terrorist-harboring nations can obtain visas and fraudulent travel documents to get into the Western Hemisphere.

Back at the new counterterrorism strategy document, the priority actions about disrupting terrorist travel and securing the border from terrorist threats would be accomplished by a number of means. One is by sharing intelligence information with "our partners to enhance travel security and border protection to prevent terrorists fleeing conflict zones from infiltrating civilian populations" and helping foreign law enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute them long before they reach U.S. borders. This is probably a reference to some of our Latin American partners with corruption-linked weaknesses in border security processes. As the document states:

Our efforts will begin overseas, where we will ensure that our partners share and use information, such as watch lists, biometric information, and travel data, to prevent terrorists and fleeing foreign fighters from traveling to the United States. ... At our borders, we will modernize our screening and identity intelligence capabilities to track terrorist travelers and prevent the entry of those who support terrorist ideologies and violence.

This new counterterrorism strategy, particularly where it seems based on intelligence-driven analysis, is on the right track in its view of border security, which some could argue is cutting edge. But having a counterterrorism strategy, of course, is just a general beginning. The right programs and policies will be needed to implement it. I'll be offering up some ideas soon on what should happen with that.