The Center for Immigration Studies held a panel discussion on how migration and terrorism have combined to be a destructive force in Europe and what America can learn from the European experience. The starting point for conversation was a report documenting Europe's migrant terrorism experience, analyzing the U.S. threat, and proposing U.S. border security improvements.
Center for Immigration Studies
National Security Fellow
Center for Immigration Studies
Margaret Thatcher Fellow
The Heritage Foundation
James G. Conway
Former Special Agent
Federal Bureau of Investigation
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I am executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
And the subject we’re going to be talking about today – the paper we’re releasing and then the panel discussion itself – is about something that gets – there’s a lot of heat, but not necessarily a lot of light about the subject. In other words, the potential for terrorist infiltration across our border with Mexico, people sort of get a sense that there’s some – there’s some issue there and politicians sometimes will talk about it, but often there isn’t a lot of substance to that talk. And we’re trying to remedy that situation.
So the first thing we’re doing is releasing a paper today by Todd Bensman, who’s senior national security fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies. That paper’s online as well as outside. It’s online at our site, CIS.org. And Todd spent almost a decade at the Texas Department of Public Safety at the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he worked on issues related to terrorism across the border from Mexico into the United States. Longtime foreign correspondent before that. Has traveled to Central America most recently to look at this issue of what they call special-interest aliens, mainly from – people coming not from Mexico or Central America necessarily, but through those places but originally from countries where there are real terrorism issues. So Todd’s going to present the findings of his paper and then we’re going to have two commenters.
The first is Robin Simcox. He’s the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which is a great title. I love that, the Margaret Thatcher Fellow. And he specializes in just this issue, counterterrorism and national security. And he recently authored “The Asylum-Terror Nexus: How Europe Should Respond,” which is the subject of the – related to the subject of the paper that Todd is releasing today on the experience Europe had with terrorist infiltration across their borders and what we might learn from that.
And then the second commenter is Jim Conway, who was a special agent for more than 25 years in the FBI specialized in international terrorism, and among other jobs was program manager for counterterrorism and counterintelligence at our embassy in Mexico City, where he dealt with this actual issue – special-interest aliens using Mexico and the Mexican border as a way, potentially, to gain access to the United States.
So we’re going to go in that order. And then when the presentations are done we’ll take some Q&A. Todd?
TODD BENSMAN: Thank you, Mark. Appreciate that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, that’s it.
MR. BENSMAN: OK.
So this is a descriptive study that we used to tally, to quantify a relatively new phenomenon in terrorist travel happening in Europe over the last few years, where violent jihadist extremists managed to get themselves into the migrant flows, cross over the external EU borders, and then to conduct attacks, and also to plot and to hide. This is a – kind of a new phenomenon that we hadn’t heard about, and certainly nobody has really quantified what happened in Europe. And actually, it’s still happening now. The point of this study is to not only just quantify it, but also to provide at least an exploratory analysis of what it means and how that might apply to American border security and enforcement policy.
A little context first. In the years after 9/11 this whole idea, this notional idea that terrorists could cross our southern border in like a second wave of attacks occupied pretty expensive real estate. It was – it had enough gravitas to drive legislation and strategic planning, and it actually held – had some esteem in homeland security circles for a while. And then over time, because we didn’t have a lot of attacks – we didn’t see a lot of attacks from that quarter for various reasons – it lost gravitas. It lost its importance. It wasn’t really happening that much. Not only that, but we also had some reports that turned out to be false about terrorists crossing the border, and these further damaged this idea, so that by the time President Trump was mentioning it about a year ago there was significant pushback and ridicule about this – about this subject.
But then came November 2015, Paris – six distinct attacks in Paris. It turned out that – and 130 dead, hundreds wounded, a terrible attack there, and then a few months later Brussels. And it trickled out in the aftermath of those that some of the suicide bombers had penetrated the migrant flows, the massive caravans that were unending coming from the Middle East into Europe overland, claiming asylum, and that they had used that as camouflage to get in. But even then it was not acknowledged. And in spite of the fact that we’ve had continuous attacks in the years since 2015 all the way to the present – we’re still having attacks and plots that involve people who enter the migrant trails overland, and went over and engaged in activity.
So the point here was that when the White House released its National Counterterrorism Strategy, they – the strategy document mentioned this as a threat to the United States. It didn’t go into a whole lot of detail, but it was really the first time that a major national strategic document actually cited this. And then it made the mistake of only saying that there were two terrorists that did this that were in Paris, and it struck me as obvious of the need to quantify how often this happened. Nobody had really done this.
So we endeavored to try to quantify, to the extent that we can, what had happened. So the idea here is that we want to take this issue and give it its rightful seat at the homeland security table. We want there to be discussion and we want this issue to be taken seriously because now it’s no longer theoretical; it’s proof of concept.
So I’ll just let my findings by the numbers – it’s in the paper that was published today. We looked at the period between 2014 and 2018. And during that period we noted 104 Islamist extremists entered the EU’s external borders using long-haul, irregular migration methods to get over the border. This, like I said, established proof of concept that this was a – kind of a new tactic in terror travel, no longer some kind of crazy notion.
I also want to mention that I believe that’s likely an undercount because, for one thing, in 2019 these attacks and plots have continued, and they were beyond the scope of my study so I didn’t count them. And also, there were attacks and plots prior to 2014 that also were not tallied. We believe the number is probably far more than 104. And as time goes on that number is going to grow because this is an ongoing unfolding story.
Of the 104, they carried out 16 distinct attacks, 32 thwarted plots. Twenty-eight induvial migrants or people who posed as migrants completed actual attacks, 37 were arrested or killed as a result of thwarted plots, and 39 others were arrested for general terrorist activities – and by that I mean, you know, there was a commander who chopped heads off somewhere in a village in Syria, and then they crossed in with the migrants and they hid or we didn’t know what they were going to do. They were a higher risk, but it was illegal to have been part of a foreign terrorist organization and so they were arrested.
This is interesting to us. More than 40 of the migrants were – who were involved in completed attacks and thwarted plots were purposefully deployed into the migrant flow. This was ISIS, their external operations branch, trained, organized, equipped, funded, a purposeful deployment using this tactic to gain access to target countries. Of those 40, 27 formed what we call a super cell. They were mainly involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks. And then the rest of them were either killed or arrested. Some 23 were self-propelled lone offenders who arrived in small familial or friendship groups, nondeployed small cells. Twenty-nine were returning foreign fighters of European citizenships who couldn’t come back the normal way, so they came in posing as migrants with false Syrian passports as though they were war refugees. The vast majority of them were from ISIS, 75 of them, and the vast majority – and there were also some Taliban and Al Nusra, and some Chechens involved in there too.
The vast majority of these terrorists took the – what’s known as the Western Balkans route. This would entail an entry into Greece and then north through the Balkan countries to Hungary. Remember, Hungary built a fence. And then from Hungary they would head west into – crossing the European frontier and claim some form of international protection like asylum, but there were some other forms as well.
Which brings me to an interesting point about asylum. We looked at the period of time that the folks who had come through, applied for asylum, and then conducted attacks or were arrested. The average period of time that they were in Europe was 11 months. Some were there for 30 months. Some were there for a few days before they were caught. But that allowed for the use of asylum processes and international protection processes to incubate plots.
There’s obvious differences – I’d like to get into a few of those – between our border and the European situation. For one thing, there are far fewer numbers coming into the United States through its borders. We estimate between 3,000 and 4,000 annually. That’s a tiny percentage compared to the number that were coming – the vast majority coming through our border are from the same countries as were coming through the European borders, but they were coming in by 2, 2 ½, 3 million. So you have very large haystacks, and more needles in those haystacks, and a higher probability of attack.
The reason that we have smaller numbers coming here is because you have to have an intercontinental flight. That entails money, documents, and it’s more expensive. So we’re looking at maybe $4,000 for a Somali to get into Europe and ($)30,000 to get to the United States, so you’re going to have smaller numbers, smaller volumes. That’s a good thing.
Also, the relative capabilities of European security services and ours, significantly different. The Europeans were not prepared in any way for this. They had very limited counter-migration operations and capability there. But the United States, because after 9/11 we did initially take this seriously, we installed counter-smuggling and we have watchlists, interoperable database systems, better screening for migrants coming through. So the U.S. is better positioned to apply some security screening to migrants who are coming from those far distances. Nevertheless, we apprehend about 20 watch-listed individuals at our border or en route who are on U.S. watchlists. That’s a good thing because we’re apprehending them, OK?
So a conclusion to draw from that is that the threat to the U.S. border is lower than for – than it was for Europe because very high migration from Muslim-majority countries to an unprepared Europe resulted in terror attacks, while low migration to a more-prepared United States resulted in apprehensions and probable terrorist infiltrators at the border and preventions of attacks. So we’ve gotten lucky in that regard.
However, I would say that there’s still a moderate high-consequence threat that persists to the United States from that avenue, and we ought to take into account what happened in Europe. There’s a few things and I’ll wrap it up.
One is that extremist groups abroad saw that what they did in Europe was highly successful. It worked. That terror travel tactic over borders posing as migrants worked, and success often breeds success. So there – we should assume that there is an awareness among foreign groups that may want to deploy or even just individuals who might want to self-deploy and come through our border and spend the money.
The longer distance, the higher cost, and better U.S. security would not deter a determined terrorist. Nobody’s going to be, like, oh, that’s $50,000, I won’t do that. If you’re determined, you can do that, and they will.
The Central American crisis showed that our border management systems can be crashed, just like in Europe.
And lastly, the asylum loophole, major problem even in a non-crisis time for the United States. Europe’s asylum system was completely crashed. Those terrorists took full advantage, exploited those wait times and loopholes. In a non-crisis situation we have the same, if not longer wait times and backlogs and loopholes in our asylum system. It’s not going to – it’s only going to help a determined jihadist come through.
And with that, I know my time’s out and I’ll pass the dais, I guess.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Great. Thank you. Robin?
ROBIN SIMCOX: Thank you. Thank you to you all for coming and thank you to the Center for Immigration Studies for having me.
I’m, as you’d guess, from Europe originally, so this is a subject very close to my heart for obvious reasons considering what’s happened over the past few years. So I’m going to – I’ve been spending a lot of the last few years going back and forth from here to Europe talking to government officials from all over Europe about this issue, so I’m going to speak a little bit more broadly on the back of – on the back of Todd’s comments about how I see the situation in Europe at the moment and how we got here.
So I live in one of those, like, pretty liberal D.C. neighborhoods where there’s a lot of, you know, signs you see, those front-yard signs which says everyone welcome here, refugees welcome, all that sort of stuff, the kind of, you know, like, sign of inclusiveness and tolerance and all that. Whenever I see those, I kind of think of Chancellor Merkel’s asylum policy in 2014-15 as kind of like the D.C. yard slogan adopted to government. Because in 2014-15 there was millions of people fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, obviously humanitarian crises there, heading to Europe. There was also people coming from – migration coming to Europe, especially Italy, from Africa. And the enormous flow of people was placing unsustainable pressure on landing ports in Greece and Italy, threatening the territorial integrity of the Balkans. And Chancellor Merkel responded by opening Germany’s borders, letting in a mix of, obviously, genuine asylum seekers, but also alongside some economic migrants and, as Todd has discussed, also those who were looking to infiltrate Europe for explicitly nefarious purposes.
So over 1 ½ million asylum seekers arrived in Germany between 2015 and 2018, almost 1 million in 2015 alone. It was essentially the open borders dream coming to fruition, really. Such were the numbers and so unprepared were the European border agencies, most people were just waved through with cursory or sometimes nonexistent background checks.
But Chancellor Merkel would soon discover that if you invite in the world, you also invite in the world’s problems. And this has particular relevance, of course, to terrorism. I’ve done a lot of research in this area. My numbers show almost a thousand people have been injured or killed in terrorist attacks in Europe featuring asylum seekers or refugees since 2014, and that 16 percent of the overall plots Europe has faced in that time period have contained asylum seekers or refugees.
Todd already referred to the Paris November 2015 attack, which was the most prominent example of the exploitation of migrant routes. But I think the most – one of the most striking examples to me is Germany. So in Germany there were only 11 plots disrupted between 2000 and 2013. Not a single terrorist atrocity took place in that time. After the migration crisis, the threat spiked. You had terrorist attacks committed by asylum seekers in Berlin, in Ansbach, in Hamburg, and other places as well. There’s also been this – and this has been very, very difficult for German authorities to know how to even discuss this – there has been high-profile but multiple rape/murder cases of teenage girls in Germany that were committed by adult asylum seekers who claimed to be minors to get into the country. There was the mass sexual assaults you saw on New Year’s Eve of 2015. These are, obviously, really, really rare cases, exceedingly rare cases that are high profile. They make a splash, and they have been of significant concern to the – to the general public in Germany.
Then you can look at a place like Sweden. So Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015. As a percentage of their overall population, that’s like you guys taking in 5.2 million people in a single year and expecting everyone to integrate seamlessly. Gang violence in Sweden, it’s an unfortunate fact, largely emanates from immigrant communities. There’s been a sharp rise in firearms murders in the country. The statistics they have on sexual assaults show they’re being committed disproportionately by those with an immigrant background. And one recent study showed that more than 75 percent of asylum seekers in Sweden claiming to be children were actually adults.
Austria, Italy, and others in Europe are facing similar challenges on this.
So how has Europe responded? It’s not been – it’s not ignored the problem altogether. The numbers have drooped year on year since 2015. A hundred and eighty-five thousand people arrived to Germany in 2018, which is still over 15,000 a month but is, obviously, less than the almost 1 million that arrived in 2015. When you look at the causes behind the drop, the EU has tripled funding for border management and migration issues, but I tend to think the more pertinent reason is that in March 2016 the EU signed an agreement with Turkey in which Erdogan was promised 6 billion euros in financial aid to be used by the Turkish government specifically to finance projects for Syrian refugees. Let’s be honest about what it was: It was essentially a bribe from the European Union to try and keep Syria’s problems in Turkey rather than more in Europe than they already were.
The issue of that – of course, with that is Europe is essentially being held hostage to the whims of Turkish politics. Last month Erdogan threatened to send every refugee being held in Turkey to Europe because there was criticism from Europe about Turkey’s military incursion into Syria. Don’t expect that to be the last time such a threat is made by Erdogan.
So another option for Europe is the potential deportation of those who have no legal right to be in the country. Germany’s had significant problems in this. One of the reasons with Germany is that deportation is not a task for the federal government, but one that falls to the individual states. So authorities in the south in states such as Bavaria tend to be a bit more conservative. They’ve taken a little bit of a tougher approach. In the more liberal north, in Berlin for example, authorities have been more reluctant to pursue deportations. There’s some judges who have been unwilling to approve things like bone x-rays, for example, in order to ascertain an asylum applicant’s age, saying that it’s discriminatory. The German Medical Association is still speaking out against checking claimants’ ages during the asylum process. And these blockades to deportation mean as a result Germany has actually begun to pay asylum seekers to leave. It’s offering funds as high as 3,000 euros in an attempt to lower the numbers overall.
That problem isn’t just confined to Germany. In January 2016 Sweden projected that up to 80,000 of their asylum applicants would be rejected. One official told me that even though that’s true, probably about 50,000 of those will end up staying. And that’s not a – kind of that’s not a specifically post – the scale is significant and different post-2015, but it’s not just a post-2015 problem.
The ability to deport those without identity papers or those fleeing from war zones or countries with bad human rights records has been an ongoing concern for European nations. The guy who carried out the attack in Stockholm in April 2017 was exactly one of these cases. He was from Uzbekistan. Sweden can’t deport people to Uzbekistan because it does have a terrible human rights record. He eventually ended up going to ground, the authorities lost track of him, and he – and he carried out his attack.
Those kind of instances I think help explain perhaps what is the most important response – and one that we are still trying to figure out, I think, in Europe how exactly to analyze this – but that’s the response from the general public. In Germany, millions have turned to Alternative for Germany, AfD; got about 6 million votes in September 2017. It’s an explicitly anti-immigration party. There’s a rise in support for Le Pen in France; she got almost 11 million votes in spring 2017. The Swedish Democrats gaining strength in Sweden. And I think the migration surge certainly played in a role of the decision of the U.K. to leave the European Union – or its ongoing attempt to leave the European Union – in the summer of 2016. And we see a similar picture elsewhere in Europe.
So just some observations. Today migration to Europe is still, obviously, occurring from the Middle East, Africa, and other regions. The Balkans land route, which ends up in Germany or Austria, or via – the route via the Central Mediterranean, remain the most popular way of accessing Europe. With the Central Mediterranean, there’s optimism in Italy that the route via Libya is increasingly difficult to use as more parts of the border are being patrolled. That means the more popular alternatives to Italy are increasingly Spain and Greece. And we’re also seeing travelers from West Africa using Morocco and Turkey as jumping-off points for entry to Europe, as they don’t need a visa to access those countries.
And so how is this applicable to the U.S.? As Todd says, the U.S. has taken a more guarded approach to this than Europe. It’s not immune to the problem. There was a case recently where the FBI thwarted a plot by a Syrian refugee to bomb a Pittsburgh church in the name of ISIS. And I think you also see that one of the interesting things in Europe is that it’s some of the more developed countries in Africa, for example, rather than the – rather than extremely poor ones that are seeing an increase in migrants to Europe because there is more cash to pay smugglers to try and get them out of the country. It’s often impossible for truly impoverished countries to do the same, which I think has some applicability to the U.S. migration question as well with regards to Central America.
So it’s easy to talk – I mean, I would wrap up by saying just, I guess, general thoughts on this. It’s really easy for us all to talk about inclusion in society. It makes us feel good, it’s not going to upset anyone, and it’s easy to do. The tough conversation’s to have about exclusion. It’s more unpalatable – of course it is – but it’s equally important. America, like Europe, has a choice. Is it home for everyone who turns up and says it is? The concept of the nation-state has proved itself to be the foundation for the most successful forms of governance ever created. Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, has said that the nation-state is the largest extension of the first-person plural you can do. It’s the largest extension of “we.” And yet, we see attempts, I think at times, to undermine this from people gambling that democracy can survive without any ability to decide who is included and who is excluded, and can survive with a diminished sense of national loyalty.
I come back to my D.C. yard signs of everyone is welcome here because not everyone can be welcome in a certain place if you want to retain a sense of national identity and control over borders. That’s as true for America as it’s – as it’s true for every other single country in the world. And my hope would be that America doesn’t have to learn some of those lessons in the – in the same painful way that we in Europe have over the past few years.
And with that, I will – I will wrap up and pass on to Jim.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Robin.
JAMES G. CONWAY: Thank you. Thank you, Mark, and good morning. It’s an honor to be here with such an esteemed panel, and thank you to the Center for Immigration Studies. I’m going to talk a little bit about the southern border of the United States sort of from an operational perspective and based on my time down there at the U.S. embassy as the program manager for the FBI’s portfolio involving counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Just by way of background, I spent about 26 years in the FBI and I actually worked organized crime for about 10 years, focused on Chinese triads, Italian mafia, Russian organized crime, and so forth. And in the late – mid-’90s I got interested in terrorism based on some research, and because terrorism was beginning to move up in terms of priority in the FBI. After Pan Am 103, after the World Trade Center 1 bombing in 1993, the FBI was beginning to prioritize more radical fundamentalist Islamic extremism as a target and as a – as an issue regarding national security for the United States. So I got interested in that.
And it was a good fit for me because working organized crime you’re looking at hierarchical groups. You’re looking at groups that are usually drawn along ethnic lines or ideology lines. Many of the techniques that the FBI used I could transfer over to counterterrorism. And those are things like electronic surveillance, physical surveillance, analyzing the movement of money, developing human informants, and so forth. So it was a good fit for me.
I spent a few years working in a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Houston which basically focused on – I was on the international side. We were focused on Hezbollah, al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya. We were focused on al-Qaida at that time, which was growing significantly. So that was really my focus.
I also had an opportunity – because I was interested in working internationally I got involved with our legal attaché program, and I had the blessing and the honor to work overseas. In South America after the AMIA bombing I worked with the Chileans and the Argentinians. I worked with the Israelis on a case involving the shipment of U.S. Army surplus goods from the United States to Israel that was targeting Israeli soldiers along the southern Lebanon border. So I got a chance to work with the Israelis. I got a chance to work with the Brits. I got a chance to work with the Argentinians and the Hezbollah issue down there, Iranian-backed Hezbollah. So I got a(n) interesting perspective of the – sort of the operational profile of international terrorism, and how it differed in different parts of the world, and how it affected our national security.
After 9/11 the FBI decided they’re going to put an international terrorism desk in Mexico. Prior to that the FBI office at the U.S. embassy, the Office of the Legal Attaché, was pretty much focused on drug trafficking, extortion, kidnappings of – parental kidnappings and so forth, things of that nature. After 9/11 the focus of terrorism was front and center for everybody – for policymakers, for lawmakers, and for the FBI. We had been punched pretty hard in the stomach. And I was sent down to Mexico.
I went down to Mexico and I initially did an assessment, and I looked at the situation. What are the issues here vis-à-vis national security, vis-à-vis international terrorism as it could impact the United States? And in – you know, it was a different time. And in the days after 9/11 failure was not an option, and that became very clear from my bosses in Washington: failure is not an option. We were focused, and the issues and the threat stream that was coming in every day kept us up at night.
Let me talk a little bit about the treat stream and what we were looking at and what the issues were. We looked at the demographics in Mexico, and in a country of 87 million people there were really only about 6,000 Muslims in the country. There were a few small Islamic communities, and we soon realized that there were very, very minimal extremist elements within those communities. So that was not the focus.
What became the focus for us was the very sophisticated global smuggling networks that were moving people from all over the world with the end stop – the final stage – being northern Mexico and moving those people into the United States. I remember looking at a map that Border Patrol and CBP when we – when we started working cases and we started working operations – I’m jumping ahead a little bit – we looked at a schematic of the different groups that were smuggling special-interest aliens, which I’ll articulate in a few minutes for you, but – into the United States, and it looked like a spaghetti map where people were being moved from the Middle East, from East Africa, from South Africa, from South Asia, through Europe, through Brazil, through the – through Central America, through Belize, through El Salvador, across the Panamanian Isthmus. But it all ended – all roads led to northern Mexico, where these folks were then smuggled into the United States.
One of the things I looked at was – and as I began my assessment and I talked to folks who were much smarter than me, folks that were working – Border Patrol, intelligence, people in CBP, people in U.S. Immigration who knew a lot more about the assessment of the numbers than I did, I started realizing that 1 ½ million people cross the U.S. border in both directions legally and illegally every day. And I started thinking about it and I said, wow, those are some big numbers. And I was told that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of those people that cross the border were OTMs. And I said, what are OTMs? “Other than Mexicans.” They were people that came from other countries other than Mexicans. And then we drilled down and we said, what percentage of these people are special-interest aliens? And those are folks that come from a country where there is a significant presence of terrorist organizations or terrorist support activity – countries like Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, and so forth and so on. And that’s what we really focused on. And that’s the – that’s the thrust of our topic today.
You know, when I kind of did that I sort of looked at the overlay of intelligence and anecdotally what were we looking at. And again, what I looked at was the fact that post-9/11, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured, the mastermind of 9/11, and they interviewed him – they interrogated him – they began to find in his writings and in his documents and on his person numerous references to Mexico and to the U.S. border. Adnan el Shukrijumah, who was considered the 20th hijacker, he got spooked just before 9/11 and got out of the country. But he was taking flight lessons with the 19 hijackers in Florida – in Miramar, Florida, prior to 9/11. He spooked and got out of the country. We tracked him in Panama carrying a Trinidad passport, so we knew he was somewhere in Central America, Latin America. We never were able to find him. In 2013 Pakistani special forces shot and killed him in northern Pakistan, so. But we knew that he was in Latin America at that time. Numerous detainees when I – down at Gitmo and folks that were being interviewed in Afghanistan and Iraq made numerous references to Mexico and the southern border of the United States.
So hearing all that, suddenly my attention span moved up significantly. It became clear to me that the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico, there was a nexus to illegal – in illegal immigration and human smuggling, there was a nexus and a connection to terrorism. Anecdotally, we knew that three of the 19 hijackers were overstays in the United States. We knew that seven of the 19 hijackers had bought illegal/fraudulent documents from day laborers here in Northern Virginia. DHS told me that there were approximately 115,000 special-interest aliens currently illegally in the United States, and 6,000 of them had actually been deported and had defied those deportation judgments and remained in the United States. So certainly got my attention.
From my perch in Mexico City, having conducted this assessment, it became clear to me that the greatest concern was the overwhelming presence of the sophisticated human smuggling organizations that existed and utilized Mexico as the final staging point to move illegal aliens into the United States. I’ll just tell you operationally what we did is at the U.S. embassy I chaired a working group with one of my colleagues from the intelligence community and we said we got to work smarter, not harder. And basically, we put together a program to identify those smuggling organizations, those smuggling networks.
We did that through good, hard investigative efforts. And it’s difficult because when you’re overseas, as an FBI agent I may as well not carry my credentials and my badge because they’re useless. I’m on foreign soil. I have no authority to conduct an investigation. I had to do that in liaison with my partners in country. And in Mexico we worked very closely with the attorney general’s office, we worked with the national police, we worked with the Mexican intelligence service CISEN. And they knew they had skin in the game and they worked with us because 9/11 impacted them. And I used to make it very clear to them that your resorts are empty, your rental car places and your restaurants are going out of business; your number-two industry is tourism. 9/11 kicked you or punched you in the gut, too. And the Mexicans were onboard, and we worked very, very well together.
But in terms of our operational perspective or our tack was is to identify those smuggling organizations through good intelligence collection. The Mexicans cooperated with us. There were numerous SIAs being held in Mexican detention centers. I remember at one point in Tapachula, Mexico, which is down on the river of the Guatemalan-Mexican border, there were 700 – 700 – East Africans being held in detention there, Somalians and Sudanese. The Mexicans worked with us. We collected a lot of intelligence from their documents, from their telephones and so forth, and we were able to identify the smuggling organizations and the people that were pulling the triggers for those organizations, and we targeted those organizations. We not only targeted them in Mexico; we targeted them globally. The French, the Greeks, and others worked operations with us, and we were able to shut down some of those groups.
Just anecdotally – I know I’m running out of time – I just want to mention a couple things. A couple cases that came to mind down there and were clear to me was we knew that – and this was as I arrived – George Tajirian, who ran Babylonian Travel Agency, he was an Iraqi who smuggled hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians and Middle Easterners into Mexico and ultimately into the United States. George had an extremely sophisticated organization. George was actually an Olympic rower for Iraq during the Olympics, I think 1980 or something, but he had a very successful travel agency and he had a very sophisticated smuggling organization.
Another case that I worked very closely with my colleagues at CBP, David Ramirez in particular – a good friend of mine; David and I still remain friends – was the Salim Boughader case – Salim Boughader Mucharrafille case – and you can read about that. This was a Lebanese smuggling organization, extremely sophisticated. Boughader owned the Lebanese café in Tijuana, Mexico, and he had an entire global operation smuggling Lebanese into the United States. He had a whole cadre of attorneys in San Diego that worked for him. He had a(n) extremely sophisticated operation. He actually was – had coopted the Mexican consul general in Beirut, Imelda Ortiz Abdala, and the worked with him, and she was selling Mexican visas for his – for his subjects that were being brought into Mexico.
One of the things that made Boughader stand out, notoriously, more than anything was he actually smuggled a guy by the name of Mahmoud Kourani, who was the brother of Haidar Kourani, the military head of security for Hezbollah. And the FBI captured him in – he was brought into the United States and he was moved into Detroit, and the FBI, when they arrested him, they found a ton of videos and jihadist material related to Hezbollah.
The Somalian/Sudanese smuggling group was run by a guy named Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim, Sampson Lovelace, and those folks were wrapped up in 2008. So we worked a lot of those cases and successfully, thank God.
I’ll just wrap up by saying I’ve been removed from – I haven’t been in Mexico in a few years, but I’ll tell you, I think based on everything we’ve said today the issue has become more complicated. And I do this when I train – when I do teaching and training overseas of counterterrorism groups, is the techniques and the problems and the issues are constantly evolving. Today ISIS is part of the issue. That’s complicated things. Everything’s moved into cyberspace. And it’s not just merely smuggling as we’ve seen in Europe, and not only those who are directed or are operational, but those that could be inspired once they come into the United States.
And I think my time’s up. I’ll stop there.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Great. Thank you.
I’ll just ask the first question. You know, anybody who has anything to say, take it up – you know, sort of pipe up. But, well, I guess two questions. But the first is, do you think with the crushing of the territorial area of the ISIS so-called caliphate and now with al-Baghdadi whimpering and crying before he blew himself up, does that make it – is it more likely that we’re going to see potential terrorist attempts – penetration attempts from ISIS on our border, or our airports or anywhere else? Do you think that – I mean, does that factor in at all? Does it – do you think it makes any difference in the likelihood of people trying to get in? Anybody, yeah. Robin?
MR. SIMCOX: I think that looking at the numbers, taking away the territory from ISIS has reduced the threat overall. It’s taken away, obviously, a lot of their funding that they can no longer extort from people under their control. Their propaganda networks have gone down or been reduced. A lot of their high-value people have been killed, specifically people who were targeting Europe. So I’m pretty unambiguous about the fact that taking away the territory is going to reduce the threat overall, and I think the numbers bear that out so far.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Good, good. I can take – I’ve got more questions unless somebody has a question. Yeah, wait for the mic.
Q: So this is a question for – either Robin or Todd can probably answer. And Robin, you mentioned this in your comments, about how Europe has had to respond to, you know, migration flows, but you mentioned that they’re largely, you know, kind of stuck because the EU, obviously, can only do so much. They can – you know, they can give money to Erdogan. They can kind of do these Dublin agreements that everyone hates, especially, you know, Italy and Greece. What do you think the EU can do moving forward as one body to, you know, stymie flows instead of just relying on individual states?
MR. SIMCOX: The key part of that – (laughs) – the key part of that question is the “as one body.” This is the thing that paralyzes the European Union all the time, because you haven’t half got some different opinions within that bloc about how to deal with this, and very radically different governments, very radically different approaches to migration. And with the way some of the voting patterns are going, I mean, you know, who knows who will be in charge of some of these countries in the year to come?
There has been some – there’s been – there’s a recognition of the fact that this is an issue, which means there’s more money – more funding, more focus being placed on it. They have seen some kind of temporary borders being put back up, actually, within certain countries that were especially impacted by it.
I think that the – the philosophical issue, though, I think is irresolvable. European people feel very, very differently on this. Like, look at East Europe v. West Europe approaches to migration. This is not resolvable. So I think you can – you can do stuff at the edges. And they have done stuff with funding, the deal with Erdogan and various other things. But the philosophical part I think is unfixable.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I had actually another question myself. And that is, some of this is speculation – obviously, it’s all speculation, really – but we faced, actually, something very similar to what Europe saw in the sense that Obama didn’t actually say anybody can come in and they’ll be able to stay, but our policy kind of was like that. And that’s what we saw starting in a small way in 2012, really picked up in 2014. We’ve taken hundreds of thousands of people who were let into the country. They overwhelmed the system in a similar way that’s happened to Europe. And we have a decaffeinated, low-calorie version of that problem because most of them were from Central America, which while there might well be problematic people they’re not likely to be Islamist terrorists.
But my question is, what do we do about the people who may well have used that flow to already get into the country? That’s kind of my point because even if there were no, you know, Islamist terrorists among the Hondurans making bogus asylum claims, those large groups of people crossing all at once left the rest of the border in that sector open, and who knows what came across? My point is, what can we do? Now that we’re sort of turning that flow down a little bit, but it went on for several years, what do we do about cleaning up what may have happened already?
MR. BENSMAN: Well, I can – I can address that through example, an emblematic example. Which is that one of the post-9/11 policies that we implemented in a homeland security context was, remember, when people come to the border and they hit the border, especially special-interest aliens, they are unknown to us. They usually don’t even have identification with them. They just say my name is Ahmed and I’m from Ethiopia or Somalia.
And so one of the ways that we decided to counter that problem was through direct eye-to-eye threat assessment interviews. And for a time the FBI was doing it, then ICE intelligence. When they got into our detention centers, we would take the time to spend as much time as possible going through pocket trash, and interviewing them, and getting a sense of whether or not they were being deceptive, which of course would make them ineligible for asylum. Almost all of them make asylum claims. And that one-on-one interaction was highly valuable, not just at the border but in Mexico and en route – some of the countries en route.
And I think what happens is that when our border systems are crashed like they were, that doesn’t happen as much. Everybody’s busy. And I think that there is a gap through which it would be very easy for somebody who was hiding their identity and motives and true selves to kind of come right on in and bond out without the – even in normal, non-crisis periods, it’s my understanding that those direct assessments – interview assessments were not happening anywhere near a hundred percent like they were supposed to. But very key counterterrorism program with that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Jim?
MR. CONWAY: Yeah, and you know, one of my big concerns with the advent of the cartel wars with the election of President Calderon in 2006, the Mexicans had a lot on their plates. I mean, there was really a drug war going on in the country. And that certainly took their resources, changed the landscape for them. And could they help the gringos with their counterterrorism program? Certainly not as much as they did between ’02 and ’06 because their intelligence services, their police, their courts, their prosecutors were really focused on the drug war. So we lost that.
And that sort of dovetails into what you’re talking about. When you’ve got literally caravans of hundreds of thousands standing at the border, does that open the opportunity for more sophisticated bad guys and folks that could be linked to terrorism? In my view, absolutely.
Q: Hello. This is a question for Todd.
So you said there were 104 terrorists who had crossed borders into Europe. But between those years, 2014 to 2018, there were millions of asylum refugees who were coming. I know Robin said there were 1 (million) to 2 million in Germany alone. And so that ratio is pretty small when it comes to refugees who were actually terrorists and refugees who had legitimate claims.
And I know several years ago it was a talking point that you were more likely to be killed in a car accident or injured by a car than you were to be a victim of a terrorist attack. So why is that ratio concerning, at least in regards to the U.S. or even in Europe?
MR. BENSMAN: So it is true that if you were to do the math on this that you would put a decimal point and then a 000 with maybe some numbers trailing off into infinity; that the number 104 terrorists, if you were to compare it against the total number of millions that had come in, is very small, minuscule.
But I would argue that what Europe shows us more than anything is that small numbers have extremely high consequences. And you could also argue that, you know, 19, you know, hijackers in the United States sent us off to war for 20 years, plus a bunch of other terrible things.
But in Europe, I’ll just say that the consequences went far beyond body count. We had about 170 dead and maybe 900 or so wounded in various attacks that are still going on. But as my – our colleague Robin pointed out, those terror attacks, even more so than the immigration from foreign really alien countries, drove electoral outcomes throughout the continent. We saw it in the last couple of years.
And when you study the polling that was being taken consistently during the period of these attacks, you can see that the primary interest in Europe, and especially in these countries, was these terrorist attacks – stop these terror attacks at all costs, whatever it takes. And a linkage of the terrorism to the immigration, far more so than like some kind of xenophobia or nativist, you know, right-wing feeling, was that average Europeans were animated by these attacks in a way that affected electoral outcomes in a major, major way all through the country. That is, for 104 people, a significant outcome by itself.
But there was more. The EU spent just – they’re still spending – we don’t have an accounting, but, I mean, hundreds of billions of dollars of new expenditures in security measures and policies to stop this terror wave, and also to stop the immigration that was perceived as bringing the terrorists in.
You had a very costly three-month-long military campaign, U.S.-led. It’s very rarely connected to this issue, but it most certainly is connected. We, as a –
MR. CONWAY: In Syria, you mean.
MR. RENSMAN: In Syria, to close the Manbij gap. The Manbij gap was seen as the spot where ISIS was deploying its terrorist operatives into the migrant flows. That was viewed by DOD and American policymakers as unacceptable, and we started a bloody campaign to close that gap.
We had – the Schengen Zone treaty, which was designed to have – enable internal flow of goods and people within Europe is over. The 1995 – since 1995, that treaty had – up until the 2015-2016 Paris attacks had allowed all that free movement. But most of those countries have now instituted – reinstituted internal border controls; no more Schengen Zone. And they’ve been renewing those.
And when you read the documents that support the decisions – and they’re public documents that support the decisions of shutting down the Schengen Zone, it’s terrorism and national security. So that’s a significant continent-wise consequence of 104 people.
It goes beyond that. My colleague mentioned Brexit. Brexit started as a result of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks. There were other factors, sure, for the Brexit. But certainly it started because of those terror attacks. So we could say that, you know, 1(,000) or 2(,000) or, you know, 3,000 or 4,000 special-interest migrants might have a needle in that haystack. But, boy, when one or two or three come over, you can expect significant consequences. And I would argue that, you know, as a country we should put that on the table and respond with policies that take into account the consequences, not the number.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Robin.
MR. SIMCOX: Yeah, just very, very quick addition to that. And this isn’t just to do with the asylum question, but just terrorism in Europe generally. You just feel it. It feels different. You see armed police more than you ever used to; all the barricades that have been put up around tourist sites. You see it all the time. I just was – I’ve just got back from London last night, where you see around Westminster Bridge all the – all the barricades that used to be up that weren’t previously because there had been a vehicular attack there.
There was a – the thing I always think of, the incident or non-incident, December 2017, which is when I guess Europe was sort of at its most alert after the series of attacks that had taken place, including four in Europe – four in the U.K. that year. You started getting reports through on social media that loads of people have been killed in Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping roads in London. There had been some celebrity – I forget who it was; some pop star – tweeted saying I’ve heard gunfire, taking cover. He fled. Massive panic everywhere on the – on the streets of London, and nothing had happened. Two people got into a fistfight on a platform at a tube station, this massive rumor had circulated, and there was – it was chaos. And it was over nothing. And it’s because people were on edge and people were frightened.
And so this isn’t a specifically migrant/asylum thing. It’s just to do with the feeling in Europe is just different than it used to be.
MR. BENSMAN: And you can –
MR. CONWAY: Yeah. You know, it’s difficult to quantify it. And you know, obviously, first and foremost, we look at the lives of human beings and those who are wounded or those who are killed. But, you know, to me, national security is all-encompassing. It means your economic health and so forth.
And when you think of the cost of terrorism on societies, on the transportation sector, on the tourism sector, you know, as I alluded to earlier, my sales pitch with the Mexicans when I first met the intelligence service and sat down in a secret room with them, I said, listen, guys, your number two industry behind Pemex is tourism. Europeans and Americans and people from all over the world come to your beaches and come to your resorts. And guess what – after 9/11, they were empty. They were empty. People were frightened.
That is part and parcel of what you have to – and it’s difficult to quantify those things, but that’s what you have to look at is the impact on the economic health of the country, the attitude, the fear. I mean, how do you quantify fear when people take their children to the Louvre and they’ve got to go through a magnetometer and people are patting them down? Does that impact societies? Absolutely. So –
MR. KRIKORIAN: I actually had a sort of broader question that relates to immigration policy in general. And there’s sort of always been a sense that, well, we can always let in the good illegal aliens and keep out the bad illegal aliens. But, of course, how the heck do we know who’s who? And so – and even as far as regular immigration, you know, I mean, often what you end up with is large immigrant communities serving, as Mao would have said, as the sea within which the fish swim.
And so my question is, can you really have large-scale continuing immigration, especially from countries where special-interest aliens come from, and not end up with a serious terrorism problem inside your country?
MR. CONWAY: Who wants to go first? (Laughter.)
MR. RENSMAN: Well, I mean, I’ll just throw this out there, that really what you’re talking about may not even accrue to a violent jihadi threat, MS-13; trying to determine, you know, who the gang members are, you know, who the rapists are, who the convicted felons are in their own countries. The more volume you have, the more difficult that vetting process is to implement in general.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And what you described as far as the one-on-one – you know, because obviously you can’t call up the Mogadishu DMV and run somebody’s driver’s license. So if you’re talking about, you know, going through the pocket trash, which sort of is – it’s kind of an interesting concept that there’d be anything in somebody’s pocket, but it’s possible.
MR. CONWAY: Oh, there’s great intelligence in there.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. But also – my point is, that’s really labor-intensive.
MR. CONWAY: Oh, yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And if you’re going to do it right, can you really – you can’t scale that up? I mean, at some point you run out of people to be FBI agents. I mean, you know, there’s only 300 million people. You know what I mean? So – anyway, that’s kind of – that was kind of my point. Can you really do the kind of oversight and investigation you need, and even things like surveillance within countries once people have already gotten there, if the people level – the size of the problem is so big. I mean, I remember reading that the French police ran out of personnel to follow all the people they needed to follow.
So anyway, I mean, that was kind of my point.
MR. SIMCOX: I think – and so the – and the French military have not been able to deploy places overseas because they’ve had to bring back soldiers to try and keep order in their own country.
I guess a follow-up difficult question is, what would society look like if we did have the super resources? Right, and this is one of the things that Europeans are already worrying about, and especially a country like Germany, where there’s very recent memories of the Stasi. If they were to deploy the kind of resources they would need to properly keep track of the threat in terms of – I mean, 30 officers for one terror suspect is the basic ratio that’s told to me from Europe. If you’re to scale that up, I mean, the U.K. has 23,000 people on the radar. What does – do you want – is it still a free society – (laughs) – if your intelligence agencies are so far-reaching?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Could you even hire that many secure people?
MR. SIMCOX: Right. Probably not. Probably not.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Yeah.
MR. BENSMAN: But I think also it’s worth noting, Mark, that Europe’s primary response to this, to the terror outbreak, terror attacks, was not just to improve vetting but to just stop the mass migration at any cost.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Well, that’s kind of my point is that –
MR. BENSMAN: Right, to reduce the numbers. And they came up with some creative ways to do it. They’re, you know, creating offshore asylum processing centers in places like Rwanda and Niger, and they’re sending people there. The Italians cut a deal with the Libyan militias to go to the border and physically stop the migrant flows through that territory.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And aren’t all of those kind of things that Europe is doing – so your point was what can we learn from that? I mean, we are, in fact, doing some similar things.
MR. BENSMAN: Yeah, bilateral diplomacy, absolutely.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, in Latin America –
MR. BENSMAN: Bilateral diplomacy.
MR. KRIKORIAN: – and the Caribbean and what have you.
Did you have a comment?
MR. CONWAY: Yeah. You know, 18 years since 9/11, we’ve gotten better at this game. I remember when I got there right after 9/11, it was starting from ground zero, some of the things I alluded to –
MR. KRIKORIAN: At it were.
MR. CONWAY: – looking at anecdotal evidence and talking to people in the intel community. But we’ve gotten better. Biometrics have gotten better. Databases have gotten more sophisticated. There’s much greater sharing, which the 9/11 commission pounded on the table about that. Let’s stop this stovepiping.
And in fairness, there were – you know, in the aftermath of the Church hearings, there were a lot of limitations on what the intelligence community and what law enforcement could share. But through the Patriot Act and other things, those laws have changed. And it’s made America safer. I mean, I know the FBI has statistically said we’ve stopped upwards of 100 acts of terrorism in the United States through neutralization and arrest. It’s happened. We’ve gotten better at this game. But the landscape’s gotten more sophisticated with cyberspace and ISIS, and so forth and so on. But we have gotten better at it, yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you.
We’ll – to respect everybody’s time, we’ll finish it up here. I appreciate everybody coming. This will be on our website. In fact, I think it already probably is. The paper that Todd published today is on our website, CIS.org. And Robin’s at the Heritage Foundation, Heritage.org. I assume his work is there. I’m not sure Jim is on the internet, but –
MR. CONWAY: Give you one of my cards.
MR. KRIKORIAN: That’s OK. Well, great. Anyway –
MR. CONWAY: I’m on Twitter. (Laughter.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. So I appreciate everybody coming and hope to see you at our next event. Thank you. (Applause.)