Just a few years ago, major U.S. media outlets called President Donald Trump a liar when he proclaimed that Islamic terrorist suspects were illegally crossing the southern border among far more numerous Spanish-speaking immigrants. “Fact-check” columnists swore such terrorist crossings never happened.
But since April 2022, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection began publishing the monthly number of border crossers who were on the FBI‘s terrorism watch list, it has become impossible to ignore the record-breaking numbers of suspected terrorist crossings.
Final fiscal year 2022 numbers show Border Patrol apprehended a whopping 98 watch-listed terrorists at the southern border, six times the record 15 caught there in 2021 (three were caught in 2020 and none in 2019). That’s also five times the number it took to carry out the 9/11 attacks that took America to war in overseas theaters for 20 years.
For even more perspective, my 2021 book America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, quoted intelligence officials saying that American authorities caught about 100 on the FBI watch list between 2012 and 2017. That included individuals still en route and south of the border. The 98 ensnared in just fiscal year 2022 had all reached the border.
All of this puts a sharp national security edge on Biden’s mass migration border crisis, the greatest in U.S. history by any measure. Biden’s first year broke all prior Border Patrol apprehension records dating to when the government began keeping them in 1960, at more than 1.7 million. Fiscal year 2022 came in at just under 2.4 million apprehensions. None of these apprehensions include the estimated two million who were not detained.
People are pouring in at the simply incredible average rate of 200,000 every month, with no end in sight.
The apprehension of even one such person is bad news, even though some might consider it a relief that all 98 of these watch-listed suspected terrorists wound up in government custody, in addition to the 16 from Biden’s first year, for a total of 114. But as when commercial fisheries take random net samples to estimate total numbers of a particular fish species in the water, the apprehension of 114 tells us that a lot more suspected terrorists are in the drink now.
According to former acting ICE Commissioner Mark Morgan, in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, an estimated one million illegal border crossers made their way into the American interior undetected—known in official Border Patrol nomenclature as “got-aways.” These are illegal border crossers seen on video surveillance or discovered through foot prints in sand but never caught. To this figure, Morgan adds another one million “unknown” presumed got-aways the Department of Homeland Security calculates as strictly internal official duty.
What this means for Homeland Security is that it must assume that more than the 114 probably got into America undetected.
Long stretches of the southern border, especially in Texas and Arizona, broke open and millions poured through, including criminal aliens and, yes, Islamist terrorists. Additionally, the 114 detained suspects demonstrate that people involved in terrorism are well aware the southern border is now a great way to get in, and they’re going for it.
In May, federal prosecutors in Ohio indicted a self-proclaimed ISIS fighter. This terrorism case demonstrates bad guys abroad are very well aware of the southern border’s vulnerability. The prosecutors alleged that Shihab Ahmed Shihab, an Iraqi living in Ohio who fought with early ISIS in Iraq, plotted to smuggle up to eight members of his old terrorist squad over the southern border to kill former president George W. Bush at his Dallas home.
Shihab knew just how to do it, having claimed during the investigation that he’d already brought in two Hezbollah operatives that way. His plan, coordinated with a radical cleric in Qatar, called for each member of the old kill team to pay $40,000 to fly into Brazil on fraudulently obtained visas, then hike through the Darien Gap into Panama and over the U.S.-Mexico border wearing faux Border Patrol uniforms, the charging documents alleged.
A chief takeaway from the Shihab case is that Shihab—and presumably the Hezbollah agents already smuggled over the border—saw the border as offering the best chance to enter the U.S. without getting caught.
Other recent cases of terror suspect crossings indicate a breakdown in protocols for handling terrorists at the southern border during a crisis like this one.
As I recently reported, a Lebanese Venezuelan migrant who swam the Rio Grande from Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas, in early December 2021 was on the FBI terror watch list. Amid the border chaos that month, the FBI still managed to interview him, according to internal documents. Agents recommended ICE keep him locked up until deportation due to “substantive high side derogatory intelligence,” labeling him a “high risk” and a “flight risk.” But instead, ICE headquarters ordered the man released for fear that, due to his weight, he might catch COVID-19. He was free and pursuing an asylum claim in Detroit last I checked.
Consider another breakdown Fox News reported in May 2022. Leaked internal law enforcement documents revealed that overrun Border Patrol agents accidentally released Colombian national Isnardo Garcia-Amado without checking the terrorist watch list. They discovered the oversight three days later. It took federal agents nearly two weeks to track him down in Florida.
We may never know how close a call that was. But such breakdowns are also happening on the Mexican side, which people forget is swamped too. Mexican immigration officials in April 2021 caught a watch-listed Yemeni named Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed just as he was about to cross into Del Rio, Texas. In normal times, U.S.-Mexico collaboration on terrorist travel threat issues runs deep. Between 2014 and 2019, Mexico deported 19 suspected migrant terrorists in very probable collaboration with the FBI stationed in-country.
But not this time. Mexico ended up attempting to deport Ahmed, but he came right back in July 2021, the busiest month in the history of both nations up to that time. Rather than deport Ahmed a second time, as I reported, the Mexicans simply let him go. In a hint as to just how problematic the Americans found this, Homeland Security issued a “be on the lookout” bulletin for Ahmed to law enforcement throughout Texas. It’s unclear whether anyone ever found him.
Americans on both sides of the political divide should see the 114 apprehensions of terror suspects during Biden’s first two years as a red-flag national security threat that warrants more than a news blackout. They stand as a powerful argument that Democrats and Republicans must join hands after the midterms to reconstruct border defenses before one of the got-aways forces the issue.
Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies is author of the forthcoming book, Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History(Bombardier Books, February 2023).