By Todd Bensman, special to Homeland Security Today 9/11 Commemoration Series, September 15, 2021
On January 19, 2018, a citizen of Afghanistan and former interpreter for the U.S. military named Wasiq Ullah crossed the Texas border from Mexico. He had spent $16,000 to be smuggled through several countries – most likely to South America or Cuba and then overland north through Central America – into Mexico.
Small numbers of Afghans have been journeying to the southern border for years on those well-established routes. When Ullah finally crossed into Brownsville, he claimed asylum just like most Afghan immigrants who illegally cross, saying he feared persecution because of his past work for the U.S. Army.
But what American homeland security agencies discovered next about Ullah stands as a cautionary tale about the continued efficacy of an almost unknown American counterterrorism enterprise that was deployed at the southern border because of the September 11 attacks: to detect and block jihadist immigrants from crossing incognito, for whatever purpose.
The counterterrorism programs, revealed for the first time in my book America’s Covert Border War, the Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, ensured that Ullah did not win asylum or his appeals. That’s because Ullah left behind in Afghanistan an alarming military record, which FBI agents and ICE intelligence officers would have easily found when they ran Ullah’s biometrics through classified databases and interviewed him in detention. Face-to-face interviews and database checks like those comport with a counterterrorism apparatus put in place in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks for the express purpose of detecting jihadists who cross.
According to court records from his 2019 asylum-decline appeal, Ullah had worked as a linguist for the U.S. Army at Camp Leatherneck from January 2011 to January 2014, even though the year he started one of his brothers was terminated as a linguist for Taliban connections. But when he in 2014 applied for a special immigrant visa to live in the United States, he failed Department of Defense security vetting.
Ullah also failed a routine polygraph in answering whether he was a member of an anti-coalition group or had ever participated in an attack against coalition forces, the court record said. A counterintelligence memorandum judged that Ullah was working with a foreign intelligence security service “such as the Taliban” and posed a “force protection threat,” the appellate court record recounted. As a result of what security screeners found, the U.S. not only denied Ullah’s special immigrant visa application; the military fired him and blocked him from all installations. The State Department banned him for life from obtaining a special immigrant visa.
So he chose an option open to any Afghan who can afford it: he had himself smuggled over the southern border and tried the usually less security-capable asylum system.
America’s “covert border war” did its job with Ullah as it has with countless others who have brought with them to the southern border disturbing terrorist histories, associations, and intentions they would prefer to keep hidden.
In fact, the dearth of attacks from America’s southern border flank since 9/11 can be attributed less to lack of enemy interest than to these counterterrorism programs. During a March 16, 2021, House Homeland Security Committee hearing, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, acknowledging that suspected terrorists cross the land border each year, described the nation’s defense against this as a “multi-layered security apparatus.”
“A known or suspected terrorist – KST is the acronym that we use – individuals who match that profile, have tried to cross the border, the land border, have tried to travel by air into the United States,” Secretary Mayorkas testified. “Not only this year but last year, the year prior and so on and so forth. And it is because of our multi-layered security apparatus, the architecture that we have built, since the commencement of the Department of Homeland Security [in 2002].
“And so we actually deny them entry based on our intelligence and based on our vetting procedures, which have only grown in sophistication throughout the years.”
“MAYORKAS, ACKNOWLEDGING THAT SUSPECTED TERRORISTS CROSS THE LAND BORDER EACH YEAR, DESCRIBED THE NATION’S DEFENSE AGAINST THIS AS A ‘MULTI-LAYERED SECURITY APPARATUS’”
Mayorkas offered that he could explain what was in this “architecture” in a classified setting later, but my book divides the enterprise that developed after 9/11 into two distinct, complementary parts. Since at least 2003, what I term in the book as the “near war” has required the FBI and DHS agents to interview and investigate apprehended immigrant border crossers from Muslim-majority nations after they are in custody.
A “far war,” meanwhile, has ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents stationed in dozens of Latin American nations conducting complex international investigations with “vetted units” of in-country police who hunt and arrest long-haul smugglers who transport such special interest immigrants. Additionally, a system of tripwires set throughout cooperative Latin American nations trigger collaborative searches when a suspected terrorist traveler surfaces. Foreign-stationed FBI agents, CBP and ICE intelligence agency officers work with allied nations to capture them en route to the border.
They have caught their share in recent years amid small but annual flows of between 3,000 and 4,000 “special interest aliens” from some 35 mostly Muslim-majority nations that annually reach the southern border.
Chief Border Patrol Agent Rodney Scott, in a leaked videotaped farewell address after President Joe Biden’s administration requested his departure, praised his agency for catching terrorist-watch-listed immigrants “at a level we have never seen before. That’s a real threat.”
Soon enough, more Afghans are predicted to make for the southern border along the same route that Ullah used from refugee camps already forming in Tajikistan, Iran, and Pakistan. At least some number of them will harbor problematic security threat backgrounds like Ullah’s or much worse. Few who show up will have gone through security screening of any sort and will claim U.S. asylum when they arrive.
A perfect storm appears to be brewing, elevating this threat. Some 20 years after they were ordered into existence, the unheralded counterterrorism effort is facing potentially debilitating stresses and challenges that threaten to hamstring America’s ability to continue their counterterrorism success.
An Escalating Mass Migration Crisis
Topping the list of threats to apparatus effectiveness is a mass-migration crisis that got underway in the months leading up to the November 2020 U.S. presidential election and then sharply escalated in each successive month since Joe Biden won office. Border Patrol encounters with illegal immigrants exceeded 200,000 in July, a number not seen since before 9/11. Many immigrants from Central America and around the world readily admit they decided to rush toward the border when they saw the administration start letting in hundreds of thousands of family unit immigrants and unaccompanied children.
By July 2021, the percentage of those not from either Mexico or Central America had grown from a usual few percentage points to 26 percent of the 200,000 encounters. That means historic thousands are coming from countries of ostensible terrorism concern. The numbers of U.S.-bound immigrants from around the globe funneling north out of South America – to include Pakistanis, Tajikistanis, Iranians, and Uzbekistanis – has reached such historic, unprecedented levels that it seems unlikely that the covert border war’s intelligence tripwire system to notice and catch violent jihadists in the huge human flows are working well under the strain, if at all.
Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and other Central American nations along the intercontinental routes in early spring lifted their COVID-19 border closures to release the sea of humanity that was backing up behind them. Countries like Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua let smugglers clear out the backup problem for them. A virtually un-monitored crush of people are moving through now, whereas Panama and Costa Rica once carefully collected biometric data on every immigrant they could and had buses take them from one government camp to another.
Meanwhile, this diversity of unscreened foreigners are within a crush of humanity that has overrun all normal border management systems on long segments of the Texas-Mexico frontier. Entire shifts of Border Patrol agents each day must leave their normal duties patrolling, expelling, seizing drugs and detaining smugglers for filling out immigrant processing paperwork letting them into the United States. By all accounts, ICE Homeland Security Investigations and CBP agents who specialize in intelligence investigations have been gang-pressed into processing duties too, pulled from their complex investigations and intelligence work, very little of which is happening now.
All agencies in at least Texas, easily the most afflicted corridor, are so overwhelmed by this that tens of thousands of illegal immigrants per month are slipping into the nation’s interior, a category known as “got-aways.”
Because the covert border war operates mostly out of sight, it’s difficult to independently know whether special interest aliens and non-Central Americans are being apprehended, or if they are, that FBI and ICE intelligence agents are conducting normal interrogations and investigations amid this chaos.
In quieter (highly walled) sectors of California’s border, Border Patrol did manage to catch two Yemeni immigrants who were on the FBI’s terrorism watch list, one of them on the more rarified No Fly List. But in Texas, all bets are off. The reasonable presumption is that potentially dangerous foreign nationals are evading the whole covert border war process amid the disruptive chaos.
An Unheeded Warning on Border Infiltration from the Obama Administration
On June 24, 2016, President Obama’s top homeland security appointee, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, quietly disseminated an unusual three-page secret memorandum to his 10 top law enforcement chiefs responsible for border security. It was titled: “Cross-Border Movement of Special Interest Aliens.”
“As we all appreciate, SIAs may consist of those who are potential national security threats to our homeland. Thus, the need for continued vigilance in this particular area,” Johnson wrote.
In demanding their “immediate attention,” the memo noted an “increased global movement of SIAs” that required an American reprioritization of this traffic. He issued orders for formation of a “multi-DHS Component SIA Joint Action Group” and production of a “consolidated action plan.” The terrorist infiltration threat would be moved to the front burner.
The memo outlined plan objectives. Intelligence collection and analysis, Secretary Johnson wrote, would drive efforts to “counter the threats posed by the smuggling of SIAs.” Coordinated investigations would “bring down organizations involved in the smuggling of SIAs into and within the United States.” Border and port of entry operations capacities would “help us identify and interdict SIAs of national security concern who attempt to enter the United States” and “evaluate our border and port of entry security posture to ensure our resources are appropriately aligned to address trends in the migration of SIAs.”
Tellingly, Johnson included DHS’s public affairs department on the recipient list.
“The message must be clear,” he continued. “DHS will use the full array of its authorities and capabilities, here and abroad in concert with U.S. government and foreign partners, to detect, disrupt and dismantle human smuggling organizations, particularly those who specialize in smuggling migrants into the Western Hemisphere.”
Secretary Johnson’s 2016 memo indicated he felt aware even then that America’s covert border war at the land border was already suffering from drift, lack of focus and perhaps dysfunctional interagency cooperation, even when there was no mass-migration crisis to knock it off-rail.
He called for a full evaluation of presumed “shortfalls, limiting factors, and potential areas for improvement” so that effort could move forward as a single collaborative in a dedicated, effective manner.
But no evaluation was ever completed. The election of President Trump swept most of the memo recipients out of office, including Johnson, a few months later. The whole new enterprise “just died,” an involved intelligence agency analyst told me.
In 2017, researchers for the Small Wars Journal, among the few who are in the know about these covert border security efforts, criticized the apparent lack of a more dedicated whole-of-government approach to countering the SIA-terror infiltration threat. They observed an absence of a unified, dedicated, and resourced approach (like what Secretary Johnson ordered). The authors concluded that this represents a “strategic and operational level failure … a consequence of not having the requisite strategic leadership and policy guidance.”
Twenty years after 9/11, with a mass-migration crisis and a largely unreformed counterterrorism effort at the southern border, the threat of terrorist infiltration sits at “elevated.”