By GARRETT M. GRAFF, POLITICO
To hear Congress tell it, there are hordes of hardened jihadist fighters waiting just over the Mexican border to launch suicide attacks on unsuspecting Americans. Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert has even warned of al Qaeda training camps in Mexico, run in conjunction with drug cartel members. Other Republican figures from New Hampshire Senate Candidate Scott Brown to Rep. Duncan Hunter have raised alarms about ISIL fighters infiltrating the southwestern United States, ready to do battle on America’s streets. “I think it’s a very real possibility that they may have already” crossed the border, Perry told a Washington audience this summer, as he sent Texas National Guard troops to boost border security.
Pennsylvania Republican Lou Barletta said in a hearing this fall, “I don’t know if we’re making the argument here of whether or not we should secure our southern border or not. That’s the feeling I’m getting. There’s been a lot of talk that whether or not any terrorists have crossed the border illegally.”
His GOP colleague, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, angrily warned about ISIL coming north during a separate hearing this fall: “Wake up, America. With a porous southern border, we have no idea who’s in our country.”
The terrorism fear seems urgent. A Texas sheriff, hinting at nefarious doings, went on Fox News to report that there had been “Muslim clothing” and Qurans found on trails leading across the border.
And only last week, California Rep. Duncan Hunter reported, “At least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the border in Texas.”
The frenzied debate, though, has unwittingly exposed one of the strangest disconnects in post-9/11 American politics: While much of the political rhetoric around border security is focused on stopping terrorism, comparatively few of the U.S. border security resources are directed toward stopping terrorists from entering the United States. Instead, the billions of dollars of fencing, technology and personnel assigned since 9/11 to police the border has almost entirely been aimed at stopping illegal immigration along the southern border.
While politicians almost always complain about terrorism in the same breath that they call for more fences and Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border, it’s easy to tell that they’re not really concerned about terrorism. If terrorism—and not illegal immigration—were really their top concern, they wouldn’t be mentioning Mexico.
After all, there’s only one U.S. land border where federal agents have ever stopped jihadist terrorists.
Hint: It’s not the Mexican one.
Department of Homeland Security officials said Duncan Hunter’s claims were entirely wrong. There weren’t 10 ISIL fighters captured last week alone—there have been zero, ever. In fact, they’ve said that all of the Mexican border fears and claims have been unfounded. In hearing after hearing and statement after statement this fall, security officials have dismissed any suggestion that ISIL or any other jihadist group is trying to sneak across the Mexican border.
During a hearing last month, half a dozen Republican congressmen pushed administration officials, including DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen, about ISIL’s purported plans to sneak across the Mexican border.
Each demurred. Repeatedly.
Johnson said, “Congressman, we see no specific intelligence or evidence to suggest at present that ISIL is attempting to infiltrate this country through our southern border.”
Olsen said, “There have been a very small number of sympathizers with ISIL who have posted messages on social media about this, but we’ve seen nothing to indicate that there is any sort of operational effort or plot to infiltrate or move operatives from ISIL into the United States through the southern border.”
And Olsen again: “We’ve seen nothing to indicate any efforts to enter the United States through the southwest border by ISIL.”
Those and many other official protestations have not altered the political rhetoric at all, as protecting against phantom ISIL terrorists on the southern border has become one of the biggest Republican themes of the fall election season. And, in the latest twist on what’s been a regular bugaboo for months, New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown last week argued that border security needed to be tightened to prevent people infected with Ebola from sneaking across unmonitored into the United States.
Yet, according to intelligence and homeland security officials, the talking points are all focused on the wrong border. While there is a good chance that ISIL fighters will try to enter the United States, there’s almost no chance that they’ll do it by sneaking across the Mexican border.
Instead, the United States has much more to fear from Canada.
Routes across the Mexican border come with two significant disadvantages for ISIL, al Qaeda, or any other would-be terrorists: First, the cross-border smuggling routes are controlled by Mexican criminal cartels, meaning that any inflitration attempt requires trusting and allying themselves with the cartels—an unlikely proposition for the naturally distrustful jihadist leaders, as well as for the cartels themselves. “Drug organizations have been very operational wary about entering into relationships that would facilitate terrorism,” explains John Cohen, who until June was DHS’s counterterrorism coordinator and is now a professor at Rutgers University. “They don’t want additional scrutiny from governmental agencies, because they understand that terrorism’s a whole other ballgame.”
Second, the demographics along the southern border, where there are few individuals with ties to countries like Yemen or Somalia, provide few resources on either side of the border for a local support network.