Immigration Studies

The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organization founded in 1985. It is the nation's only think tank devoted exclusively to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration on the United States.

CIS in Panama and Costa Rica: How America Filters Potential Terrorists in Distant Lands

PASO CANOAS, Costa Rica, At least every other day, the long arm of America's counterterrorism effort reaches out and touches this essentially lawless, smuggler-ridden town on the Panama-Costa Rica border.

According to an agreement between Panama and Costa Rica, busloads of northward-moving migrants that American homeland security authorities know as "special interest aliens" arrive at the Costa Rica immigration processing station in Paso Canoas. Today (Wednesday, December 12), more than 100 were dropped by prearrangement, among them Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans. All of them were caught in the prior weeks smuggling through Panama's arduous Darien Gap jungle leading them out of Colombia and into Central America as they push to the American border. Most had no identification when they were caught, having ditched bogus passports and fraudulent visas used up to that point.

But American authorities have long been wary about unidentified people who originate in countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. The Americans want to know who they are long before they reach the U.S. border, especially so they have a chance to check international terrorism databases for any past connection to terrorist organizations. But the biometrics collections here also can be used if any given migrant tries to change his identity once he reaches the U.S. border.

So the Costa Ricans here at Paso Canoas systematically tag them to whatever identification they are offering by fingerprinting them and taking eye scans and three-angle photographs. all on equipment provided by U.S. taxpayers for this unique counterterrorism strategy.

Once they are catalogued, all 100 will board buses and be taken to a camp called El Golfito about 20 miles north, where they will stay for a few days. The migrants from Islamic countries will be interviewed and the results provided to American homeland security. Then, they are released to continue their journeys to the American border.

CIS has been traveling throughout Panama investigating how special interest aliens move through this crucial bottleneck country and what local governments do to help the United States ensure that none are Islamic terrorists seeking to infiltrate to the southern border. Look for a full report on the findings soon.

The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organization founded in 1985. It is the nation's only think tank devoted exclusively to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration on the United States.

Todd Bensman is a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies

If Recent Patterns Hold, There May Indeed Be Terrorists Inside the Border Caravan

Middle Easterners do travel the same routes as Hondurans to the U.S. southern border, and rising numbers of suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the border in recent years.

President Trump's recent claim that some Middle Easterners might be among caravan members moving north from Honduras provoked a storm of inquest seeking proof. The president had none to immediately offer. Scorn followed. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, in one emblematic expression, dismissed the idea of Middle Easterners and potential terrorists among them as "pretty much a canard and a fear tactic".

When reporters pressed a few days later, the president said he had "very good information" that the caravan included Middle Easterners, but "There's no proof of anything." Sunday night, a group of mostly male caravan members charged the U.S. border throwing rocks and shouting "Yes, we can," according to Fox News. In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the port of entry between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego.

While President Trump may well have employed the prospect of terrorist infiltration as election messaging, Middle Easterners from places like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt do indeed travel the same routes as Hondurans to the U.S. southern border, and rising numbers of suspected terrorists have, in fact, been apprehended at the border or en route in recent years.

One public case-in-point is Somali national Ibrahim Qoordheen, caught in Costa Rica in March 2017 after passing through Panama on a northward route. Costa Rican authorities publicly announced that U.S. officials requested his detention to investigate him as "connected to an international terrorist organization."

Qoordheen is among growing ranks of suspected terrorists now being encountered on well-known U.S. border-bound land routes, or at southwest border itself. In fact, intelligence community sources with access to this information tell me that more than 100 migrants from "countries of interest" were apprehended between from 2012 through 2017 at the border or en route who were on U.S. terrorism "watch lists" namely, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), or the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB).

Much of this kind of information is classified, since all such encounters spark law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering that could be ruined by public disclosure. But quite a few instances over the years have become public to include border-crossers connected to al-Shabaab of Somalia, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami of Bangladesh. . . .

For instance, in December 2012, U.S. prosecutors convicted Somali national Abdullahi Omar Fidse for asylum fraud after he traveled through Latin America to a Mexico-Texas port of entry in 2008. An FBI counterterrorism investigation found he had served as an al-Shabaab combat operative, possessed the cell phone number of a terrorist implicated in the 2010 Uganda bombing that killed 70 soccer fans, and knew detailed operational knowledge of an aborted plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

In June 2014, another Somali crossed the Mexico-Texas border and admitted al-Shabaab had trained him to be a suicide bomber. Another Somali who crossed the Mexico-California border in 2011 went on to conduct a vehicle-ramming attack in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada in September 2017 while carrying an ISIS flag in his car.

In 2010, two Bangldeshi migrants reached the Mexico-Arizona border together. One admitted to being a member of a designated terrorist organization Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh. He was deported, but his partner absconded after release pending an asylum hearing that never happened. Court records from a recent material support prosecution against a reputed Hezbollah operative in New York revealed that the defendant's father, Mohammad Kourani, who also was involved in the terrorist group's activities, had illegally entered the United States through Mexico.

Other examples are too numerous to mention here. I have conducted face-to-face interviews with Middle Easterners who undertook this kind of migration. I have traveled from Syria and Jordan to Guatemala and Mexico investigating how they achieve these fantastic journeys and where the routes run. I have also analyzed thousands of court records from 22 U.S. migrant-smuggling prosecutions confirming the travel and revealing that a full-bodied American homeland security response to it has been quietly underway for years on the informed assumption the threat is real.

It is not just Middle Easterners traveling to the southern border, as the president said. Migrants from countries in South Asia such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh routinely make the U.S. border trip too, as do those from the Horn of Africa like Somalia and Sudan.

In fact, a Univision reporter found Bangladeshis in the current caravan and marveled at how they had made it so far from home. Homeland security agencies today identify these migrants as "special interest aliens" if they were from some 30 or so "countries of interest" where Islamist terrorist organizations fester, influence, and recruit.

Thus migrant flows from these parts of the world do have the potential to carry terrorist travelers. The idea, then and now, was that if benevolent migrants fleeing bad conditions in Muslim-majority countries could make it all the way to Mexico, then so could the malevolent. The threat derives mainly in the fact that most migrants arrive without any prior vetting or identification documents to help our border security people distinguish the malevolent from the benevolent.

This shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp. Nor does this idea reside in right-wing nativist conspiracy territory; the threat concept been mainstreamed for years at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, and the FBI. Terror travel over the United States's land border was soberly warned of in the 9/11 Commission Report. One 2006 National Counterterrorism Center intelligence report characterized the thinking like this: "Terrorists could try to merge into SIA smuggling pipelines to enter the U.S. clandestinely."

The threat is also bipartisanly recognized. Just two years ago, President Barack Obama's DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson apparently had become so concerned about special interest alien travel over the southern border that he ordered a massive intelligence community-wide initiative to counter the migrants as "potential national security threats to our homeland."

Dismissal and ridicule are perhaps made easier when no attack on U.S. soil from a border-crossing special-interest alien since 9/11. But what's been happening in Europe lately, with its migrant caravans moving terrorists to its borders, must be mentioned. There, terror group operatives and sympathizers conducted significant numbers of plots and attacks, such as in Paris and Brussels, after traveling camouflaged with caravans of illegal immigrant asylum seekers.

Pundits can mock and ridicule, but they do so out of an unnecessary and easily remediated ignorance. They also do so to the faces of those in homeland security who work every day to reduce this infiltration risk, often in faraway lands and at personal risk.

Todd Bensman is a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies

Have Terrorists Crossed Our Border?

On several occasions in October 2018, President Donald Trump and some administration officials suggested that migrants from Middle Eastern countries might have traveled among the thousands of Hondurans in a U.S.-bound column. Later, the president stated he had "very good information" that Middle Eastern migrants had been traveling through Latin America for a number of years, independently of migrant columns, that "there could very well be" Islamic terrorists in this traffic, and that U.S. Border Patrol has intercepted "some real bad ones".1

The administration did not provide either publicly available or protected Classified and Law Enforcement Sensitive information to support the assertions, leaving them challenged and unresolved, whereas more information might have advanced discourse regarding a significant security question relevant to an ongoing national policy debate. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, in one emblematic expression, dismissed the idea of Middle Eastern travelers through Latin America and potential terrorists among them as "pretty much a canard and a fear tactic".2

This Backgrounder provides an initial accounting of publicly documented instances, between 2001 and November 2018, of some 15 migrants with credibly suspected or confirmed terrorism ties who were encountered at the southern border after smuggling through Latin America, or who were encountered while presumably en route. The purpose of this Backgrounder is to inform the extent to which claims by the Executive Branch and its skeptics are supportable and also to usefully inform any other interested stakeholders.

Key findings:

  • From only public realm reporting, 15 suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, or en route, since 2001.
  • The 15 terrorism-associated migrants who traveled to the U.S. southern border likely represent a significant under-count since most information reflecting such border-crossers resides in classified or protected government archives and intelligence databases.
  • Affiliations included al-Shabbab, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, Hezbollah, the Pakistani Taliban, ISIS, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, and the Tamil Tigers.
  • At least five of the 15 were prosecuted for crimes in North American courts. One is currently under Canadian prosecution for multiple attempted murder counts. Of the four in the United States, one was prosecuted for lying to the FBI about terrorism involvement, one for asylum fraud, one for providing material support to a terrorist organization, and one for illegal entry, false statements, and passport mutilation.

Note About Data. Several caveats about the data are warranted. Most information relevant to addressing the question of how often terrorist suspects were apprehended at, or migrating to, the border would reside in government intelligence database systems exempt from public disclosure, and no collection of relevant publicly available material could be found. Information that could enlighten the border security threat issue raised by President Trump in October 2018, therefore, was not readily available.

This paper is based on a CIS compilation of source material from the public realm largely media reports and U.S. court prosecution records that were judged significantly credible. Absent the benefit of a large body of classified and protected government information that also exists about the subject, this list therefore cannot be regarded as comprehensive. Additionally, open source information is unavailable, missing, or incomplete for some of the included cases, presenting the possibility that subsequent investigations cleared or further confirmed initially reported suspicions about some listed migrants. Likewise, several reports that strongly indicated the crossing of additional migrant terrorism suspects were excluded from this list due to insufficient detail.

Todd Bensman is a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies

CIS Checks in with the Troops of Operation Faithful Patriot

Hidalgo, Texas Unauthorized. That was pretty much the mark on my forehead as far as all the public information officers were concerned. On the morning of my second day to check in on the border military operation formerly known as Operation Faithful Patriot, November 13-16, I still hadn't secured permissions for interviews with officials, embeds with the regular U.S. Army forces deploying here, or access to base camps. Not for lack of trying. It was due to impenetrable multi-agency bureaucracy. That was all the former rogue reporter in me needed to know for release into the wild.

On my own recognizance, I quickly found an army compound within eyesight of the Hidalgo Port of Entry and parked. Within a minute, the gate opened and a Humvee loaded with concertina wire pulled out, followed by a company of soldiers in pretty full battle-rattle. I jumped out of the car, and followed them on foot along a public hike and bike trail, through gaps in some of the tall permanent fencing overlooking the Rio Grande, until they stopped under the vehicle bridge next to the river and started pulling gear out for one of their missions. I learned that all army missions here are ordained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which knows all the ins and outs of what is needed, where.

As a quick aside, the purpose of my visit was to learn how President Donald Trump's brand new 5,000-soldier border mission deployment was progressing. I wanted to see for myself how the troops were being used in daily routine and to learn how they might be used as the migrant columns from Honduras moved closer to the border. Critics and proponents alike may take from all this what they will but here's the bottom line up front of what I saw and learned, for good or ill:

  • New troops and equipment were still rolling into at least two main camps in South Texas the week before Thanksgiving, one at the sleepy Donna Port of Entry and the other at the busier Hidalgo Port of Entry. Tents were going up. Heavy construction equipment and large trucks had been brought in and parked, along with Humvees. Helicopters reconnoitered above the camps or flew past them.
  • Although unconfirmed, in the town of Weslaco about 15 miles inland from the river, acres of land cleared, leveled and newly fenced, at least to my mind, bore all the hallmarks of one of the "tent cities" of the sort DHS said would be used for extended detentions of caravanners seeking asylum. The compound was at least 25 acres. It was very freshly cleared and surrounded by fencing with "Warning: military installation" signs posted at intervals while a large abandoned former furniture store nearby was taken over by the army.  No tents had been set up here but long rows of port-o-potties could be seen and large stationary CBP outdoor lighting banks had been set up throughout the largely empty interior. The space would be good to store heavy construction equipment and vehicles too.
  • Troops began deploying from the Donna and Hidalgo camps further upriver to the Laredo, Texas area for various operations that CBP officials determined would be helpful.
  • Most of the troops were not carrying arms, however plenty of Military Policemen carried side arms.
  • Intelligence friends told me the Mexican cartel across the river, CDG, was angered by the U.S. troop deployment because it slowed the pace of drug smuggling and that the blamed the caravan for this. The cartel, I was told, has threatened the migrants to pay steep fees to cross through their territory or go elsewhere, hence the initial moves to Tijuana. No telling whether this is true. I just heard it from sources with access to such information.      

For the next two hours after my unauthorized self-embed, I was able to see what the troops were being used for in this early phase; bolstering existing fencing and barriers with razor wire and stringing unknown lengths of it along open areas right on the river or nearby.

I observed as members of the 19th Engineering Brigade broke into smaller squads and began installing razor wire underneath the pedestrian and vehicle bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico. Groups of people waiting in the U.S.-bound entrance line on the bridge above gawked down at the American troops below.

Permission for me to interview a military or CBP official never came through. But some information slipped out anyway as I spent time with soldiers and Border Patrol officers. Every day, the soldiers in this sector had been adding obstacles for illegal entrants, mainly by stringing razor wire along spots that previously were wide open. I noticed razor wire everywhere along the river bank and above it, in many different places under and surrounding the port, where heavy brush gives way to pavement.

The job on the beautiful fall morning of November 16, temperature an unusually forgiving 66 degrees, was to lay wire along the bottoms and tops of the barrier walls to make it that much more difficult to stage climbing at the bottoms and to go over the tops. Elsewhere in the region was evidence of the gathering deployment, a large equipment staging grounds based in an abandoned Weslaco furniture store called Craig's Furniture. About 20 miles east of the Hidalgo port and bridge was a slower quieter one in Donna, Texas. There, construction and encampment was a full-time affair.

Todd Bensman is a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies

What's at Stake when Bangladeshis Arrive at the U.S. Southwest Border, in a Migrant Caravan or Not

Out of President Donald Trump's suggestion that "unknown Middle Easterners" might be traveling with the Honduran migrant caravans came disclosures about other nationalities who were traveling either with the caravans or on the same U.S.-border-bound routes.

Univision reported that Bangladeshis were spotted moving northward in the migrant caravan alongside Central Americans. Because they hail from South Asia and not from the Middle East, their presence in the column was quickly brushed off as not technically supportive of the president's much-scorned claim that "unknown Middle Easterners" added an extra touch of risk to the migrant caravan.

But Bangladeshis add the same touch of risk all on their own, whether or not they're traveling in a big column or in small, smuggler-led groups. This is because their country is so highly trammeled with ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers, brooding members of a radical Islamist party now out of power, homegrown jihadists of various strands, mosques where extremism is preached, and returning foreign terrorist fighters with combat experience in Syria.

In 2010, one of two Bangladeshi migrants traveling together who reached the Mexico-Arizona border admitted to membership in a U.S.-designated terrorist group back home. He was deported while his partner applied for asylum and absconded without ever showing up for the hearing, according to a leaked Texas Department of Public Safety report.

The Muslim-majority country is regarded as so rife with Islamic extremists and violent ideology that its government has mounted a "zero tolerance" campaign to prevent it from becoming a terrorist safe haven, with U.S. backing. Certainly, that's good reason for uninterested Bangladeshis to leave for greener hills, even though the country's economy is booming.

On the other hand, for a receiving country like the United States, there's a serious risk in simply not knowing if hard core Islamist militants might be among the more than 650 Bangladeshis that Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens of the Laredo, Texas, sector told Fox News were apprehended in his area alone during 2017, or another 280 in the first part of 2018. Or any of the ones the Border Patrol rescued on October 30 swimming the Rio Grande to Texas.

Remember, too, that terrorism is not just about murdering people, damaging property and sowing fear inside the United States. It is just as illegal and unpalatable to raise money in the United States to fund those activities in a home country.

Terrorism Presence in Bangladesh

Homeland security workers always feel a professional and moral obligation to find out who people really are when they're arriving at the Southwest border from countries like Bangladesh. Intelligence types who work, for instance, in the National Counterterrorism Center, Customs and Border Protection Office of Intelligence, the National Targeting Center, and DHS's Intelligence and Analysis want to know first what's going on in the home country, terrorism-wise. And it's not been looking good these days in Bangladesh, according to the U.S. State Department's most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, considering these takeaways from the September 2018 report:

  • "Dozens" of plots by terrorist groups inside the country have been foiled while several were successful inside the country in 2017 alone.
  • AQIS and ISIS claimed responsibility for nearly 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015.
  • Terrorist organizations used social media to "spread their ideologies and solicit followers" throughout Bangladesh.
  • Bangladeshi militants have been featured in multiple publications, videos and websites associated with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Those bullet points alone provide a clue as to why higher risk must be assigned to migrants from Bangladesh on their way, often with no identification documents, to the southern border. And those State Department observations just skim the surface.

Terror Organizations Swarmed Rich Recruitment Grounds

Bangladesh is ground zero in a battle for recruiting grounds seen as rich by rival jihadist organizations. Starting in about 2014, ISIS and AQIS began aggressive recruitment campaigns for adherents, suicide bombers, and fighters for distant campaigns. In 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS and called for militants from Bangladesh, as well as from parts of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to join it, with aspirations of striking the U.S. homeland. By many counts, both groups were pretty successful. Untold dozens of Bangladeshis joined ISIS in Syria while others have committed terror attacks in Europe and in the United States.

After returning to New York from a visit to Bangladesh last September, visa holder Akayed Ullah detonated a bomb at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, prompting the U.S. government to set up a Bangladesh-based "Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime" unit to fight terrorism in that country.

The U.S. embassy in Dhaka became so concerned with terrorist activity in the country that it has ordered employee families removed from the country. Some U.S. special operations forces are now deployed with the Bangladeshi coast guard.

A problem for homeland security to untangle at the border with Bangladeshis is whether they were members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP slants to Islamism and ruled Bangladesh until 2009 with extremist coalition partners that were U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The current ruling party is the Awami League, which for several years has engaged in what it has described as a counterterrorism crackdown on BNP. Many Bangladeshis who arrive at the border are affiliated with the BNP and ask for asylum based on the crackdown.

Bangladeshi Border Crossers as "Tier III" Terrorist Organization Members?

Last year, Canada's high court ruled that "BNP is or was a terrorist organization," in upholding a decision by an immigration officer denying permanent residency to a BNP member. Likewise, in an effort to screen and deter potential BNP extremists coming across the U.S. southern border, DHS took the position that BNP was an undesignated "Tier III terrorist organization", which is a designation under the 2001 USA Patriot Act that allows immigration judges and lower level immigration officials to reject BNP members for asylum processes and visas.

The designation is proving somewhat controversial, with the Board of Immigration Appeals either reversing immigration judge's rulings confirming the Tier III designation or affirming judges' findings that it is not.

An Awful Responsibility

While many cable news pundits and anti-borders advocates slough off reports that Bangladeshis are on their way through Latin America, border security professionals labor under the weight of vetting them in light of all this. And there's a system in place for doing so, as explained in my CIS Backgrounder on why "special interest aliens" (SIAs) from Bangladesh and some 30 other countries are regarded as a border infiltration terrorism threat.

When Border Patrol agents apprehend Bangladeshis, they flag them in their computer systems as SIAs for a regimen of security screening, database checks and possibly security assessment interviews that few Central Americans will ever go through. The reason and the challenge is legitimate and praiseworthy: to determine why the average Bangladeshi is really coming here. But when many Bangladeshis show up without basic identification and an unverifiable story of persecution for the asylum officers and judges, the outcomes are often little more than a wager that any given Bangladeshi means to do no harm.

Todd Bensman is a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies
Todd Bensman