Much of the noise accompanying President Trump’s partial justification for a wall concerns the veracity of a general threat: that Islamist terror travelers in the flow of “special interest aliens” (SIAs) might easier breach the southern border without one.
Critics in the media vehemently argue that the administration is trafficking in ridiculous, baseless fearmongering. After President Trump said Muslim prayer rugs were intercepted at the border, one Vox article said migration from Muslim-majority countries only happened at “vanishingly small rates.” Another, in The Washington Post, called southern border migration from Muslim countries a “conspiracy theory.”
But perhaps the most influentially misleading article on the subject came from The New York Times. On January 18, The Times published a “Fact Check” column by Linda Qiu titled “Trump’s Baseless Claim About Prayer Rugs Found at the Border.” It essentially concluded that migration from Muslim-majority countries is an unproven conspiracy theory and, even if it did happen, no one could consider it a security threat.
The column contained numerous errors and inaccurately cited two government reports to support the story’s weak contentions. This sort of recurring problem in the media must finally be called out.
Thousands of migrants from countries of terrorism concern do reach the southern border every year; whether they leave prayer rugs behind is irrelevant. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) professionals have, for many years, regarded this migrant traffic as a higher threat, so much so that public funds have long been earmarked for special vetting, investigation, and intelligence work.
Thefirst error fromQui comes when she states: “Nowhere in the White House’s 25-page counterterrorism policy, released in October, was the threat of terrorists infiltrating the nation’s southwest border raised.” In fact, the White House’s “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” includes pointed information on the threat of terrorists infiltrating the border.
The document Qui insists makes no mention of our borders says: “Europe’s struggle to screen the people crossing its borders highlights the importance of ensuring strong United States borders so that terrorists cannot enter the United States.” It then goes on to list “priority actions” about disrupting terrorist travel and securing the border from terrorist threats. One is by sharing intelligence information with our partners, and by helping foreign law enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute them.
Did Qui even read it?
Misleading By Omission
Qui then misleadingly cited another government report that many others have now cited, the State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Terrorism 2017.” She cited the report to support the theory that no one believes there’s a terror threat inherent in this migrant flow. “And the State Department, in a September report, said there was ‘no credible evidence’ that terrorist groups had sent operatives to enter the United States through Mexico,” she wrote.
In reality, the report clearly states and preserves the idea that the border does indeed remain vulnerable to terrorist infiltration, even if in 2017 no organized group deployed over it. This nuance is always tactically truncated (by Fox News’s Chris Wallace and many others) to support a very different narrative. It says that “The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”
Elsewhere, the report (p.194 for those who are curious) again states the border’s vulnerability: “In addition, many Latin American countries have porous borders, limited law enforcement capabilities, and established smuggling routes. These vulnerabilities offer opportunities to foreign terrorist groups, but there have been no cases of terrorist groups exploiting these gaps to move operations through the region.”
To cite this report as only saying no terrorists have crossed from Mexico in the year 2017 — and never that it also says the southern border remained vulnerable to terrorist infiltration despite all of that — misleads by substantial omission.
Also worth noting is that the State Department is addressing organized terror groups, not lone offenders and small cells that no group can deploy, and only covers the year 2017. Other news outlets have reported migrants on terrorist watchlists being apprehended at the border in the first half of 2018, and intelligence community sources have told me more than 100 reached the border or were en route between 2012 and 2017. None of this is reflected in The Times’report.
Next, the Qiu article, in its headline, characterizes Islamic migration to the border as an “unproved rumor,” when the opposite is true. This is similar to the claims made by Vox, MSNBC, and CNN commentators, and The Washington Post.
I have met actual migrants from Islamic countries who make the journey. In my capacity both as a former journalist and as an intelligence practitioner, I have photographed and videotaped them at the border after they have crossed and while they were en route through Latin America. I have interviewed them in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention and while they were still on the routes coming in. Meanwhile, thousands of court case records from two dozen smuggling prosecutions are available, in which sworn federal officers discuss how the migrants and their smugglers do it.
No Security Threat?
Most confusingly, Qui makes the assertion that such Islamic migration, even if it did exist, presents no security threat. Yet congressional testimony is readily available in which many high-ranking DHS officials over the years have discussed land-border migration from Islamic countries as a unique homeland threat, long before Donald Trump.
The Democratic likes of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson regarded this completely undisputed migration as such a serious homeland security threat as recently as 2016 that he called for a whole-government program to counter it. Most of the signature homeland security legislation following 9/11 explicitly refers to border infiltration as a terror threat to counter, as to this day do annual strategic plans of DHS component agencies. Like this border patrol plan––from the Obama years––that lists as its top priority the prevention of terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering between ports of entry.
It would be one thing if Qui’s column were anomalous, but the reality is that journalists continue to dismiss these terror concerns based on incomplete research, misreadings (or no readings) of primary source documents, and mendacious omissions of vast publicly available evidence.
Meanwhile, well-trained and experienced homeland security professionals, like Johnson and those who write the nation’s homeland security strategic plans that cite terrorist border infiltration as a major threat problem, are never cited. Writers need to overcome their personal disdain for the president and seek out the other voices and facts available to them. They also need to simply work hard.
I’m not holding out hope for improvement on either count.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies and a writing fellow for the Middle East Forum. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. Follow him on Twitter @BensmanTodd. Bensman also worked for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers. He reported extensively on national security and border issues after 9/11 and worked from more than 25 countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.