Instead of worrying about ISIS infiltrating the country, U.S. Senate candidate and Rep. Ron DeSantis is concerned that members of other terrorist groups have already been caught trying to sneak across the border from Mexico.
The Ponte Vedra Beach Republican called a hearing of the House Oversight Committee’s National Security subcommittee to discuss what to do about what he considered a growing threat.
"Recent reports state that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended several members of known Islamist terrorist organizations crossing the southern border in recent years," he said March 23, 2016.
DeSantis has made terrorism a central issue in his campaign. On April 4, 2016, he embarked on a series of town hall-style events in Florida he dubbed the "Defeat the Jihad Tour."
We’ve checked hyperbole by politicians that ISIS is invading via the southern border time and time and time again. Because there’s no hard evidence it is happening, those claims range from Mostly False to Pants On Fire!
But we don’t often hear politicians warn about about immigrants with ties to other terrorist organizations being caught secretly heading into the United States. According to some reports, those apprehensions do happen, although experts told us any true threat may be a bit exaggerated.
More than ISIS
When we contacted DeSantis’ office, a spokeswoman pointed us to a 2015 article from the Houston Chronicle as the source of his statement. The newspaper published a report for elected officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety that said shifting law enforcement sources to protect the border led to crime problems in other parts of the state.
But the report also said that authorities had detained several people with ties to Islamist terrorist organizations, a point the Washington Post highlighted in a follow-up. The Texas agency told the Post that the Chronicle had not properly obtained the report, which they said wasn’t meant for the public.
Along with human traffickers, drug-cartel and gang members, law enforcement personnel in recent years had several run-ins with so-called "special interest aliens." These are people coming into the United States from 35 Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries associated with terrorist groups.
Texas reported 439 cases of people from these countries — including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan and Syria — either caught crossing the border or presenting themselves at ports of entry without permission to enter. The report also said authorities had reported 143 "land border crossing encounters with watch-listed individuals in southwest border states between November 2013 and July 2014."
These encounters included one with an alleged member of al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based group responsible for the 2013 mall massacre in Nairobi, Kenya. In June 2014, he said he had been trained for a suicide attack in Mogadishu but escaped and surrendered to African Union troops, who stopped the attack. That account was unverified and the person sought immigration benefits from the United States, the report said.
The report also noted the 2008 apprehension of a Somali named Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, whom the government said had ties to terrorist groups al-Shabaab, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya and al-Barakat. Dhakane had crossed into Texas and helped move an unknown number of suspected Somali terrorists, as well, although he had claimed he was seeking asylum for religious persecution in Somalia. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2011.
It further said one U.S. citizen had smuggled 272 Somalis into the United States through Cuba and Mexico until January 2010. Although he claimed he had been approached by al-Shabaab members for help smuggling people, he said he’d refused, the report said.
Also detained were three Sri Lankans, one of whom said he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and was on his way to Canada.
There are many more instances than what was detailed by Texas officials, too.
A 2006 House Committee on Homeland Security report said that "each year, hundreds of illegal aliens from countries known to harbor terrorists or promote terrorism" are found trying to cross the border along the Rio Grande Valley. It said members of Hezbollah "have already entered the United States" across the border prior to 2005.
A Government Accountability Office report from August 2009 said Border Patrol apprehended three people with "links to terrorism" at southwest border checkpoints in fiscal year 2008.
An updated 2012 report from the House Committee on Homeland Security said 1,918 "special interest aliens" were stopped at the border from fiscal years 2006 to 2011.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the common thread in these types of reports is not so much that notorious terrorists had been arrested, but that immigrants with ties to terrorist organizations had been caught.
"I haven’t seen this as a method that terrorists have regularly used," he said of infiltrating the southern border. "There are more efficient ways to get in where you don’t have to violate U.S. law."
That’s not to say the border isn’t porous, because immigrants from other countries continue to arrive via Mexico.
Five Pakistanis and one Afghan were caught by Border Patrol agents near the Arizona border in November 2015. U.S. Customs and Border Protection records checks didn’t turn up any "derogatory information." That same month, eight Syrians — two sets of parents and four children — were stopped at the Texas border, but Homeland Security said they were regular migrants who weren’t evading authorities.
Rand Corporation political scientist Colin Clarke said there are many challenges to enforcing border security beyond domestic policy. He noted places like Ecuador, which in 2008 dropped its visa requirements for admission. Lax policies make it much easier for groups to attempt getting into the United States. In 2011, three Pakistani citizens pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle in a member of the Pakistani Taliban from Ecuador.
It is possible and plausible that terrorists would cross the Mexican border, Clarke said. But while it’s a problem worth addressing, it’s not something Americans should panic about. Unlike Europe, which has extensive, hidden support systems that could assist infiltrators, a terrorist coming to the United States wouldn’t easily live off the grid for long.
"Getting across the border is one thing, having a network of logistics in place to put together what's needed to conduct an effective attack is another altogether," he said.
DeSantis said, "Recent reports state that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended several members of known Islamist terrorist organizations crossing the southern border in recent years."
There have been several reported incidents along the U.S.-Mexico border of several agencies encountering people on terrorism watch lists or with ties (or suspected ties) to terrorist groups. There also have been a number of people from countries associated with terror groups stopped by authorities, although that’s not an indication they’re terrorist infiltrators. Experts noted that while border security is always a concern, this issue is far from a pressing crisis.
The statement is accurate but needs some clarification about the threat involved. We rate it Mostly True.