)Richard Rasmussen/Associated Press)

“We now know that it’s a security problem. Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”

— Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), speaking at a tele-town hall, Sept. 29, 2014

Our colleague Greg Sargent first highlighted these interesting remarks, which suggest an emerging collaboration between Islamic State terrorists and Mexican drug cartels. It’s a potentially frightening image for residents of Arkansas, where Cotton is seeking the Senate seat now held by Sen. Mark Pryor (D), especially when Cotton asserts that the border is “defenseless.”

But is there any validity to this claim?

The Facts

Spokesman David Ray pointed Sargent to six reports that have appeared in right-leaning media outlets. Two were actually the same article, just published in different places, though one was missing a correction that negated the entire premise.

The whole thing seems to have started with a highly speculative account on July 4 in WND, labeled an “exclusive” and titled: “New Border Risk: ISIS Ties to Mexican Drug Lords.”  (ISIS and ISIL are other names for Islamic State.) The article quoted Michael Maloof, who it described as a former “top Defense Department analyst” and “expert on the Middle East:”

“ISIS may be working to infiltrate” the U.S. with the aid of transnational drug cartels, he said, citing the violent Mexican criminal gang MS-13 as a highly likely candidate for the partnership.

“MS-13 already are in over 1,100 U.S. cities, and, as a consequence, the infiltration capabilities are very, very high and the threat from them can be sooner rather than later,” Maloof warned.

Already, you can see that Maloof is not pointing to any hard evidence, just that he thinks that they “may be” doing this.

Who is Michael Maloof? He gained notoriety in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as one of the key people involved in a DOD intelligence effort to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and was likely to provide weapons of mass destruction to terror groups.

Maloof worked with another political appointee, David Wurmser, who collected raw data from supposed defectors provided by Iraqi rebel groups. As recounted on page 107 of George Packer’s “The Assassins’ Gate:”

Wurmser and Maloof were working deductively, not inductively. The premise was true; facts would be found to confirm it. All the better that much of the data was doubted or dismissed by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Energy Department. In the eyes of the Pentagon civilians, the methods of the intelligence agencies were deeply suspect, and mainstream analysts had a long record of failure in the Middle East. A new method was urgently needed, starting with the higher insights of political philosophy rather than evidence from the fallen world of social science.

Maloof was later stripped of his security clearance after unauthorized contacts with a Lebanese American businessman who was under federal investigation for gun-running. His supporters claimed the action was politically motivated.

Maloof did not respond to an e-mail asking whether he had any evidence for his speculation about the Islamic State and drug cartels.

The other articles are mostly just as speculative. One quotes a lawmaker, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), as saying it was his “opinion” that the two groups are “at least talking to each other.” He offered no evidence.

In fact, only three of the articles provided by Ray relate to the supposed collaboration between the Islamic State and drug cartels. The others focused on whether the Islamic State would seek to cross the Southern border. But here too the information is sketchy.

The closest thing to actual evidence is a Fox News report about Texas law enforcement sending out a bulletin that social media chatter shows that  Islamic State militants were aware of the “porous U.S.-Mexico border.” But dig into the piece and you see the “social chatter” amounts to just 32 Twitter and Facebook posts — and the bulletin acknowledges “the identities of persons operating these accounts cannot be independently verified.”

As mentioned, one article, in the Washington Free Beacon, was corrected. It initially claimed that a senior U.S. official had confirmed that the Islamic State was planning to infiltrate the border. But after the article appeared, a Homeland Security Department spokesman sent this statement: “There is no credible intelligence to suggest that there is an active plot by ISIL to attempt to cross the southern border.”

Indeed, when senior U.S. officials were asked at a House hearing on Sept. 17 about the reports of the Islamic State seeking to cross into the United States from Mexico, here what they said:

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.): Secretary Johnson, there have been comments made relative to ISIL making attempts to enter from our southern border. And can you, for the sake of this committee, indicate whether or not there’s any evidence that that has occurred or that anyone has been captured trying to enter our southern border?

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson: Congressman, we see no specific intelligence or evidence to suggest, at present, that ISIL is attempting to infiltrate this country through our southern border. And I’m sure my — and my intelligence colleague could add to that.

Having said that, we do need to be vigilant, we do need to be aware of the risk of potential infiltration by ISIL or any other terrorist group. And we have tools in place to monitor that and to do that.

REP. THOMPSON: Thank you. Mr. Olsen, you —

Matt Olsen (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): Yes, I agree with Secretary Johnson. There has been a very small number of sympathizers with ISIL who have posted messages on social media about this, but we see nothing to indicate that there is any sort of operational effort or plot to infiltrate or move operatives from ISIL through the — into the United States through the southern border.

Ray did not respond to a query about why Cotton would rely on information of dubious provenance rather than statements from U.S. government officials made at a congressional hearing.

On Oct. 7, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) asserted on Fox News that “at least ten ISIS fighters” has been captured trying to cross the border. His claim, which he said was based on information from border control agents, prompted this statement from Homeland Security: “The suggestion that individuals who have ties to ISIL have been apprehended at the Southwest border is categorically false, and not supported by any credible intelligence or the facts on the ground. DHS continues to have no credible intelligence to suggest terrorist organizations are actively plotting to cross the southwest border.”

At least Hunter  made no mention of an Islamic State connection to Mexican drug cartels.

The Pinocchio Test

As we’ve noted, just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true. As a lawmaker, Cotton needs to be careful about making inflammatory statements based on such flimsy evidence. At the very least, he needs to expand on his sources of information. He earns Four Pinnochios for trying to turn idle speculation into hard facts.

Four Pinocchios

 


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