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A guide to understanding the administration’s spin on terrorists at the border

The Trump administration has repeatedly made this claim, but the data isn't clear. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Sean Hannity, Fox News: “We’ve been able to apprehend 3,700 people that we’ve identified as having ties to terror?”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “There’s lots of risks associated. The narcotics risk itself has enormous implications for people inside the United States. There are lots of things that come across that southern border that we need to get control over, and President Trump is determined to make that happen. It includes the risk that we have terrorists come across that border.”

Interview on “Hannity,” Jan. 3, 2019

Hannity: “I’d argue probably 98 percent of people that want to come here want hope, opportunity, liberty, freedom and all the things we may even take for granted ourselves. But it’s a 2 percent I worry about that are part of the gangs, the drug cartels. The 2 percent maybe you have talked about, but you can’t give numbers. There are instances that you can confirm that you know of terrorists that have tried to cross our southern border and we’ve apprehended them.”

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: “Yes, Sean, and we’ve talked about the thousands — the thousands of terror watch list individuals who traveled through our hemisphere last year. To pretend there’s not a danger on an unsecured border, on an open border, is just ridiculous. It belies common sense.”

Interview on “Hannity,” Jan. 9, 2019

Let’s drill down on the numbers for possible terrorists attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump administration officials have been using two figures in recent weeks as they push for a border wall: “known or suspected terrorists” blocked from entering the country and “special interest aliens.”

But the State Department says there’s “no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.” So what gives?

The Facts

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here because we’re talking about two different numbers, they mean different things and neither number counts only terrorists. In some cases, we’re talking about people who are suspected of being terrorists or who come from countries where terrorist groups are located or whose routes resemble the way a terrorist might travel or who raise some other red flag.

Administration officials have not disclosed names or hard numbers of terrorists who crossed through the southern border, and it’s unclear from the data they point to whether there are any.

But there is a risk that terrorists might exploit vulnerabilities on the southern border to gain entry, government officials say.

The State Department says there’s no credible evidence of terrorist infiltration via Mexico but warns that the border “remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”

Asked about the report on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Pompeo said that “terrorists will always find the weakest link, and we need to make sure that the weakest link in our national security isn’t our southern border.”

Some experts say Trump officials are exaggerating the risks. “There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States,” Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center for the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, wrote on Just Security. Rasmussen added that groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State “know we had become a much ‘harder’ target than at the time of 9/11 and that getting their operatives into the United States is an extremely challenging proposition.” There is a greater risk of homegrown terrorism, he wrote.

Let’s take a look at each number.

Known or suspected terrorists

Nielsen and other administration officials have been referring to 3,755 “known or suspected terrorists” blocked from entering the country in fiscal 2017 (“10 terrorists a day”). But most of these were attempts to enter by air, according to the administration.

The Department of Homeland Security has not said how many of these 3,755 people were at the Mexican border, if any. The clear implication is that there was at least one, because administration officials often bring up this statistic in the context of the border wall.

Known or suspected terrorists are people who appear in the Terrorist Screening Database maintained by the FBI, also called the “terror watch list.”

According to the FBI, a known terrorist has been “arrested, charged by information, indicted for, or convicted of a crime related to terrorism and/or terrorist activities by U.S. Government or foreign government authorities” or “identified as a terrorist or a member of a terrorist organization pursuant to statute, Executive Order, or international legal obligation pursuant to a United Nations Security Council Resolution.”

A suspected terrorist is “reasonably suspected to be engaging in, has engaged in, or intends to engage in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and/or terrorist activities.”

Note that a crime related to terrorism could mean fraud, immigration, firearms, drug, perjury and obstruction of justice offenses, as well as false statements and “general conspiracy charges,” according to a 2018 report by the Homeland Security and Justice departments. The crime must bear some link to terrorism for an offender to make the watch list, but it doesn’t have to involve violence or material support for a terrorist plot.

In an interview about border security on Fox News, Hannity asked Pompeo about the 3,755 known or suspected terrorists. The secretary of state did not answer directly and ended up saying: “There are lots of things that come across that southern border that we need to get control over. … It includes the risk that we have terrorists come across that border.” (“The risk” is not the same as “the reality.”)

Days later, in an interview with Nielsen, Hannity mentioned “terrorists that have tried to cross our southern border and we’ve apprehended them.” Nielsen said, “Yes, Sean, and we’ve talked about the thousands the thousands of terror watch list individuals who traveled through our hemisphere last year.”

It sounds as if Nielsen is agreeing with Hannity that terrorists have been caught crossing the border, except she quickly pivots to “the thousands … of terror watch list individuals who have traveled through our hemisphere last year.”

In each of these interviews, the Cabinet official takes a cue from Hannity about terrorists at the Mexican border, nods along, but stops short of confirming any specific cases. It would be more helpful for viewers to see them clearly explain these figures on TV and what they really indicate. Giving carefully parsed answers to Hannity doesn’t get the job done.

People on the terrorist watch list are not necessarily terrorists or linked to terrorist groups. DHS has acknowledged that most of these 3,755 encounters in 2017 were attempts to enter by air. The late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) famously was delayed from boarding flights because someone on the watch list used an alias that sounded like his name.

The 3,755 figure also includes people who were blocked from entering the United States when they applied for visas or attempted to fly into the country. In other words, people who did not actually enter.

DHS officials did not respond to our questions. In a January 2018 report, they mentioned “2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watchlist (also known as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database)” in fiscal 2017.

“Of those encounters, 335 were attempting to enter by land, 2,170 were attempting to enter by air, and 49 were attempting to enter by sea,” according to the DHS report, which was co-authored by the Justice Department. It’s unclear how many of the 335 people who tried to enter by land were at the Canadian vs. the Mexican border.

NBC News reported Jan. 7: “U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U. S-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists, according to CBP data provided to Congress in May 2018 and obtained by NBC News.” (There’s no breakdown of how many of those six were “known” and how many were “suspected” terrorists.)

Meanwhile, “on the northern border, CBP stopped 91 people listed in the database, including 41 who were not American citizens or residents.” So more than six times as many tried to cross through Canada than through Mexico, according to NBC News’s reporting. The Fact Checker confirmed NBC’s numbers, though they are said to be unofficial.

CNN reported Jan. 8: “Roughly a dozen individuals who are not U.S. citizens and are on the terror watchlist were encountered by federal officials at the U.S. southern border from October 2017 to October 2018, according to an administration official familiar with data from Customs and Border Protection.” CNN added that “the official did not provide details of whether any of the individuals are currently in U.S. custody.”

When asked about terrorists at a Rose Garden news conference with Trump on Jan. 4, Nielsen said she couldn’t discuss classified information. Pompeo, asked about the report from the State Department finding no credible evidence that terrorists have infiltrated the southern border on “Face the Nation,” noted that it was an “unclassified report.”

“The number of terror-watchlisted individuals encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. “The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.”

Nielsen added on Twitter, “I am sure all Americans would agree that one terrorist reaching our borders is one too many.”

Special interest aliens

Nielsen spoke at the Rose Garden news conference about “special interest aliens.” There’s no uniform definition of this term. The DHS said border officials had encountered 3,028 SIAs in fiscal year 2017. Here’s how the department described them on Jan. 7:

Generally, an SIA is a non-U.S. person who, based on an analysis of travel patterns, potentially poses a national security risk to the United States or its interests. Often such individuals or groups are employing travel patterns known or evaluated to possibly have a nexus to terrorism. DHS analysis includes an examination of travel patterns, points of origin, and/or travel segments that are tied to current assessments of national and international threat environments.
This does not mean that all SIAs are “terrorists,” but rather that the travel and behavior of such individuals indicates a possible nexus to nefarious activity (including terrorism) and, at a minimum, provides indicators that necessitate heightened screening and further investigation.

So these individuals are not necessarily terrorists or linked to terrorism. They come from “special interest countries,” a term that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and other places. People whose travel patterns are similar to those of known terrorists may also be considered SIAs. Mexican drug cartels smuggle some SIAs into the United States for a price, according to a 2010 GAO report. An undisclosed number of SIAs turned out to have terrorist ties after CBP investigated their backgrounds, according to the DHS.

“Often these are individuals who have obtained false documents, or used smugglers to evade security across multiple countries,” the DHS said Jan. 7. “In addition, some have engaged in criminal activity that could pose a danger to the United States, and some are found to have links to terrorism after additional investigative work and analysis by CBP personnel.”

However, there's no breakdown of how many of the 3,028 SIAs turned out to be terrorists in fiscal year 2017, if any.

Alan Bersin, an assistant homeland security secretary in the Obama administration, testified to Congress in March 2016 that “the majority of individuals that are traveling, be they from special interest alien countries or other places, we found the large majority of these individuals are actually fleeing violence from other parts of the world, but of course, we have to be very vigilant and we are looking at those individuals that might actually pose a threat and when we do, we actively work with these governments to respond.”

The pro-immigration Cato Institute analyzed SIA data and found: “Zero people were murdered or injured in terror attacks committed on U.S. soil by special interest aliens who entered illegally from 1975 through the end of 2017. However, seven special interest aliens who initially entered illegally have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. They all entered illegally from Canada or jumped ship in American ports before the list of special interest countries even existed. None of them successfully carried out their attacks and none illegally crossed the Mexican border.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote in a Jan. 11 letter requesting information from the White House that he had “not seen recent or updated information from the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) to substantiate the Administration’s dire proclamations about the magnitude and nature of this claimed crisis — particularly with respect to terrorism.”

In its Jan. 7 release, the DHS points to a January report by House Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee, which says:

Recently, the terror threat has spread from the greater Middle East to the West, particularly in Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of State (DOS), our Latin American neighbors have problems dealing with “porous borders, limited law enforcement capabilities, and established smuggling routes.” Furthermore, “these vulnerabilities offered opportunities to local and international terrorist groups and posed challenges to governments in the region.”

That passage accurately quotes from a 2016 State Department report, which says:

Terrorist groups based in the Middle East find some support in Latin America despite the geographic distance. The call to fight in Iraq or Syria drew limited numbers of recruits from Latin America and parts of the Caribbean, which offered areas of financial and ideological support for ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia. In addition, in 2016 Hizballah maintained some financial supporters, facilitators, and sympathizers in the region that it could tap for support in building and expanding its activities there.

The next year, the State Department’s report said that “there have been no cases of terrorist groups exploiting these gaps [in Latin America] to move operations through the region.”

Foreign terrorist fighter travel from the Western Hemisphere to Iraq and Syria virtually stopped in 2017, as heightened awareness of the threat led to tightened border security. However, Canada, and to a lesser extent, the Caribbean – particularly Trinidad and Tobago – had previously been significant per capita sources of foreign terrorist fighters and the potential return of these trained individuals remains of great concern. 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.

The Bottom Line

Addressing the risk of terrorist attacks is vital. These numbers are being used in the debate for a wall along the Mexican border, so the key question here is what they really say about terrorism at the border.

Regarding “10 terrorists a day” or “3,755 known or suspected terrorists” blocked from entering the United States, it’s unclear whether that includes any cases of terrorists at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of the 3,755 people were blocked while trying to enter by air. Reporting by NBC News and CNN suggests there were a handful of known or suspected terrorists at the Mexican border, but it’s not clear whether those cases involved real or suspected terrorists or people linked to terrorist groups.

When you hear about “special interest aliens” at the border, keep in mind that this term casts a wide net. It could be someone fleeing violence in the Middle East or Africa.

The State Department says in black and white that there’s no credible evidence of terrorists entering the United States through the Mexican border, which is another reality check.

Administration officials and supporters of President Trump are doing a disservice when they use these numbers to suggest that thousands of terrorists or potential terrorists are entering the United States via the southern border, when all of the available evidence suggests the numbers are more likely in the single digits.

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