What was on Graham’s mind was migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. And, specifically, how it could possibly lead to another 9/11.
“What I saw that bothers me the most is another 9/11 in a making,” Graham said solemnly. “There are 80 countries that [Border Patrol agents] pick people up from. There are two terrorists from Yemen they caught just a few weeks ago. How easy would it be for an al-Qaeda or ISIS cell to leave out Afghanistan and come through the southern border to blend in with this group that [Fox reporter Griff Jenkins] was talking about?”
He praised the Border Patrol but added, “They told me that the likelihood of a terrorist attack coming from our southern border grows by the day.”
In other words: this again.
You may recall similar allegations being raised repeatedly by the Trump administration. This was a constant theme of Trump’s, this idea that terrorists were waiting in the weeds on the southern banks of the Rio Grande, waiting to invade. His team amplified this argument by inflating the numbers, repeatedly suggesting that any incident in which someone on the massively expansive no-fly list was prevented from flying — even if they were stopped overseas — was something relevant to what was happening at the border from Mexico.
Later reporting revealed that the number of people on the no-fly list who had been stopped between ports of entry (that is, at authorized crossing points) in fiscal year 2018 could be counted on one hand. (More were actually stopped at border checkpoints, suggesting that perhaps their own assessments of the risk they posed was lower than the federal government’s.) Graham’s reference to those Yemeni men appears to be similar. They were caught “just a few weeks ago” in the sense that Jan. 29 and March 30 were “just a few weeks ago.” Each was, in fact, on the no-fly list, and it’s not clear if they are still in custody or have been deported. But it is also two people.
The obvious response to this is, “It should be zero people!” And in an ideal world, that is true. But here’s where the 9/11 analogy is actually useful: The hijackers in that attack came into the United States on valid visas. Ideally, we would have filtered them out of the process, too, but we didn’t. This doesn’t mean that we should simply shrug at the idea that terrorist attacks might occur in the United States, of course. But it does serve as a reminder that there is no foolproof system for catching threats before they are acted upon and that demands for some sort of foolproof system are rhetorically dishonest.
As you would expect, the government tracks the threat of terrorist infiltration from Mexico. Each year, the State Department releases an assessment of the terrorism risk posed by other countries. Here’s what it has said in each of the past four reports written about Mexico:
- 2016: “[There is] no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.”
- 2017: “At year’s end there was 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.”
- 2018: “At the end of 2018, there was no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”
- 2019: “In 2019, there was no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”
What’s remarkable about those reports, in part, is that three of them were written during the Trump administration. They continued to undercut President Donald Trump’s claims about a terrorism threat, but you can see politics creep into the reports.
In 2016, during the Obama administration, the report noted that a popular right-wing conspiracy theory was false: “Mexican security agencies track open-source reports, and most recently investigated media reports that terrorist training camps existed in Mexico. In each instance, the media reports were found to be unsubstantiated.”
As the Trump administration progressed, the department’s assessment of the risk posed by the border shifted:
- 2017: “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.”
- 2018: “International supporters and facilitators of terrorist groups such as Hizballah and ISIS are active elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and the U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups are more likely to seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”
- 2019: “International supporters and facilitators of terrorist groups such as Hizballah, al-Qa’ida, and ISIS are active elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and the U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit.”
See that shift? From they’ll probably try other avenues of entry to there are lots of dangerous groups, but they’ll probably try other avenues to there are lots of dangerous groups. In the meantime, there has not been another 9/11 fomented by someone crossing the border from Mexico.
What there have been, though, are a number of attacks linked to right-wing extremism, as the Department of Homeland Security (again under Trump) warned last October. There was, in fact, a large, politically motivated attack on Graham and his colleagues that unfolded on Jan. 6. Graham has been much more willing to dissociate those actors from the aggregate of Trump supporters than he has the purported terrorism threat at the border from the pool of migrants seeking asylum or opportunity in the United States.
There are a lot of other ways in which Graham’s argument is shaky. Most of those who cross the border illegally are either removed from the country or held in custody; it’s not the case, as is usually presented, that millions of people are simply walking into the United States and beginning new lives here. Then there’s his casual musing about the ease with which “an al-Qaeda or ISIS cell” could “leave out Afghanistan and come through the southern border.” I would argue that this might be trickier than it might seem.
Fundamentally, though, there’s nothing new about Graham’s argument. The effort to conflate immigrants with dangerous elements stretches back a century or more. It is a pure and literal form of fearmongering, attempting to increase opposition to migration by making overstated claims about the dangers of migrants or by establishing impossible standards that migrants must meet.
Hannity offered no pushback. Not his job.