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Fear Canada? Examining the Border-Counterterrorism nexus

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Garrett Graff from Politico (and also the author of a very good book on the post-9/11 FBI) wrote an article that was released late last week entitled “Fear Canada: The Real Terrorist Threat next Door.”

The piece assesses the relative risks of terrorists attempting to travel to the United States via our southern or northern border, and examines US strategies to address these risks, arguing that Canada presents a greater risk that Mexico in terms of potential efforts by ISIS or other terrorist groups to enter the United States. It also argues that counterterrorism is a secondary priority for the US border security mission:

The frenzied debate [about ISIS fighters coming across the Southern border], though, has unwittingly exposed one of the strangest disconnects in post-9/11 American politics: While much of the political rhetoric around border security is focused on stopping terrorism, comparatively few of the U.S. border security resources are directed toward stopping terrorists from entering the United States. Instead, the billions of dollars of fencing, technology and personnel assigned since 9/11 to police the border has almost entirely been aimed at stopping illegal immigration along the southern border.

I think this point is valid with respect to the U.S. Border Patrol’s mission between the US Ports of Entry; their primary operational areas of focus are preventing illegal immigration and smuggling. But I’d argue that this point is not valid for the other half of CBP; the Office of Field Operations’ border security activities at Ports of Entry (and prior to international arrival), where it plays a very important role in preventing and deterring potential terrorists from entering the United States.

In terms of the discussion in the article of the relative threat to the US from the northern vs. southern border, I tend to think that the piece overplays the northern border threat, given the strong cooperation and information sharing between the two countries, and the important fact that would-be Canadian terrorists seem to be primarily focused on carrying out attacks against Canadian targets, as we have sadly witnessed this week.

With respect to the southern border, while I think that there have been excessive political rhetoric of late about this potential threat, I also don’t think it is wise to wholly discount the possibility of ISIS or other terrorist groups attempting to exploit the southern border for entry into the United States, even if there is no “specific intelligence” at this point to suggest such actions. We know that there are well-established human smuggling pathways from East Africa and South Asia to the United States via Latin America and the Caribbean, and that several hundred people from “Special Interest Countries” such as Somalia and Pakistan are caught each year at the US-Mexico border. And if ISIS has significantly greater financial resources than al Qaeda and its affiliates, then that potentially gives it a capability to exploit or corrupt the border system that other terrorist groups have not recently possessed.

Overall, this is a piece worth reading, on an important set of issues of issues that are worthy of further debate and analysis.