The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 to discuss one of the most politicized, taboo, and chronically misunderstood threats to the U.S. Southwest Border: the national security risk posed by long-haul illegal border entry of migrants from nations of terrorism concern in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. The starting point for conversation was the new book, America’s Covert Border War, The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration (Post Hill Press/Bombardier Books), by Todd Bensman, Senior National Security Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Most border security discussions focus on drug trafficking or on illegal entry by Spanish-speaking economic migrants. But Bensman’s book explores the threat posed by terrorist travel within this migration flow, a border issue which has drawn significant U.S. counterterrorism effort by both Democratic and Republican administrations for 15 years along the physical border and throughout Latin America. Perhaps no other idea about the American border has sown more media fact-checks, claims, counterclaims, rebuttals, and false narratives on all sides as this one. It turns out that Democratic and Republican homeland security administrations alike have retained these covert government programs to confront an infiltration threat whose very existence is frequently challenged. “America’s Covert Border War” provides a first comprehensive, neutral overview of how the U.S. government has viewed this controversial threat and what homeland security practitioners like the panelists have seen and done about it.
The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel on Tuesday, February 9 to discuss one of the most politicized, taboo, and chronically misunderstood threats to the U.S. Southwest Border: the national security risk posed by long-haul illegal border entry of migrants from nations of terrorism concern in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.
Mark Krikorian, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies.
James Dinkins, former Executive Associate Director of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (oversaw Latin American efforts to dismantle the specialized long-haul smuggling networks).
Norman Townsend, former FBI Supervisory Special Agent in Texas (whose unit interviewed Middle East migrants caught on the southern border).
Edward Dolan, former DHS Regional Attaché to Central America and Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent, (Led DHS efforts to identify and interdict known or suspected terrorists and organizations responsible for moving them into and through Central America).
Todd Bensman, Senior National Security Fellow, Center for Immigration Studies, and former Senior Counterterrorism Program Specialist, Texas Department of Public Safety.
MARK KRIKORIAN: Hello. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
We’re here to discuss a new book, entitled “America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration.” This issue of possible terrorist infiltration across the southern border lends itself to a lot of misunderstanding and unhelpful comments. On the one hand, there’s often exaggeration – you know, a prayer rug was found in the Arizona desert, so that must mean, you know, we’re in danger. On the other hand, you hear from many people discounting this issue – that it’s a fake issue, that it’s made up, and after all no buildings have blown up recently so there must not be anything to it. What this new book and the rest of our discussion today from practitioners in this area is going to show is that this is a real issue, and that there are real people, real problems – smugglers, smuggling networks from the Middle East and elsewhere overseas bringing people to the Mexican – to and across the Mexican border.
So this is something that is urgently important to discuss and to place in proper context and proper scale. And I think we have a really outstanding panel today to talk about it.
The author of the new book, “America’s Covert Border War,” is Todd Bensman, and he’ll be going first. He is a senior national security fellow here at the Center for Immigration Studies. Prior to that, for almost a decade he was at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. And – (audio break) – more than half of the southern border. This is, obviously, something that was quite relevant to the state government down there. Before that, Todd was a foreign correspondent in more than two dozen countries covering a whole variety of issues, wars and rumors of war and all the rest of it.
The rest of our panel, to respond to the book and to talk about their own direct experience, we have three other people. And I’ll introduce them now, and then when their turn comes I’ll just turn the mic over to them.
Our first respondent is James Dinkins, who is former executive associate director of ICE HSI – Homeland Security Investigations – which is one of the two main divisions of ICE. Before that, he was special agent in charge for ICE in the Washington office. And he’ll be talking about the agency’s counterterrorism activities in Latin America involving these smuggling networks bringing what are called special-interest aliens – in other words, people from countries where terrorism is a real problem, in the Middle East and elsewhere – through Mexico and into the United States.
Our next speaker will be Norman Townsend. He is a 30-year – retired now 30-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And he was – headed a unit during that time where they interrogated special-interest aliens who were caught on the southern border to find out – to collect intelligence about the possible terrorism connections and also the various human-smuggling networks that would bring people through this very long path to the Mexican border.
And finally, Eddie Dolan, recently retired from ICE’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and served for many years in Panama City, where he was the agency’s regional attaché in Central America and was specifically involved in intelligence operations looking for terrorists among the other migrants in Central America and neutralizing that threat, hopefully.
So we’re going to start with Todd. After the other three speakers have their say, we’ll take some questions, do some question and answer. So, Todd, why don’t you take it away?
TODD BENSMAN: OK. Well, thank you, Mark. And thank you to CIS for supporting my book and this panel. Thank you to the panelists, as well, for coming in, because these guys are real actual operators in the homeland security field of what we’re talking about, the threat that is being confronted. I’ll also mention that Eddie Dolan is with HSI, not ICE, and we’ll be happy to get to him soon.
I wanted to start with the book’s genesis, kind of where this came from. You mentioned it a little bit earlier, that this whole idea of terrorist infiltration, of, you know, terrorists coming over the southern border, is a highly contentious issue. It falls right on the culture-war divide. Every time it’s mentioned the partisan knives come out, and very often the result is not pretty. The most recent example of this that probably everybody remembers, maybe a year-and-a-half ago when President Trump said that Middle Easterners were migrating up to the southern border and that there were terrorists among them and – suspected terrorists among them. And what we saw was a tremendous – like, an epic pushback on that from the media, you know, from fact check after fact check after fact check, where I think the general public was not well-served by any of that because, in the end, I think that the general public and lawmakers and people who need to know about this didn’t – were not – their knowledge didn’t advance any at all.
And so the book really – the main purpose of the book is to, you know, become a baseline neutral set of facts about the scope of the threat. And especially from the perspective of the homeland security enterprise, the book really takes a view of this threat issue through their eyes, which has always been missing – not partisan eyes and through their eyes. And for that reason, I’m really grateful to have this panel because these are people who have actually, you know, worked this threat issue, OK? Donald Trump was probably not the best ambassador for this issue, just because of what a lightning rod he was.
So, again, you know, I want this book to be a kind of Webster’s Dictionary for this narrow threat issue. That’s the bottom line, that this is a place where people can start and have a normal discussion of this issue from both sides of the partisan line at a time that I think the threat may very well be elevated and escalating right now.
So let me get to the book’s overarching main findings, just the general findings for “America’s Covert Border War.” First of all, the notion of terrorist infiltration as this grand boogeyman that’s often floated by conservatives or some Republicans is, in fact, exaggerated too often. I think that there – that there is – there is some of that that goes on – you know, 10 ISIS terrorists crossed the border, oh my God, and you know, prove me wrong. And then, from the other side – you know, from the liberal Democrat side – they’re underestimating and underacknowledging that there actually is some threat here that needs to be – and I don’t mean to be cliché about this or trite, but it’s actually somewhere in the middle. And I think that the book kind of gets at the middle ground of the threat, you know, minus all the stuff that goes along with this, OK?
A hint as to why we know that there is a threat and that there is something going on at the southern border that is worth talking about and dealing with is the fact that U.S. Homeland Security agencies stood up real programs, real people to confront this 20 years ago, and that they have been operating all this time without any significant reportage about it under both Democrats and Republicans, who all have read intelligence that the general public is not privy to but having read the intelligence have continued to fund these programs.
The programs that are part of what I call the covert border war, they often are secret or law enforcement – (audio break) – intelligence – you know, protected/classified intelligence, a lot of it law enforcement protected because of ongoing investigations, that they do address a traffic – a human traffic that is coming from countries of national security interest. And what I mean by that are, for example, the 11 Iranians who were apprehended at the Arizona border one week ago Monday – today’s Tuesday – and that there are people coming from countries like Iran reaching the southern border on a regular basis from places like Afghanistan and Yemen and Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan – some 35 to 40 different countries that you have, you know, significant terrorist activities and presences in, that they’re showing up at the border without any identification very often, moving though South America, Latin America using human smugglers.
The book breaks this whole thing down into what I call the near war and the far war. I’ll get to the near war first. I describe the near war mainly as – like, a central element of it is that when people from these countries hit the border, reach the border like the Iranians, then that is, like, kind of a – an alarm goes off. A bell dings, and the FBI and maybe other three-letter agencies will go to the detention facility and begin a very enhanced interview process face to face. There are things that happen. Phones, if they have them, get dumped. There are – (audio break) – and calls might go out to foreign intelligence services. Norman Townsend I’m hoping will talk a little bit more about that because he led a unit in the FBI that did just that for many years on the Texas-Mexico border. That is what’s going on.
Other agencies that are involved are ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, ICE Intelligence as well; military intelligence groups like SOUTHCOM, NORTHCOM. DIA has very often been involved in the near war and the far war, but often the near war. The U.S. Navy has had a hand in this and the U.S. Coast Guard has had a hand in some of these activities down in Latin America and at the border.
Now, Mark mentioned that these are referred to as special-interest aliens. That’s government jargon. My book is filled with references to special-interest aliens, and I’m going to just mention this now that as of last week the word “alien” is no longer in vogue and they have officially changed from “special-interest alien” to “special-interest undocumented noncitizen.” So they’ve added a few extra letters – alphabet letters to the – but for purposes of this conversation and the book we’re calling them special-interest aliens just because of habit.
The Iranians that I talked to, very likely what’s been happening – I don’t know this, I haven’t talked to anybody, but I – from the reporting in the book, what’s probably happening there is for the last week the FBI and at least ICE Office – or, you know, their intelligence officers are interviewing and interrogating and doing the investigation that I talk about in the book, that Norman will talk about as well, to just determine that they’re not spies from Iran, that they’re not maybe an operative. Right now things are sensitive because the Iranians have promised retaliation for the assassination of Al Quds General Soleimani. That’s in the back of people’s minds. The likelihood that these are bad guys is probably fairly low, but these – our people – our homeland security people who occupy the near war have to at least rule that out. And also, it could be that maybe one or two of them are abdicators from the military or from some kind of, you know, administrative, you know, department in the government there that might be useful to the United States. So the near war is very active right now on these 11 Iranians, as well as many other special-interest aliens or special-interest undocumented noncitizens.
OK, the far war. This happens in Mexico and the – Latin America, South America, Central America. This is a – part of a – what I describe as a layered defense where our people, especially HSI, occupies the very tip of that spear. They are deployed throughout Latin America. I think the American public would be very surprised to know what they’re doing down there. They – (audio break) – a variety of countries, allied countries down there, and they are hunting SIA smugglers who are a very unique kind of breed of smugglers, very wily, very difficult to get your hands on. And our HSI investigators are working throughout Latin America hunting them down, very often successfully hunting them down. But obviously, like a few months ago HSI and the Brazilians took out an Iranian human-smuggling organization and, obviously, you know, we had more Iranians hit the border, so something still is going on down there. They need to probably finish up whatever they’re doing. And the other – and James Dinkins will talk a little bit more about what HSI, what he knows about this counterterrorism operation, and it’s been going on for years and years.
And then in addition to that, the homeland security enterprise has set up what I refer to as like tripwires among our allied governments down there to be able to detect and track down before they get to the United States suspected jihadists – guys, or women and men – (audio break) – terror watch – (audio break).
I’m already at 10 minutes? OK.
So that is something that Eddie Dolan, I think, will be able to discuss.
And I also want to say that the book concludes primarily as one of its big conclusions that these cordons and programs are responsible for the lack of terror attack from the southern border, in my opinion. And I think I’m not the only one who shares that, and I think that’s an unheralded victory for us that we should know about.
And I would mention, also, that the numbers are relatively small of these jihadists. There are not large numbers rushing over the border, but small numbers have very big consequences. We saw that in Europe. We saw that in – when, in the last migration crisis – last migration that ISIS sent at least several dozen of its operatives into the European theater, where they conducted the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks, and have created catastrophe from one end of that continent to another that have continued to this day. And I don’t see any end in sight to it because they snuck in over the borders. It is a proof of concept there. Very small numbers compared to the total numbers that went in, and that they used this mass migration as camouflage.
Which brings us to the present. My issue with where we are today is twofold.
One is that I believe that we are at the front end of another mass-migration crisis on our southern border. This collapses our border-control systems, and the border – the covert border war that I talk about in the book gets compromised when all systems collapse and we’re unable and incapable of maintaining the kind of – (audio break) – and investigations and intelligence collection. I see that as happening at a very bad time right now. There are holes in the cordon. The border war is not perfect.
And finally, I just want to note that this really is fundamentally a nonpartisan issue. Democrats have been interested in maintaining these programs. The most recent example of this would be under the Barack Obama administration. Jeh Johnson, who was secretary of DHS, in his final months pushed a very significant rehabilitation and evaluation of the covert border war. He called it a plan to revamp everything that we’re doing and get all the agencies in a collaborative and make sure they have everything that they need. That program never happened because the Trump administration came in. The number-one recommendation in my book is – in chapter nine, which is filled with recommendations – is to have Jeh Johnson and his plan brought back, and I hope the Biden administration is listening to this, that he had a good program. He was a Democrat and he was concerned about this issue.
And so with that, I’ll just pass the dais. I know I went a few minutes over.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you. Thank you, Todd.
And we’re going to be taking questions later. If you want to submit a question if you’re watching this live, you submit it by email to M-R-T – as in Tom – email@example.com or to our Twitter handle at @CIS_org and we’ll try to get to as many questions as we can once the three speaker who are going to be reacting to the book have their say.
So let’s now move to James Dinkins. Jim, you’re on.
JAMES DINKINS: Yeah, thank you.
And I just – I kind of want to follow up on some of the things that Todd had mentioned, but also what’s in the book itself. And that talks about, you know, after 9/11 I think all of law enforcement and the mentality of the DHS enterprise, but really the law enforcement enterprise pivoted from a reactionary state to a preventive mindset, right?
So on the border, what does that mean? Like, for your special agent, you know, responding to seizures at the border and smuggling organizations smuggling drugs across the border, let’s say that you knew that there’s a hole in the fence at mile marker one and two, and that drug smugglers use that – (audio break) – to cross into the United States, and you could go sit out there all day long and make case after case after case. After 9/11, that wasn’t acceptable anymore, right? We had to – if there was a hole in the fence, if there was a vulnerability that was being exploited, we had to bend that fence and prevent that and do as much preventive as we were doing reactionary.
And in that mindset is looking at the human smuggling. So HSI’s, you know, primary mission is – in the lead in the United States is looking at human-smuggling organizations. Human-smuggling organizations are very different than other criminal organizations, say cartels, drug cartels, who actually are very territorial and they fight amongst each other versus sharing with each other. And that’s what you see when we really did a deep dive of all the smuggling organizations and the intelligence that we had about smuggling organizations, is you find that they are more decentralized organizations that will share resources amongst each other. So if somebody has a really good transportation versus a vessel, they might help out five other smuggling organizations with the movement of people by vessel. If they have a way into a country, to – maybe it’s a – (audio break) – or it’s a vulnerability that they can exploit or maybe through corruption – they’ll use those services for multiple other organizations. And so it’s this network of decentralized organizations all working together to move human cargo from – you know, from – everywhere from one continent to the next continent, ultimately with the goal of getting into the United States.
So what we did is really sat down and looked at, well, if you can’t just take out a single organization, how can you make an impact and address those threats before they get to the – to the U.S. border? And we did that by looking at the pathways that these organizations were using. Why did they leave the Horn of Africa and end up someplace in Latin America? (Audio break) – and was it because there was a – you know, a weakness in maybe a visa control? Maybe there was a – maybe it was corruption, that they’re exploiting a corrupt official. But we looked at how those pathways actually traveled from the globe through – and ultimately up through the southwest border.
And then, after identifying those pathways, then we looked at and we kind of racked and stacked those organizations that we were going to go after based on the risks that they posed, the national security and public safety risks that they posed. And that – what does that mean? That means, like, all right, well, a lot of organizations, as we all know, when they’re smuggling individuals, is they put those individuals – their human cargo – at great risk. We’ve seen it where we’ve had trailer loads of victims who have died from the heat in suffering because they were locked in the back of a tractor trailer as they were crossing the desert. Were they subjecting them through – you know, through miles and miles of hiking without any provisions through a desert themselves on foot? Or was the cargo themselves coming from an area that could pose a national security threat, and that these organizations would – they did not have the same level of admission and consciousness that they were worried about the cargo themselves? And if the person that they may be, you know, doing business for today was somebody fleeing a depressed area, but tomorrow amongst that group was actually somebody who wanted to come here and do us harm, and they were trying to be kind of the needle in the haystack.
And as Todd was mentioning, a lot of people come to this country, and 99 percent of the people come to this country to live the American dream. But it doesn’t mean you close your eyes to the fact that amongst those are people who want to do us harm, and we – and we know that.
So to come up with a strategy, what we did is push our borders out, work with our foreign partners to say this is why you’re seeing the pathway of illegal smuggling coming through your country, and stiffen those controls, mitigate those risks so that they could no longer exploit that area. And then also, at the same time, is so we could collect as much intelligence about what truly was the intent of the people being brought through that pathway and ultimately into the United States, with the goal to get to the United States. That’s why I think a lot of the interviews were so important, is they weren’t necessarily focusing on determining if the individual apprehended was a threat themselves, but also what intelligence did they have about the pathway and the ways that they were coming in. Also, the foreign country – let’s say it was in Syria – during a great part of the time, you know, intelligence about what ISIS was doing when it was unfolding in the beginning was critical information for law enforcement.
So it really had a host of different areas that it helped the national security apparatus and the border security apparatus One is pushing those interdictions out, helping our partners who – you know, corruption, for example, on your border, if you’re a host country, can destabilize you. So how do – how do we help them mitigate that threat? If it’s not corruption, maybe it’s a weak – like I mentioned before, maybe it’s a weak visa restriction that they have or no visa restrictions, and that that is becoming – making them a magnet, which can destabilize them as well. And then, ultimately, how can we actually just get the intelligence that we need to make sure that we keep the homeland safe before it’s too late?
You know, it’s – there’s never a problem until there’s a problem. And you know, you talk about, well, what has happened since 9/11 and what has law enforcement done? And a lot of it you cannot – you cannot, you know, quantify. You cannot put down X number of events were prevented, because if you’re doing your job right and we’re all working together you’re – it’s actually the deterrent, right, that prevents that from happening. And yes, people were interdicted. Could they have done something bad? We don’t know because we prevented that from actually having them have the opportunity to do it.
So it’s really the preventive side. And from SIA – special-interest aliens, which is how the INA defines, you know, somebody unlawfully present in the United States, is an alien by the Immigration and Naturalization Act. That’s why that term is often used. It is why special interest is referred to as the countries that we think could have the greatest nexus to a national security threat. Maybe not that individual, but obviously, if you’re coming out of Syria over the last 10 years, you could have a greater threat related. And if not associated with ISIS, you might have some really good intelligence just unbeknownst even to yourself about what was going on in that host country and how we could help combat that threat and work with our foreign partners.
So, you know, it’s an interesting book because I think that as Todd had mentioned, a lot of these things are unknown. And I – and it’s not a political – it’s not political. It’s not a political situation. This is a national security situation and a public safety situation and a border security situation, because criminals will find that weakness – (audio break) – in our immigration system. They will find that area to exploit and they will take advantage of it. And they educate people and they talk to each other about how to take advantage of it. And in today’s era, we have to prevent that from happening and eliminate those vulnerabilities. Doesn’t mean that we can do it 100 percent of the time every time, but you go to be aiming for 100 percent of the time every time.
So I look forward to hearing also from our other two guests as well, the FBI and then Eddie Dolan, who has lived and breathed the pathway that many individuals traveled into the United States, or attempted to, while he was stationed overseas.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Jim.
So our next speaker now, as you suggested, is Norman Townsend, a longtime FBI special agent who has dealt with this issue of special-interest aliens. Norm?
NORMAN TOWNSEND: Yes. Glad to be here. Thanks, Mark and Todd. It’s a tough act to follow. James nailed a lot of it, a lot of the points, probably, that I would like to make.
We all know where we were on 9/11/2001, what our roles were at that time. On 9/10/2001, I was in my 17th year as an FBI agent and had worked almost exclusively criminal matters. On 9/11, that day I became a counterterrorism agent like every other FBI agent in America. And probably for the next six months solid, that’s all we did from seven to seven and more.
So my first encounter with what we would later call special-interest aliens – we didn’t call them that then; they were just undocumented or illegal aliens at that time – actually occurred not on the southern border, but on the border between Louisiana and Texas where I was assigned, near Beaumont. There were a lot of reasons why we were certainly concerned. We knew that, you know, the first one, you know, the 9/11 attack that – I mean, even just the existence of the FBI as its current status was on the line, so we had to do better. Robert Mueller was the new director of the FBI. He’d been on the job a week when 9/11 happened and he basically said no lead goes uncovered.
Well, that – to fast forward that, in 2003 – August 2003 – I was promoted to a supervisory special agent and later senior resident – supervisory senior resident in charge of our office in Laredo. And one of our missions in the particular squad I had – in addition to the public corruption taskforce, I had the joint terrorism taskforce. And our main mission of the joint terrorism taskforce was the interview of SIAs that were – either surrendered themselves or apprehended at the border, to do a vetting of them to determine – as both James and Todd, determine if there was any connection between that individual and terrorism. Could they be a potential terrorist? Could they be here doing harm? Of course, we know, just as James has said, the vast, vast majority – 98 percent plus, whatever – was – were here for – to experience their form of the American dream, but we had to go through this vetting process.
We had a joint terrorism taskforce that included elements of what we now – what is now Department of Homeland Security. Border Patrol agents were assigned with us, Laredo Police Department, and FBI agents. And we would do these interviews of the SIAs and we had a structured questioning format. We had a format for vetting them and we followed these procedures.
And you know, obviously, we were trying to learn about terrorism, but we would also learn about smuggling routes. We would also, because we were fighting wars – active wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course the involvement of the Iranians – so any information that would help the general war on terror and would help our troops, we would try to get information as well. But at the same time, we also wanted to project to these people who probably the most of them would eventually become U.S. citizens or be on some sort of path to U.S. citizens, or – let’s just say the least living in our country – that we wanted to build perhaps future assets, future sources of information that could be helpful, as well as documenting their presence.
As we know – as the gentlemen here on this panel know, the terrorists, they have a very long memory, and that they can be secreted for a long time. Their mission could be years into the future. We’ve also had examples of people who have come here legally and then been radicalized later on. Obviously, someone here – perhaps a Muslim male – might be radicalized. He may have come here for all the right reasons, could be radicalized. So cultivating future sources of information and cooperation was certainly a part of it, the future value that – you know, to this day I don’t know if, you know, we’ve been success. It’s been – I left the border in 2009. I’m sure that the process that the FBI’s involved in has changed. The triage has probably changed in our approach down on the border.
But we know at the very least the importance of our mission on the border. And it’s – as the gentlemen have already alluded to, because of the government that we have in Mexico, because of the fact that they have ceded their border security basically to the cartels, that it’s even more important that our mission has to be more effort put in at that border as opposed to our northern border.
In reading your book, I enjoyed your book. I thought it was right on in my recollection of the time that I was down on the border. But I noted your – on your book your comment from General Kelly, and I’d better put these on to look at it, that while we’re not yet – there is not yet any indication that the criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking are interested in supporting the efforts of terrorist groups, these networks could unwittingly or even wittingly facilitate the movement of terrorist operations toward the border.
We’ve certainly recognized, you know, that that was the potential. And I think that General Kelly said what we thought back, you know, in 2001. And when I got to the border in 2003, that the – we had to be looking for, as James referred to, is that needle in the haystack, that the cartels could unwittingly get someone across the border. And so that was our primary mission of our joint terrorism taskforce in the Laredo area of responsibility.
And I’ll leave it at that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you.
And now for, last but not least, Eddie Dolan. Take it away, Eddie.
EDWARD DOLAN: Thank you very much. And I think I get the hardest job in the whole group following Jim and Norman. They know what they’re talking about. And as Norman mentioned, what Jim did to him and he did to me as well, took a lot of good material that I was going to use. But I’ll do my best to kind of dial it down.
And I had the privilege of working with HSI and retiring back in 2019. I spent the majority of my career working in Latin America, and I actually lived and worked in Central America for 13 years of my career, and go to witness and experience this whole migration growth, you know, not only with the migrants from Central America but the migrants – the SIAs, as we discussed, those from extracontinental migrants that are coming into the continent.
Then, you know, those routes, Jim touched on them and how we look at them and stuff, but you know, September 11th, you know, caused an effect on the way that airport security came about and how not only the United States, but many of our partners around the world started looking at flight lists before they would come in, and making sure you had the visas and the proper things come in really limited access to the United States and people that wanted to come here who weren’t from this continent. So how do you get here, right? And how do you get into the United States?
Back in 2011 in Panama, there’s – in the southern part of Panama or the eastern part of Panama, with Colombia, there’s a jungle called the Darién Gap. It’s about 10,000 square miles in size. And there’s only – it’s very mountainous, very treacherous, you know, snakes, jungle, cliffs. There’s only so many ways you can work your way through there. And prior to that time, you know, we focused a lot on the narcotic flows that were coming into the United States and those traditional threats at airports and things like that. We really didn’t – if you would have come and asked all of us would people walk through that jungle to get to the United States, the answer would have been no, you’re crazy. I mean, that’s – it would be insane. It takes anywhere from seven to 10 days. And Todd touches on those things in the book, and I think he did a really good job at that.
But what you look at that in is like – so in 2011 there were four individuals from Pakistan that walked through that jungle. And this is back in – as I mentioned, in 2011. We looked at it and we said, what’s going on here? Why would – why would you do that? And so we started to pay attention to it and started to build programs.
And we used programs that we had used traditionally in other investigations, right, on how you – we wanted – we learned a long way our partners are stronger. If they have the ability to investigate and to take care of their piece of the pie and make themselves safer, ultimately that makes us safer in the United States. You know, that filter process or those trip lines, as Todd mentioned, you want to develop those things and look at them. So we started – in HSI we started a biometric program that would, you know, take fingerprints and photos and biographical data, and we’d be able to upload them and run them against U.S. databases. And if there was a hit on them, we could share that with our – with our partners, whether that was in Panama and Costa Rica, El Salvador – (audio break). And what we found at the most part, most countries would make the right decision, right, with that individual, whether they were a drug smuggler or KST – a known or suspected terrorist. And then we could – we could act upon that and work with them and determine, you know, what was their purpose of traveling.
And there was a case that was highlighted, and it’s open source. It was – it was an individual, Ibrahim Qoordheen – I think Todd mentions him in his book – that was actually interdicted in Costa Rica. And that program in Costa Rica we’d only been working about two weeks and training two weeks prior to that, and so it was just an amazing example of, like – of what our host government counterparts could do with really the needle in a haystack, right, as is mentioned in the book. Jim and Norman both mentioned that, is you have the flow of all these migrants coming and, you know, what are those numbers of migrants?
We looked at the Darién Gap as kind of a chokepoint and a gauge because once you get through there you can spread out, you know. You get on buses. There’s different routes you can take in how you get there. And the – we started looking at those numbers, and I think it was back in 2011 we were less than a thousand people, right? And over the years, ultimately, I think in the last few years there are between 20(,000) and 30,000 migrants are walking through a 10,000-square-mile jungle.
You know, sometimes you ask yourself why. And a lot of those people – we found most of those people that take this journey, the extra-continentals – you know, not from Brazil or Cuba or some of the other places that are within the hemisphere – are males, you know, 18 to 24, 25 years old. What is their purpose of coming to the United States? A lot of them, to find a better life. But there’s no test that you can use out there to say has this person been radicalized, what is their purpose – you know, what is their purpose for this journey. Is it really to make a better life for themselves, the American dream, or is it to do harm to the United States? And there’s only so much that we have in our database and so many things that can be run and checked, so teaching them – as Norman mentioned, you know, an interview process and how you interview them, what questions you ask.
What they – you know, none of them brought passports, but everyone had a cellphone. And you would ask them: What happened to your passport? Well, I lost my passport in the river. And yet, they have their cellphone. There was literally in the jungle where they’d walk out of the jungle – I’ve been there – there was an indigenous man under a thatched roof – we call them bojilos (ph) – with a little Honda generator charging everyone a dollar to charge their phones – you know, to recharge their phones with electricity.
And you see – and that was one of the other unique things that we saw, is how the market – you know, Jim touched a little bit on this and I wanted to go back to that. This is all narco territory. And what we found was for years we all said a drug dealer would not move a terrorist because it’s bad for business. But we found out that’s not true because, one, a terrorist doesn’t tell you that he’s a terrorist; and two, drug dealers don’t vet people and say, well, is really a bad guy or a good guy. All they care about is, you know, moving people. So what the narcos would do is they would charge a tax, and the actual human-smuggling organizations were very disconnected. Like, Jim did a great job of explaining that, of how you’d have a bus driver and everyone else is involved in almost an informal process. We even found the indigenous people were setting up little – we call them bed and breakfasts in the jungle, but it’s not a bed and breakfast that any of you would think about going to, taking a family member to. It was just a place where you could get out from in the rain and they’d have some rice and Coke, you pay a fee. It was a stopping point, you know, and you move on your way.
But the narcos would charge this tax. We actually had a – there was a big cartel that worked the Caribbean side of Colombia and some migrants started – there was – people started offering boat services. It’s a lot quicker to take a boat from Turbo, Colombia, and come around to the north coast of Panama than do that treacherous walk. If you had a little bit more money, you could coordinate and you could do it. And some deaths occurred with some migrants, and then the narcos shut that off to moving migrants through because it brought unwanted attention to that area. So they actually used the migrant flows to, you know, help them in their – in their drug business.
So we saw all these things, then, as they move up into Central America, and they mix into the regular migrant flows. You know, they – we looked at it and said, what are the similarities, right? The routes are similar. The differences are they don’t speak the language, they’re coming – be coming possibly for different reasons. And those – trying to identify those on the way and view those trigger points, as they – as they move up.
One of the amazing things that we saw that the coyotes got to do, they actually used the governments to move migrants. So I’ll wrap up real quick. And the amazing thing was is that, for example, you come out of the Darién, you’ve got jungle – you know, jungle foot. You’ve got, you know, bug bites. You’ve got – you’ve hurt yourself. So the migrants would have – the coyotes would have the migrants turn themselves in to the government, who would provide – (audio break) – food, and shelter. They would do a process, release them. Then they’d get on a bus and – (audio break) – there was well. Each one of the – (audio break) – Panama called the controlled flows, but the actual coyotes were using the government to move the migrants up through the – through the chain, you know.
I always called it the steps. Once you’re – once you’re in Mexico, you’re on the back porch to the United States. And Central America’s basically the steps to the back porch. And it changes and it was an amazing process to watch. The key is finding that needle in the haystack. Thank you.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Eddie.
And we’ll go to some questions now. We have several questions that actually relate to your last comment that everybody made about the needle in the haystack. In other words, there’s a lot of illegal immigrants and, you know, they’re all illegal immigrants and law enforcement has to deal with them, but the security aspect – the potential terrorist – is a needle in the haystack. And the – we got several questions from listeners about what is – how does that challenge change? How is it harder when the haystack gets bigger? Because we’re seeing a new border surge gaining strength at the border as more people are being let go and the previous administration’s policies are being rolled back. We’re seeing a new flow of people. When the haystack’s bigger, how does that complicate finding the needle?
And we had them directed at a couple of people, but whoever wants to take it, go ahead. Maybe, Todd, if you had any thoughts on it? You’re muted, Todd.
MR. BENSMAN: Sorry about that. Yeah, I think I’ve expressed my opinion about that. I think it makes the activities that these operators are involved in normally very difficult, much more difficult to do.
I know that, for example, the Biden administration over the weekend eliminated most of the ICE deportation activity, but left open this one exemption that it was for – that they would still be there for deportation of terrorists or for national security related to terrorism. I haven’t seen how that is going to be operationalized.
But I’d like to hear what some of the panelists think about, like, this – you know, when there is a big surge of mass migration, a mass surge at the border and through Latin America, how does that affect your ops?
MR. DINKINS: This is Jim. I’ll mention one thing is, too, is I think that a lot of – everybody might be getting a little ahead of ourselves, right? It’s a new administration coming in. There is, obviously, I think a lot of the perception is from folks is that they have the ability to come in caravans and get into the United States, right? They have these abilities to – this is an opportunity now that – you know, that all of a sudden there’s not going to be any control at the border and so forth. So I think it’ll be interesting to see over time because this administration left, you know – they’re not oblivious to the national security and public safety threat that existed when they were here four years ago, right? It was on the forefront of their mind. So it’ll be interesting to see over time of the reality versus the perception of a lot of this stuff is halting current practices so that they can put their own priorities in place. But what will be really interesting, I think – and that will be the long-term impact that we have.
I think that we’ll see that there will be – you may be less inflammatory when you’re talking about a group of people. You know, I don’t think the word “alien,” for example, is meant to be inflammatory. I think it’s – but at the same time, so let’s call them whatever you want to call them, but it’ll all come down to how well the organizations are funded and the direction that they’re given to do the work. And maybe through extraterritorial relationships and foreign relationships, maybe the stuff that Eddie was doing before he retired is even bolstered, right, because you don’t get the caravan coming up to the southwest border if you’re working with your partners that that is – they never have the opportunity to go up the steps to get on your back porch. And so it’ll be interesting to see is how – you know, we have a new administration that watched the rise and took the action of (ICE’s ?) and got involved in the (ICEs ?). There’s a lot of knowledge base there.
So it’s just going to be – to me, I’m very eager to see, because these are experienced people that are being brought back into the government that lived the horror of what a terrorist attack can look like and be an impact it can have on you. So it’ll be interesting to see what is the perception from the illegal immigrant communities who thinks that this is an opportunity to mass migrate to the United States illegally versus the perception of what – versus the reality of what controls are put in place and should you have in place. I think that’ll be really – I’m eager to see how this plays out long term.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Eddie or Norm, any thoughts?
MR. DOLAN: If I – (audio break) –
MR. TOWNSEND: Yeah. I would just say the obvious answer to the question was yes. If the haystack gets bigger, finding the needle is harder. There’s no doubt about it. You’re going to have to streamline your triage.
There was – I remember when I was down on the border we would get threats where a bomb threat had been called in at one of the international bridges. Well, what’s that do? That backs everybody up for miles trying to get into the United States, pass through. So when – after the all clear was given – no, there was no bomb, which we knew there wasn’t going to be a bomb – now we got to let everybody through. Well, that puts the pressure on the people at the border, at the checkpoints, you know, to move the traffic faster so that maybe they’re not scrutinizing quite as – quite as much, although I think they did a pretty darn good job.
But anyway, in terms of the changes, not to be political, but I served – I just counted down here. I served under six United States presidents and it didn’t – I can only think of one time under those six on one case did I think it mattered who was president of the United States. I think the mission for the people that are down on the line – the gentlemen you see here – that, you know, the mission for the most part was always the same. You know, we took an oath to the Constitution, not to an administration. And I think, you know, preventing a terrorist act was – certainly, you know, after 9/11/2001 was the top priority.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Eddie, any thoughts on that haystack issue, the bigger the haystack?
MR. DOLAN: Yes. I agree with both Norman and Jim, and – 100 percent with everything they both said. And not to repeat it, but to just add to one point is that as a civilian now, I think back in my mind all those, you know, incredible – (audio break) – our sister agency, CBP; our brethren at FBI, DEA, Department of State, all the intelligence agencies – all those individuals are still working there, doing their job to protect our country.
And then you throw in the host government counterparts that I had the honor to work with for many years down in Central America. This was a priority for them. They recognized that this was a threat country to, you know, the security of the region, you know, and their families. So that’s just things all to keep in mind when you look at this.
MR. KRIKORIAN: We had a question from listener Patty (sp) about the costs. You know, it obviously costs money even from Guatemala to get to the Texas border. But if you’re coming from Central Asia or the Middle East – as Todd described in his book – or in his master’s thesis he called them “ultra-marathoners of smuggling” – it’s a much longer distance. You have to fly. It costs a lot more. And so the question was, who’s paying for that? You know, how does that – how does that work? Where does the money come from? Any thoughts, Todd?
MR. BENSMAN: Well, I’ve interviewed a lot of SIAs myself, migrants, both on the intel side and as a journalist, down in Panama on the migrant trails, in Syria, and the rest, and the answer that I almost always get is that somebody’s uncle sold a plot of land somewhere to raise the money. Very often you can’t really get an answer, but I suspect that – you know, nobody in Bangladesh got $30,000 for their – (audio break). So I suspect that there are loans being made by the smuggling organizations or the money is being raised by other family members. Some of them are actually in the United States, sending – wiring money to migrants along the way as they make their way. Lots of different ways to – you could borrow it. You can get it from family members. You could sell an uncle’s piece of land, too. So all over the board.
MR. KRIKORIAN: We have a question from a reporter. It’s sort of several parts, but let me just pull one part of it out. And this is for anybody. Is there anything the Biden administration isn’t currently doing and it should be doing to deal with this issue of trying to locate terrorists coming across the board? I mean, in other words – and it’s not even necessarily just about the Biden administration. In other words, what else should we be doing or could we be doing to address this issue? Anybody have any thoughts on that?
MR. DINKINS: You know, I think that one thing I’ll say is that I think that in the United States we have a short memory, and we think that because everything’s fine today that tomorrow will be just as fine. And I wish that every one of our senior government officials and everyone at Congress goes to New York and walks through the 9/11, you know, memorial and remembers that on that morning we all thought we were – when we woke up and went to work, we thought it was just going to be another beautiful day in America. And there’s been many bad days after that. Never that amount, but quickly we forget that, you know, from the Boston Marathon bombing to you name it, some horrible instances, but never to that same magnitude. And we seem to bounce back really quick, which is great as a nation, but we also seem to forget.
So my only call to everybody is, like, let’s not forget just – and become complacent. And I don’t think that the enterprise has, right? Like the people that Eddie was talking about and – you know, and Brian was talking about, those career people that are still there and they have 30 years on the job or 10 years on the job, and many of them today don’t even remember 9/11 because they were kids when that happened, is we just can’t become complacent to think that just because it didn’t happen today that it can’t happen tomorrow.
And I think that’s what you see in Europe. People got complacent, and the next thing you know they paid for it, and it’s a lot harder to get ahead of it now that they’ve kind of neglected it and not had it on the forefront of their mind along the way.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Any last thoughts, Eddie and Norman, before I pass it back to Todd? No? OK.
MR. TOWNSEND: No, I’ll just – I’ll just add that I think it’s – you know, this should be – if any issue should be bipartisan, this should be it, the protection of the United States. And so I’ll just kind of leave it at that.
MR. DOLAN: And I’d just like to add that – (audio break) – the memorial up in New York is to take those opportunities to get out of D.C. and go speak to that CBP officer down on the line or that HSI or FBI agent that are actually doing the interviews, taking the opportunity to go visit some of those posts, those embassies where our State Department people, and actually see the – they’ll get the reality there, get the – there won’t be any politics when they go and they see that. What they’ll get is a real snapshot of the situation and a better understanding, and probably help them, you know, legislate a little better as well.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you.
Todd, do you have any thoughts on that specifically? Anything additional that should be done? And then any last thoughts in general.
MR. BENSMAN: Well, there’s a few things. One, maybe chief among those, would be to pay attention to changes in our asylum system, that we should remember most of the terrorists that infiltrated the European borders abused that asylum system, made up fake names and fake stories and got in in the crisis. And then that asylum process in the EU, which is very similar to our own, based on all the same principles and some of the international law – (audio break) – have time to plot. And I think that our asylum system – I’ve got an entire chapter dedicated to the way that terrorists that we know of inside the United States, that have reached the U.S. border – (audio break) – in the exact same way that we should – that there needs to be a lot of attention paid to the changes that are happening now, and to make sure that whatever changes are going to take place between the last administration and this one on asylum takes into account special-interest aliens.
And the other thing is, to Norman’s, you know, SIA interview process, I know that they did start to triage after a while. The FBI was not doing it 24/7 to, you know, all SIAs. And when I was with the Texas Department of Public Safety – and I lay this out in the book as well, not to give away too much – but I know that a great many of those SIAs were not getting interviewed, and were able to make bond and go out into the interior on their asylum claims. And that on its face is, you know, a higher risk for having – you know, nobody’s had a chance to really check them out, that their name isn’t Mickey Mouse that they gave at the border.
And also, lastly, I don’t – I don’t think that the SIA hunting endeavor – HSI’s work in the – Latin America, hunting down and breaking up these smuggling organizations which create the bridge – have been appropriately evaluated to make sure that it’s properly resourced. My sense from and my own opinion based on my analysis and being involved in that for a long time is that HSI probably needs more resources and more people to combat those SIA networks down there as a start.
And one last thing, if I can get this in, is there’s a chapter in my book that talks about embassies and consulate offices of the Latin American countries in the Middle East and in these countries, and of security and corruption breaches in those embassies and consulate offices where smugglers are able to buy outright passports and documents, travel documents, out of these embassies and consulate offices, kind of to the highest bidder sort of thing, and that a lot of a – of our SIAs that are coming through purchase these things or get their smugglers to provide them the documents they need to cross the Atlantic. Somebody needs to take a good hard look at those Latin American embassies abroad, and I’ve dedicated a chapter to that problem as well.
And with that, I don’t want to give up too much, but there are a lot of anecdotes in the book that illustrate all of these problems with real terrorists and real jihadists that were apprehended, SIA smugglers that were charged with material support for terrorism, guys that got to the border who were lying to the asylum officers about their involvement with al-Shabaab, and it goes on and on like that. There are too many stories like that. There should be zero of those.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Todd. And I’d underline what Todd said. This is not kind of just a wonky, dry book. It’s loaded with stories. Todd’s background as a reporter, I think, informs this book. It’s definitely worth reading. Again, it’s “America’s Covert Border War” – (audio break). It’s available in electronic form and in paperback wherever one buys books.
I want to thank Todd and also thank our panelists for their firsthand insights into what’s actually involved here, which is the kind of thing I think people in Washington often could benefit from, as Eddie suggested, getting out there. If they can’t get out there to a consulate or a port of entry, at least they can read Todd’s book about what’s actually going on out there.
Our discussion here will be posted to our website, CIS.org, which also includes the rest of Todd’s work and the work of our many other analysts and writers here that deal with the whole range of immigration issues. And thank all of you who are listening and tuning in, and hope to see you next time we do one of these panel discussions. Thank you.