Fears the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could reinvigorate terror groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State, and lead to a surge of attempted infiltrations along the southern U.S. border have not been realized, a top counterterrorism official said, dismissing claims to the contrary as “factually inaccurate.”
For months, mostly Republican lawmakers have warned of an unprecedented number of encounters by law enforcement and border patrol agents with known or suspected terrorists trying to enter the United States from Mexico.
One fact sheet distributed earlier this week by Republican Representative John Katko, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned terrorists “are crossing the border ‘at a level we have never seen before.'”
But the Department of Homeland Security’s top counterterrorism official rejected such allegations Thursday, telling an online forum there is no evidence to back them up.
“That just simply is not the case,” DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen said in response to a question from VOA. “It is just factually inaccurate to frame the southern border as a place where we are seeing a significant number of al-Qaida or ISIS-related terrorists or foreign terrorists.”
Cohen did not share any specific data on the number of encounters with known or suspected terrorists along the U.S. border with Mexico, characterizing it only as “very low.”
He said such encounters are also “low in comparison to people who are seeking to travel to the United States through the aviation infrastructure, through the northern border.”
The refusal to publicly disclose the actual number of encounters with terrorists along the U.S. southern border with Mexico has been a point of contention with Republican lawmakers, who have repeatedly pressed DHS to share the information.
During a hearing in September, Louisiana Republican Representative Clay Higgins chastised Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for ignoring an “obvious threat.”
“I’m 60 years old, I’ve never seen anything like this in America,” Higgins told Mayorkas. “We’ve been invaded.”
Higgins further alleged a source told him that about 200 known or suspected terrorists have been detected crossing the southern border, calling it a “conservative estimate.”
VOA reached out to Higgins’ office asking for clarification on his allegations. His office has yet to respond.
Other lawmakers have pointed to a September 11, 2021, letter from former U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, which warned, “control of our borders has disintegrated overnight.”
Gaps in border security are “exploited to easily smuggle contraband, criminals, or even potential terrorists into the U.S. at will,” Scott wrote, urging lawmakers to request detailed data.
“You will find this data troubling,” he wrote. “This is not hyperbole.”
Mayorkas and other officials admit data does exist, but say it is classified, and that claims like those by Scott mischaracterize the situation.
“Our border security efforts are layered and include multiple levels of rigorous screening that allow us to detect and prevent people who pose national security or public safety risks from entering the United States,” an official with CBP told VOA last month.
“Encounters of known and suspected terrorists at our borders are very uncommon,” the official added.
However, such encounters do happen.
In April, CBP admitted it had stopped two men from Yemen, both on the U.S. terror watch list and the FBI’s No-Fly List, from trying to cross into the state of California.
The separate incidents, one from January and one from March, were only disclosed after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went on Fox News and charged border patrol agents were now finding known or suspected terrorists from Yemen, Iran and Turkey.
Concern that terrorists were trying to sneak across the southern U.S. border rose to prominence in 2018 and 2019, as they became a talking point for the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Even then, though, U.S. counterterrorism officials sought to temper such claims, telling VOA in 2018 that while vulnerabilities did exist, “We do not see any evidence that ISIS or other Sunni terrorist groups are trying to infiltrate the southern U.S. border.”
Instead, officials have told VOA that the bigger concern then, and now, stems from terrorists associated with Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy with long-standing connections in Central and South America, including ties to the narcotics trade.
But Cohen said Thursday that even drug traffickers have largely sought to distance themselves from terrorists.
“Cartels have made the accurate calculation that if they were to leverage their resources to smuggle a terrorist into the United States and that terrorist committed an attack, that the attention focused on those cartels would dramatically increase,” he said. “They would be decimated.”
Cohen said the bigger concern, for now, is that events in Afghanistan will serve as inspiration for would-be terrorists.
“We’re seeing an increase in online activity by media operations associated with different al-Qaida elements and the Islamic State, where they are calling for lone wolf attacks here, specifically focusing on providing content intended to inspire disaffected individuals in our country and in Western Europe,” he said.