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Mayorkas Promises Congress Data on Cases of Terror Watchlist Individuals Arrested at Border

This fiscal year, OFO has reported 35 TSDB encounters at the southwest border and 96 at the northern border; Border Patrol reported 27 encounters in the south.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Thursday that some of the individuals on the terror watchlist arrested attempting to enter the United States “may be still in detention” and promised to give Congress details on the disposition of each case.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s fiscal year 2022 statistics, the Office of Field Operations reported 294,352 total encounters with inadmissible individuals and the Border Patrol had 1,662,167 encounters in FY2021. OFO reported 201,053 encounters for FY2022 (Oct. 1, 2021, through Sept. 30, 2022) through March and the Border Patrol reported 1,016,749 encounters.

“The Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) – also known as the ‘watchlist’ – is the U.S. government’s database that contains sensitive information on terrorist and transnational organized criminal identities,” CBP explains in its separate breakdown of TSDB encounters. “The TSDB originated as the consolidated terrorist watchlist to house information on known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) but has evolved over the last decade to include additional individuals who represent a potential threat to the United States, including members of Transnational Criminal Organizations and known affiliates of watchlisted individuals.”

In 2020, DHS reported it was now receiving through the DHS Watchlist Service TSDB information on “individuals who may pose a threat to national security because they are known or suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in aid of, or related to transnational organized crime, thereby posing a possible threat to national security, and do not otherwise satisfy the requirements for inclusion in the TSDB as KSTs (‘transnational organized crime actors’), consistent with Executive Order 123336 (or successor order) (‘national security threats’) and in support of the White House’s ‘Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime’ (July 19, 2011), National Security Presidential Directive-59/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-24, ‘Biometrics for Identification and Screening to Enhance National Security’ (June 5, 2008), and Executive Order 13863 (March 15, 2019).”

In FY2021, OFO reported 157 encounters at land border crossings of TSDB individuals of all nationalities: 103 at the southwest border and 54 at the northern border. Between ports of entry, the Border Patrol reported 15 such encounters on the southwest border and one on the northern border. In FY2022 up until March, OFO reported 35 TSDB encounters at the southwest border and 96 at the northern border; Border Patrol reported 27 encounters at the southwest border and none at the northern border. Totals for the ports of entry may include multiple encounters of the same individual, CBP notes.

Mayorkas Promises Congress Data on Cases of Terror Watchlist Individuals Arrested at Border Homeland Security Today
(CBP)

“TSDB watchlisted individuals encountered by the CBP Office of Field Operations at land ports of entry prior to entry into the United States are generally denied admission to our country upon presentation, barring justification for their arrest,” CBP said. “TSDB watchlisted individuals encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) after entering the country without inspection are detained and removed, to the extent possible, or turned over to another government agency for subsequent detention or law enforcement action, as appropriate.”

At the Judiciary Committee hearing, some lawmakers cited congressional inquiry data revealed in a Fox News story that said since Jan. 20, 2021, Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations have “arrested 42 subjects who were on the terror watchlist and attempted to enter the United States illegally.”

“Secretary, have any of the 42 illegal migrants on the terrorist watch list or no fly list encountered on our southwest border been released into the United States?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Mayorkas.

“Ranking Member Jordan, as I mentioned before, I will provide that data to you with respect to the disposition of each one,” Mayorkas replied. “I do not know the answer to your question.”

In recent years, terror groups have continued to urge hijrah, or migration to lands where groups have a base of operations such as Syria or Afghanistan, for those who are able to make the journey while exponentially increasing homegrown violent extremism encouragement for others to stay where they are and commit attacks on suitable targets where they already live. The reasons for this are many. Terror groups largely call for low-skilled attacks from their followers (such as vehicle ramming, shooting soft targets, etc.) that do not require a training camp and can be planned with the least amount of detection, allowing terror movements to force-multiply through lone actors who may never even have contact with other members of the terror group. When training is advised (such as in constructing an IED) this can be conducted via distance learning (called “open-source jihad” by al-Qaeda and “Just Terror” by ISIS) in the form of detailed instructions — as well as counseling on target selection, weapons choice, attack timing, etc. — in easily accessible online magazines and videos. Less suspicion is aroused in the planning phase when adherents to a terror movement don’t have to cross borders, bearing in mind the American and European foreign fighters who were caught at some point in their journeys to try to join ISIS in Syria. Homegrown attackers know their city and its vulnerable points and are less likely to attract attention when they know local customs and language. Local attackers have established identification with which to purchase a weapon, rent a truck, or acquire other potential items or access needed for their planned attack; terror groups also focus on attempting to recruit those whose established employment allows them to commit a substantial insider attack. Homegrown lone actors allow a terror group like ISIS to keep fighters on the ground in their claimed provinces where they need them, instead of attempting to handle the logistics and expenses of exporting jihadists to the United States where they would most likely raise alarm bells along the way.

If supporters are unable to join jihadists in provinces where the terror group is active, “then pick up your arms to attack Kuffar [disbelievers],” said an article bylined by ISIS fighters in Pakistan in the April issue of Voice of Hind, an English-language magazine published by ISIS supporters in India. “And if you lack weapons, then pick up kitchen knives, daggers and home-based poisons, they should be sufficient for you.”

One recent case in which an extremist traveled to the United States and soon after committed an attack was the Jan. 15 hostage-taking at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. Malik Akram, a British national with a criminal record, had been on an MI5 watchlist in 2020 as a “subject of interest” but was later removed after the agency determined he did not pose a terrorist threat.

Akram had not previously visited the United States, was reportedly not known to U.S. intelligence or law enforcement, and entered the country Dec. 29 at JFK Airport in New York via the Visa Waiver Program, which “enables most citizens or nationals of [40] participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.” An unnamed Homeland Security official told the Washington Post that Akram was vetted “through several federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ databases … No derogatory information associated with this individual was found prior to his travel to the United States or upon his arrival.” He gave his address as the Queens Hotel but there is no record that he stayed there after arriving in the U.S.

After the attack, several Republican senators raised concerns to Mayorkas and Secretary of State Tony Blinken about both Akram’s entry and the Visa Waiver Program in general, stating in a letter that “in light of the numerous red flags in Akram’s record, we are extremely concerned about the adequacy of our visa adjudication and admission screening protocols.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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