The vulnerability of the U.S. borders to possible exploitation by terrorists – particularly in light of the heavy migration flow toward our southern border, either by those claiming asylum or relying on smugglers to cross into the country undetected – has been a border enforcement and policy concern since at least 9/11. While the administrations of both President George W. Bush and President Obama took a series of executive immigration and border enforcement actions to respond to the flaws of our immigration and border enforcement system, such as placing emphasis on deporting individuals considered national security risks, gang members, and other dangerous felons[i], a huge controversy erupted, especially among Democrats, in response to the Trump administration introducing a number of more restrictive immigration measures, namely the prospect of building a wall along the border with Mexico and instituting a travel ban against countries from which terrorists might arrive.
In the past, terrorists have managed to infiltrate Europe through irregular immigration routes, such as in the case of the November 2015 Paris and 2016 Brussels airport and metro attacks.[ii] The nature and the extent of such threats in the United States, including measures put in place to address them, remains a point of contention for many. For instance, in January, the White House said 4,000 “known or suspected terrorists” were prevented from crossing into the United States via the U.S.-Mexican border in 2018.[iii] A later report disputed such claims, noting that they were based on 2017 data, that the number refers to the total security stops made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and that these were primarily made at airports versus at the southern U.S. border.[iv] While figures remain speculative, we have learned in our in-depth research interviews with over 160 ISIS defectors, returnees and imprisoned ISIS cadres to date about multiple individuals who knew of, or were themselves offered, or pressured by the ISIS emni (intelligence) to return to Europe to mount attacks at home. We have not however, found in our research interviews, until now, any instance of ISIS cadres who were prepared to be sent by ISIS to attack inside the U.S. This may be because there were so few Americans who made it all the way to Syria and Iraq, many being stopped by the FBI before departing the country, or because we simply had not run across those with such knowledge.
However, this past May, while finishing up a research interview with a Canadian imprisoned ISIS cadre detained in Rojava, Syria, by SDF forces, we learned that, indeed, there was at least one ISIS plot for their cadres to travel from Syria to penetrate the U.S. southern border by infiltrating migration routes. Whatever one thinks of President Donald Trump’s heightened rhetoric about the U.S.- Mexico border and his many claims that it is vulnerable to terrorists, ISIS apparently also thought so, as knowledge of this ISIS plot came from the mouth of a now-repentant ISIS cadre.
Abu Henricki al Canadi[v], a Canadian with dual Trinidadian citizenship who was detained by the SDF in Rojava, Syria, spoke with ICSVE researchers for about 1.5 hours on May 12, giving his firsthand account of being attracted to, traveling, joining and serving in the Islamic State Caliphate, first as a fighter and later designated as unable to fight due to chronic illness. As we were about to bring the interview to a close, Abu Henricki suddenly decided he trusted us enough to unburden himself of something that he claimed had been troubling him for some time.
“There’s something that’s kind of like was playing in the mind in the past a little while now,” he told us. “I have been contacted by two organizations from the U.S. and Canada to help stop foreign attacks. The one guy in Canada wants to take me under his wing,” he explained, his eyes widening. “Another one [the American intel] wants me to go around to people I met, Americans from Texas.” That foreign intelligence also interviews the imprisoned ISIS cadres we talk with and tries to learn from them, and perhaps also recruit them as informants, is no surprise to us, as we frequently hear about it from those we have interviewed in SDF and Iraqi prisons. “You met Americans in ISIS?” we ask, surprised, as most often our interviewees have no, or only very sparse, information about American ISIS members.
Nodding, he answers, “There was a Bengali American. Abu Adam.” Trying to recall the others’ names, he adds, “Two cousins. They were from New York. One was American, but Turkish – Abu Ilias. He was from Texas. He was killed in Baghouz in a drone strike.” We ask how he knows for certain this American ISIS cadre was killed, as ISIS had a habit of declaring cadres they hoped to send back home to attack as dead – creating an “ISIS undead” attack force of sorts. “I didn’t see his body, but others did,” Abu Henricki confirms.
Abu Henricki then opens up about a plot in which he said he and other Trinidadians were invited to attempt to penetrate the U.S. borders to mount financial attacks on the U.S. When asked how this occurred, he explains, “The emni [ISIS intelligence arm] was inviting us,” which matches other cases we and others have uncovered, in which the ISIS external emni identifies ISIS cadres willing to go home or attack in countries outside the Caliphate.[vi] When asked if he can identify the emni member who invited him, as they routinely wore masks covering their faces, Abu Henricki answers, “He speaks English. He was Tunisian, maybe. I don’t know. He approached the guys, and they approached me. He didn’t come directly to me.”
This was in the end of 2016. “They, what they will have, what they wanted to do, basically, is they wanted to do financial attacks. Financial attacks to cripple the [U.S.] economy,” Abu Henricki explains. “Apparently, they have the contacts or whatever papers they can get to a false ID, false passports [to send me out for this kind of attack],” he adds. “They have their system of doing it. So that’s maybe the way that I could have gone out with other individuals. It wasn’t me alone. They were sending you to Puerto Rico and from Puerto Rico [to Mexico].”
“One reason while I was also put in [ISIS] prison in 2016, I was asked to leave [ISIS] to go to America because I’m from that area. Cause they wanted [and] planned to do something and I refused.” Abu Henricki explains. “I refused to do it. That is why also I’m put into [ISIS] prison and been tortured.”
Earlier in the interview, Abu Henricki had told us about being imprisoned by ISIS at the end of 2016 and in early 2017, along with his Canadian wife. An hour earlier he was too afraid to share the real reason, telling us only that he was becoming disillusioned of the Islamic State and was then accused of being a spy. Abu Henricki was severely tormented inside the ISIS prison in Manbij. “They tortured me,” he explains. “They beat me a lot. [I was] suspended from the back, standing on my toes, given no food for a few days, waterboarded – while blindfolded, and they put a bag over your head. They found nothing on me, so I was released,” Abu Henricki had explained an hour earlier. Abu Henricki’s Canadian wife, whom we know through other sources, had openly criticized ISIS and was also imprisoned, but not tortured. However, she heard the torments of others who were, so she suffered a psychological torture of sorts. After both were released, Abu Henricki recounts that his wife miscarried her pregnancy as a result of distress, and Abu Henricki went on to get a chronic, life-threatening, stress-related illness.
Now he is opening up to us about the whole story of his time under ISIS and the horrific mission they were allegedly trying to force him to undertake. “I knew I went to prison because I said no [to their offer of an external attack mission,]” Abu Henricki now explains. “But they wouldn’t say that.”
When asked about the ISIS plot, he explains, “They were going to move me to the Mexican side [of the U.S. southern border] via Puerto Rico. This was mastermind[ed] by a guy in America. Where he is, I do not know. That information, the plan came from someone from the New Jersey state from America. I was going to take a boat [from Puerto Rico] into Mexico. He was going to smuggle me in,” Abu Henricki explains. “I don’t know where I’d end up.” Abu Henricki was not pressed further on why Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was not chosen as a point of entry to the mainland United States.
“Please be advised, I was not willing to do it,” Abu Henricki adds, wanting to be sure we don’t think he was willing to attack innocent civilians inside the U.S. “But this is one of their wicked, one of the plans that they had,” he explains, “and which I would like to think I foiled the plan by not being part of it.”
While Abu Henricki said he was told that the aim of the plot was to attack the financial system, as is often the case, the full details of the plot were not disclosed to him. “All I could think of was a bombing mission,” Abu Henricki explains to us, his face becoming deadly serious. Given that the mastermind was from New Jersey, it may have been aimed at New York financial targets.
When asked about the others who had been approached, Abu Henricki recalls, “I think they died. I think they also refused. They were still around [inside the Caliphate], in late 2017, and then were killed, hit by airstrikes,” he explains. “My Trinidadian [friends] were approached to do the same thing,” he explains. “The Trinidadians, [like me,] also refused,” he states and lists their ISIS names: “Abu Rahman, Abu Fukai and Abu Salahi, Abu Ana – all dead. I came in [to the Caliphate] with them.” When asked how he knows they are actually dead, as opposed to the “ISIS undead”[vii] who still pose a threat to Western countries, he answers, “Abu Rukiah was hit by a sniper.” Given that the others were bombed, we ask how he knows they were actually killed. “I was in the vicinity. I saw their dead bodies and went to their burials,” he confirms.
“They wanted to use these people [to attack inside the U.S.] because they were from these areas [i.e. North America and English-speakers],” Abu Henricki explains.
Abu Henricki only recently surrendered, during this spring’s Baghouz assault. Sleeping on the street, under heavy bombardments and starving, he was desperate to get out. He and another ISIS cadre “found an abandoned van and left. We took a French woman with us, and anybody we could pick up on the way. We drove to the first checkpoint where Americans were [and surrendered ourselves],” he explains.
Abu Henricki opening up about the alleged terror plot aimed at the U.S. may not have occurred for quite some time if we hadn’t happened upon him for a research interview, as the Canadian government has a policy of not visiting their detainees held in Syria. This is because the Canadian government has lost lawsuits and paid upwards of 50 million Canadian dollars to those detained by foreign governments for alleged or actual participation in terrorist activities. For instance, Omar Khadr, an underage Canadian citizen imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for allegedly killing an American soldier in Afghanistan, won CA$ 10.5 million in a settlement. The Supreme Court of Canada cited that the “actions of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and diplomatic officials during his detention contributed to unjustified violations of Khadr’s right to life and security.” Similarly, a monetary settlement was reached in the case of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou Elmaati, and Muayyed Nureddin for the government’s failure to intervene in the case of their detention and mistreatment in Syria. While these lawsuits have made the Canadians averse to visiting their citizens who are detained by the SDF, in failing to debrief them they may be missing valuable information about plots aimed at the West.
Despite the Canadian government’s overtly stated practices, Abu Henricki claims that he has been approached by both U.S. and Canadian intelligence since he was detained in the SDF prison. “I was contacted to get information to stop [active] plots,” he explains. Up to now, Abu Henricki said he has not trusted anyone enough to share his insider knowledge about this plot. “I haven’t told anyone this information,” he explains. We thank him for sharing and tell him that we will share it with the FBI, which we promptly do, as it relates to national security concerns. “I feel better now,” Abu Henricki says as he stands to leave, shaking both of our hands. “I’ve been carrying that inside for a very long time and it feels good now to unburden myself of it.”
This article serves to demonstrate that ISIS has discussed and operationalized ways in which their operatives could infiltrate our borders and cause harm to our citizens. We also know from our research that ISIS and similar terrorist groups are aware of our robust homeland security capabilities, which is why they have also shifted toward motivating and inspiring our citizens at home, primarily contacting them through the Internet, to act on their behalf. That said, it would be erroneous – and detrimental to our safety and security – to outright downplay the potential terrorist threats emanating from our borders, similar to the Bush administration casting aside initial warnings about al-Qaeda plots with the result of American citizens eventually suffering the 9/11 attacks. These accounts of the “ISIS undead” reappearing in Western countries to mount attacks and plots to penetrate our borders are chilling indeed. Yet this account of a Canadian ISIS cadre recently interviewed under SDF authority in Rojava, Syria, is not published here as a warning bulletin for an imminent attack against our country, nor is it a fear-mongering attempt to suggest that a wave of ISIS terrorists are waiting to cross our southern border, but a reminder to diligently consider leads and sources that confirm terrorists’ intentions to exploit one of the weakest links in our national security: our borders.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The alleged plot described by the ISIS suspect is a claim by this single individual only, and has not been corroborated by intelligence sources; some of these sources have noted to HSToday details in the account that are unlikely to be true from a logistical and tactical perspective. While Abu Henricki’s case in regard to his admission of aiding a terrorist group has yet to be adjudicated, it is important to note that it is not uncommon for terror suspects hoping for leniency to craft stories claiming that they had a reduced role in the group or were instrumental in preventing an attack. We recommend that readers keep this in mind while weighing the veracity of this admitted ISIS fighter’s claims.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.
[i] Nowrasteh, A. (2018). “ President Trump isn’t breaking immigration arrest records,” CATO Institute, available at https://www.cato.org/blog/president-trump-isnt-breaking-immigration-arrest-records
[ii] Brisard, J. (2015). “ The Paris attacks and the evolving Islamic State threat to France,” Combating Terrorism Center, available at https://ctc.usma.edu/the-paris-attacks-and-the-evolving-islamic-state-threat-to-france/
Melville-Smith, A (2016). “Two More Men Charged With Terrorism-Related Offenses Over Brussels Bombings” available at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/aliciamelvillesmith/explosions-reported-at-brussels-airport
[iii] Re, G. (2019). “ Pence: WH Counsel actively looking into declaring emergency to build border wall.” Fox News, available at https://www.foxnews.com/politics/pence-wh-counsel-actively-looking-into-declaring-emergency-to-build-border-wall
[iv] Ainsley, J. (2019). “ Fact check: Did the U.S. catch 4000 terrorists at the southern border in 2018?” NBC News, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/fact-check-did-u-s-catch-4-000-terrorists-southern-n954796
[v] His name has been changed at his request.
[vi] Speckhard, A. & Shajkovci, A. (2019) ISIS Smuggler Sleeper Cells and Undead Suicide Bombers have Infiltrated Europe? The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/isis-smuggler-sleeper-cells-and-undead-suicide-bombers-have-infiltrated-europe?ref=author
[vii] Speckhard, A. & Shajkovci, A. (2019) ISIS Smuggler Sleeper Cells and Undead Suicide Bombers have Infiltrated Europe? The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/isis-smuggler-sleeper-cells-and-undead-suicide-bombers-have-infiltrated-europe?ref=author