While ISIS exploded across global headlines as a growing threat in the Middle East in 2014, so too did American fears that agents of the Islamic State would silently filter through U.S. borders and quietly live amongst Americans while waiting to strike.
Rumors of ISIS members slipping through southern borders escalated significantly on 7 October 2014 when U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that as many as ten ISIS militants had been apprehended at southern crossings.
Van Susteren pressed Hunter after he stated that ISIS members had been caught attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, following a broader statement by the Congressman on concern for border security. Hunter replied by saying:
ISIS is coming across the southern border. They aren’t flying B1 bombers bombing American cities, but they are going to be bombing American cities coming across from Mexico. I know that at least ten ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas.
Van Susteren questioned Hunter on why he specifically believed ten ISIS members had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and were caught, to which he replied that “Border Patrol” had confirmed the information to him. Hunter stated that Border Patrol agents “caught” those ISIS insurgents but added that “there’s going to be dozens more that did not get caught by the Border Patrol.”
Hunter’s claims seemed to fall directly in line with several made by the disreputable Judicial Watch site, a muckraking organization run by “political activist” Larry Klayman (who issued a press release in October 2014 announcing he was petitioning several federal agencies to deport President Obama, and who has been barred for life by multiple judges for his repetitive misuse of the court system). Since August 2014, Judicial Watch has been claiming that the U.S.-Mexico border is vulnerable to ISIS, stating in a “bulletin” on 10 October 2014 that:
There are times when all of us hate to say, “I told you so.” And the latest news from Judicial Watch on the apprehension of ISIS terrorists on the U.S.-Mexico border is certainly one of them.In late August, you may recall, JW broke the story that Islamic terrorist organizations are operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez where they plan to stage attacks against the U.S. In response to this threat, agents in the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense had all been placed on alert and told to work to counter the imminent threat. Two days after our initial report, Fort Bliss, the massive installation in El Paso, increased its security in response to this international terrorist threat.
But then the Obama spin machine cranked up. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security officially denied the report, telling the London Daily Mail, “we are aware of absolutely nothing credible to substantiate this claim.” The DHS official duplicitously added, “In Mexico? I haven’t seen that at all.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also responded, telling the newspaper that “the most detailed intelligence assessment that I can offer from here is that there is no evidence or indication right now that [the Islamic State group] is actively plotting to attack the United States homeland. That’s true right now.”
At Judicial Watch, we pulled no punches in standing by our story. We told the Daily Mail that JW’s sources were “golden,” and that the government’s denial constituted a “non-denial denial.” As I pointed out, the words “credible” and “specific” were rhetorical loopholes that one “could drive a truck bomb through,” the paper reported.
In the original “bulletin” issued by Judicial Watch on 31 August 2014, the site claimed an attack by ISIS due to border porosity was imminent. The report heavily implied the anniversary of the September 11 attacks as a potential attack date and claimed that:
Intelligence officials have picked up radio talk and chatter indicating that the terrorist groups are going to “carry out an attack on the border,” according to one JW source. “It’s coming very soon,” according to another high-level source, who clearly identified the groups planning the plots as “ISIS and Al Qaeda.” An attack is so imminent that the commanding general at Ft. Bliss, the U.S. Army post in El Paso, is being briefed, JW’s sources say. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not respond to multiple inquiries from Judicial Watch, both telephonic and in writing, about this information.
The claims by Judicial Watch of an “imminent” attack “coming very soon” were made on 31 August 2014, and Hunter’s statements came more than a month later. No such attack or confirmed attempt to cross the border by members of ISIS occurred in the intervening weeks between the “bulletin” and Hunter’s appearance on Fox News to substantiate beliefs that ISIS either had crossed or had intended to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The inclusion in the rumor of an “in the last 36 hours” modifier created an impression of urgency without specifying when the event itself occurred (and enabled the rumor to spread ad infinitum.) On 8 October 2014, a senior spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security responded to Hunter’s claim about ISIS fighters captured by Border Patrol:
The suggestion that individuals who have ties to ISIL have been apprehended at the Southwest border is categorically false, and not supported by any credible intelligence or the facts on the ground. DHS continues to have no credible intelligence to suggest terrorist organizations are actively plotting to cross the southwest border.
No reports of any arrests matching the claims made by Hunter or Judicial Watch materialized in the time the rumor has been circulating, and it seems safe to say at this remove that the 36-hour timeframe has come and gone without incident.
Judicial Watch similarly claimed in an April 2015 article that “ISIS is operating a camp just a few miles from El Paso, Texas,” “in an area known as ‘Anapra’ situated just west of Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.” Several federal law agencies involved with border security said the report was unverified and that it was unlikely ISIS is in Anapra or Juarez, and Ariel Moutsatsos-Morales, Mexico’s minister for press and public affairs, also disclaimed the report:
The government of Mexico dismisses and categorically denies each of the statements made by the organization Judicial Watch on the alleged presence of ISIS’s operating cells throughout the border region, particularly at Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua — El Paso, Texas.The relevant authorities operating in the region have also confirmed the inexistence of these activities with their US counterparts, with whom they will continue to work closely and to exchange information at our common border.”
Moreover, El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke debunked this rumor on Facebook:
Today I reached out to the Mexican government, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Northern Command.None of them have found any evidence, credible or otherwise, that Isis is in Juárez.
Stories like these are good at scaring people and getting attention for those who spread them. But they are terrible for the country’s image of the border, for El Paso’s ability to recruit talent, and for our region’s opportunity to capitalize on the benefits of being the largest bi-national community in the world.
As a member of the House Homeland Security committee in the 113th Congress, I asked the director of the FBI, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Secretary of Homeland Security if there was currently any terrorist threat on the Southern border. They answered that there was not, nor had there ever been, any terrorist, terrorist plot, or terrorist organization that was able to exploit our border with Mexico.
Beyond hurting our image nationally, these kinds of false stories could lead us to take our eye off real threats to the homeland. While we should always remain vigilant at our borders — and we currently spend $18 billion a year to do so — the greatest proven homeland threats have been at our airports and with homegrown terrorists radicalized over the internet. Not in El Paso, the country’s safest city 4 years in a row.