A top Biden administration security official told Congress on Wednesday that she has seen no evidence that foreign terrorist groups are trying to sneak operatives into the U.S. through the southern border.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid said the border with Mexico has a “vulnerability,” but terrorist networks don’t appear to be exploiting it.
“As we look at the global terrorism environment, as we look at foreign terrorist organizations’ intentions to try and seed operatives into the United States, we don’t have indications that are credible or corroborated that those terrorist organizations are trying to do that at this time,” she told the House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing on threats to the U.S.
Republicans fumed over her testimony and the administration’s reluctance to tell Congress much about the sheer number of people on the terrorist watchlist that the Border Patrol is catching.
“Who are they? Is Hamas on the list?” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ms. Abizaid, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who also testified Wednesday, would not say.
Mr. Wray said he does worry about the large number of “gotaways” — migrants who evade the Border Patrol altogether — and who might be hiding among that population, which is estimated to top 2 million since the start of the Biden administration.
“I think anytime you have a group of people in the United States who we don’t know nearly enough about, that is a source of concern for us,” he said.
Mr. Wray said the FBI is searching for some border crossers in terrorism investigations.
“There are certainly individuals that are the subject of terrorism investigations that we are searching for,” he said.
The focus on terrorist actors exploiting the porous U.S. border has come into greater focus after the murderous Oct. 7 sneak attack by Palestinian Hamas militants on Israel, which killed an estimated 1,400 Israelis and foreign nationals and captured more than 200 hostages.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green, Tennessee Republican, challenged Mr. Wray specifically about whether Hamas operatives could be among those who have evaded capture. The FBI chief demurred but said the border is a “great concern.”
Until last year, officials at the Homeland Security Department didn’t even publicize the number of people on the terrorism watchlist who were caught by border authorities, saying it was too sensitive.
The department relented in the spring and now reports the broad figures each month. Data released Tuesday showed that Border Patrol agents caught 12 terrorism suspects at the southern border and one at the northern border in October. That’s on top of 172 detected in fiscal 2023, 98 in 2022 and 16 in 2021. The total since the beginning of 2021 is 299.
From 2017 through 2020, under President Trump, the total was just 14 — 11 at the southern border and three at the northern border.
Congressional Republicans have been prodding Mr. Mayorkas to say who the terrorism suspects are and what happened to them, and they complain that the homeland security chief has stonewalled them.
Mr. Mayorkas has said publicly that people on the terrorism watchlist “may not necessarily be known or suspected terrorists.” When someone caught does show up in the Terrorist Screening Dataset, he said, they are considered “an enforcement priority for us.”
“If we make a determination that it would not be safe to the American people that they be released into the United States, we detain them pending their removal,” he told senators in a separate hearing last week.
On Wednesday, he indicated that some had been detained, and he promised details in another format — presumably a reference to a classified setting.
The Homeland Security Department says some of the rise in terrorism suspect apprehensions is a result of the surge in illegal immigration from South America. Armed insurgencies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, have been designated as terrorist groups, so members of those groups may be showing up on the watchlist.
Risks and intentions
Ms. Abizaid, the counterterrorism chief, said her agency is involved in putting people on the watchlist and there is “absolutely a risk” that they will try to enter the U.S. through the border. Yet she said officials at the counterterrorism office do not see “intentions” by the major terrorist networks to exploit it.
“That doesn’t mean we’re complacent, and it is a risk we monitor,” Ms. Abizaid said.
Mr. Wray, though, pointed to a case his agents brought against a man accused of trying to smuggle an Islamic State hit team into the U.S. to assassinate former President George W. Bush.
Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab has pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support for terrorists. His sentencing is slated for February.
According to court documents, an FBI informant who worked with Shihab said he bragged about smuggling two Hezbollah figures into the U.S., charging them $50,000 each.
Later in the hearing, Mr. Wray said FBI agents are searching for specific people who came across the border, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were flagged on the watchlist.
“One of the areas we are of concern is individuals who, once here, information later comes in,” he said.