by Todd Bensman
Originally published under the title "What to Make of a Report on ISIS Plans to Breach the U.S.-Mexico Border? An Interview with the Author."
Captured ISIS operative Abu Henricki says he was ordered to infiltrate the U.S. southern border.
A captured ISIS operative still in Rojava, Syria, told American researchers with the nonpartisan International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) that ISIS recruited him and others to penetrate the U.S. southern border by infiltrating migration routes through Latin America and Mexico.
ICSVE Director and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine Anne Speckhard and ICSVE Research Director Ardian Shajkovci interviewed the operative on May 12 in Syria as part of a four-year ongoing project for which ICSVE has already recorded conversations with 169 ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres. They paused long enough from their work to write the article.
Anne Speckhard said she felt a duty to warn when an ISIS terrorist disclosed plans to infiltrate the U.S. Southwest Border.
Abu Henricki said he refused the assignment and was tortured for refusing, but had no idea whether others had been sent in his stead. He said he thought some of the other Trinidadian plotters had been killed in action before they could leave.
'Really Credible'In a telephone interview with the Center for Immigration Studies last week in Washington D.C., Speckhard said the captured ISIS soldier was "really credible" and "appeared to be telling the truth about this plot."
She said he claimed he had steadfastly told no one but his wife about the migration plot, not even U.S. and Canadian intelligence officers who interviewed him first. (Western intelligence officers are interviewing as many captive ISIS operatives as possible these days for information and informant-development.) The information about smuggling through Mexico seemed to burst forth from the captive as cathartic relief at the tail end of their interview after a grinding day of such interviews.
From long experience face-to-face with more than 650 Islamic terrorists, and her experience as a psychologist, Speckhard came away somewhat alarmed from this one.
"I think he was unburdening something he had been holding on to for a really long time," says Speckhard.
Also, why lie to a non-profit worker about such a plot, rather than U.S. intelligence officers who had already offered benefits in exchange for counterterrorism help?
Having never heard of such a plot in 169 interviews, the information and the way the subject earnestly delivered it so persuaded ICSVE researchers that they alerted the FBI in a rare move and provided information about a potential imminent threat against the country.
"I was really concerned if it was active," as a plot, Speckhard told CIS.
Newly Worried About Terror Infiltration at the Southern BorderStill feeling a duty to warn, Speckhard said they wrote about the ostensible plot to ensure that U.S. policymakers had not become entirely myopic in their preoccupation with mass illegal migration of just Central Americans.
Speckhard described herself as not particularly worried about the southern border being infiltrated by ISIS prior to the interview. The notion that Islamist terrorists would or could infiltrate the southern border alongside such economic migrants had always struck Speckhard as partisan political noise, until now.
"Our ethic is to report the facts, not pander to either political party."
The partisan warfare did not spare Speckhard for putting out there what they learned in Syria, especially after Donald J. Trump, Jr. tweeted about the article.
Donald J. Trump, Jr. tweeted about the Henricki revelations.
Some of the shrapnel that hit Speckhard came partly from an overly distancing Homeland Security Today "Editor's Note". The note pointed out the ISIS suspect's claim had not been corroborated by intelligence sources and that the truth of some details seemed unlikely "from a logistical and tactical perspective".
Enemies leapt on the note. But their criticism is based in ignorance about what intelligence is and how it is developed.
Among intelligence community agencies, ICSVE's reporting would fall under a category known as "raw information", meaning it is by nature unevaluated and uncorroborated when presented just as it was heard. But make no mistake: Raw information is highly coveted. That's because professional intelligence practitioners, through collection and investigative techniques over time, can develop raw unevaluated leads to learn about real threats and to thwart real plots. It's doubtful that enough time has elapsed for Speckhard's raw information to be verified and that its relative validity would ever be made public once it was, since intelligence is rarely used to publicly corroborate research findings as suggested in an editor's note only a couple of weeks later. Therefore, the observation that the report should be disregarded because it is "uncorroborated by intelligence sources" is invalid on its face.
In any case, Speckhard and Shajkovci themselves pointed out in the HST article a point of greater import than whether the plot was real or Abu Henricki was lying.
"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," she and Shajkovci wrote. "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."
Analysis of the ReportSpeckhard acknowledged that she is not an expert on the issues of terrorist border infiltration threats and, in any case, did not have time to ask Abu Henricki during the interview about the methods and tactics involved in any alleged infiltration plot. She also acknowledged that all participants were exhausted at the end of a long day and not able, due to time constraints, to keep digging once they had a few nuggets.
By 2016, ISIS had deployed dozens of its fighters into migrant caravans moving into the heart of Europe.
Author Sam Mullins of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, who has documented the border infiltration phenomenon in Europe, recently wrote that "It has now been clearly demonstrated that dozens of terrorists jumped at the opportunity to infiltrate recent irregular migration routes to Europe, directly resulting in numerous, bloody attacks — most notably the marauding jihadist assault on Paris in November 2015."
An external attacks division of ISIS sent them starting in about 2014, organizing their departures with logistical support that involved false passports and transportation as also described by Abu Henricki.
The idea that ISIS would contemplate putting a team together for the U.S. border is more than plausible; it would be surprising if it had it not happened.
As I have often documented, too, (also here and here), the capacity for ISIS operatives to travel from Syria to the southern border is well-established. Smuggling organizations routinely bridge the Atlantic Ocean to link Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq to the U.S. southern border through as many as a dozen Latin America countries. Numerous reputed Islamist terrorists have made the journey, such as a Somali who crossed into California and went on to conduct a 2017 vehicle-ramming attack in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
There's no question at all that ISIS operatives living in Syria, including Trinidadians and Canadians, could have been smuggled through Mexico had they been sent.
That ISIS found plenty of Trinidad and Tobago citizens in its ranks is not surprising, and it is logical to initially assume that ISIS commanders might have thought of them as useful for border infiltration because they are familiar with western hemisphere route nations and might blend in well as Spanish-speaking workers and as English-speaking U.S. residents later.
As I have recently written, at least 130 of Trinidad and Tobago's 1.2 million citizens, including entire families, joined ISIS in Syria and pose an infiltration threat upon return because the islands are close to known smuggling lanes to the border. The U.S. Army's Southern Command has participated in anti-terror raids to capture high-value targets plotting attacks. Island residents have shown up on propaganda films committing murders in Syria. A New York Times article quoted former U.S. Ambassador John L. Estrada as saying islanders "are high up in the ranks" of ISIS. "They are very respected and they are English-speaking," the former ambassador said.
In April, I wrote a column asking whether an ISIS-inspired T&T national living in Maryland, who was arrested for aspiring to a vehicle-ramming attack on Maryland's National Harbor, maintained any associations with radicals in his homeland or abroad. ICSVE researchers have interviewed three Trinidadians from ISIS, now in SDF custody, one who lived for some time inside the United States as legal residents.
The point is that ISIS had available to it a pool of ideologically prepared, trained and willing Trinidadian operatives it could have sent.
ISIS an available pool of ideologically prepared, trained and willing operatives willing to be sent.
I'm of the opinion that Abu Henricki got Puerto Rico wrong, the way people do after hearing something a few years earlier, maybe in a second language, and probably meant some other transit country.
Speckhard allows that Puerto Rico "doesn't make total sense" but also figured that her subject was never actually told the route.
"People invited to do attacks don't always know what the plot is. He didn't know," she said.
She also said she and her fellow researcher were exhausted by the end of the interview, could have pressed harder for better answers, and understandably opted to leave because everyone was tired and their prison hosts wanted them to finish up.
Critics have pointed out that, as a reviled ISIS prisoner of war in a tough neighborhood, Abu Henricki would be motivated to make up a story he thought might save him from Iraqi show trials that often end in quick execution, or being sent home to face trial in Canada. (Speckhard noted that ISIS prisoners frequently say the SDF treats them well in custody).
The view that he might lie to avoid prosecution has merit and will need to be sussed out by intelligence agencies over time.
Speckhard's coauthor, Ardian Shajkovci
In summary, the interview with Abu Henricki represents a raw information lead deserving of intelligence agency investigation and analysis, not criticism and dismissal. She and Shajkovci should be commended for recognizing its potential import to homeland security authorities and bringing it to attention both privately and publicly.
Whatever becomes of the inevitable investigation or Abu Henricki, the published report about what he said should serve as a wake-up call to American decision-makers and voters, regardless of partisan sentiment, to look at the border crisis as about much more than Central Americans with children.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. Bensman previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division (ICD) for nearly a decade.
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