Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
The Trump administration is framing the necessity of a southern border wall, in part, as a response to a national security emergency involving terrorists. This is a barrel of bunkum and balderdash served with generous helpings of hogwash.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that there is no terrorism emergency. 2018 saw one of the lowest yearly numbers of jihadist terrorism cases in the United States – 14 – since the 9/11 attacks, according to New America, a research institution that tracks terrorism.
The largest number of such cases was in 2015 when there were 80.
While the number of terrorism cases is not an exact proxy for levels of threat, it certainly says something about the scale of the threat and the United States has seen a steep decline in the number of jihadist terrorism cases over the past four years.
This decline tracks with the declining fortunes of ISIS. When it controlled territory the size of the United Kingdom, thousands of Islamist militants joined or attempted to join ISIS, including from the United States. Now the geographical caliphate is almost entirely gone and ISIS recruitment has slowed to a trickle.
In the United States since the 9/11 attacks, 455 jihadist terrorists have been charged or convicted or died before they faced trial. Not one of these terrorists crossed the southern border.
It turns out that terrorists trying to attack the United States would prefer not to travel to Central America or Mexico and then try their chances crossing the southern border. They want to fly directly to the States.
And anyway, the vast majority of terrorists don’t enter the United States at the southern border or anywhere else, because they are already in the country. Of the 455 jihadist terrorism cases since 9/11, 84% involved US citizens or permanent residents, and every lethal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was carried out by a US citizen or legal resident.
On January 6, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News, who challenged her on the supposed terrorist threat at the border.
Sanders asserted, “We know that 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally and we know that the most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
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This is itself is a misleading statistic since these 4,000 individuals are not really terrorists but have shown up as a “hit” on a terrorist watch list. The ‘TIDE’ terrorism watch list as of 2017 consisted of 1.6 million individuals who are deemed to have some possible link to terrorism.
The 4,000 individuals turned away from entering the US are those who may have some kind of putative connection to terrorism. They are not proven terrorists, otherwise, they would be arrested and charged. And there isn’t a case since 9/11 of a terrorist being arrested at the border, according to New America’s research.
A southern border wall would do absolutely nothing to stop terrorism, which in the United States today is almost entirely a “homegrown” phenomenon driven by jihadist materials on the internet, which knows no borders.