Issue no. 9 (May 2015) of Dabiq, the official magazine of the Islamic State (ISIS), says on p.77 “The Islamic State… have every intention of attacking America on its home soil… looking to do…something that would make any past operation look like a squirrel shoot…something truly epic.” It also says:
“The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilāyah in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region. The weapon is then transported overland until it makes it to Libya, where the mujāhidīn move it south to Nigeria. Drug shipments from Columbia bound for Europe pass through West Africa, so moving other types of contraband from East to West is just as possible. The nuke and accompanying mujāhidīn arrive on the shorelines of South America and are transported through the porous borders of Central America before arriving in Mexico and up to the border with the United States. From there it’s just a quick hop through a smuggling tunnel and hey presto, they’re mingling with another 12 million “illegal” aliens in America with a nuclear bomb in the trunk of their car.”
It adds “if not a nuke, what about a few thousand tons of ammonium nitrate explosive? That’s easy enough to make.”
Reasonable people may discount the above as “trash talk” meant to cause panic or impress recruits. However, many would have reacted similarly if 15 years earlier one had described a scenario in which 19 terrorists use several passenger jets as missiles to bring down emblematic highrises and attack the Pentagon, causing thousands of casualties and massive material losses. By midday September 11, 2001, what seemed farfetched to many reasonable minds had become a gruesome reality.
For ISIS to do “something truly epic” is, of course, easier said than done. But they may try several times, and by learning from previous failures, they can progressively increase their probability of success. Consider this question: if they try 100 times and succeed only once, how many innocent lives are lost?
Several relevant developments include: (i) a recent court case in which several Minnesota men were caught plotting to join ISIS and to bring fighters into the U.S. through the southern border; (ii) a congressman report that at least 10 ISIS fighters had been caught trying to enter the U.S. through the southern border; (iii) a Judicial Watch report of ISIS activities just South of the border, with a confirmation of ISIS arrests in Mexico. Furthermore, many individuals from geographical areas with strong ISIS presence have been caught attempting entry into the U.S. from Mexico, or attempting to enter a Central American country with the apparent aim of traveling by land to the U.S. Obviously, if some are caught, others must have gotten through.
Even if authorities cannot find a direct link between certain individuals and ISIS, the link may still exist. They may claim a false nationality, and carry illegally obtained documents from a third country, possibly from Latin America. In fact, some Middle-Eastern and North-African people are physically indistinguishable from Latino people, and they may, of course, learn Spanish. Likewise, in many Latin American countries, there is a vibrant community of people of Arab descent. They are generally not involved in terrorism, but their existence makes it easier for an ISIS fighter to masquerade as a Latino of Arab background.
The obvious countermeasure is a well-designed physical barrier or wall along the southern border, supplemented with electronic sensors, cameras, drones, and similar high-tech surveillance methods and equipment, as proposed by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (and opposed by Secretary Hillary Clinton).
Some have tried to grossly exaggerate the challenges of building a border barrier, mostly on the ground that it would be “very long”. First, a long barrier is as complex as a short one, because its construction can be sub-divided into many segments of manageable lengths, possibly built simultaneously by different teams. Second, natural barriers between the countries can be exploited to further reduce the complexity, cost and length of the barrier. Third, building a long barrier or wall should be both cheaper and simpler than other “long” projects, such as a long pipeline, railway or highway, and there are many of those. Finally, as of August 2015, there were 65 border barriers around the world, and more have been announced or started since (see this and this), which strongly supports their feasibility and usefulness.
The Islamic State has publicly stated its goal of an “epic” attack on U.S. soil, possibly involving nuclear devices, with the porous southern border as the entry point. A well-designed border barrier, as widely deployed around the world, complemented with high-tech equipment, seem the most logical countermeasure, while also serving other useful purposes such as helping control illegal immigration, contraband, traffic of forbidden goods, cross-border abductions and other criminal activities, while also aiding the protection of public health. As Americans go the polls, they should not ignore that the two major presidential candidates, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, have completely opposing views on this vital life-and-death issue.
Dr. Virgilio Rodriguez is a scientist and consultant based in Germany, with a decade of research experience in telecommunication, mostly in European universities, such as RWTH Aachen (Germany), Supelec (France) and Surrey (England). He holds a doctorate degree from New York University, and received postgraduate training in economics at the University of London.