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Feds downplay ISIS threat on border

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says “there is no credible evidence” to suggest the Islamic State terror group is trying to infiltrate the United States at the Mexican border, but some lawmakers in Congress – including New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce – are not convinced.

“The administration tries to say the threat is not much – we’ve had the briefings that it is not real,” Pearce told the Journal. “But then there is evidence that at least three or four people were arrested on Sept. 10 at our border coming across.a00_jd_05oct_border

“I am concerned enough to watch, and even if it doesn’t become true, you can never be too vigilant,” Pearce said.

Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said local immigration and law enforcement officials told him there is no imminent Islamic State threat at the New Mexican border 56 miles from Las Cruces.

“The American consulate has assured us there is no information” to that effect, Miyagishima told the Journal . “Our law enforcement officials here have confirmed they know of nothing. How that started, I have no idea.”

The U.S. consulate in Juárez referred the Journal’s questions about a potential threat to DHS headquarters in Washington, as did U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operate along New Mexico’s roughly 200-mile border with Mexico.

MIYAGISHIMA: Officials "know of nothing"

MIYAGISHIMA: Officials “know of nothing”

PEARCE: "You can never be too vigilant"

PEARCE: “You can never be too vigilant”

Pearce’s reference to Sept. 10 arrests stemmed from an exchange between Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Sept. 17.

“There were actually four individuals trying to cross through the Texas border, who were apprehended at two different stations, that do have ties to known terrorist organizations in the Middle East,” Chaffetz said at the Sept. 17 hearing.

Johnson replied that he had “heard reports to that effect” but was unsure of the specifics.

Marsha Catron, spokesman for DHS headquarters, told the Journal that DHS “has been concerned about threats emanating from the Middle East in addition to ISIL.” Militants of the Islamic State are alternately referred to as members of ISIS or ISIL.

“At this time, there is no credible intelligence reporting of an ISIL threat to the southern border,” Catron said. “While we have seen some social media postings by adherents of the group discussing the U.S. border in the last few months, there is no indication that any actual group members have sought to leverage the border to gain access to the U.S.

“If CBP has reason to be believe an individual encountered at the border has possible links to terrorism, we work closely with our partners in both law enforcement and the intelligence community in order to identify whether any individuals may pose a threat,” Catron said.

Meanwhile, Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group in Washington, maintained in late August that “Islamic terrorist groups are operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez and planning to attack the United States with car bombs or other vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.”

The group did not cite its sources, except to say they were “high-level law enforcement and intelligence” sources. DHS dismissed the Judicial Watch report in a statement to Politifact, a fact-checking journalism site run by the Tampa Bay Times.

“There is no credible intelligence to suggest there is an active plot by (ISIS) to attempt to cross the southern border,” DHS told Politifact in a Sept. 17 statement.

Chris Farrell, director of research for Judicial Watch, told the Journal that his organization will release a new report Monday, citing fresh evidence of terrorist activity at the border, but he declined to offer specifics.

“We have a pretty good network of sources along the border, particularly in the El Paso region, which bleeds into New Mexico,” he said. “The sources we have are emphatic that militant Islamists are making natural cover of a city like Juárez … where local law enforcement is negligent and complicit.”

Farrell said narco-traffickers and terrorists wouldn’t hesitate to do business with each other, with the Mexican-based drug gangs providing law enforcement intelligence and border access for cash from terror groups.

“It’s just business,” Farrell said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he couldn’t comment “on any of the substance of briefings” he’s received in committee, but that terror groups are actively targeting the United States.

HEINRICH: Groups actively targeting U.S.

HEINRICH: Groups actively targeting U.S.

In response to a Journal query on the potential border threat, Heinrich suggested it is not currently an urgent counterterrorism priority.

“The efforts by terrorists groups to harm the United States will not go away any time in the near future, and clearly we must continue to protect ourselves,” Heinrich said. “But our security efforts must be directed at actual threats not unsubstantiated, hypothetical scenarios.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who represents El Paso, told the Journal in a statement Friday that top law enforcement and military officials have assured him there is no imminent threat from Islamic terrorists at the Texas-New Mexico border with Mexico.

“We have spoken to the FBI, the department of Homeland Security and Fort Bliss,” O’Rourke said. “There is no evidence to show ISIS or any other terrorist group is operating in Juárez.”

A spokeswoman for the Garrison Command at the Fort Bliss Army post near the eastern end of New Mexico’s border with Mexico said Friday that the facility is not currently on a heightened alert due to a terror threat.

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, downplayed the risk of an Islamic terrorist making his or her way into the U.S. via Mexico.

The scenario is possible, Schanzer said, but terror plots on U.S. soil are more likely to be hatched by Western sympathizers to the jihadist cause who could fly into a U.S. airport with a passport instead of drawing attention to themselves scurrying across a vast, inhospitable Mexican border.

“Most of the intelligence is really concerned about Westerners or Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS coming back to the U.S. and possibly executing an attack,” Schanzer told the Journal . “Besides not knowing the terrain or the organizations that operate there, they’d be sticking out like sore thumb ethnically. There is no reason for them to cross the Mexican border.”

Still, Pearce has concerns.

“While federal officials have continually attempted to reassure the American people that there is currently no credible information that ISIL is planning an attack on the United States, it does not alleviate the fear that those living on and near the border have known for decades – the border remains unsecure and is possibly the greatest threat to our national security,” Pearce said.

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