Paris attacks spark interest in CHDS thesis
Even before the November Paris attacks, Center for Homeland Defense and Security master’s degree graduate Todd Bensman believed a conversation was long overdue about the potential links between terrorist travel and so-called extreme distance human smuggling.
Bensman’s prescient award-winning master’s degree thesis on the topic is titled, “The Ultra-Marathoners of Human Smuggling: Defending Forward Against Dark Networks that Can Transport Terrorists across Land Borders.” It analyzed a rare form of human smuggling network that clandestinely transports residents of far-flung countries such as Syria and Iraq to U.S. land borders – and which could carry terrorist actors as well. The recent events in France, where some of the attackers reportedly crossed European borders hidden in refugee flows, have raised questions similar to those Bensman addressed in his thesis.
Bensman’s thesis tackles how “special interest aliens” from 35 countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, where terrorist groups operate and pose a potentially exportable product, are able to make it to the American land border despite law enforcement efforts to stop them.
Seeing the potential for an attack like Paris in which terrorists moved with refugee immigrants, Bensman produced a paper for his CHDS comparative policy class, seven months before the attacks, “Protecting Schengen Borders from Terrorist Infiltration: Lessons for the United States.” He ultimately incorporated research from that paper into his final thesis.
“It’s completely unstudied territory,” Bensman said during a recent phone interview, regarding the ongoing long-distance smuggling of such migrants to the American border. “I was hoping to put down a foundational starting point … for people to think about questions like how much (SIA migration) is enough? Is anybody tracking how many are coming, and how many are prosecuted.”
The research traced the human smuggling organizations that transport migrants from the Islamic world over oceans and continents to places such as South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, from which their smugglers routinely move them to the U.S. southern border. Legislation crafted after 9/11 established the groundwork for the SIA designation and a secretive American effort to counter such smugglers from dozens of U.S. embassies. But during intervening years, the American effort has fallen short as political emphasis shifted to concerns about illegal Hispanic immigration, according to the research.
“These human smuggling operations move people across continents and oceans and countries and border after border. That’s why I call them ‘ultra-marathoners’” Bensman said. “If you were ISIS and wanted to get here these are the organizations that enable it. This is the terror travel highway.”
The thesis deconstructed SIA smuggling networks as systems and identified the variables that made them successful in a search for clues as to how law enforcement stationed abroad could become more successful against them. To do so, he analyzed thousands of court records from the 19 federal court prosecutions he could find of SIA smugglers between September 2001 and September 2015. He employed qualitative analysis software to drive his conclusions about how SIA smuggling is organized and functions. The thesis identified seven of the networks’ fail points where law enforcement pressure might work well. It recommends 15 specific strategies to leverage those fail points.
A national debate has been underway since the Paris attacks about the resettlement in the United States of Syrian refugees, and it is true that screening vetting processes for them are layered and lengthy, if still inadequate, Bensman said. But he said the migrants at the heart of his ultra-marathoners thesis are not those kind of refugees but, rather, asylum seekers who show up, smuggled and uninvited, at the border and receive little systematic vetting. Bensman found numerous cases in which migrants associated with terrorism arrived unannounced at the southern land border and later navigated the bureaucratic process to win asylum through trickery and deceit.
Among those cases, for instance, was a Somali couple who crossed from Mexico into Texas in 2008. The wife was able to lie to pass screening and settle in Wisconsin with asylum status. The husband, while in detention at the border, serendipitously found himself confiding to undercover FBI informants that he was actually planning attacks in the U.S., which unraveled his spouse’s story and landed both in prison.
That case and others illustrate the challenge about vetting SIA migrants smuggled to the border. Just how many of these wolves in refugee’s clothing is a big unknown that homeland security authorities must start sorting out.
Bensman offers a wealth of recommendations generally centered on targeted foreign intelligence operations and more staffing for federal agencies working in America’s foreign embassies, all of which will have to be enabled by ramped up foreign security aid and a diplomatic influence campaign in six named Latin American countries.
His CHDS thesis research showed how academic research on SIAs and their smugglers is lacking and how, at least until the Paris attacks, elected officials had lost focus on that issue over the years, despite a variety of national legislation requiring attention to it after 9/11.
“I believe the original effort has been neglected,” Bensman said.
Since graduation, Bensman has been seeking to remedy that by writing and briefing the right audiences.
In November, for instance, he briefed staffers from an array of congressional senators and representatives, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Bensman’s home state of Texas. Later this month, he is scheduled to personally brief U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents the El Paso area, and also an audience at the El Paso Intelligence Center.
In addition, the former award winning journalist with The Dallas Morning News is penning a series of columns for the new website PJ Media in which he expounds on his thesis work, and he has been invited to write the January 2016 cover story for Homeland Security Today magazine. He hopes elected officials and policy makers from all ends of the political spectrum will take notice of his policy recommendations.
“The day we have an attack like Paris you can guarantee the American public is going to demand swift, decisive action to fix it,” he said. “I’ve created, with this thesis, a blueprint for the day that happens.”