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Opinion: Trump is wrong. This is the real terror threat in America

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

Over the weekend, former President Donald Trump spoke out on his Truth Social platform about the southern border, claiming, “TERRORISTS ARE POURING IN, UNCHECKED, FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. There is now a 100% chance that there will be MAJOR TERROR ATTACKS IN THE USA. CLOSE THE BORDER!”

Peter Bergen - CNN
Peter Bergen - CNN

Trump is already in general election mode and he knows that the southern border is a weak spot for President Joe Biden. Trump also surely recalls that conflating terrorism and immigration was a winner for him back in the 2016 presidential race — remember the “Muslim ban”? So why not go back to this electorally proven well again?

But is Trump right? Let’s take his first claim, that terrorists are pouring into the US from all over the globe. If this were true, wouldn’t that be kind of a big news story? When terrorists get arrested anywhere in the US, the media covers such stories intensively, as it did in the case of an Uzbek man sentenced to life in prison last year for his role in a terrorist attack in Manhattan that killed eight people.

Strangely, we aren’t hearing stories of terror attacks across the US by people who infiltrated the southern border. It must be the lamestream media covering up for the terrorists!

In fact, what Trump appears to be referring to are US Customs and Border Protection statistics about encounters with individuals at US borders who are on the US terrorism watch list. To be clear, being on this terrorism watchlist does not mean you are a terrorist.

According to a CBS News investigation last year, there are now some 2 million people on the terrorism watch list, which simply means that the government, for reasons that it won’t disclose, suspects someone may have some unspecified link to terrorism.

In fiscal year 2023, there were 249 encounters with people on the US terrorism watch list at the southern border by Border Patrol agents, while almost double the number of such encounters — a total of 487 — happened at the US border with Canada. Yet no one is calling to build a wall across the Canadian border because of concerns that terrorists are pouring in across America’s northern border.

Indeed, the last time a bona fide terrorist was arrested at any US land border was in 1999; Ahmed Ressam had a trunk full of explosives in his car and was heading to LAX Airport to blow up a bomb there. He was arrested at the Port Angeles, Washington, border crossing driving from Canada.

The scaremongering about terrorists pouring across the southern border also misstates where the terrorist threat in the US largely emanates from. Since 9/11, there has only been one lethal terrorist attack in the US by a foreign national with ties to a terrorist group: In 2019, a Saudi military officer who had been communicating with an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen killed three US sailors at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. This Saudi officer had not crossed the dangerous Darien Gap in Panama and then traveled all the way across Mexico to cross the southern border; he had arrived legally in the US two years earlier.

The vast majority of terrorist attacks carried out in the US since 9/11 have been carried out by US citizens or permanent residents, none of whom had to cross the southern border because they were already in the US. Typical of this cohort is Omar Mateen, who, inspired by ISIS, killed 49 people at a Florida nightclub in 2016. Mateen, a US citizen, was born in Queens, New York. 

The biggest terrorist threat in the US in recent years has not been from jihadist terrorists like Mateen but from extremist right-wing terrorists motivated by racial or ethnic hatred or anti-government sentiments, according to a US Government Accountability Office report last year. These terrorists are US citizens, not immigrants.

In 2019, in the most lethal right-wing terrorist attack in decades, a 21-year-old White man shot and killed 23 people he thought were Hispanic immigrants at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. In a manifesto the terrorist posted online, he referred to what he called a “Hispanic invasion” as his rationale for the killings, echoing Trump’s own rhetoric about an immigrant invasion coming across the southern border.

The most unsettling act of domestic terrorism in decades was the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol, in which some 140 police officers were assaulted, according to the US Department of Justice. Since then, more than 1,200 people have been charged with federal crimes, ranging from relatively minor offenses like trespassing to more serious charges such as assaulting police officers. Around 900 of these people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of charges, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

The rioters at the US Capitol were among Trump’s supporters who had responded to his invitation to come to Washington, and he then directed his rally goers to march to the Capitol, knowing some of them were armed. Trump watched TV coverage of the riot passively for hours before intervening to try and stop the mayhem.

Last year, Trump said the riot he helped to instigate at the US Capitol was a “beautiful day” in a town hall with CNN when, in fact, it was one of the sorriest episodes in the history of the republic. If he is elected president again, Trump has promised to pardon a “large portion” of the rioters. 

When it comes to acts of terrorism, it might behoove Trump to take a careful look in the mirror instead of misdirecting attention to the southern border.

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