ISIL and the Mexican border: A Real or Convenient Threat?

By: Angelica Reyes Hernandez, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Texas Governor Rick Perry called out National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border as part of “Operation Strong Safety.” The mobilization is aimed at addressing the recent influx of young unaccompanied Central American immigrants. Perry wanted the National Guard force to support the Border Patrol authorities in rural areas, while the state police concentrated its efforts on highways.[1] However, when it was announced that the National Guard would be thrown into the fray, the effectiveness and rationality of their presence was called into question by news outlets, state and local officials, not to mention Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.[2] After the implementation of the plan began to occur, structural and organizational mistakes became evident. The Washington Post published an article that revealed that the troops had a dearth of relevant responsibility and were chronically unproductive due to deficiencies in the plan.[3] Meanwhile, the Huffington Post announced that the National Guard troops were forced to eat provisions from the food banks until they belatedly received their paychecks. The inability of Perry’s plan to provide basic needs to security personnel demonstrates the lack of planning and care by the Texan governor, the arch “politicizer” that his critics have accused him from being.

Moreover, with the recent beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, social media statements made by affiliates of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the circulation of an unknown report online regarding safety on the U.S.-Mexico border, certain U.S. politicians have been quick to inflate fears of terrorist entering the U.S. via Mexico. Governor Perry and conservatives such as Rep. Trent Franks (R), Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), claim that there is a threat that ISIL members are already present on the U.S.-Mexican border and allege that these members are ready to cross, if they have not done so already.[4][5] However, due to the lack of credible evidence to support this dangerous assertion, it appears that the whole situation, including calling for the National Guard, is a political strategy designed by Governor Perry to improve his political image leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections.This is evident by his drastic change towards immigration policies and issues from 2010, scarcely two years before the 2012 elections. Throughout his 2012 presidential campaign, Perry’s response to those who criticized him for supporting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants was rather harsh, as he bluntly said, “I don’t think you have a heart.”[6] However, now he personally chose to deploy National Guard to the border to deal with children crossing the border. The incongruities of his actions speak for themselves.

The Speculation of ISIL in Mexico

The proclamation that ISIL terrorists have crossed the border, or are about to, is a compilation of speculation and assumption. This attempt to alienate immigrants and vouch for greater security for the Mexican border is not a particularly new tactic, as it has been employed in the past. In fact, Texas U.S. Representative Louie Gohmer made an almost identical statement in 2009 linking Mexican cartels to Al Qaeda.[7] He warned of Al Qaeda training camps supposedly stationed in Mexican territory right across the border, and the terrorist group’s new strategy was to, “Come in and act like Hispanics when [in reality,] they’re radical Islamists.”[8] While this notion gained great popularity, particularly among conservatives in support of anti-immigration policies, there has yet to surface any clear evidence that these camps or cartel-Al Qaeda collaboration existed.[9] Coincidentally, Rep. Gohmer was in the process of promoting anti-immigration legislation when he made these remarks.

Same Old Game

Similarly, the reports about ISIL cells in Mexico spread around August 26, which can be attributed to three sources. One would be the comment made by the Rep. Trent Franks from Arizona regarding the ISIL cells in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which was picked up by Buzzfeed (they quickly went viral). Secondly, U.S. government monitoring of social media outlets utilized by ISIL’s extremists discovered posts by expressing their knowledge of the clandestine entry of immigrants into the U.S, and have found that such a method would be viable for future attacks on American soil.[10] Once the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) examined these claims, it concluded that these comments on social media do not amount to a specific, apprehensive, probable plot. Thirdly, two of the most prominent spokespeople about this threat, whosecredibility itself is somewhat questionable, are former CIA covert operations officer, Mike Baker, and former FBI special agent John Guandolo. Agent Baker is best remembered for making similar statements as those by Texas Rep. Gohmer about the cooperation between Al Qaeda, the Mexican cartels, and the alleged training camps on Mexican territory. He said, “[There has been] ‘a lot of communication’ between ISIS and Mexican drug cartels [,] given past efforts by al Qaeda to do likewise.”[11] However, there have not been consequential plots or attacks against the United States since his urgent warnings.[12] On the other hand, Special Agent Guandolo, founder of, travels around the nation to warn law enforcement officers of the dangers of Islamist Jihad.[13] He has been so bold as to accuse the newly stepped down Attorney General Eric Holder of complicity with extreme Jihadist to overthrow the U.S. government.[14] Of course, evidence proving such statements or alluding to them has yet to be found.

Consequentially, local authorities are falling victim to this political game of inflating rumors, which promotes overreaction. For example, Gary Painter, sheriff of Midland County, Texas, affirmed that there are active ISIL cells that are on U.S. soil.[15] Quran books allegedly found near the border are the only pieces of supporting evidence for the statement.[16] Needless to say, that such a denunciation could be considered to be racist, since it is essentially alleging that finding a Muslim religious book confirms the presence of a terrorist. While every statement made by this terrorist organization is taken seriously, as it should be, the Texas Department of Public Safety through a law enforcement bulletin has promoted precautions.[17]

Just as some have been spreading the word about the threat, the federal government has attempted to set the record straight about the issue. Pentagon’s Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby has assured the public that, “the Pentagon has no information that leads us to believe that…ISIS [or ISIL] was crossing at the U.S.-Mexican border. That said, we do know they have aspirations to hit Western targets, and it’s something … we’ve got to take seriously and we have to try and be ready for it.”[18] To date, however, there has yet to be one confirmed case of an Islamic militant crossing to American soil via the Mexican-American border, or that such a terrorist threat is likely to occur.

Moreover, Jennifer Lasley, Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Deputy Undersecretary for Analysis mirrored John Kirby’s statement of a looming threat of ISIL members crossing the Mexican-American border, “We to date don’t have credible information that we are aware of, of known or suspected terrorists coming across the border.”[19] DHS’s Secretary Jeh Johnson, confirmed the slim chances of an attack via the Mexican-American border at the Council on Foreign Relations.[20] Though, he emphasizes the dangerous nature of this group in stating, “We know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans — in a public and depraved manner. We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have said themselves they will soon be in ‘direct confrontation’ with the United States.”[21] Surprisingly, the allegations have not caused a raucous in Mexico as they have in United States: Mexican authorities have simply debunked the existence of ISIL cells on Mexican territory. An official from the Mexican Embassy in the United States said, “Officials in Mexico and the United States maintain permanent and open channels of communication and nothing indicates that there is even a slight chance of what Governor Perry has declared.”[22] The unconcerned nature by the Mexican Government further reinforces the theory that the situation is a political move by Governor Perry aimed at his upcoming electoral aspirations.

A Political Game

Given the time frame of the deployment of the National Guard, Rick Perry’s desire to run again for the U.S. presidency, the social media comments by ISIL affiliates, and the statements from both former agents Baker and Guandolo, it would not be the first time that politicians like Perry make outrageous and entirely politically-motivated statements to harden their conservative base. In this case, these claims are meant to increase support and to improve the tarnished image of the Texas governor and his aspirations for a new election campaign in 2016.[23]

Perry has taken advantage of an important international security issue by spinning it as one related to the U.S-Mexican border. With the next presidential election unquestionably in mind, Gov. Perry is getting ready to revamp his image and be taken seriously after his disastrous missteps in the last Republican Party primary back in 2012.

One of the political “mistakes” Perry made in 2012 was supporting in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrant children.[24] For the die-hard red states and fellow conservatives, his softer approach on immigration somewhat hindered his image and his chances to win. The GOP also would have refrained from promoting such a pro-immigrant candidate. Therefore, this time around, he has chosen to have a more conservative stance by deploying the National Guard to the border. However, due to all the criticism he had originally received when he first sent the troops to the border by the Hispanic voter population, the Democratic Party, and the condemnation from the Mexican government, the negative publicity has been polarizing and sorely damaged his political image, again. As result, he took the opportunity to alter the content in which he was supporting his authority for the deployment of the National Guard and advocacy for anti-immigration views when the rumors of the ISIL members in Mexico first appeared.[25]


When it comes to elections, everything is fair game in politics. By suggesting a scenario where Texas and the whole country is in imminent danger, opinions regarding anti-immigration laws and the deployment of the National Guard are likely to garner quick support. The militaristic image of the ardently political Governor Perry sending soldiers to the border to handle harmless, impoverished and unaccompanied Central American children can be easily transformed into an image of heroically dispatching boots on the ground to prevent terrorists from entering the country. The same could be said about the anti-immigration mixture of views and laws that seem much more acceptable now that there is a “serious” threat to Americans. In fact, Governor Perry seems to be using his controversial and ineffective decision as his stepping-stone to bash President Obama, and declare his greater competency in issues like national security.[26]

Lastly, it is critical to point out that there have not been any confirmed reports of brigades of Islamic terrorists stealthily crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Certainly, there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. However, looking back to the 9/11 attacks, the hijackers all legally arrived to the U.S. via bona-fide air-travel. In other words, terrorists who desire to enter the country will find means to do so, which do not require illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. There is a lack of dignity inherent to publicizing misleading information that manipulates constituents’ over the security issues. Citizens of Texas, and the U.S. in general, deserve astute, responsible leadership from elected policymakers, such as their governor, free of political manipulation that feeds off constituents’ fear.

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Featured Image by: Ed Schipul, taken from: