Todd Bensman's America's Covert Border War faces several challenges right out of the gate. First, it's a work of speculative nonfiction about how terrorists plotting to kill Americans could cross the U.S.-Mexico border, even though none are known to have done so. Second, it was published 15 years after fear of Islamic terrorism peaked. Third, the Trump administration—the biggest source of public speculation about Muslim terrorists crossing the border—is over. Only the best of writers would have overcome those challenges to produce a good book.
Bensman overcame none of them.
This book's biggest problem is that the author has nothing to write about. Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil. Bensman systematically exaggerates threats, selectively excludes information, and blurs the line between how terrorists theoretically could have infiltrated the country and what they actually have done.
At times Bensman finds a nugget that sounds scary. There is, for instance, the "2001 California border crossing of a ranking Hezbollah operative (in the trunk of a car) later convicted of terrorism." That sounds like a legitimate threat, and a reasonable reader might expect that half-sentence to be the beginning of a chapter about a serious terrorism case. But Bensman doesn't mention it again, never tells the reader the terrorist's name, and gives a citation that's little help in tracking it down.
After digging, I discovered that this terrorist was Mahmoud Youssef Kourani. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. By all accounts, he was a criminal justly convicted. But there is no indication that he ever planned or intended to commit a terrorist attack, particularly against Americans.
Other times, Bensman can't even muster that much. One section cites his work on terrorists who have crossed the border but leaves out their names and the crimes they actually committed. Once again, I had to dig. Turns out that these migrants with monikers like "Unidentified Afghan national," "Unnamed Sri Lankan national," and "Al Manar Television employee" were not terrorists. They just happened to be illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
That's the biggest methodological problem in Bensman's book. He focuses on illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, known as "special interest aliens" (SIAs), and frequently conflates them with "known and suspected terrorists" (KSTs), who are barely more likely to be real terrorists. Often, Bensman starts a subsection writing about KSTs and then seamlessly transitions to writing about SIAs or those on a terrorism watch list, giving the reader the impression that they are the same. Of the more than a million people on such watch lists, very few are KSTs (and many are false positives).
Bensman does not mention that the Border Patrol apprehended 91,132 SIAs from 2007 through 2019—1.39 percent of all immigrants apprehended by the agency. None of the SIAs were convicted of carrying out, attempting to carry out, or planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. From 1975 through the end of 2020, only nine people convicted of planning a terrorist attack entered the United States illegally. Only three of them crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. They were Shain Duka, Dritan Duka, and Eljvir Duka, and they didn't come here with a plot in mind: They crossed as young children in 1984, then were arrested 23 years later.
Bensman does not mention the Dukas, perhaps because they are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. Neither Albania nor Macedonia has ever appeared on a list of SIA countries.
If illegal aliens aren't a terror threat, what about people seeking asylum? There the body count isn't zero, but it does not rise to double digits. From 1975 to 2017, nine people in the U.S. have been killed by terrorists who entered as asylum seekers.
Though this book is supposedly about a terrorist threat to the United States, the attacks it discusses happened in other countries. Take Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, a Somali asylum seeker who entered along the U.S.-Mexico border, went to Canada, and wounded five people in a vehicle attack in 2017. Bensman calls him the "first border-crossing SIA to have conducted a terror attack in North America." (The word North is doing a lot of work.)
It's telling that Bensman titles his first chapter "Proof of Concept: Weaponized Human Proliferation in Europe." If Muslim terrorists crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were a pressing concern, Bensman wouldn't have to turn to Europe to show it's possible for terrorists to cross a border.
A subsection of that chapter argues that Germany has faced "the brunt of attacks and plots" from Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow about a million refugees and asylum seekers into the country in 2015. But even there, Bensman doesn't show very much mayhem. He catalogs a few migrants who ended up committing deadly terrorist attacks, a few goofy plots that were foiled by the police before likely collapsing on their own, a few cases of migrants knifing innocent people, and a handful of ominous statements by other migrants.
There is no indication of the number of people killed or injured in attacks committed by Islamic terrorists, a curious omission until you realize that Bensman describes "cataloguing threat and risk" as an "inexact art." We can't hold Bensman to the standards of a Van Gogh or Kandinsky in practicing his art, but we should at least expect him to complete a paint by numbers.
To fill in the gaps, this reviewer has done Bensman's work for him. From 2015 to 2021, 36 people were murdered in terror attacks on German soil and 142 people were injured. Thus, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Germany during that time was about 1 in 16.1 million. The annual chance of being murdered in a normal homicide in Germany was about 148 times greater. And 61 percent of the people murdered in those attacks were victims not of Islamists but of German right-wingers—some of them targeting the populations that Bensman paints as a threat.
With so little to offer, Bensman's book becomes boring. Nothing happens. The author inundates us with statements about "credible" intelligence of terrorists on the border. But these allegedly credible warnings never amount to anything: no deaths, no attacks, no convictions or arrests of people planning attacks. How credible is intelligence that keeps predicting events that never occur?
Bensman argues that national security experts have access to "intelligence reporting" that shows the "threat of terrorist infiltration [is] quite real," then uses this uncheckable claim to wave away criticisms rather than addressing them directly. Specifically, he obliquely criticizes work by myself and my colleague John Mueller on the small risk from foreign-born terrorists. Even there, he can't get his criticism correct—Bensman says that we only consider the cost in human lives, while in fact we also consider the harms from injuries, property destruction, and economic effects.
Bensman ludicrously claims that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would rather deport terrorists than charge them with terrorism offenses. But government employees love to justify their existence by showing that they're getting things done, which is why the press release mill known as the DOJ floods the internet with announcements about cases that are frequently silly and barely related to terrorism. If the Justice Department had an actual KST border crosser or knew of some who had recently crossed, it would tell the world. Bensman claims that Somali Maulid Jama, a supposedly serious terror risk apprehended along the border, was deported to save the "huge expense of a trial" that would have made the career of a prosecutor during Jeff Sessions' tenure as attorney general, an idea too fanciful to believe. The government deported Jama because there was not enough evidence to convict him of a terrorism-related offense.
At one point, Bensman tells us that "homeland security leaders and professionals, no matter which party occupied the White House, saw things the American public can't, or won't. One purpose of this book is to make visible what they see so that we can all move on." Bensman may have succeeded too well. If this book really shows us the threat they see, we can stop being afraid of terrorists crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
America's Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation's Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, by Todd Bensman, Bombardier Books, 300 pages, $19.99