Walls don’t work in isolation; first end the shutdown

The ongoing federal shutdown and debate about funding a wall is making America less safe.  There are numerous reports that Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and Federal Air Traffic Controllers, none of whom are being paid, are coordinating sick-outs because of displeasure with the shutdown. TSA not operating at full capacity puts U.S. citizens at risk. Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 when U.S. aviation security protocols were circumvented by al Qaeda.

Post-9/11, al Qaeda and its affiliates remain dedicated to penetrating aviation security and disrupting the global aviation system. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operative, nearly downed Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day in 2009. Less than one year later, AQAP carried out Operation Hemorrhage, a plot to take down multiple air cargo planes in an effort to disrupt global commerce. Over the past few years, numerous reports have indicated that ISIS has been developing hard-to-detect explosives implanted within electronic devices in an effort to evade airport screening technology. ISIS advances in manipulating explosive material led to new procedures related to laptop inspection at airports. The greatest U.S. vulnerability remains via air, not overland.  


Since the shutdown, and in fact since Nov. 20, 2018, neither the State nor Treasury departments has sanctioned terrorists pursuant to their various legal authorities. This, coupled with recent reporting that the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes and Intelligence Network (FINCEN) has been unable to promulgate alerts related to money laundering trends since the shutdown, also puts Americans at risk. The offices responsible for keeping the U.S. formal financial system free from abuse are not allowed to work, making the system vulnerable to new abuses by criminals and terrorist financiers.  

Less than two decades ago, the same al Qaeda operatives who evaded U.S. aviation security checks and crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania also openly moved money throughout the U.S. formal financial system in advance of the 9/11 attack.  Indeed, the 9/11 National Commission’s staff monograph discovered that nearly 60 percent of al Qaeda’s funds passed through the U.S. formal system prior to 9/11. The United States people need terrorism-finance experts back at their desks.

All source intelligence analysts and law enforcement professionals responsible for connecting the dots to disrupt terrorist plots are either at home or working without pay. 9/11 occurred because we didn’t connect dots. We didn’t because of parochial concerns regarding the sharing of information between federal agencies. Although today’s situation isn’t quite analogous to 9/11, there is little question that there are fewer intelligence analysts on the job than three weeks ago, and that decreases U.S. capacity to discover ongoing terrorist plots.

Is a southern border wall worth the sacrifice of less safe air travel, the increased susceptibility of the U.S. formal financial system being abused, and the decreased capacity of the intelligence and law enforcement communities? The Trump administration thinks so. Recently, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders incorrectly noted that the wall is needed to keep out terrorists, citing that there were “4,000 known or suspected terrorists” who have tried to enter the United States. As NBC News later reported, only six did — and it remains unclear whether any of those individuals constituted a real threat or whether they tried to cross the border in areas where there wasn’t a wall. More likely, those six individuals were apprehended by Customs and Border Protection officers at a fortified and manned border crossing.


Even if President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE wins the debate and we build a wall along the entire southern border, will it make Americans safer from terrorists and drug cartels? History indicates it won’t. Hamas, a terrorist group operating in the fenced-in Gaza Strip, routinely tunnels under Israel’s fence to carry out attacks. In December 2018, Israel identified multiple Lebanese Hezbollah tunnels that crossed into Israel from Lebanon. One such tunnel reportedly was in use for nine years before its discovery. Yet, in the case of Israel, sophisticated barriers make sense, given the direct threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah. On the southern border of the United States, there is no analogous terrorist threat. Even if there were, sophisticated terrorist groups have demonstrated they will find ways around static barriers.

Closer to home, and illustrative of the creativity often deployed by motivated criminals, during recent testimony in Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo’s federal trial, Vicente Zambada Niebla, the Sinaloa cartel’s logistics manager, discussed how Sinaloa brought cocaine into the United States.  The cartel often used U.S. citizens to cross the border legally; in other cases, it bypassed the land border altogether by using submarines to move drugs. In one case, Niebla explained, the cartel moved five tons of cocaine into the United States by submarine. A wall won’t stem the flow of drugs into the country.

The greatest of all walls, the Great Wall of China, was breached. Nearly 1,000 years ago, Genghis Khan breached the Great Wall on multiple occasions. This is but one ancient example of a barrier failing to protect its citizens. Walls in isolation will never protect a country. Yet, President Trump’s numerous tweets purport that the wall will keep America “safe and secure” from drug cartels and terrorists.

Ultimately, the first step in keeping America safe again is to end the shutdown. America’s intelligence analysts, airport security specialists and law enforcement personnel need to be at work and paid. Once that happens, Congress and the president can get serious about the contours of what a secure border should look like. That’s going to require compromise and no doubt a combination of technology, more non-military border personnel and, where it makes sense, more barriers.

Let us hope the current impasse is resolved before a terrorist group can take advantage of existing gaps in U.S. capabilities to detect terrorist travel, financing and attack planning.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He was a member of the staff of former Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.). Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.