The terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 31 people and injured 270 others is yet another reminder to the United States that terrorists think outside the box. The attackers targeted the unsecured portion of the Brussels Zaventem Airport and the Maelbeek metro station.
One of the 9/11 Commission’s core findings was that the United States did not see the September 11 terrorist attacks coming because of a “failure of imagination.” The idea that a terrorist would hijack a plane and use it as a weapon of mass destruction was outlandish and improbable, and so cockpit doors were not locked and flight crews, at the instruction of law enforcement, did not fight back.
If we can imagine the consequences of an attack at a port of entry, so too can our adversaries. As many of us in the security community have been saying for years, another major terrorist attack in the United States is not a question of if but when.
- Nelson Balido
Since then, U.S. security agencies have been striving to imagine all the ways a bad actor might cause death and destruction and find methods to mitigate those vulnerabilities. In the spirit of that priority, we need to weigh the possibility that a terrorist could detonate an explosive at the U.S. southern border.
Soft Targets at Legal Crossings
There have long been concerns that a terrorist could illegally sneak across the porous U.S.-Mexico border and conduct an attack somewhere in the United States. What has not been sufficiently considered and addressed is whether a terrorist could target a legal port of entry at the border.
Currently, there is nothing stopping an individual from crossing out of Mexico by road, heading towards the United States, stopping in the middle of the port of entry, and detonating an explosive device. As we approach Easter weekend, there are higher-than-average legal border crossings, with Mexicans headed to vacation and shop in the United States. The result is bumper-to-bumper traffic with up to six-hour wait times at the U.S. border.
This is a quintessential soft target. An attack amid the traffic would kill and injure many, and the consequences would not stop with the body count. Terrorists seek several results from an attack, like causing outsized economic consequences, sowing uncertainty and fear, and triggering reactionary measures that disrupt the target far more than the attack itself.
Ports of entry are major fulcrums in the U.S. economy. Across these ports travel commercial goods, tourists, and even American citizens who live in Mexico and work in the United States. A terrorist attack at a port of entry would bring all of that movement to a screeching halt. The U.S. Government would immediately close the border for all crossings in every border state. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States halted air traffic and all border crossings, which contributed significantly to the attack’s estimated $50 billion to $100 billion economic impact. Similarly, shutting down the U.S. border again would cause enormous economic harm, measured in billions of dollars.
So, now that we have rectified a failure of imagination, we can take action to shore up that vulnerability. Step one is to find ways to have Mexico do their part in keeping lethal actors and items from accessing a border crossing.
A Security Challenge for the Americas
Today, Mexico’s border security is at pre-9/11 levels. On the U.S.-bound Mexican side of the border, Mexico does little to nothing to inspect and track who is leaving the country. There are no alarms or body scanners, limited vehicle checks with dogs or other means. They have no system to document outbound citizens, and they have poor visibility into precisely who is leaving Mexico and with what. Our southern neighbor must do a better job of outbound inspections.
There is also very little sharing of what information is available between U.S. agencies (like the DEA or ICE) and Mexican intelligence and law enforcement. The trust levels are low, and poor intelligence sharing creates a dangerous blind spot in our national preparedness and capacity to secure ports of entry. Mexico must do its part to shore up its side and prove that it can be a trusted partner.
Meanwhile, practically speaking, the U.S. southern border starts on Mexico’s southern border. Mexico is often a conduit for the illegal flow of Central Americans into the United States. Unfortunately, Mexico lacks the funds, technology, fortitude and impetus to do much about it. This is chiefly an economic hurdle. Funding mechanisms like the Mérida Initiative foster U.S.-Mexican cooperation, in part because the United States foots much of the bill for the security processes we need to guard our borders, citizens and interests. It’s fair to ask why U.S. taxpayers should be funding Mexican security efforts. Just as it’s fair to say, if we don’t fund it, no one will.
If we can imagine the consequences of an attack at a port of entry, so too can our adversaries. As many of us in the security community have been saying for years, another major terrorist attack in the United States is not a question of if but when. We have an opportunity now to harden ports of entry against an attack. But will we capitalize on our powers of imagination? If we do not, terrorists will.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido