When it comes to terrorism, Canada a greater threat to U.S. than Mexico, study finds

Of seven convicted terrorists from ‘special interest’ countries, four entered illegally from Canada, none from Mexico

U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agents take part in a safety drill in Sunland Park, New Mexico, United States, across from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on January 31, 2019. 

RICHFORD, Vt. — It was about 2 a.m. on a moonless October night in 1987 when the police chief of a small northern Vermont town spotted a man carrying a black bag and walking down the railroad tracks from Canada toward a waiting van about a mile south of the border.

The man turned out to be linked to a Lebanese extremist group. And in his bag, later recovered from a ditch, were a ski mask and a propane-canister bomb.

“If it had been two minutes later, they would have been in the van and gone on their way, and I’d have never known the difference,” recalled Richford’s long-retired police chief, Richard Jewett, who won numerous awards for apparently foiling an attack. “I guess luck was on my side.”

On Oct. 28, 1987 file, two of three Canadians of Lebanese descent are led into federal court in Burlington, Vt. Walid Nicolas Kabbani, left, and Walid Mourad were caught with a third accomplice smuggling the makings of a bomb into the U.S., on Oct. 23, 1987, in Richford, Vt.

Even then, State Department reports on terrorism have expressed more concern about the Canadian border than the Mexican one because Canada, unlike Mexico, has been home to “violent extremists inspired by terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliates and adherents,” according to a 2017 paper.

A study issued last month by the libertarian Cato Institute found that between 1975 and 2017, seven people from “special interest” countries — states tied at least loosely to terrorism — were convicted of planning attacks on U.S. soil. Four of those individuals entered illegally from Canada, none from Mexico.

The only known terrorists who crossed illegally from Mexico in the 42-year span covered by the Cato study were three ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who came as children with their parents in 1984 and, in their 20s, were arrested in a foiled plot to attack the Army’s Fort Dix in New Jersey, in 2007.

An American flag flies in front of the Ambassador Bridge along the waterfront in Windsor, Ontario.JASON KRYK/ WINDSOR STAR/POSTMEDIA

“This shows how rare it is for people to try to enter the U.S. illegally as terrorists by crossing a border,” said Alex Nowrasteh, one of the authors of the Cato study. “It shows how Mexico is not how these folks typically try to enter and the terrorism justification for building the wall is probably the weakest.”

In fact, most people with terroristic intent come into the country by air and are typically in the United States legally. The 19 men who carried out the 9-11 attacks all entered the country legally. The brothers who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people entered the U.S. on tourist visas with their families and were later granted asylum.

On the Canadian border, Ahmed Ressam was caught by border agents in December 1999 after he tried to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington, with bomb components in the trunk of his car. It was later determined Ressam planned to attack the Los Angeles airport during the millennium.

“The evidence shows that if we are going to talk about terrorism, there is actually good reason to think more carefully about the U.S.’s northern border than the U.S.’s southern border,” said Emily Gilbert, a terrorism expert and director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto.

The U.S.-Canadian border is over 8,900 kilometres long, more than 2 1/2 times the length of the U.S. border with Mexico, and is crossed by numerous roads and railroad tracks, with many wide-open stretches. In Richford, the border cuts through farm fields and forests with occasional granite markers in the ground.

Worries about terrorists crossing from Canada have been reduced by the close co-operation between the two countries, and security has been tightened since 9-11. Hundreds more Border Patrol agents are stationed along the border (authorities won’t disclose the total), surveillance has been enhanced with such things as electronic sensors and helicopters, and those trying to cross the border must show a passport or certain other documents, none of which were required before Sept. 11, 2001.