The Rise Of A GOP Conspiracy Theory: ISIL Infiltrates The Mexican Border

Anxieties over illegal immigration and ISIL have fused into a conspiracy theory that is gaining traction in Republican circles: Radical Islamic militants are sneaking into the United States through the “porous” southwest border.

The idea has been put forth, in different flavors, by prominent Republican figures in the wake of ISIL (also called ISIS) beheading two American journalists they captured in Syria. Some flatly assert that it’s happening; others warn that it might happen; others more subtly link the two to imply they’re connected — all while intelligence officials say the claim has no credible evidence.

In a new ad released Monday, New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown suggests that the border is not secure so ISIL operatives could be sneaking into the United States. “Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country. President Obama and Senator [Jeanne] Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat. Not me. I want to secure the border, keep out the people who would do us harm,” he says in the ad.

Last month, after ISIL executed American photojournalist James Foley, Brown said on Fox News, “As you know, what happened recently with the beheading of one of our own, there’s deep concerns that there are members of ISIL actually coming through the border right now,” he said.

Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said this month that ISIL members have already infiltrated into his state: “It is true, that we know that ISIS is present in Ciudad Juarez or they were within the last few weeks,” he said on the radio. “So there’s no question that they have designs on trying to come into Arizona.” (A Texas sheriff also claimed “Quran books” and “Muslim clothing” were found along the border in an interview with Fox News.)


Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement at the capitol building in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 concerning the indictment on charges of coercion of a public servant and abuse of his official capacity. Perry is the first Texas governor since 1917 to be indicted. (AP Photo/The Daily Texan)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who’s eying a potential presidential run, asserted that there’s a “very real possibility” that ISIL terrorists have already crossed the border illegally into the United States.

“There’s the obvious great concern that, because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who’s penetrating across, that individuals from ISIL and other terrorist states could be — and I think there’s a very real possibility that they may have already used that,” the governor told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation last month.

In a recent opinion piece for TIME magazine, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another possible presidential contender, channeled the same fears, albeit in a more cautious way. “We must also secure our own borders and immigration policy from ISIL infiltration,” he wrote. “Our border is porous, and the administration, rather than acting to protect it, instead ponders unconstitutional executive action, legalizing millions of illegal immigrants.”

Last month, appearing on CNN, Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested the ISIL threat could come from the Mexican or even Canadian border. “And there is a great concern that our southern border and our northern border is porous and that they will be coming across,” he said.


U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to workers at MD Helicopters, Friday, May 30, 2014, in Mesa, Ariz. McCain addressed numerous issues, including the ongoing VA situation, in the town hall style meeting. (AP Photo)

The problem with these claims is they’re unsubstantiated. Obama administration officials say they have seen ISIL sympathizers float the idea on social media, but lack any credible evidence that the group is operating in Mexico or intends to sneak into the U.S. through the border.

“We see no specific intelligence or evidence to suggest at present that ISIL is attempting to infiltrate this country though our souther border,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress at a hearing last week.

So, where are these theories coming from?

One possibility is an Aug. 29 report by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, which warned of an “imminent terrorist attack” by ISIL, citing anonymous “government sources” to say the group was already operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. A Homeland Security official said there was “absolutely nothing credible to substantiate this claim.”

Another possibility is an Aug. 29 report in the conservative website Breitbart.com, which purported to “verif[y]” the “ISIS border threat” on the basis of a leaked document by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The piece cited Judicial Watch, and described the border as “porous” — language echoed by figures like McCain and Paul.

A third possibility is a Sept. 10 report by the Free Beacon, a neoconservative website, which interpreted a Homeland Security official as telling Congress that the ISIL border threat is real, before the department made clear that wasn’t the case. (This piece was promoted by McCain around the same time as he made his CNN comments.)


United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson speaks at a press conference Monday June 30, 2014, in Edinburg, Texas. (AP Photo)

The ISIL-border theories dovetail a Gallup poll one month ago which found that immigration has shot to the top of Republicans’ national concerns, above health care and the economy. That figure came after a summer in which the U.S. experienced a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border.

On Monday night, the Obama administration launched a new front in its war against ISIL, bombing select targets in Syria. Government officials have also expressed concern that ISIL members, some of whom hold western passports, could seek to travel to the U.S. legally.

(Lead photo via Scott Brown’s ad)

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