ISIS Is In North Texas, But Didn't Cross the Rio Grande to Get Here

ISIS insurgents in Anbar Province, Iraq.
ISIS insurgents in Anbar Province, Iraq.

Wahib Sadek Hamed claimed to be a terrorist. Shirtless, with tan pants, long beads and shaggy dark hair, the 22-year-old Hamed parked his car in the middle of a roadway in Arlington on May 26, then jumped out of his car and lunged at people who passed in their cars. He then threatened a woman with a knife. 

Arlington school resource officer Richard Morrison tased him four times before Hamed fell to the ground, shaking uncontrollably.  Police found an arsenal in Hamed's car, including a knife and three loaded weapons, one of them an AK-47, along with 200 rounds of ammunition. "He made some strange remarks about having ties to some type of terrorist group," police told a local news station. The FBI is currently investigating his claims.

Hamed doesn't act like a well-trained terrorist operative, but what the FBI is looking for is any evidence that he had been steered toward violence by a terrorist groups.  This is the new frontier of terrorism. 

"With the widespread horizontal distribution of social media, terrorists can identify vulnerable individuals of all ages in the United States — spot, assess, recruit, and radicalize — either to travel or to conduct a homeland attack," the agency posted on its website. "The foreign terrorist now has direct access into the United States like never before."

But does that access also include operatives who are slipping across the border? The conflation of border security and counter terrorism is a popular topic, and it comes up often during debates over the southern border of Texas. "The threat poised to Texas by ISIS is very real," Governor Greg Abbot wrote to President Obama in November 2015. 

Some of the burden to monitor threats falls on local police. Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter in 2014 claimed he received reports from federal agencies that ISIS operatives are crossing the border with immigrants and drugs. When Congress asked Department of Homeland Security officials about this claim during hearings, they said rumors of this ISIS effort has never been substantiated. John Wagner, an assistant commissioner for the Custom and Border Patrol operations unit, noted that Islamic extremists are much more likely to enter the United States by commercial plane.  

Still, the local police are wary. “I think it’d be naive to say that [ISIS is] not here," Painter told a local news outlet this year. "We have found Muslim clothing ... Quran books that are lying on the side of the trail, so we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States." 

Finding a discarded Quaran and clothing doesn't mean ISIS has crossed the border illegally. But the 69-year-old Painter, who's been serving as the Republican sheriff since 1985, believes the discarded items herald a threat. "It is a major concern and should be a concern to every American that there are openings in the border," he says, "and you can come across anywhere." 

His officers, he says, are doing everything they can to stop and check people whom they believe may be here illegally. But finding out if they're ISIS is nearly impossible since “they’re not going to come out and tell you that they’re ISIS.” 

Fred Burton, an intelligence expert and vice president of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, points out that since post September 11, The U.S. has not had an attack from operatives who crossed the Texas border illegally. Attacks committed on U.S. soil were carried out by people who were either citizens or here legally.

Another reason ISIS isn't fond of the border is because it is patrolled and the parts that aren't can be deadly to cross. "There are easier ways to get in," Burton says. 

Terrorist-linked attacks in North Texas certainly support the idea that homegrown, "lone wolf" style attacks are a larger threat.  Nadir Soofi and Elton Simpson, lived in North Texas when, in early May 2015, they decided to attack a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland. Despite wearing body armor and armed with three pistols and three rifles, they were both killed by a Garland police officer but not before they opened fire on the crowd. Simpson, an Illinois native, and Soofi, a Texas native, were carrying 1,500 rounds of ammunition. The investigation showed that Soofi and Simpson had made contact with ISIS through social media sites. They communicated with ISIS through a Twitter account, even going so far as to post about their plan, "'May Allah accept us as mujahideen' #TexasAttack."

The other hallmark of terror-related law enforcement in Texas has been radicalized ISIS supporters trying to leave the United States. The case of Bilal Abood, a 37-year-old Mesquite man born in Iraq, showcases the troubles that can face a would-be terrorist who wants to travel to get involved with ISIS.  

In 2013 he tried to board a plane at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, claiming he was visiting family, but his real goal was to reach Syria and fight alongside Islamic fighters battling against the Assad regime. A month later he traveled to Mexico, flew to Turkey and eventually made his way to Syria.

When he returned, the FBI paid him a visit and confiscated his laptop. On it, he'd been viewing videos of beheadings and tweeting information about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.  The FBI also alleges that Abood swore allegiance to ISIS in June 2014. He did this on Twitter.  He confessed to lying to the FBI and received four years in prison. 

But the FBI seems to have overlooked Omar Kattan and Talmeezur Rahman, two North Texas college students who allegedly left Texas to fight in the Islamic State's jihad in Syria, according to ISIS' personnel records that NBC news obtained from an ISIS defector in Turkey and reported in May 2016. Kattan graduated with a degree in biology from the University of North Texas in 2011, and Rahman, a native of India, grew up in Kuwait, moved to Frisco and attended Collin College. He's listed in the terrorist files as fighting under the name "Abu Salman al-Hindi." Kattan is believed to be dead.

Burton and other experts caution that the open border could be a threat, just one that has not materialized. It would be easy for ISIS or other foreign agents to enter the United States, if they wanted to take that approach.  

In that way, Burton agrees with Painter. "The challenge with the border is trying to identify who these people are and go back and pigeonhole who can potentially be ISIS supporters," he says. "Until we get an ISIS supporter linked to an act of terror to the border, you’re not going to get a lot of people in Washington doing anything about it."

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