Despite the GAO findings, CBP officials assert that the agency has not neglected the northern border. The problem, CBP officials explain, is one of perception. The critics don’t grasp that the northern and southern borders are different animals that require different risk management strategies.
To address the unique challenges presented by the northern border’s vast expanses between ports of entry, the CBP has adopted a layered-security approach. While the CBP has many programs that make up this strategy, three relatively new ones stand out for the innovative ways each improves situational awareness for the CBP and its law enforcement partners on both sides of the border. And the improvements have made at least one powerful critic take notice.
The 4,000-mile expanse of land and water border that separates the United States and Canada has been called the longest nonmilitarized border in the world today. The rugged and varied terrain in between the official ports of entry (POEs) presents many opportunities for enemies to enter the country undetected, whether by water, land, or air.
The northern border’s waterways, including the Great Lakes, present different routes into the country depending on the time of year. In the spring, summer, and fall, terrorists could enter the country by navigating down a river or crossing one of the Great Lakes or one of the lesser bodies of water that separates the United States from Canada. During the winter, many waterways freeze, allowing adversaries the ability to cross by foot or by a vehicle, such as a snowmobile. Then there’s always the land option. “Thickly forested, mountainous areas with recreational trail networks provide avenues and cover for those seeking to cross the border illegally,” CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin told a Senate subcommittee in May. Terrorists could also use a move in drug smugglers’ playbooks and fly across the border at low altitudes in small airplanes or use all-terrain vehicles to cross mud-covered border areas during the spring thaw.
The concern over these different threat vectors is magnified by indications that there are small jihadist communities in Canada, a chief difference between the U.S. northern neighbor and Mexico. According to CBP’s 2008 report to Congress, “There is an undisputed presence in Canada of known terrorist affiliate and extremist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria.”
This concern has also been highlighted by DHS. However, the leaked 2008 Homeland Security Threat Assessment noted that apprehensions of watch-listed individuals along the northern border are rare.
In fact, as a DHS official who spoke on background told Security Management, no watch-listed terrorist operatives have been apprehended on the northern border since 1999. That was when the al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam was caught at the Port Angeles, Washington, border crossing, trying to enter the country with a trunk packed full of explosives. Ressam, dubbed the Millennium Bomber, planned to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, Ressam chose to enter where he drew the suspicion of an alert Customs agent.