Islamic State operatives arrested after illegally crossing the US border

Islamic State flag waving on the wind

On June 11, eight Tajik nationals with ties to the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the terrorist group’s branch in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, were arrested in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

Utilizing wiretaps to track their movements, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force apprehended the suspects on immigration charges in close coordination with the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is holding the eight men in custody pending extradition.

It appears that ISKP members who have infiltrated the Taliban’s security apparatus have now tapped into a vast network of Tajik Islamists to expand the group’s operational capacity beyond Central Asia and the Middle East.

Tajik jihadists fight for both the Islamic State and its rivals, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The emergence of the Tajikistan Taliban Movement (TTM) in northern Afghanistan made headlines shortly after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. TTM, a terrorist organization banned by Russia and operating under the banner of Jamaat-e Ansarullah, recruited Tajik nationals with the aim of overthrowing Tajikistan’s government and expanding the Taliban’s regional influence.

It now seems that TTM’s rivals in ISKP, including fighters who previously fought alongside the Taliban, have settled in Badakhshan Province near the Tajikistan border. The surge of Tajik nationals joining ISKP indicates the group’s access to a network of Islamists aiming to carry out attacks in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. The recent arrests also highlight how ISKP may be seeking to exploit the US border crisis while confirming speculation about the group’s capacity to carry out operations in the US and Europe.

The eight Tajik nationals crossed the southern border separately, with at least two men entering the US in spring 2023. According to a senior Department of Homeland Security official who spoke to CBS News, the men “lacked proper documents and were subsequently released into the U.S. with notices to appear in immigration court.” In September 2023, authorities also identified a Turkish smuggling ring that had trafficked Islamic State members into the United States.

As illegal border crossings from Mexico spiked to record levels earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of a heightened threat level. “Our most immediate concern has been that individuals and small groups will draw a sort of twisted inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks here at home,” Wray said.

House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green also raised alarms about the risks associated with losing control of the border last December: “The number of individuals apprehended illegally crossing the Southwest border and found to be on the terrorist watchlist has increased 2,500 percent from Fiscal Years 2017-2020 to Fiscal Year 2023.”

The recent arrests underscore the possibility that ISKP and other Islamist terrorist groups are exploiting the ongoing US border crisis with the intent to strike American soil. The 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan has enabled terrorist networks to regroup in that country and regionally, contributing to the ISKP’s resurgence and empowering the group to expand its operational capacity. This resurgence and the US government’s failure to stem illegal border crossings could enable the infiltration of terrorists into the US via Mexico.

Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on Iranian domestic affairs and the Islamic Republic’s regional malign influence.

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