Threat Assessment: Transnational Jihadists and Mexican Cartels

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 11 months ago

Robert Bunker writing at Small Wars Journal assesses the relative threat posed by transnational Islamic jihadists versus the Mexican cartels.  After citing a portion of Napolitano’s concern about the growth of the lone wolf terror threat, Robert weighs in.

While the above statements—some might even say political “sound bytes”— uttered by US Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano were directed at America’s European allies, they convey the ongoing Washington obsession with Al Qaeda to the exclusion of other non-state threat entities. The memory of the 9/11 attacks is still a visceral experience for most of our nation’s financial and political elites.

Napolitano now equates lone wolf (Al Qaeda inspired) attackers, who need to take commercial aircraft to reach the US, as a significant threat to our nation. Such terrorists have extremely limited combat capabilities, both destructive and disruptive, and suffer from lack of training, equipment, and finances. They represent nodal criminal-soldiers (devoid of network support) who at best can engage in sporadic active aggressor (shooter) or IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. Such attackers are not the most pressing US national security threat; even if a few got through, the damage inflicted will be inconsequential to the integrity of American society and the functioning of its governmental system. Yes—even a suicide bomber or two detonating in the Mall of the Americas, on Wall Street, or in a high-end bistro in N.W. DC is a survivable attack for our nation, though the media would replay newscasts of the incident ad infinitum and make quite a bit of money off of the ad revenue in the process.

I’m a bit troubled by Robert’s seeming dismissal of the threat of transnational Islamic insurgency.  True enough, the so-called “lone wolf” cannot do much more than inflict terror and localized loss of life and property. But Robert is assuming that all such terrorists are going to be lone wolfs.  Perhaps not, and perhaps also since we know that Hezbollah fighters are crossing the Southern Border, Robert’s assumption forces the conclusion that it isn’t a threat.

On the contrary, in A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb I described a plausible scenario in which economic disaster would be effected as a result of the attack.  True enough, this kind of attack would require several hundred well trained, well equipped and highly motivated fighters – fighters and equipment that a group like al Qaeda may not currently be able to field.  But it’s also true that Hezbollah may be able to, and an attack of this nature, even if only partially successful with fewer fighters than I have described, would have significant consequences.  In my view Robert is thinking tactically rather than strategically as he pans the idea that transnational Islamic fighters are no longer a threat.  Small time hits against human-targer rich environs are a tactic of terror.  Destruction of infrastructure directly resulting in the inability to replace that infrastructure is a strategy – one that thankfully the enemy hasn’t deployed.

However, I agree with his assessment of the threat of Mexican cartels.

What is most amazing about Napolitano’s statements is that they ignore a far more significant threat derived from geographic proximity, mass of numbers, training and organization, wealth, and corruptive capability. Mexican cartel operatives do not have to take commercial flights to get to the US and hundreds-of-thousands of personnel exist running the gamut from foot-soldiers through lookouts into narcotics production and distribution, street extortion, human trafficking, kidnapping, and bulk thefts. Tens-of-thousands of these cartel members operate in the US in conjunction with US street, prison, and motorcycle gangs which number well in excess of 1 million individuals. The Mexican cartels control more wealth than Al Qaeda ever had at its disposal—even at Osama bin Laden’s high point— and have specialized commando units on par, if not surpassing, the best Al Qaeda could ever field. Further, the Mexican cartels have taken corruption to an art form and have compromised entire regions of the Mexican state. This corruption is now being used in a targeted manner on the US border— hundreds of documented incidents exist— a capability with which Al Qaeda has never possessed to threaten the US homeland.

Common sense dictates that we address the real threat next door and already over the border— in excess of 1,000 US cities have Mexican cartel operatives in them. While the Mexican cartel threat to the US is subtler than that of Al Qaeda— the 9/11 attacks were indeed fierce and bloody— it is also in many ways more threatening, especially now that Al Qaeda central is a former shell of itself. While ‘border spillover’ attacks and corruption have been downplayed and wide swaths of Mexico resemble a war zone (with well over 45,000 deaths), we continually hear DHS rhetoric about Al Qaeda being the #1 threat to the United States.

On a related note, I am not at all persuaded that we are winning the border war by reports that arrests on the Southern border have plummeted.  The number of Hispanic students in Alabama also recently plummeted due the implementation of E-Verify.  The failing American economy is less enticing for illegal immigrants, and so it isn’t surprising that the balance of illegals coming and going is being modified.  There is also a shift in violence within Mexico itself, meaning that areas that were once secure are now not, and vice versa.

That doesn’t mean that the border is secure.  Analogous errors in judgment occurred in Iraq when we believed that the tribal awakening in Ramadi secured Anbar, when in reality the insurgents had simply moved to Fallujah and had to be cleared from that city in 2007.  Pressing the Taliban out of Helmand moved them to Quetta (for R&R), Kandahar, Kunar and Nuristan.

The cartels will prove to be adaptive and amorphous, and we should generally ignore anecdotes as a pointer to larger trends.

Prior:

A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb

Border War

Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment



  • Pingback: Somebody Fracture This Guy’s Skull With A Cluebat – Let’s See If There’s Anything Inside | Daily Pundit

  • Robert J. Bunker

    Some very good analysis presented.

    I do not believe US Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano was focusing on Hezbollah in her remarks. Yes– the terrorist group Hezbollah has far greater capacity to engage in attacks directed against the US than Al Qaeda lone wolves. With this said it would bring us into a discussion of “intent” and “capability” concerning Hezbollah.

    Part of my concern re the Mexican cartels is that the DHS focus is on violence– we do not hear mention of the corruptive capabilities of the cartels– and even worse the use of violence and corruption in a coordinated manner.

    Also re– the threat of transnational Islamic insurgency. Europe has a very different threat dynamic than the US. That threat is No. 1. for our European allies– especially given larger and changing demographic issues and the fact many of the Islamic immigrants have not been incorporated into European society/tribalism issues exist.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thanks for the thoughtful response Robert. I wonder, if Napolitano wasn’t focusing on the broader rubric of transnational Islamic militancy (including a whole host of groups as you know), then does she (and DHS) know the potential threat that Hezbollah represents?

    Again, I concur with your assessment of the cartel threat (and I have stopped calling them the “drug” cartels). The threat of corruption may be perhaps the most dangerous element.

  • Robert J. Bunker

    Dear Herschel, Napolitano was speaking in the context of addressing our European allies– she also mentioned the AQ group in Yemen I believe. Lone Wolves as a threat is definitely nothing new for terrorism scholars and security professionals. It looks like much of AQ capacity is now downgraded to individual nodes (much of the central nodes/the extended node clusters have been eliminated). My issue– still– was that the Mexican cartels tend to never get mentioned. Now Hezbollah is an interesting case given its ties to Iran. Even more so that tensions are rising between the West and Iran over its nuclear program and some interesting incidents appear to be taking place per past news reports. DHS is well aware of Hezbollah capabilities/past incidents (the major bombings) but we still have an “intent” vs “capability” issue. It currently makes little sense for Hezbollah to engage in operations (other than fund raising) in the US. AQ is the reverse– it has the “intent” but not the “capability”. These are all violence potentials. I think we both agree that corruption– via the cartels– is possibly even more dangerous to the US. Even more so when it combined with violence into a “silver or lead cocktail”. Mexican institutions are being compromised by such techniques/cocktails and concerns exist that it is starting to be utilized over the border into the US (the data points support this concern). AQ (or even Hezbollah) doesn’t have such means to undermine our public institutions.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Robert, if you mean by “speaking in the context of our European allies” that she wouldn’t have addressed Hezbollah because she was chiding or counseling Europe on the potential threats that could come from Europe (and ONLY that issue), perhaps so, but it still appears to me that by even addressing the lone wolf issue she is diminishing the threat still posed by militant Islam (and affiliated groups). Remember the Hamburg cell simply wasn’t very large or well-funded.

    I take issue with your characterization that the central nodes / node clusters have been eliminated. I see evidence of a weakening of the hierarchical structure of the larger umbrella groups, but perhaps a reversion to behavior more influenced by swarm theory, loosely-coupled but still related sub-groups, and so forth.

    I also disagree with the notion that Hezbollah doesn’t have intent. Given the eschatological way in which the Mullahs see the world, any attempt, overt or covert, to address the Iranian nuclear program by force will be enough reason to unleash whatever assets Iran has, here or elsewhere.

    I’m just not ready to climb on board with the notion of the greatly diminished Islamic militant threat, whether loosely-coupled sub-groups, nation-state actors with proxy troops [like Iran], or whatever.

    As for the cartels, you and I concur completely on every aspect of what you’re saying. I had followed the situation for a long time, but ramped up my attention, ironically, when my Marine son encouraged me to pay closer attention based on direct reports from former Recon Marines serving in security companies along the border (I suppose Triple Canopy or Dyncorp or some other such firm).

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Losing The Border War


You are currently reading "Threat Assessment: Transnational Jihadists and Mexican Cartels", entry #7987 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Mexican Cartels,U.S. Border Security,U.S. Sovereignty and was published December 5th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (675)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (28)
Air Power (9)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (6)
Ammunition (14)
Animals in War (4)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
AR-15s (38)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (34)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (26)
Australian Army (5)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (44)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (15)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (2)
Blogs (4)
Body Armor (16)
Books (2)
Border War (6)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (26)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (1)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
CENTCOM (7)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (10)
Christmas (5)
CIA (12)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (2)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (214)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (114)
Department of Homeland Security (9)
Disaster Preparedness (2)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (5)
Drone Campaign (3)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (1)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (1)
Featured (160)
Federal Firearms Laws (15)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (252)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (14)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (38)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (7)
Georgia (19)
GITMO (2)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (207)
Guns (575)
Guns In National Parks (2)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
HAMAS (7)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (7)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (11)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (1)
Horses (1)
Humor (13)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (34)
India (10)
Infantry (3)
Information Warfare (2)
Infrastructure (2)
Intelligence (22)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (169)
Iraq (378)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (33)
Islamists (37)
Israel (17)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (2)
Jihadists (71)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (8)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (2)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (2)
Lawfare (6)
Leadership (5)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (1)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (11)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (7)
Logistics (47)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (229)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
MEDEVAC (2)
Media (22)
Memorial Day (2)
Mexican Cartels (20)
Mexico (24)
Michael Yon (5)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (3)
Military Equipment (24)
Militia (3)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (10)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (16)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (13)
NATO (15)
Navy (19)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (2)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (1)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (53)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (205)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (6)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (17)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Police (117)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (137)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (77)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (74)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (27)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (140)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (22)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (17)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Survival (10)
SWAT Raids (50)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (1)
Tactical Gear (1)
Taliban (167)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (16)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (86)
Thanksgiving (4)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (10)
TSA Ineptitude (10)
TTPs (1)
U.S. Border Patrol (4)
U.S. Border Security (11)
U.S. Sovereignty (13)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (2)
Uncategorized (38)
Universal Background Check (2)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (2)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (210)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (2)
War Reporting (18)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (5)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (57)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (11)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2014 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.