Politics

Mark Brnovich Thinks the Taliban Are a Border Threat. Actual Border Sheriffs Disagree.

Mark Brnovich during an August 24 Fox Business interview.
Mark Brnovich during an August 24 Fox Business interview. Screenshot via Youtube
What does the recent news coming out of Afghanistan have to do with the U.S.-Mexico border?

Quite a lot, according to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who claimed in a recent Fox Business interview that the federal government should close the border because the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan.

During the August 24 interview, Fox Business host Elizabeth MacDonald asked Brnovich, who's currently seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2022, if he thought the Biden administration should "shut the border" after reports emerged that the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, including Taliban and al Qaeda operatives.

"Absolutely," Brnovich responded.

He proceeded to go on a tangent about the fact that the Taliban acquired a trove of high-end U.S. military equipment and appeared to imply that the Taliban or other groups would use it to attack the southern border.

"We need to secure our southern border because it is a matter of national security. The American taxpayers' hearts have to be breaking because there was a time when the Taliban was armed with sticks rocks, and Soviet Ak-47s," Brnovich said. "And as a result of President Biden’s failed policies, they now have helicopters, humvees and NVGs [night vision goggles]. This is a problem that is going to come back to haunt the United States of America on many levels, and we absolutely have to secure the border. It is our first line of defense and we’re failing."

Katie Conner, a spokesperson for Brnovich, did not respond to Phoenix New Times' requests for comment.

Brnovich went on to claim that the Biden administration's current immigration policies, which consist of a confusing mix of maintaining and reversing the Trump administration's hard-line policies as migrant crossings at the border surge, amount to providing a "safe haven for terrorists that may be coming into this country."

However, some law enforcement officials operating in Arizona border counties don't share Brnovich's concerns.

"We’re not seeing any terrorist threats," said Democratic Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos. "We do have a federal support unit that works with the feds — my office works with the FBI, works with the DEA, works with CBP, homeland security. I'm sure if there was a significant threat along the U.S.-Mexican border they could handle it and would also engage us in it and let us know what that threat is. I've heard of none of that."

"More politicizing the border, that’s all it is," Nanos added. "It's a way to play politics. It's a shame."

In another Fox Business interview on August 27, Brnovich continued to hammer on this theme, pointing to a letter he sent to President Biden on August 20 in which he cited the prisoners released by the Taliban and claimed that "Americans are now facing an unprecedented terrorism threat in their own backyards."

In taking up the secure-our-borders battle cry, Brnovich joins a long list of other Republican politicians alleging that a significant number of individuals on the FBI's terrorist watchlist have been apprehended while trying to cross the southern border in recent months.

However, as pointed out by the Washington Post, the claims "appear to be overblown." While a handful of individuals on the watch list were reportedly apprehended at the southern border over this past year, a 2019 U.S. State Department report on terrorism asserted that there is "no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States."

A similar report from 2018 states that while the southern border is "vulnerable to potential terrorist transit," terrorist organizations like ISIS are "more likely to seek other means of trying to enter the United States."

Stephen Coulthart, an associate professor at the University at Albany in New York who specializes in intelligence, homeland security, and national security, told Phoenix New Times that the notion that terrorist groups like ISIS will try to infiltrate the U.S. at the southern border is far-fetched.

"It’s a remote possibility and very unlikely," he said. "In the digital era, ISIS is able to radicalize people who are already in this country." Brnovich's comments, Coulthart said, appeared to be "political posturing" rather than a "serious assessment of the facts."

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol referred Phoenix New Times' questions about Brnovich's statements to the Department of Homeland Security, which has not responded to a request for comment.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway, a Democrat, described Brnovich's statements as "ridiculous."

"You always have certain people on certain ends of the political spectrum that run around with their hair on fire saying that the sky is falling," he said. "People have said those types of things for years."

Hathaway added that border communities, such as Nogales, Arizona, rely on movement across the border to support regional economies. (Santa Cruz is one of four border counties in Arizona, along with Pima, Yuma, and Cochise.) Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said that shoppers crossed the border on a daily basis to buy goods in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, while a significant amount of Mexican produce crosses the border at Nogales. Closing the border, as Brnovich called for, would be harmful.

"It’s a very symbiotic relationship," Hathaway said. Closing the border would "shut all that down."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety