The Watchmen in the Wilderness

Border Patrol tackles evolving national security challenges in post-9/11 era

By Dillon Tabish
Border Patrol agent Chris Woywod, pictured Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Late last summer, a British citizen was intent on entering the United States unnoticed.

He had been temporarily living in the U.S. before his visa expired and forced him out. Wanting to return, he researched ways to sneak back in. He identified an area along the U.S.-Canadian border that seemed vulnerable: the mountainous section through Glacier National Park.

He started in Waterton Lakes National Park, a scenic refuge in the southwest corner of Alberta that partners with Glacier Park to form the world’s first International Peace Park.

The 195-square-mile Canadian park meets with the 1,583-square-mile Glacier Park to create a vast wilderness larger than Rhode Island and defined by soaring mountains and dense forest.

Waterton Lakes regularly attracts over 400,000 visitors annually. A popular activity for those hoping to see Glacier is riding one of the daily ferries in summer that travel across the transboundary Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt, an official Port of Entry with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Station about 1 mile south of the border. Only U.S. and Canadian visitors with proper identification are allowed to cross at Goat Haunt.

Instead of riding one of the ferries into the U.S., the man from England avoided customs agents by hiking roughly 4 miles along the trail system near the lake.

Arriving at the border his scheme likely seemed well informed. It’s a rather unassuming landmark. Along the entire perimeter, trees and brush are cut to ground level, creating a single-lane forest divide that is solely marked every few hundred yards by 5-foot-tall steel monuments identifying the two countries’ sides.

He simply walked into the U.S.

Using radar technology and other means that the federal government will not specifically disclose, the U.S. Border Patrol identified the illegal activity and agents were deployed from the local stations.

Within a day, a team of Whitefish agents on horseback caught the man hiking through the rugged mountains of Glacier Park.

The slash line, indicating the border between U.S. and Canada, pictured Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
The slash line, indicating the border between U.S. and Canada. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Last summer’s apprehension, like almost all others, went down rather quietly, away from public or political attention.

Compared to the heavily guarded and scrutinized southern border, the border between the U.S. and Canada exists in relative obscurity.

Besides sharing the world’s longest international boundary, Canada and the U.S. have long shared the largest trade relationship. Historically, the actual border between the two has been largely overlooked in the realm of discourse beyond commerce.

But that is changing.

Canadian authorities are increasingly concerned about the spread of religious extremism tied to the Islamic State and ISIS, a radical Islamist militant group that formed in recent years and has violently seized territory in eastern Syria and Iraq.

As of last year, at least 130 Canadians were involved in extremist activities abroad, including in Syria, according to the Canadian government. Another 80 individuals who engaged in terrorist activities returned to Canada in 2014. Canadian members of ISIS have appeared in Internet videos vowing to return to their home country to murder citizens, according to a speech delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in early August.

The nation’s fear spiked after the 2014 shooting at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, when a 32-year-old Montreal man killed a Canadian soldier and shot three others. The event took place only two days after another man used his car to run over two Canadian soldiers in Quebec, killing one. The Canadian government characterized both incidents as terrorist acts inspired by ISIS.

In 2013, two suspects, a Tunisian citizen and a Palestinian citizen, were arrested in Toronto for plotting to derail a passenger train. According to FBI agents, one of the men, Chiheb Esseghaier, originally sought to transport explosives into Montana and attempt to detonate the supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park. After being radicalized by supporters of Al Qaeda, the Montreal PhD student allegedly studied the possibility of triggering a catastrophic natural disaster by igniting the reservoir of magma underneath the park. The volcano, which straddles Montana and Wyoming, last erupted 640,000 years ago. Esseghaier eventually determined the plan was not feasible and turned his attention to derailing a passenger train traveling between New York City and Toronto, according to the FBI.

He and the other suspect were both found guilty and are awaiting sentencing in Toronto.

In the wake of these developments, the Canadian government has proposed new counter-terrorism measures in the name of homeland security. The Harper administration is seeking new travel restrictions aimed at stopping the flow of radicalized foreign fighters. The government proposed prohibiting Canadians from traveling to designated areas in foreign countries where terrorist groups such as ISIS are engaged in hostile activities and recruiting and training followers. The government has also proposed “making it illegal to promote terrorism; and giving authorities additional powers to disrupt planned attacks on Canadian soil.”

“Foreign fighters pose a direct threat to Canada, both through their terrorist actions overseas and especially if they seek to travel to Canada to carry out attacks here at home,” Harper stated last month. “The creation of a category of banned foreign travel zones will provide Canadian law enforcement with further tools to better protect Canadians from individuals who have travelled to these dangerous areas and who intend to return to Canada to commit terrorist acts.”

Heightened attention has specifically centered on Calgary, Alberta, where five young men connected to a local mosque joined ISIS overseas.

Salman Ashrafi, a former student leader at the University of Lethbridge who was married and worked in Calgary’s energy sector, drove a car filled with explosives into an Iraqi army base north of Baghdad last November, killing 46 people with another suicide bomber.

In January 2014, Damian Clairmont, a 22-year-old Calgary man, joined ISIS and became the first Canadian casualty in the terrorist group’s attempt at establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

These incidents have led Canadian media to label Calgary a hotbed of extremism.

Religious leaders have decried the actions of radicalized extremists fighting in the name of Islam. In April, a group of Muslim imams in Calgary and other cities in Canada issued a religious edict against ISIS jihadists, condemning the group for violating Islamic tenets “in the most horrific and inhumane way,” according to a quote published in several Calgary news outlets. The imams urged Muslim youth to avoid the terrorist group’s propaganda that is widely prevalent on the Internet and is considered the primary tool of radicalization.

Fear and paranoia tied to the small group of identified extremists is overshadowing a larger population of an estimated 120,000 Muslims living in Calgary, the city that elected the first Muslim mayor in a major North American city. The population of Muslims in all of Canada is one of the fastest growing in the world, according to the Pew Research Center.

Border Patrol agent Chris Woywod points to the slash line along the U.S. and Canadian border on Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Border Patrol agent Chris Woywod points to the slash line along the U.S. and Canadian border on Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Barely four hours south of Calgary, U.S. Border Patrol agents in Montana are paying attention.

“It’s been on the radar for awhile but it seems to be increasing,” Richard Stratton, patrol agent in charge of the Whitefish Border Patrol station, said of the threat of religious extremists entering Montana and the U.S. through Canada.

“It’s a concern. It’s definitely on my list of things I’m worried about. I don’t want the public to be paranoid, but it’s a different world now.”

Indeed, the post-9/11 world is unparalleled.

Fourteen years ago, the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 illustrated the tragic transition of a terrorist threat becoming reality. The 9/11 attacks triggered retaliation overseas and sparked government policy changes, similar to those taking place in Canada.

The attacks also exposed vulnerability along the northern border.

Just before 9/11, there were 2,300 border patrol agents guarding the U.S.-Canada border, and many sections were left wholly unfortified, according to government reports. The customs station at Goat Haunt was closed immediately afterward and trans-border travel was prohibited at the site after being identified as a possible gap for illegal entries. It was later reopened in 2003.

On the Senate floor in July 2003, then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., pronounced the importance of guarding the northern border and improving technology and other means of defending the remote sections. He proposed legislation for additional funding for border patrol resources, including increased infrastructure and staffing.

“(Glacier National Park) has sharp mountains and rugged peaks: It is wilderness but also an area that requires increased resources to monitor because it is so difficult to monitor that part of the border,” Baucus said.

Montana shares the longest section of border with Canada in the continental U.S., 545 miles. Forty miles of that border cut through the rugged, mountainous terrain of Glacier Park, which is guarded by border agents stationed in Whitefish and Havre.

“If we do not increase the personnel needs for border security, we will certainly continue to see more individuals who will enter our country through the remote areas of the border, particularly in my state of Montana,” Baucus said. “We don’t like it. We are very concerned.”

The Government Accountability Office reviewed the nation’s northern border in 2010 and determined the threat of potential terrorists entering the country from Canada was greater than through Mexico. Of the nearly 4,000 miles along the contiguous U.S-Canadian border, only 32 miles achieved “an acceptable level of security,” the report stated.

In the last decade, the U.S. government has devoted more funding to developing border security resources, installing technology infrastructure and other means of defense, including rolling out a growing number of unmanned aircraft to patrol from high in the sky, according to government records. A Homeland Security Air Wing was established in Great Falls and is one of five northern tier border security networks with air and marine law enforcement and surveillance capabilities.

Not every effort to expand the Border Patrol’s abilities has been met with praise.

Critics emerged in force after H.R.1505, called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, surfaced in Congress in 2011. The bill, co-sponsored by then-Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and 58 other Republican lawmakers, proposed to expand Border Patrol access to national parks and wilderness areas despite major federal environmental protections. The bill would have allowed Homeland Security agents to drive vehicles and build roads and fences on any federal lands within 100 miles of the Canadian or Mexican borders, among other activities.

Supporters of the bill claimed it would help Homeland Security secure the nation’s vulnerable sections of border. Opponents claimed it was an overreach of governmental authority and a threat to environmental safeguards. The bill died in Congress in 2012.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a senior member of the Homeland Security Committee, visited the ports of Piegan and Sweetgrass with Alejandro Majorkas, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They also hosted a roundtable meeting with local law enforcement and border agents in Havre, gathering feedback.

One of the top concerns raised was human trafficking across the border. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Montana has identified 112 victims of human trafficking since 2007. Enhanced collaboration among agencies was also brought up as a priority.

“Everyone is always focused on the southern border, but what they might not know is that there are serious national security and law enforcement issues that need to be addressed along the northern border as well,” Tester said.

GOP presidential candidates on the campaign trail have recently cued into the same concerns, with candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker saying more national security measures need to be taken along the north border.

The anxiety is indeed legitimate and the challenges are sizeable, according to the nation’s former acting undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We are in a huge period of change as it relates to the threat of terrorism. The threat has really evolved compared to 10 years ago,” John Cohen, who served for nearly six years in the DHS before stepping down last June, said in an interview with the Beacon.

Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University, said the challenges of defending the northern border are complex and the importance of keeping trade and commerce from being stifled is imperative.

“If you make border crossings too onerous for legitimate crossing, it would be the death knell to our auto industry and other industries that rely on trade with Canada,” he said.

As Montana’s No. 1 customer, Canadian businesses and consumers paid $586 million for exports from the state, such as energy, equipment and agriculture products, in 2013. The overall bilateral trade relationship was worth $5.8 billion that year. More than 913,000 Canadians visit the state annually, collectively spending $275 million on average, according to government data.

Cohen said the U.S. in the last decade has significantly improved resources for tracking and analyzing possible threats tied to terrorist groups, and has also done a better job of collaborating with other agencies in the U.S., Canada and abroad.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal was for $41.2 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Homeland Security. This included supporting 21,370 border patrol agents and 23,871 Customs and Border Protection officers, who serve at ports of entry. It also included $373 million to maintain border security infrastructure and technology.

“I think (border protection is) as good as it’s been,” Cohen said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t get better and that it’s not going to continue to be challenging.”

Social media and the Internet have made it harder than ever to track possible “lone wolf” terrorists who do not develop identifiable ties to overseas groups like ISIS, he said.

“The problem and the challenge we now face is we have individuals who are seeing things on social media, things on the Internet and are becoming inspired by the ideologies of these terrorist organizations and they’re operating independently of those organizations,” Cohen said.

“That is a bigger concern along the northern border than along the southern border.”

Richard K. Stratton, Patrol Agent in Charge, looks out over the North Fork Flathead River at the Canadian Border on Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Richard K. Stratton, Patrol Agent in Charge, looks out over the North Fork Flathead River at the Canadian Border on Aug. 25, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Mounted watchmen first began patrolling the nation’s boundaries in the early 1900s, primarily along the southern border for the U.S. Immigration Service. The Border Patrol was formally established in 1924 following the passage of Prohibition and the nation’s heightened attention on immigration. As liquor smuggling and human trafficking became significant concerns along the northern border, a majority of the original Border Patrol personnel were shipped north.

In 1924, as alcohol smuggling became common in Northwest Montana, a Border Patrol outpost opened in Rexford, and then Eureka. The station relocated to Whitefish in 1930 and moved a few more times before permanently laying roots back in Whitefish.

In Northwest Montana, agents have the unique task of patrolling a large swath of dense forest and open land largely void of roads, cellular service and other common infrastructure. The responsibilities encompass land, air and water, such as Lake Koocanusa, which spans both countries. In these efforts, the Border Patrol works closely with local law enforcement and National Park Service officials, often aiding in search and rescue missions while depending on local officers for aid on occasion.

Technology has indeed evolved in recent decades and helped agencies such as the Border Patrol track suspects and gather intelligence. But this region’s duties can be as rugged as they were in the early days.

“As the guy in charge of the station, I’m trying to put together a defense strategy to deal with this terrain. That’s a challenge,” Stratton, the chief of the Whitefish station, said.

“When I first came here, to see these guys dealing with this terrain, I was very impressed. It blew my mind. That takes a high degree of commitment and focus. It’s that needle-in-the-haystack approach.”

The terrain can be both an advantage and an obstacle. The lack of infrastructure, such as roads or large communities near both sides of the border, can deter most people from roughing it through the woods. But it can also provide cover for those few who are intent on crossing in secrecy.

“I’ve seen people who are very determined to come into the country. I have seen them trek 20 miles over mountain ridges in 110 degrees,” Brian Debrita, a Border Patrol agent stationed in Whitefish who transferred here from a New Mexico station a year ago, said. “It’ll blow your mind what extent they’ll take to come across.”

From Sept. 30, 2013 to Oct. 1, 2014, there were 269 individuals detained at the border or for illegally crossing the border in the Spokane sector, which spans 308 miles from the Cascade Mountain Range to the Continental Divide in Glacier Park. The Havre sector, which covers the eastern portion of Glacier Park across eastern Montana, a total of 456 miles, had 91 apprehensions in that same period.

The terrain of Glacier Park requires agents to be extremely physically fit and self-sufficient in the wild; local agents can spend several days on foot in the wilderness, searching for clues of possible illegal entry or talking with backpackers. While agents in other regions might spend most of their time dealing with high volumes of activity, much of the local agents’ job is similar to detective work, analyzing intelligence and reading the landscape for possible signs.

Recently Debrita and Chris Woywod, another border agent based in Whitefish, hiked 30 miles over two days through the mountains and trails of the park, checking sections and talking with hikers.

“They’re a very good source of information. A lot of these people have spent years hiking these trails,” Debrita said. “People know enough about the vulnerabilities the country has and they’re usually happy to help out.”

Woywod said he averages at least 100 miles of hiking each summer.

“I love being outdoors and it just comes natural to me. I’m comfortable with it,” he said.

Both Woywod and Debrita served in the Marine Corps before the Border Patrol, and both have long been inspired to serve their country.

Now they are inspired to defend their country.

“It’s that call of duty. It’s that feeling of being an American and being proud and having that mission of doing what you can to keep the public safe,” Woywod said.

Woywod said the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago motivated him to join the Border Patrol. It still motivates him today.

“It’s been a few years now (since 9/11) but I still have the same feeling,” he said. “If somebody bad wants to do something bad to this country, we’re like the sheep dog. We protect the flock.”