Policymakers and interdiction authorities should allocate resources to the hierarchy of genuine border threats and risks as if it were an exercise in triage.

On 22 March, a spate of bombings in Texas ended when Mark Anthony Conditt, the man responsible for the attacks, killed himself with one of his devices. US authorities rightfully treated the week-long series of explosions as a major threat. Over 350 FBI special agents, in addition to hundreds of other officers, were deployed to Austin in response, amounting to what Texas Governor Greg Abbott called ‘an army of law enforcement’.

President Trump’s press secretary said the events had ‘no apparent connection to terrorism’, a perplexing case of double standards in the White House, unhelpfully suggesting the term should be reserved for incidents involving religious motives or coloured skin. If anything, the Austin bombings appear to have been a textbook case of domestic terrorism, much like the incident involving a hostage-taking gunman in Trèbes, whom French authorities confronted the following week.

For international security and supply-chain officials, the Austin explosions represented a nightmare scenario come to life. Since Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab smuggled a bomb hidden in his underwear onto a flight (it failed to detonate), customs agencies have partnered with shipping companies to screen air cargo as far in advance as possible to prevent a ‘bomb in a box’ scenario.

Over the past decade, the equipment, technology and data exchanges established through the US Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) programme and the European Union air cargo security regulations (often called the ‘EU ACC3 programme’) have been developed to stop explosive devices from entering the supply chain.  Ironically, however, in the case of the Austin bombings, it was a stroke of good luck for authorities that one of the bombs exploded at a FedEx facility because investigators were able to immediately use the forensic explosive data obtained there to locate and target the serial bomber, ending a week of terror in less than a day.

Triaging security threats

These events raise an important question: for security practitioners, what should the priorities be when it comes to expending efforts and resources to interdict threats, actual or perceived, to national interests?

Politicians and policymakers would argue they need to stop everything unlawful – whether it’s a nuclear weapon, or narcotics, illicit cigarettes, counterfeit clothing, poached ivory or irregular migrants – from ever reaching an international border.

Practically speaking, however, the agencies involved are constrained by resources available, and enforcement efforts must be assigned by order of priority – much like with the medical process of triage. The technology and equipment that are used to detect nuclear and radiological weapons or explosives cannot also detect knock-off Rolex watches and Gucci handbags.

In terms of programme and equipment investments, customs authorities in both the US and the EU have largely prioritized detecting and preventing explosive, nuclear and radiological materials from entering supply chains. This is sound policy: bombs hidden in boxes are everyone’s problem. Preventing any forms of nuclear, radiological or conventional explosives from being detonated should be an endeavour that all politicians and policymakers support. Even though the Austin bomber briefly managed to overcome the system, stopping explosives at the point of origin remains the correct, practical priority for customs policies.

Highlighting the duality inherent in the security and revenue-generation functions of most border-control initiatives, which we highlighted in the policy brief For Protection or Profit, the next priority typically involves identifying illicit goods.

These can be anything from illegal narcotics to poached wildlife, or counterfeit textiles to contraband cigarettes. Identifying and seizing illicit goods are difficult tasks, and the detection processes involved vary. From a physical security perspective, detection efforts at ports of entry may include use of trained canines and searches of suspicious vehicles.

In terms of economic security, finding and seizing counterfeit goods are functions that multinational businesses want customs authorities to prioritize. Seizing non-declared goods may not matter for public safety, but it is nevertheless high on the priority list for many customs regimes, such as Mexico’s, which, for example, targets smuggled clothing.

Next in the hierarchy of priorities is the screening of people. Border-control officials, through intelligence networks, painstakingly monitor people who they believe are at risk of becoming radicalized and harming others. Interdicting people who fit this profile and pose a threat usually occurs through terror watch lists, which are used to screen people attempting to travel. In his book Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman explains that an expressed enthusiasm for violence does not happen overnight, but slowly emerges among groups of participants sympathetic to a cause and at risk of radicalization. Using intelligence to identify the networks that pose the greatest security threats and screening them as far from an international border as possible (not to mention involving them in de-radicalization programmes where possible) are far more effective ways of expending limited security resources than the draconian approach of stopping all migrants or refugees from entering a country.

Then, finally, how should authorities deal with irregular migrants? Although migration is often conflated (inaccurately) with trafficking, many migration scholars, including Khalid Koser of the Brookings Institution, argue that the overwhelming percentage of migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, pose no immediate security threat to receiving countries, and most are not victims of human trafficking.

Although right-wing politicians use militarized rhetoric about migration, the system works more effectively, not to mention humanely, when migrants are treated as the human beings they are rather than as the terrorists they are not. Such policies allow the authorities to focus more on the risk of actual threats than the imagined horrors of migration. If policymakers wish to reduce irregular migration, doing so long before migrants reach the borders of asylum states is by far a better strategy. Programmes such as France’s opening of asylum application centres in Niger may have their flaws, but, overall, they represent a more humane and practical effort than shoring up borders with more police.

Policymakers who wish to go beyond political rhetoric and are interested in what actually works in the interest of public security recognize that effective interdiction efforts require partnerships, collaboration and systemic resilience across borders and along supply chains. No technical solutions will provide a one-size-fits-all response.

This means being able to differentiate between a security threat (a bomb in a box) and contraband, which, although illegal, will not pose an immediate safety risk. From a migration perspective, it means acknowledging the significant distinction between terrorism, people smuggling and human trafficking.

Because most migrants fundamentally present no security threat, many forms of people smuggling do not involve transnational organized crime. People fleeing violence and poverty are just that, and policymakers responsible for interdicting criminals should be careful not to design systems that conflate migration with terrorism. Doing so, as the case of the Austin bomber illustrates, reduces their ability to identify the dangers of the latter while practically managing the complexities of the former.