It was about 2 a.m. on a moonless October night in 1987 when the police chief of a small northern Vermont town spotted a man carrying a black bag and walking down the railroad tracks from Canada toward a waiting van about a mile south of the border.
The man turned out to be linked to a radical Islamic terror group out of Lebanon. And in his bag, later recovered from a ditch, were a ski mask and a propane-canister bomb.
“If it had been two minutes later, they would have been in the van and gone on their way, and I’d have never known the difference,” recalled Richford’s long-retired police chief, Richard Jewett, who won numerous awards for apparently foiling an attack. “I guess luck was on my side.”
Whether it was luck or not, Jewett beat the odds in a way. While President Donald Trump, in arguing for a border wall, has said repeatedly that terrorists could slip across from Mexico, known cases of Islamic terrorists entering the U.S. through its land borders to the north or the south are still rare.
Most people with terroristic intent come into the country by air and are typically in the United States legally. The 19 men who carried out the 9/11 attacks all entered the country legally. The brothers who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people entered the U.S. on tourist visas with their families and were later granted asylum.
On the Canadian border, Ahmed Ressam was caught by border agents in December 1999 after he tried to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington, with bomb components in the trunk of his car. It was later determined Ressam planned to attack the Los Angeles airport during the millennium.
Worries about terrorists crossing from Canada have been reduced by the close cooperation between the two countries, and security has been tightened since 9/11.
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Hundreds more Border Patrol agents are stationed along the border (authorities won’t disclose the total), surveillance has been enhanced with such things as electronic sensors and helicopters, and those trying to cross the border must show a passport or certain other documents, none of which were required before Sept. 11, 2001.
In the Richford incident, Walid Kabbani was seized at the border, and his two accomplices in the van were arrested at a local hotel the morning after. U.S. authorities said the three men, Lebanese-born Canadians from Montreal, were members of an Islamic extremist group responsible for the 1982 assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel.
Federal officials were never able to say for sure what their intended target was. All three were convicted or pleaded guilty to explosives and immigration violations and went to prison, getting out in the 1990s.
Terrorism was the last thing on Jewett’s mind when he became police chief in the border town, which has around 2,300 people and is about 2,000 miles from the Mexican border. He said the current debate about a border wall with Mexico and the recent 35-day government shutdown it provoked has gone too far.
“I do also understand we need some protections on our borders. And I just don’t know what it is,” Jewett said. “It’s hard.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article