AUSTIN, Texas — On February 16, members of the Republican Congress asked permission from House Democrats to hold a hearing on a decision to release a suspected Islamist terrorist who swam the Rio Grande to Texas in November.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., senior member of the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, authored the motion to subcommittee chair Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, stating in part that “there is no known case in which a foreigner who was on a terror watch list was simply released of his own accord. The facts in this case strongly suggest that the Biden administration failed to follow proper protocols regarding suspected terrorists.”
Eight GOP deputies from the subcommittee signed the letter. But it seems House Democrats aren’t that interested. A staffer in the congressman’s office said they didn’t hear anything: “They are ignoring us.” Two of my own email inquiries to Lee’s spokesman went unanswered.
The silence should come as no surprise in this era of fierce partisanship. The GOP co-signers likely understood this when they sent the letter. But they had to send it anyway because the case underlying this partisan kerfuffle is too serious for stupid swordsmanship. This one deserves a real hearing, perhaps an investigation by the Inspector General, and an investigation by the media, as this is an objectively impartial Homeland Security matter.
The case of Lebanon-born Venezuelan Issam Bazzi, who was released inside the US, is just the latest such incident to raise serious questions. The most important of these is whether the historic mass migration crisis on the US southern border has seriously compromised national security.
How this terror suspect was released
Bazzi was among a number of Venezuelans who began crossing the Rio Grande in increasing numbers last November after it was announced the United States would be issuing free passes into the interior. About 25,000 turned themselves in at the border in December, and another 22,000 in January. According to leaked Department of Homeland Security documents in my possession, Bazzi flew to Monterrey, Mexico with his wife and daughter in early November and then swam the river to Brownsville, Texas.
His name and fingerprints marked him as on the FBI’s terrorism watch list, making a mistaken identity unlikely. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Encyclopedia refers to Bazzi as a “Category 5 Team Member” in the documents, which may mean he is not considered armed and dangerous. However, one of the government documents noted that Bazzi’s file “contains substantial high-level derogatory information.”
As I explain in my book America’s Covert Border War, threat level is irrelevant to what should happen to a member of a cross-border terrorist group on the FBI’s watch list. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services website states that “in general, any person who is a member of a ‘terrorist organization’ is ‘disqualified and ineligible for most immigration services.'”
FBI agents, operating in accordance with established post-9/11 protocols, interrogate watch-listed migrants and others from countries of national security interest who cross the southern border and end up in immigration and customs enforcement detention centers. That happened when Bazzi was flagged as a suspected terrorist after his crossing in Brownsville, Texas. But then the process got out of hand.
After questioning Bazzi, the FBI cited “highly derogatory information” to rule that he posed a flight risk and recommended that ICE take the 50-year-old Venezuelan into custody. Typically, migrants suspected of terrorism are returned to their home countries even if they have no “highly derogatory” intelligence on their files and pose no risk of absconding, the FBI said of Bazzi.
Admittedly, the United States could not have deported Bazzi to Venezuela because of America’s diplomatic alienation from the Nicolas Madura regime. But DHS would have known the Biden administration was working on a deal with Colombia to deport Venezuelan border jumpers there. As of January 31, the United States began deporting Venezuelans to Colombia under this agreement.
But Bazzi was not in custody for that. Instead, something happened so far off the grid as to defy belief. ICE headquarters in Washington DC ordered Bazzi’s release to the United States to pursue an asylum claim in Michigan, where he had family, according to DHS documents.
This order went against the recommendation of the FBI. The reason? Bazzi is said to have been at increased risk from Covid-19 in the detention center due to a “chronic condition of care – obesity”, the leaked DHS documents said.
Someone at Federal Homeland Security leaked confidential internal documents about it to Pulitizer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff, who ran a story in a Detroit-area online publication that no other reporter even shared tried to follow. LeDuff told me he was in contact with Bazzi and relatives who, in brief phone calls, denied he was a terrorist and said they had no idea why he was on a terrorism watch list.
Even deeper reasons for concern
According to the documents, US authorities had refused Bazzi a tourist visa in 2019 to visit relatives in the greater Detroit area. His status on the FBI’s terror list has been cited to discredit him. These systems worked to keep him off the land.
All thinking Americans on both sides of the political aisle should be united in asking why Bazzi’s illegal crossing of the southern border and merely seeking asylum brought him to the country. The obvious first indicator, for lack of further answers, is that a border defense has failed in a vital national security function, most likely due to a mass migration crisis of historic proportions. An overload of 2 million arrests in 2021, the most since counting began in 1960, has wrecked the management systems down there.
Instead of the result for Bazzi’s tourist visa application, Bazzi’s illegal border crossing sees him living in liberty on his own pending an asylum process that will grant him years of total freedom, in part because of the border, due to a greatly expanded immigration court backlog.
Mexico has also released a Yemeni terror suspect
One reason to suspect that the mass migration crisis has exacerbated a once well-handled national security threat is that the Bazzi case is now the second I’ve found where counter-terrorism border protocols apparently cracked under the weight. Mexico, too, is teetering on its side in the face of mass migration.
According to other government documents leaked to me, in April 2021, Mexican immigration caught a Yemeni man just as he was about to enter Del Rio, Texas. At this early stage of the mass migration crisis, as I also report in America’s Covert Border War, cooperative protocols with the Americans seemed to be working. Alerted, the Americans ran the name and fingerprints through databases and got a hit on the FBI watch list; Yemeni national Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed was a “Category 5” member of a terrorist organization.
The Mexicans tried to deport Ahmed to Yemen. It did not work. A US law enforcement intelligence source told me that Mexican intelligence officers left him early at a European transit airport and returned to Mexico. Ahmed canceled his connecting flight and also returned to Mexico. The Mexicans caught him again in July 2021 as they prepared to invade Del Rio.
At this point, Mexico was struggling to cope with historical numbers of migrants. They kept him for five months. But instead of deporting him this time, Mexico released Ahmed, an act the Americans would never have consented to before.
Ahmed was supposed to report to immigration once a week, but of course he disappeared. The release so alarmed Americans that they sent out a “Be On the Lookout” bulletin to law enforcement on the Texas side to arrest him. It’s unclear if anyone ever did.
Serious need for action, Stat
In addition to the need for all Americans to demand Ahmed’s capture or proof of his arrest, there is another important takeaway from this incident. In fact, like Bazzi’s abuse, this was a sharp departure from normal protocol.
President Biden barely mentioned the southern border in his March 1 State of the Union address. Biggs needled him on Twitter at one point during the border portion of the speech, expressing his frustration: “They released a suspected terrorist from ICE custody so he wouldn’t catch COVID,” Biggs tweeted.
The frustration amid the silence on these cases is understandable. Democrats need to hold their noses and unite with Biggs and his GOP cohort to push for answers.
Among the many questions they must ask is this: how many other cross-border migrants on the FBI’s terror watch list have violated US defenses that appear to have stalled under the border crisis?
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington DC-based research institute, and a writer for the Middle East Forum. For nearly a decade, Bensman directed counterterrorism-related intelligence activities for the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Follow him on Twitter @BensmanTodd. Bensman has worked for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, reporting on the FBI, federal law enforcement agencies, and serving on investigative teams. He has reported extensively on post-9/11 national security and border issues and has worked in more than 25 countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Bensman holds a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and a BS in journalism from Northern Arizona University.