AUSTIN, Texas –On Feb. 16, Republican Congress members asked House Democrats for permission to hold a hearing about a decision to release a suspected Islamist terrorist who in November swam the Rio Grande into Texas.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, penned the request to subcommittee Chair Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, in part on grounds that “There is no known case in which a foreign national who pinged on a terror watch list was simply released on his own recognizance. The facts in the case strongly suggest that the Biden Administration failed to follow appropriate protocols with respect to suspected terrorists.”
Eight GOP lawmakers on the subcommittee signed the letter. But it appears House Democrats are not as interested. An aide in the congressman’s office said they’ve heard nothing: “They’re ignoring us.” Two of my own emailed requests to Lee’s spokesperson went unanswered.
The silent treatment should come as no surprise in this era of sharp partisanship. The GOP co-signatories probably understood this when they sent the letter. But they had to send it anyway because the case at the root of this partisan kerfuffle is too serious for stupid swordsmanship. This one deserves a real hearing, perhaps an inspector general investigation, and media inquiry as the objectively non-partisan homeland security matter this is.
The case of Lebanon-born Venezuelan Issam Bazzi’s release into the American interior is just the latest such incident that raises serious questions. Chief among them is whether the historic mass-migration crisis at the U.S. southern border has seriously degraded national security.
How This Terrorist Suspect Was Set Free
Bazzi was among a swell of Venezuelans who began crossing the Rio Grande in escalating numbers last November on word that the United States was handing out free passes into the interior. Some 25,000 turned themselves in at the border in December and another 22,000 did in January. According to leaked Department of Homeland Security documents in my possession, Bazzi flew with his wife and daughter to Monterrey, Mexico, in early November, then swam the river into Brownsville, Texas.
His name and fingerprints flagged him as on the FBI’s terrorism watch list, so a mistaken identity is unlikely. In the lexicon of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Bazzi is described in the documents as a “Category 5 group member,” which can mean not considered armed and dangerous. But one of the government documents noted Bazzi’s file “contains substantive high side derogatory information.”
As I explain in my book, “America’s Covert Border War,” danger level is irrelevant for what is supposed to happen with any border-crossing terrorist group member on the FBI’s watch list. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website notes that “generally, any individual who is a member of a ‘terrorist organization’ … is ‘inadmissible and is ineligible for most immigration benefits.”
FBI agents operating in line 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 in Brownsville, Texas, after his crossing. But then the process went off the rails.
After interviewing Bazzi, the FBI cited “highly derogatory information” in deciding he was a flight risk and recommended ICE keep the 50-year-old Venezuelan in custody. Typically, migrants suspected of terrorism are deported to their home countries, even if they have no “highly derogatory” intelligence information on their records and don’t pose a flight risk, as the FBI said of Bazzi.
Granted, the United States could not have deported Bazzi to Venezuela because of American diplomatic estrangement with the Nicolas Madura regime. But DHS would have known that the Biden administration was working on an agreement with Colombia to air-deport Venezuelan border-jumpers there. Starting January 31, the United States began deporting Venezuelans to Colombia under that agreement.
But Bazzi was not in custody for that to happen. Something so far off the grid as to defy belief happened instead. ICE headquarters in Washington D.C. ordered Bazzi released into the United States on his own recognizance to pursue an asylum claim in Michigan, where he had family, according to the DHS documents.
This order came in defiance of the FBI’s recommendation. The reason? Bazzi was claimed to be at heightened risk from Covid-19 in the detention center due to a “Chronic Care Condition – Overweight,” the leaked DHS documents said.
Someone in federal homeland security leaked sensitive internal documents about this 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 has even tried to follow. LeDuff told me he made contact with Bazzi and relatives who, in brief telephone communications, denied he was a terrorist and said they had no idea why he was on a terrorism watch list.
Even Deeper Causes for Concern
According to the documents, U.S. authorities had denied Bazzi a tourist visa in 2019 to visit relatives in the Detroit area. His FBI terrorism watch list status was cited for declining him. Those systems worked in keeping him out of the country.
All thinking Americans on either side of the political aisle should find unity in asking why Bazzi’s illegal crossing of the southern border and merely asking for asylum got him inside the country. The obvious initial indicator, short of more answers, is that a border defense failed in an important national security function, most probably because a mass migration crisis of historic proportions. An overloading 2 million apprehensions during 2021, the most since the nation began counting in 1960, has broken management systems down there.
Instead of the outcome for Bazzi’s tourist visa application, Bazzi’s illegal border crossing has him living free on his own recognizance pending the outcome of an asylum case that, also because of the border, will allow him total freedom for years because of a vastly expanded immigration court backlog.
Mexico Also Released a Yemeni Terror Suspect
One reason to suspect the mass migration crisis has heightened a once fairly managed national security threat is that the Bazzi case is now the second one I have found where border counterterrorism protocols apparently broke under the weight. Mexico is staggering under the mass migration on its side too.
According to other government documents leaked to me, Mexican immigration in April 2021 caught a Yemeni just as he was about to cross into Del Rio, Texas. At that early stage of the mass migration crisis, collaborative protocols with the Americans, as I also report in “America’s Covert Border War,” seemed to be working. Notified, the Americans would have run the name and fingerprints through databases and gotten the FBI watch list hit; Yemeni national Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed was a “Category 5” member of a terrorist organization.
The Mexicans tried to deport Ahmed to Yemen. It didn’t work out. An American law enforcement intelligence source told me the Mexican intelligence officers prematurely left him at a European transit airport and returned to Mexico. Ahmed abandoned his connecting flight and returned to Mexico, too. The Mexicans caught him again in July 2021, preparing to cross into Del Rio.
By then, Mexico was struggling to manage historic numbers of migrants. They kept him for five months. But instead of deporting him this time, Mexico let Ahmed go free, an act the Americans would never have previously agreed to.
Ahmed was supposed to check in weekly with immigration once a week but, of course, disappeared. The release so alarmed the Americans that they sent out a “Be On The Lookout” bulletin to law enforcement on the Texas side to capture him. It’s unclear if anyone ever did.
Serious Action Needed, Stat
Next to the need for all Americans to demand Ahmed’s capture or evidence of it, there’s another important takeaway from this incident. It is that, like the mishandling of Bazzi, this one also presented a sharp departure from normal protocols.
President Biden barely mentioned the southern border in his March 1 State of the Union speech. Biggs needled him on Twitter at one point during the border part of the speech, expressing frustration: “You 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 must hold their noses and unify with Biggs and his GOP cohort in pressing for answers.
Among the many questions they will need to ask is this: How many other border-crossing migrants on the FBI’s terror watch list have breached U.S. defensive measures apparently faltering under the border crisis?