Ramzi Yousef: Poster Boy for Biden’s Border Policy

A congressman's unanswered question about the terrorist asylum-seeker

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 2, 2022

During DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ April 28 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) asked him about convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef. Bishop’s question and a tweet criticizing it sent me looking for details about Yousef. Yousef’s case was worse than Bishop’s apt description and shows why Congress mandated detention of arriving aliens (including illegal migrants). Yousef could be the poster boy for the Biden administration’s border policy.

Bishop’s Questioning. Bishop starts at the 1:40 mark. His questioning largely focused on the danger that at least some of the aliens illegally present in the United States (including illegal migrants) would commit crimes here. Mayorkas asserted that there was little that he could do, because illegal migrants are allowed to seek asylum in the United States.

Bishop then asked Mayorkas whether he couldn’t detain those migrants. Note that not only can DHS detain illegal entrants, but the law mandates that they do so. In fact, DHS has only limited authority to release them.

Mayorkas, somewhat predictably, responded that he only has so much detention space, and therefore must release most illegal migrants (more than 836,000 have been released under the Biden administration through the end of last month). That prompted Bishop to counter that the secretary’s “budget request reduces the amount of bedspace you request to detain people”.

Even Mayorkas had to admit that was true, and that the department is seeking just 25,000 detention beds in its FY 2023 budget request — 9,000 (26.5 percent) fewer that DHS received funding for in FY 2022. Oddly, Mayorkas then asserted (again correctly) that there has not been enough bed space to detain aliens, whom the secretary described as having the “right to vindicate their asylum claims” for years.

The incongruity is patent. Congress has said that DHS must detain illegal migrants, Mayorkas defends his releases of those aliens on the grounds that the current 34,000 detention beds are insufficient to comply with that mandate, and then never explains why he wants to cut bed space. The only logical conclusion is that he doesn’t want to or intend to comply with the detention mandate.

Bishop then asked Mayorkas how he knows that a few of the 2.6 million removable aliens DHS has not detained (including 600,000 “got-aways” who avoided apprehension at the border) “aren’t a source of risk from terrorism”. Mayorkas started to talk about individuals on the “terrorist screening database”, before Bishop cut him off, and asked him directly whether he knew about Ramzi Yousef.

Bishop asked the secretary whether he knew that “Yousef claimed asylum”, “got to be released on an assertion of credible fear”, and “six months later, [] bombed the World Trade Center”. Alluding to just the 600,000 got-aways, the congressman then asked Mayorkas whether he was “waiting for a mushroom cloud”?

Time expired at that point, but though he was given the opportunity to answer Bishop’s question, Mayorkas stated that he was “not going to dignify that last question with a response”.

The Tweeter. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) then stated that if Mayorkas wondered why he was not being given an opportunity to respond, it was because of a GOP plan that had been uncovered “in the newspaper”. But with respect to Bishop’s last question, Mayorkas was specifically given the opportunity to respond — the secretary simply refused to.

In any event, one Twitter user latched onto Bishop’s assessment of Yousef’s history, and tweeted out the following:

It was apparent that Bishop was not using “credible fear” as a term of art (which, as the Twitter user is correct in stating, was not added to the Immigration and Nationality Act until 1996), but as a descriptive term to describe the release of an alien whose detention is mandated simply because that alien made an asylum claim. Bishop is on the Judiciary Committee, so he plainly knows the law.

There is nothing in that tweet about Mayorkas’ refusal to answer (or even respond) to what was likely the most important question asked during that hearing: What is DHS — the “Department of Homeland Security”, established in response to the “deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in U.S. history” — doing to prevent terrorists from exploiting our asylum system to attack the homeland again?

To understand why Bishop’s question was so important, you need to understand who Ramzi Yousef is, what he did, and how his asylum claim set off a chain of events that led to the birth of DHS.

The First World Trade Center Bombing. September 11th was just the second terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. On February 26, 1993, a group of terrorists drove a rented van with a makeshift bomb containing more than 1,000 pounds of urea nitrate, hydrogen gas cylinders, and cyanide into the parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Eyad Ismoil was the driver of the van, but Yousef later claimed that he lit the fuse that set off the explosives.

Six were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in the ensuing blast at 12:17 PM that day, but the terrorists intended the carnage to be much greater. Their idea was to topple the one tower over onto its twin and release the cyanide gas, an act Yousef had hoped would kill 250,000 people. The crater created was about 100 feet wide and several stories high, but the building otherwise withstood the blast.

The conspirators initially escaped, though when Mohammad Salameh, who had rented the van, went to get his $400 deposit back six days later, the FBI quickly arrested him. Shortly thereafter, Salameh’s fellow co-conspirators Nidal Ayyad, Mahmoud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj were also taken into custody.

Yousef, however, fled the United States to Pakistan the day of the bombing, using a Pakistani passport issued under the name “Abdul Basit Karim”. It was not the first time that he had traveled under a different identity.

Ramzi Yousef’s Release into the United States. So, who was Yousef, and what was Bishop talking about?

Yousef, whose real name according to the 9/11 Commission actually is “Abdul Basit” (though he is better known by his alias), was the Kuwaiti-born mastermind of that bombing, and the key figure responsible for the explosive in the rental truck. His parents were Pakistani and Palestinian, and he had studied electrical engineering in the United Kingdom.

He went back to Kuwait but fled in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of the country in 1990, and eventually made his way to Afghanistan, where he studied bomb-making techniques at a terrorist camp in Khalden, finishing just before the February 1993 attack.

Also with Yousef at Khalden was Ajaj, a Palestinian refugee. On September 1, 1992, Yousef and Ajai flew under aliases from Karachi, Pakistan, to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York on Pakistani International Airlines Flight 703.

As the 9/11 Commission staff report on terrorist travel explained, using Yousef and Ajaj as examples, “Once terrorists had entered the United States, their next challenge was to find a way to remain here. Their primary method was immigration fraud.”

In the cases of Yousef and Ajaj, that meant asylum fraud. Once they landed at JFK, the pair went to separate INS inspection kiosks. Yousef presented himself to an inspector named “Martha Morales” and handed her a boarding pass in the name of “Mohammed Azan” and an Iraqi passport.

The passport did not contain an entry visa (which he would have needed for admission), and so Yousef told Morales that “he was fleeing the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein and needed asylum.” Morales took Yousef to secondary inspection, where he spoke to the inspector in “excellent English with a British accent”.

Yousef claimed that he had paid a corrupt Pakistani official for the boarding pass, and that “he had recently been beaten by Iraqi soldiers when he was in Kuwait because they thought he was a member of a Kuwaiti guerrilla organization” — a story that the 9/11 staff described as “bogus”.

When she searched his belongings, Morales found “an identity card from an Islamic organization in Arizona, along with checks from Lloyd’s Bank of London and an address book listing what Morales would later call ‘unusual places [in America] for someone to visit whom had just come from halfway around the world.’”

Morales charged Yousef with attempting to make an illegal entry into the United States. Then and now, inadmissible arriving aliens are supposed to be detained pending a hearing (in Yousef’s case, before an immigration judge to determine whether he was admissible and whether he was eligible for asylum).

The inspector recommended that Yousef be detained, believing that “he might pose a danger to the United States.” That recommendation was overruled because “the INS Detention Center was full.” Sound familiar?

Yousef was released on his own recognizance, and while he claimed he was headed to Houston, Texas, instead he caught a cab from the airport “to the al-Farooq mosque where he met up with Abouhalima”, who subsequently helped him get a driver’s license that he used as identification. At that point, the plot was in motion.

Ajaj was not so lucky. His INS inspector, Robert Malafronte, determined that the Swedish passport he had presented had a photo-substituted identification page. When Ajaj was sent for additional questioning, inspectors found numerous different passports in his luggage, as well as what they termed a “terrorist kit” containing videos and documents on how to make bombs and promoting terrorism.

Despite all of that, the Los Angeles Times reported that Ajaj was released on March 1, 1993, after serving what it termed “six months in prison” for his attempted illegal entry, “only to be rearrested eight days later” for his complicity in the attack when he went to see a probation officer in Brooklyn.

Aftermath. The 9/11 Commission Report explains: “Yousef’s instant notoriety as the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing inspired” his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) “to become involved in planning attacks against the United States.”

In case neither “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” nor “KSM” ring any bells, he would later be the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. That report continues:

In 1994, KSM accompanied Yousef to the Philippines, and the two of them began planning what is now known as the Manila air or “Bojinka” plot — the intended bombing of 12 U.S. commercial jumbo jets over the Pacific during a two-day span. This marked the first time KSM took part in the actual planning of a terrorist operation.

That plot fell apart “after the Philippine authorities discovered Yousef’s bomb-making operation in Manila”, by which point KSM was back at his government job in Qatar. Yousef fled to Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was arrested in February 1995 by Pakistani authorities at a “guesthouse” Osama “bin Laden had set up to quarter his fighters”.

He was brought back to the United States, where he was “tried and convicted on terrorism-related charges”. In January 1998, Yousef was sentenced to life plus 240 years.

Bishop’s Point. There are any number of differences between Yousef and a theoretical would-be terrorist attempting to enter the United States illegally across the Southwest border, but those difference are mostly superficial. Like Yousef, the illegal migrant has no visa to come to the United States. And like Yousef, the odds of such a terrorist being released are exceptionally high, and for the same reason — lack of detention space and will to detain on DHS’s part.

Morales’ detention recommendation appears to have been based on nothing more than a hunch. There is no evidence that Yousef appeared in any “terrorism screening database” of the sort that Mayorkas alluded to.

And, as a former immigration judge who reviewed at least 100 credible fear assessments (and likely many more), Yousef’s claim would have satisfied the “well-founded fear” standard for asylum, and therefore the much lower “credible fear” standard applied to asylum claims at the border. Yousef almost definitely received more scrutiny than the average illegal migrant gets from DHS today.

It is extremely questionable whether most — and possibly any — so-called “asylum seekers” apprehended at the Southwest border even receive a credible fear assessment from an asylum officer before they are released into the United States. There has not been much transparency as to what DHS is doing in these cases of late, but the relatively small number of asylum officers would lack the resources to screen thousands of claimants per day prior to their releases in the United States.

Consequently, they likely don’t even get involved until the migrants have started their new lives in the United States.

Although Mayorkas contended DHS prioritizes aliens posing a “national security” threat for detention, my colleague Todd Bensman reported that DHS has released at least one Lebanon-born Venezuelan who entered illegally despite the fact that he was “flagged as being on the FBI’s terrorism watchlist”. Why? Because he was overweight and there were concerns that he would catch Covid-19.

Would Morales’ hunch be a basis for detaining Yousef today? Doubtful.

One of Biden’s first acts as president was a “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States”, in which he described President Trump’s travel restrictions on aliens from certain countries (mostly with majority Muslim populations, but wrongly derided as a “Muslim ban”) as “a stain on our national conscience” and “inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all”.

Given that, would DHS really detain an illegal migrant from Kuwait or Iraq simply because he was carrying an ID card from a U.S. religious center, foreign checks, and a list of “unusual places in America” to visit? I certainly do not countenance any sort of profiling — at all — but the safest way to ensure that an inadmissible alien does not pose a risk to national security is to detain the alien as Congress has already mandated until they receive due process.

I was acting chief of the INS’s National Security Law Division in the months leading up to September 11, and the reason that I left to go to the House Judiciary Committee was because I was concerned that the government was not taking the terrorist threat seriously. I arrived on the Hill six weeks before those terrorist attacks and, if anything, I underestimated the threat.

Read the Washington Post’s June 1995 article on Yousef, and in particular the following:

The Post reporters found little evidence that Yousef had developed any kind of sophisticated network. Instead, he seemed to have tapped into the resources of existing, local Islamic militant groups during his travels to the Philippines, the United States and Pakistan, sometimes using phony passports. [Emphasis added.]

Then remember that Yousef had been apprehended in a house owned by Osama bin Laden a few months before. The real threats are the ones we know little about and pretending otherwise is hubris.

Those threats are still real, and more than one national security expert I have spoken to has told me that, given the catastrophe at the Southwest border, it is just a matter of “when” not “if” the next terrorist attack occurs. Ramzi Yousef is the poster boy for the vulnerabilities of the Biden administration’s border policies.

Mayorkas should not have been allowed to refuse to answer Rep. Bishop’s question, because it was an important one: What’s to stop the next Ramzi Yousef from exploiting the weaknesses created by the Biden administration’s border policies to attack Americans? The answer is little, if anything. If I were the secretary, I would not have answered the question either, and not out of indignity.