AUSTIN, Texas – In an unusual, scathing, and much-redacted public report, the Department of Homeland Security’s independent Office of Inspector General has released the results of an investigation into one of several U.S. releases of border-crossing immigrants who flagged positive on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist.
A heavily redacted page from the report.
The report – titled “CBP Released a Migrant on a Terrorist Watchlist, and ICE Faced Information Sharing Challenges Planning and Conducting the Arrest” –describes a cavalcade of multi-agency mistakes that led to the April 19, 2022, release of an unnamed migrant who, after crossing two days earlier among the 30,000 a month then pouring through an unfinished, cancelled section of Trump administration border wall near Yuma, Ariz., initially flagged – inconclusively – as a suspected terrorist.
But the report states that because border agents “were busy processing an increased flow of migrants” who were clogging the area’s central processing center at the time, agents released the suspect into the interior before the inconclusive alert could be resolved, which normally would happen quickly under established inter-agency routines.
Instead, under the pressure of processing historic numbers of illegal aliens pouring through the Yuma Sector all that spring (28,681 that April, compared to 298 the same month in 2020), Border Patrol released the suspect with most of the rest on personal recognizance, a GPS tracking device, and an honor-system promise that they voluntarily report in later to an ICE office in the cities they chose to settle in.
Mass releases of illegal border-crossers from central processing centers (CPCs), which as quickly as possible hand out “notice to report” or “notice to appear” authorization papers, sometimes with electronic monitoring devices, have been customary all along the southern border since President Biden took office in January 2021, without letup to the present day, and is commonly understood as the main cause of the border crisis.
Only after CPC officers released this suspect to board a commercial flight from Palm Springs, Calif., to Tampa, Fla. – where pre-check routines confirmed the watch list hit – did agencies eventually realize the alien was a positive match on the Terrorist Watchlist. But it was too little, too late.
Not until after two more weeks of foul-ups did ICE agents track down and, on May 6, 2022, finally arrest the suspected terrorist in Tampa.
Although the OIG report does not name the suspect for ostensible privacy reasons, the case details bear close resemblance to details in a May 23, 2022, Fox News report by Adam Sabes and Bill Melugin, which described how DHS border agents inadvertently released Colombian national Isnardo Garcia-Amado and then arrested him two weeks later in Florida.
What Didn’t Happen
The OIG report lays out established government processes for handling illegal border-crossers who appear on the FBI’s Terrorism Watchlist, which track with programs described at far greater length in my 2021 book, America’s Covert Border War, The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration.
It boils down like this: Cases when aliens flag on the watchlist after routine national security database checks inside Border Patrol stations and processing centers are forwarded for general reporting purposes (or confirmation) to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center in Virginia.
Terrorist Screening Center analysts may request additional identifying information like fingerprints or copies of travel or identity documents through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center (NTC) or contact a Mexican intelligence group known as Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza, that works closely with the American agencies on these cases.
Often in the end, federal agents, including the Border Patrol’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team, get dispatched to border holding facilities for face-to-face interviews with terrorism suspects to help with confirmations and to collect intelligence information.
The report found communications breakdowns at the NTC, as well as with overwhelmed CBP agents on the ground in Yuma’s central processing center, in large part due to the pressure from a human torrent that had been underway for months.
It’s long been customary that the FBI Screening Center request that the NTC facilitate an interview with the migrant before a release.
Neither the interview nor hit confirmation happened before release, at least in part because the NTC sent the request to an incorrect email distribution list for the Border Patrol’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team, but also because those in Yuma who did receive the request were too swamped to read it.
The same interview request went successfully to the emails of supervisors working in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, according to footnote 17. Those Yuma supervisors never responded.
“A Yuma CPC [Central Processing Center] agent explained that he and his colleagues try to respond to NTC emails as quickly as possible but were busy processing an increased flow of migrants,” the report stated. “As a result, the Tactical Terrorism Response Team did not receive the NTC’s request and did not interview the migrant.
Elsewhere, the report noted that central processing center agents “explained that the Yuma CPC was over capacity following an increase in apprehensions, which created pressure to quickly process migrants and decreased the time available to review each file.”
The NTC also was clearly overwhelmed at the time, which would explain two other vital communications failures. At one point, the NTC asked for – and received the critical desired information – from the Mexican intelligence group it normally works with.
But two NTC officials who received it never forwarded it and “told us they did not recall why they did not forward it…,” the OIG report said.
And, when the now-freed terrorist suspect flagged a second time prior to boarding the flight to Tampa, the Transportation Security Administration at the Palm Springs airport notified the NTC that the match was positive.
This set in motion an arrest plan, but the mass-migration-related foul-ups did not end there, even as the clock was ticking on a potential national security event.
More Delays by an Overwhelmed Border Patrol Put the Nation at Risk
With the suspect free and roaming in Florida on April 22, 2022, the case went straight to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to arrest the suspect, who was supposed to voluntarily report in on June 1. ICE in Tampa changed it to an earlier date “because the migrant was a positive Terrorist Watchlist match, and the office was concerned that… the migrant could post a national security risk.”
Two other reasons are redacted.
Working with the FBI, ICE put a surveillance team on the suspect and asked for the all-important paper “Alien File,” from Border Patrol, which would include helpful photographs and potential evidence that would indicate whether the suspect had any history of violence or criminality.
But ICE officers couldn’t act because they didn’t get the file for eight days, even for a national security priority like this. That’s because Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector operation was unable to sort, box, and ship any more than a thousand files “once or twice a week” from that overwhelmed processing center to ICE offices across the country, the OIG report found.
They were tens of thousands behind.
One final snafu almost derailed the arrest. When the arresting ICE team showed up at the suspect’s residence and waited for the suspect to leave so they could do the arrest, they learned Border Patrol’s electronic monitoring (Alternatives to Detention) office didn’t open until 7 a.m. and also that system did not share GPS tracking information with ICE, which the team needed to confirm the suspect was in one of the vehicles that departed. The team made do by trailing the vehicle until an officer could call the ATD office when it opened at 7 a.m.
They arrested the suspect without incident at 7:30 a.m. on May 6, 2022.
Broader Implications for National Security
The OIG report is unique in addressing a national security threat caused by President Biden’s mass migration crisis that few Americans, pundits, or national security experts acknowledge as real. The crisis has broken records, including the apprehension of more than 200 aliens on the FBI Terror Watchlist since 2020, and continues into its third year.
Above all else, this OIG report confirms a long-held thesis of mine, which is that the mass migration crisis has seriously eroded normal counterterrorism security programs at the southern border and created an elevated threat level environment.
This case is not the only one where I have posited that counterterrorism border programs detailed in America’s Covert Border War are crumbling under this human onslaught. Americans live at higher risk of terror attack as a result.
As I have reported, for instance, a Lebanese Venezuelan migrant who swam the Rio Grande from Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas, in early December 2021 was on the FBI terror watch list. Amid the border chaos that month, the FBI recommended ICE keep him locked up until deportation due to "substantive high side derogatory intelligence," labeling him a "high risk" and a "flight risk."
But instead, ICE headquarters ordered the man released for fear that, due to his weight, he might catch COVID-19. He was free and pursuing an asylum claim in Detroit last I checked.
The breakdown is evident on the Mexican side too. In April 2021, Mexican immigration officials caught a watch-listed Yemeni named Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed just as he was about to cross into Del Rio, Texas. In normal times, U.S.-Mexico collaboration on terrorist travel threat issues runs deep. Between 2014 and 2019, Mexico deported 19 suspected migrant terrorists, very probably in collaboration with the FBI stationed in-country.
But not this time. Mexico ended up attempting to deport Ahmed, but he came right back in July 2021, the busiest month in the history of both nations up to that time. Rather than deport Ahmed a second time, the Mexicans simply let him go. In a hint as to just how problematic the Americans found this, Homeland Security issued a "be on the lookout" bulletin for Ahmed to law enforcement throughout Texas. It's unclear whether anyone ever found him.
A reasonable question to ask: Is DHS’s OIG investigating these cases too?