New Terrorism Case-In-Point: Why Somalia Is on the Travel Ban List and Must Stay There

How can U.S. officials vet refugees claiming to be from a country with no government records to check?

By Todd Bensman on September 11, 2018
Jijinga, Ethiopia

As when they cross a U.S. land border unknown and with no ID, Somalis who formally apply for refugee resettlement — at, say, a U.S. embassy or refugee camp abroad — present a security challenge to officials trying to separate the malevolent from the benign. Discerning the difference for Somalis is far more problematic than for applicants of most other countries. That’s because from 1991 to 2011, a nearly pure anarchy of civil war and absence of government in Somalia meant no one was issuing birth certificates, driver's licenses, diplomas, passports, marriage or divorce documents, or any other government records reflecting that citizens even existed. Just as surely, no higher order of bureaucracy was tracking criminal histories or intelligence as to who belonged to terrorist groups.

Fast forward to that security-checking challenge today. Somalis show up at a U.S. embassy, consular office, or refugee camp tent abroad with a refugee application in hand reflecting a name, birth date, and tale of woe. Could American adjudicators simply call up the current Somali government and ask for an identity check or criminal history on any Somali adult?

No. Hence, Somalia’s well-deserved place on President Donald Trump’s “travel ban” country list and a "National Vetting Center" where teams of analysts can more comprehensively investigate such applications.

But anyone knowing all of this about Somalia, who would still call out as unreasonable President Trump’s travel ban, need look no further than married couple Mohamed Abdirahman Osman, 28, and Zeinab Abdirahman Mohamad, 25. Federal prosecutors last month charged the couple in Tucson, Ariz., with 11 collective counts of repeatedly lying on the refugee applications they filed in August 2013 at the American embassy in China and, in 2015, on permanent residency applications in Arizona.

What did Osman and Mohamad allegedly lie about in Beijing successfully enough to win resettlement approval? According to the indictment:

His identity, for starters. His nationality. And then, as it naturally followed: his membership in the U.S.-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab. That he blew his hands off and wrecked vision in one eye by mishandling explosives for the terrorist group. That his brother currently is a member of the terrorist group. That friends and associates are also members of the terrorist group. And that she attested that he was someone else from a different country entirely to help cover it all up.

Osman and Mohamad paid $500 to be smuggled to Beijing via Kenya, where he was given a Somali passport with a visa for China, FBI special agent Benjamin Trenlage testified at a hearing. In Beijing, the couple found purchase in telling the American embassy that the terrorist group al-Shabaab had kidnapped the couple and held them hostage in an abandoned milk factory and that he lost his hands in an al-Shabaab terror attack. This masquerade worked for as long as it did because USCIS officers in Beijing, even during the Obama years, would not have bothered verifying the proffered name, Mustaf Adan Arale, because he claimed he was a Somali national. He even had a fake Somali passport to go with it. After all, why check the story when Somalia had no citizen records to check?

The State Department had this to say about the availability of "general documents":

The Government of Somalia ceased to exist in December of 1990, and the country underwent a destructive and brutal civil war, in the course of which most records were destroyed. Those few records not destroyed are in the hands of private individuals or are otherwise not retrievable. There are no circumstances under which immigrant visa applicants can reasonably be expected to recover original documents held by the former government of Somalia.

As recently as 2017, Somalia's current government still had no reliable record-keeping systems in place.

It was good poker for Osman to play the Somali card back in 2013. According to government allegations, Osman was actually a citizen of Ethiopia. He hailed from a town called Jijinga not far from the Somali border known for Islamic separatist sentiment and support for al-Shabaab. According to the State Department's most recent Country Report on Terrorism, Ethiopia is a strong U.S. counter-terrorism collaborator with mature intelligence systems, tracking of terrorist and separatist groups, and policing infrastructure.

It turns out that investigators believe Osman had plenty to hide when he lied and then enlisted his wife to help with that.

Their story did not begin to unravel until a March 24, 2017, FBI search warrant on Osman and Mohamed's home yielded certain unspecified "items of property", according to court records. Osman told the agents he was worried about the investigation and that he had lied to agents. About three months later, during an interview with the FBI, he allegedly unburdened himself of the lies.

He admitted he was from Ethiopia, had been successfully recruited there by al-Shabaab and that one of his brothers was still a member of the terrorist group. Osman allegedly confessed that al-Shabaab then sent him to the Somali capital of Mogadishu to serve with other members of the terrorist group. They apparently kept Osman busy as a soldier of Islam. In explaining an injury clearly caused by explosive ordinance, Osman told USCIS in Tucson that he had been injured in a June 2010 al-Shabaab attack at the Bakara Market in central Mogadishu. There was such an attack in May 2010 that killed 45 civilians.

But Osman allegedly admitted to the FBI that he lost his hands in 2009 while handling explosives in the service of al-Shabaab. In light of this inability to vet even the most foundational of claims by these Somalis, one has to wonder why USCIS officers felt free to bestow the benefit of a doubt on these two or on anyone else from a dysfunctional, records-bereft country so beset by organized terrorist activity.

One answer is that the decision occurred during the refugee-first, security-second Obama administration and not when Somalia was on a Trump travel ban list.

There can be no doubt that some real Somali citizens have suffered persecution at the hands of the ubiquitously present al Shabaab or that country’s military-backed government. Such individuals may well deserve American sanctuary if their stories of suffering and claims of torture if returned could possibly be investigated and verified enough. But, very unfortunately, most involving Somalis probably can't be verified. And so the value of security must be carefully weighed against the value of providing sanctuary.

Verifying persecution stories and basic identities is difficult business even when partner nations maintain checkable record systems. Just look at the recent California arrest of Iraqi refugee Omar Aimee for covering up his alleged activities for al Qaeda to receive permission to resettle in America, as my colleague Nayla Rush has written about. Iraq is fairly cooperative and has lots of records on suspects thanks to a long American military intelligence engagement.

Ultimately, approvals and denials based on what can be learned are a gambler's business. In this regard, the safe bet with Somalis is to just say no, both while that country is on the travel ban list and probably even after the National Vetting Center is up and running.