What to Make of CNN’s Exclusive About an ISIS Smuggler Who Moved Uzbeks Over the Border

Hint: More evidence that border counterterrorism programs have all but collapsed, leaving America vulnerable

By Todd Bensman on August 29, 2023

Uzbek migrants outside a Tapachula, Mexico, hotel after crossing in from Guatemala and on their way to the U.S. border. January 2022 photo by Todd Bensman.

AUSTIN, Texas — Feverish FBI manhunts for potential terrorists who crossed the southern border and got lost in the mix are nothing new in America, especially amid the most voluminous mass migration crisis in U.S. history sparked by President Joe Biden on Inauguration Day 2021. As I have documented in America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration and afterward, the FBI since 9/11 has mounted desperate manhunts for Somalis, Saudis, and Lebanese who got in over the border undetected or who were presumed to have crossed, like this suspected Yemeni terrorist in 2021.

Just last month, a report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General showcased a series of disturbing crisis-related government failings that last year cut loose a border-crossing Colombian who was on the FBI’s terrorism watch until an urgent post-discovery hunt netted him two weeks later in Florida. To date since inauguration, nearly 260 people on the terror watch list have been caught crossing the border.

Now, in a laudable (though somewhat surprising) exclusive story, the notably liberal CNN reports that yet another FBI manhunt is underway for a dozen Uzbekistanis brought in over the southern border by a “human smuggler with ties to ISIS”, who may not have been a card-carrying “member” of the group, but who held “personal sympathies with the organization”.

The report cites “multiple US officials” plus National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson acknowledging that this discovery set off a U.S. homeland security manhunt to identify and assess the smuggled (and quickly released) Uzbeks for “possible criminal threats” even though they did not flag on any watch list when they crossed.

The cable news network said the episode was so alarming that “an urgent classified intelligence report was circulated to President Joe Biden’s top Cabinet officials in the morning briefing book.” At American behest, Turkish authorities have now arrested the smuggler, who is said to be cooperating.

CNN even included in its excellent reporting, without counter, a statement that lands as especially surprising given that the network loudly and repeatedly pooh-poohed the border infiltration threat as fabricated fear-mongering when President Donald Trump warned aloud about it:

For some counterterrorism officials, it shows that the U.S. is deeply vulnerable to the possibility that terrorists could sneak across the southern border by hiding amid the surge of migrants entering the country in search of asylum.

Now, the administration is spinning out political narratives that can only confuse Americans. It’s not that big a deal, they’re saying. The smuggler wasn’t an ISIS “member” as though that’s a thing. Yes, Uzbeks and lots of Central Asians are crossing the border, but they just want a better life.

But most problematic is this claim included in the CNN report: America’s homeland security system is firing on all pistons, as evidenced by the resulting manhunt to track down the Uzbeks for questioning!

This is where I hope to offer some clarity, as someone who worked closely among those very counter-terrorism officials on that very border infiltration threat issue during my nine years with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s intelligence division and as someone who even wrote a whole book about it.

America’s Border Counter-Terrorism Programs Are in a State of Collapse

For starters, the U.S. intelligence community keeps a list of nations of terrorism concern whose citizens are supposed to be tagged as “special interest aliens” when they are encountered at the border. Uzbeks are on that list because Uzbekistan is a Muslim-majority nation where terrorist organizations are known to operate.

The tag alerts national security agencies of encounters with Uzbeks and others so that federal agents (often the FBI but also ICE intelligence and, for a time, my team at Texas DPS) can conduct eyeball-to-eyeball interviews with them looking for indicators of terrorism involvement or dishonesty.

That interview process, absolutely essential to effective border counter-terrorism, clearly did not happen in the case of these dozen Uzbeks, as evidenced by administration claims that it has to track them down in the American interior to interview them post-entry.

Americans should understand that chasing down Uzbeks to interview them is not a sign of success, but of a failure that endangers the nation because bad ones have that precious time and freedom to plot and attack.

Uzbeks are classified as special interest aliens and tagged for in-depth border interviews for good reason, too. Here in America and in Europe, Uzbek immigrants turned out to be terrorists who were free to actually attack and shed blood.

Who can forget the Halloween night attack in 2017 by 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov? He plowed a truck into a crowd of bicyclists and pedestrians in lower Manhattan, crushing eight to death and terribly disfiguring many others, just blocks from the World Trade Center in the name of the ISIS. A judge just sentenced Saipov to life in prison in March.

That Saipov attack occurred just four days after after a judge issued a 15-year prison sentence to Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, another Uzbek immigrant found guilty of terrorism charges for ISIS. Authorities said Juraboev posted an online threat to kill then-U.S. President Barack Obama for ISIS and spoke of planting a bomb on Coney Island if the group ordered it. The FBI arrested him in February 2015 after the Uzbek bought a plane ticket to Istanbul, Turkey, on his way to join Islamic State in Syria.

Neither of these Uzbeks entered via the border, but the more important point is that, had they tried that even four or five years ago, they would have faced deep interrogation about their lives and personal histories at the hands of trained homeland security officials, plus national security investigation.

That’s clearly not happening anymore, and this is only the latest case in point.

Escalating Terrorist Border Infiltration Threat as Mass Migration Continues

The DHS Office of Inspector General report about the Colombian who got through the border despite matching the FBI’s terrorism watch list explains why agents went on that post-entry manhunt. The mass migration volumes of the Biden era crushed Border Patrol agents and blew up all counter-terrorism systems as personnel struggle just to keep the migrants moving into the interior, this report clearly states.

All of the pertinent agencies were simply too overwhelmed to send communications or read their own email under pressure from Washington to quickly process migrants, which decreased the time available to review each file.

The July OIG report’s conclusion confirmed my own earlier reporting about the unexplained releases of special interest aliens.

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".

 Albergue Assabil/Mesquijta Taybah shelter in Tijuana
The Albergue Assabil/Mesquijta Taybah shelter in Tijuana, the first migrant shelter in Mexico catering to U.S.-bound Muslims hoping to cross the southern border. November 2022 photo by Todd Bensman.

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, 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.

If cases like these do not convince Americans that a nationally endangering counterterrorism breakdown has occurred because of the mass migration crisis, my November 2022 report about the Muslim-only migrant shelter in Tijuana should leave no doubts.

At the shelter, which opened in April 2022, I met Uzbeks and Tajikistanis staying there to rest up for their illegal border crossings. I met Chechens, Syrians, and Somalis, a concentrated smorgasbord of special interest aliens that would have drawn intense U.S. agency interest had it existed prior to 2021.

But the shelter’s director told me that no American or Mexican intelligence agency had ever reached out to collect information in all of its seven months existence, which she kept on all guests and was willing to hand over if any agency ever asked.

I’ve meant to check back on that. But I’m guessing that when I do, I’ll find that nothing has changed.