What's at Stake when Bangladeshis Arrive at the U.S. Southwest Border, in a Migrant Caravan or Not

By Todd Bensman on November 5, 2018

Out of President Donald Trump's suggestion that "unknown Middle Easterners" might be traveling with the Honduran migrant caravans came disclosures about other nationalities who were traveling either with the caravans or on the same U.S.-border-bound routes.

Univision reported that Bangladeshis were spotted moving northward in the migrant caravan alongside Central Americans. Because they hail from South Asia and not from the Middle East, their presence in the column was quickly brushed off as not technically supportive of the president's much-scorned claim that "unknown Middle Easterners" added an extra touch of risk to the migrant caravan.

But Bangladeshis add the same touch of risk all on their own, whether or not they're traveling in a big column or in small, smuggler-led groups. This is because their country is so highly trammeled with ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers, brooding members of a radical Islamist party now out of power, homegrown jihadists of various strands, mosques where extremism is preached, and returning foreign terrorist fighters with combat experience in Syria.

In 2010, one of two Bangladeshi migrants traveling together who reached the Mexico-Arizona border admitted to membership in a U.S.-designated terrorist group back home. He was deported while his partner applied for asylum and absconded without ever showing up for the hearing, according to a leaked Texas Department of Public Safety report.

The Muslim-majority country is regarded as so rife with Islamic extremists and violent ideology that its government has mounted a "zero tolerance" campaign to prevent it from becoming a terrorist safe haven, with U.S. backing. Certainly, that's good reason for uninterested Bangladeshis to leave for greener hills, even though the country's economy is booming.

On the other hand, for a receiving country like the United States, there's a serious risk in simply not knowing if hard core Islamist militants might be among the more than 650 Bangladeshis that Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens of the Laredo, Texas, sector told Fox News were apprehended in his area alone during 2017, or another 280 in the first part of 2018. Or any of the ones the Border Patrol rescued on October 30 swimming the Rio Grande to Texas.

Remember, too, that terrorism is not just about murdering people, damaging property and sowing fear inside the United States. It is just as illegal and unpalatable to raise money in the United States to fund those activities in a home country.

Terrorism Presence in Bangladesh

Homeland security workers always feel a professional — and moral — obligation to find out who people really are when they're arriving at the Southwest border from countries like Bangladesh. Intelligence types who work, for instance, in the National Counterterrorism Center, Customs and Border Protection Office of Intelligence, the National Targeting Center, and DHS's Intelligence and Analysis want to know first what's going on in the home country, terrorism-wise. And it's not been looking good these days in Bangladesh, according to the U.S. State Department's most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, considering these takeaways from the September 2018 report:

  • "Dozens" of plots by terrorist groups inside the country have been foiled while several were successful inside the country in 2017 alone.
  • AQIS and ISIS claimed responsibility for nearly 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015.
  • Terrorist organizations used social media to "spread their ideologies and solicit followers" throughout Bangladesh.
  • Bangladeshi militants have been featured in multiple publications, videos and websites associated with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Those bullet points alone provide a clue as to why higher risk must be assigned to migrants from Bangladesh on their way, often with no identification documents, to the southern border. And those State Department observations just skim the surface.

Terror Organizations Swarmed Rich Recruitment Grounds

Bangladesh is ground zero in a battle for recruiting grounds seen as rich by rival jihadist organizations. Starting in about 2014, ISIS and AQIS began aggressive recruitment campaigns for adherents, suicide bombers, and fighters for distant campaigns. In 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS and called for militants from Bangladesh, as well as from parts of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to join it, with aspirations of striking the U.S. homeland. By many counts, both groups were pretty successful. Untold dozens of Bangladeshis joined ISIS in Syria while others have committed terror attacks in Europe and in the United States.

After returning to New York from a visit to Bangladesh last September, visa holder Akayed Ullah detonated a bomb at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, prompting the U.S. government to set up a Bangladesh-based "Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime" unit to fight terrorism in that country.

The U.S. embassy in Dhaka became so concerned with terrorist activity in the country that it has ordered employee families removed from the country. Some U.S. special operations forces are now deployed with the Bangladeshi coast guard.

A problem for homeland security to untangle at the border with Bangladeshis is whether they were members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP slants to Islamism and ruled Bangladesh until 2009 with extremist coalition partners that were U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The current ruling party is the Awami League, which for several years has engaged in what it has described as a counterterrorism crackdown on BNP. Many Bangladeshis who arrive at the border are affiliated with the BNP and ask for asylum based on the crackdown.

Bangladeshi Border Crossers as "Tier III" Terrorist Organization Members?

Last year, Canada's high court ruled that "BNP is or was a terrorist organization," in upholding a decision by an immigration officer denying permanent residency to a BNP member. Likewise, in an effort to screen and deter potential BNP extremists coming across the U.S. southern border, DHS took the position that BNP was an undesignated "Tier III terrorist organization", which is a designation under the 2001 USA Patriot Act that allows immigration judges and lower level immigration officials to reject BNP members for asylum processes and visas.

The designation is proving somewhat controversial, with the Board of Immigration Appeals either reversing immigration judge's rulings confirming the Tier III designation or affirming judges' findings that it is not.

An Awful Responsibility

While many cable news pundits and anti-borders advocates slough off reports that Bangladeshis are on their way through Latin America, border security professionals labor under the weight of vetting them in light of all this. And there's a system in place for doing so, as explained in my CIS Backgrounder on why "special interest aliens" (SIAs) from Bangladesh and some 30 other countries are regarded as a border infiltration terrorism threat.

When Border Patrol agents apprehend Bangladeshis, they flag them in their computer systems as SIAs for a regimen of security screening, database checks and possibly security assessment interviews that few Central Americans will ever go through. The reason — and the challenge — is legitimate and praiseworthy: to determine why the average Bangladeshi is really coming here. But when many Bangladeshis show up without basic identification and an unverifiable story of persecution for the asylum officers and judges, the outcomes are often little more than a wager that any given Bangladeshi means to do no harm.