What's Being Done to Amend the Flawed Process for Admitting Foreign Military Members?

By Dan Cadman on May 22, 2020

Early Thursday, news media were reporting that the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Corpus Christi, Texas, was on lockdown due to an "active shooter", and thereafter that the shooter had been "neutralized".

It's too soon to speculate about perpetrators and motives, but no doubt information will be forthcoming soon.

What I find myself contemplating, though, is that the incident comes on the heels of a recent announcement by Attorney General William Barr that, after an exhaustive months-long investigation, it was confirmed that the Saudi Arabian lieutenant undergoing pilot training at NAS Pensacola, Fla., who went on a murderous rampage last December 6, was associated with al Qaeda. That revelation was disturbing but not particularly surprising; the rampage had all of the hallmarks of a radical Islamist terror attack.

The government is to be commended for having spent significant time and resources to dig to the bottom of the NAS Pensacola incident — post-attack analyses are too often overlooked in the exigencies of the moment — but the larger questions linger.

In an earlier posting about the Pensacola shooter, I noted the many, longstanding flaws that are associated with the U.S. government's foreign military training program. Three of the most significant concerns with the program are that:

  1. Active duty service members from foreign nations are nominated by U.S. military attaches abroad, who press forcefully for State Department consular officers to expeditiously issue visas to these (mostly) men, creating an environment that encourages minimal vetting processes;
  2. The candidates are often-junior, unseasoned officers, and sometimes even noncommissioned officers, which in turn means that they are the individuals about whom our government knows least since they have unproven track records as their careers are unfolding; and, finally,
  3. They are granted admission to the United States under diplomatic visas, which renders them virtually untouchable for most law enforcement purposes (and also opens the door for them to legally purchase weapons under domestic American law).

All of this is a recipe for disaster, and the program has for a long time been dogged with problems that are normally not the subject of media scrutiny. In 2015 I posted a blog noting the case of Gulmurod Khalimov, a special police forces commander from Tajikistan who became an ISIS propaganda video poster boy. News reports indicate that Khalimov was admitted to the United States several times for military training prior to his disappearance from the special police forces and resurfacing as an ISIS member.

It is not uncommon for foreign military members to desert or go AWOL even while participating in their programs in the United States. Once (if) they are found, they cannot legally be taken into custody without specific authorization from the foreign government, because of their diplomatic status.

The problem is exacerbated because of the politico-military pressures of intergovernmental and inter-service relations to allow access to U.S. military training to members of a foreign military. It becomes a matter of prestige and proof of cordial relations, even when there are strong reasons to doubt the in-the-field strength of the relationship(s). Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are not the only countries that pose significant problems for U.S. security, consular, and immigration officials involved in the vetting, visa, and admission process. The headlines are filled with examples that have accrued over time.

Afghan police and military have on any number of occasions turned their weapons on U.S. military and other allied forces operating in the country. It has happened so frequently that they've been given a colloquial phrase: "green-on-blue" attacks. U.S. military trainers even documented their concerns in a secret report that found its way into the public domain in 2019, although the interviews and observations that predicated the report went back many years, clear to the beginning of the intergovernmental and inter-service relationships in the early 2000s. And yet, in an effort to maintain the facade of a good working relationship, the United States continued to bring Afghan soldiers and airmen into the country for training, leading in 2015 to a large public embarrassment when 17 Afghan service members went AWOL en masse from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Even today, the U.S. Defense Department and members of Congress continue to exert pressure on the Departments of State (DOS) and Homeland Security (DHS) to expedite and grant special immigrant visas (SIVs) to individuals from Afghanistan and Iraq who have been deemed to be especially helpful to the U.S. military, such as interpreters. (Some of those applicants have even gone so far as to sue the U.S. government to force it to grant them their SIVs.) And yet there's clear evidence that vetting can go seriously wrong; that there are significant limits to the ability of the federal government to undertake the kind of security screening needed to ensure the safety of the American people once individuals are admitted to the United States. Here are a few other examples:

  • In 2011, two Iraqis previously admitted to the United States (whether as refugees or SIVs is not entirely clear) were arrested on federal charges for attempting to procure and smuggle weapons and missiles to terrorists in Iraq. Both were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
  • In January 2018, an Afghan SIV entrant who had been an interpreter for the U.S. military smuggled other Afghans into the country, and a subsequent investigation revealed that at least one of those individuals was a security risk with ties to a foreign intelligence service (possibly Pakistan).
  • Iraqi Omar Mateen was admitted as a refugee, and later arrested in August 2018 after it was discovered that he had participated in attacks on U.S. armed forces members and had murdered an Iraqi police officer, for whom an arrest warrant had been issued in Iraq — in 2014, years before his admission.

Returning to the specific issue of the process in use for visa issuance and admission of foreign military members for training, the obvious question is this: While it's important to conduct a post-mortem to determine the NAS Pensacola shooter's motives and intent, what's being done to examine and restructure the program itself? It remains a gaping hole in the U.S. national security.