Terrorists Welcome

Chronic counterterrorism lapses at the border demand investigation and congressional intervention.

By Todd Bensman on May 22, 2024

The American Mind, April 22, 2024

The latest release into the American interior of an FBI terrorist suspect who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border — a twice-freed Afghan national man free to roam America for 11 months until his capture — demands that the federal government regard this patterned problem as a chronic national security emergency requiring elevation to the highest priority within the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and Congress.

The case of the 48-year-old Mohammad Kharwin, whom an overwhelmed Border Patrol freed into America on March 10, 2023 before agents could confirm the FBI watch list hit that initially flagged him and whom a swamped Texas immigration court freed a second time in February, is the seventh example of its kind that can establish, just from disparate public records, a mortally dangerous failure pattern.

More cases of accidental Border Patrol releases of illegally crossing terrorism suspects, who did not reach the public record, are highly likely if not certain.

But this latest miss-and-release propels the problem well beyond the critical mass threshold justifying coordinated high-priority government intervention, even if Congress must politically force it, before the next one—or those still roaming the country lost to authorities even now—needlessly kill and maim Americans.

By current public accounts, an initial Border Patrol database check flagged Kharwin for membership in Hezb-e-Islami, which the U.S. Director of National Intelligence describes as a “virulently anti-Western insurgent group,” when he illegally crossed the California border in March 2023. He was among 23,286 illegal aliens caught crossing that month in what would turn out to be a record-breaking year for the agency’s San Diego Border Sector. All told, there were 230,941 illegal crossers caught in 2023, up nearly 60,000 from 2022 and 90,000 more than 2021.

That extraordinary traffic no doubt strained all normal Border Patrol counterterrorism and vetting processes.

Instead of keeping Kharwin detained as a “special interest alien,” tagged until standard face-to-face interviews and corroboration of the initial hit was complete, Border Patrol agents under orders from Washington, D.C. waved him through like millions of other illegal crossers on “Alternatives to Detention” (ATD) personal recognizance papers, where they agree to voluntarily report later to ICE in a city of their choice.

NBC reports that Border Patrol never even informed ICE of the initial FBI watch list flagging; that’s evidently how the same collapsed border management system missed a second opportunity to catch Kharwin in late January of this year, when he showed up before an immigration judge in a Pearsall, Texas, ICE detention facility for a hearing. Perhaps because ICE still didn’t have the initial terrorism flag hit, that agency’s court lawyer representative did not report it to the judge, or appeal, when Kharwin was ordered released on $12,000 bond for a distant 2025 hearing.

“The judge placed no restrictions on his movements inside the U.S.” in the meantime, NBC reported.

Somehow, the FBI figured all of this out and got word to ICE agents to find and arrest Kharwin, which they did a month later, on February 28, in nearby San Antonio.

An Established New National Security Threat Pattern

Terrorism threat border lights have been blinking red for some time now in a non-specific way, especially since the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in March 2022 began publishing “Terrorist Screening Data Set Encounters” by the month on its public-facing website. Those began breaking all national records when the Biden government took office in January 2021, when apprehended illegal border crossers on the FBI watch list ballooned from three during Trump’s last fiscal year in office to 15, then by another 98 in fiscal 2022, then 169 in fiscal 2023, and another 75 so far in fiscal 2024.

Through March 2024, Border Patrol caught 342 while partnered federal agencies like the FBI and ICE intelligence presumably investigated and dealt with each. That they did so is less a good national security story than an unacceptable sampling of much bigger flows of watch-listed illegal aliens coming into America who are not caught and handled. If some two million of these so-called “got-aways” went through since 2021 (like Kharwin evidently tried to), more suspected terrorists on the FBI watch list are almost certainly among them.

But short of vastly reducing the millions-per-year border crossings by restoring former president Donald Trump’s discarded policies, the Biden Administration could at least be forced to triple down on its counterterrorism resources at the southern border.

In recent months, the terrorism threat at the border has generated some public concern, but never explicitly about the preventable accidental releases of terrorist suspects authorities later had to chase down.

In September 2023, for instance, I testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Judiciary about the accidental releases I knew about at the time. Mine was indeed a rare warning that named the accidental-release problem in juxtaposition with my 2021 book America’s Covert Border War, which revealed counterterrorism programs at the border that have kept the nation safe from infiltrated attacks for nearly 20 years. I told the members that Biden’s border crisis had severely compromised those old programs, caused a spate of accidental terror suspect releases, and elevated the threat of terror attack as a result.

The Biden Administration’s own 2024 Homeland Threat Assessment warns, with far less specificity, that “terrorists may exploit the elevated flow and increasingly complex security environment to enter the United States” and that “individuals with potential terrorism connections continue to attempt to enter the Homeland illegally between ports of entry…via the southern border.”

With even less specificity, in his latest testimony to Congress about what he regards as a rising terrorist border infiltration threat, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that a “wide array of very dangerous threats…emanate from” the southwest border, including the designated terror group ISIS.

Despite the variably specific warnings about the border infiltration threat, the ever-growing number of known accidental-release cases like Kharwin’s and the ones I told the subcommittee about remain broadly unrecognized as the unique emerging threat problem these cases indicate. Probably because no one has been killed yet as a consequence, few federal agencies or homeland security committee lawmakers seem interested in calling it out.

Case Candidates for Investigation

To date, only one federal investigation has produced a public report branding the problem, remarkable but forgotten or given short shrift by major U.S. news media, although I did write about it. That eye-opening document was the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office report about the April 19, 2022 crossing and mistaken release of a Colombian on the FBI watch list. ICE agents were not able to track him down to Florida for two long weeks.

Its key finding was that Border Patrol and ICE agents couldn’t do normal counterterrorism protocols because they were simply too “busy processing an increased flow of migrants.”

  • But these six other cases qualify as investigation-worthyMost recently, in February 2024, North Carolina authorities arrested an immigrant, Awet Hagos, reportedly from the Eritrea-Yemen border for allegedly firing a rifle outside a Carolina Quick Stop store in the small town of Eure, then attacked responding Gates County Sheriff’s deputies and barricaded himself in a four-hour standoff with them. Sheriff Ray Campbell reported that an ICE fingerprints check revealed that Hagos was on the watch list, the sheriff later told local news. North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican running for the governor’s office this November, penned a letter to President Biden demanding answers about Hagos. But these moves drew scant coverage from local newspapers and gained no known traction.
  • In February 2024, a Pakistani illegal immigrant on the watch list who’d crossed from Mexico into California was accidentally released for a day before U.S. authorities luckily uncovered the release error and caught up with him.
  • In late 2023, New York police arrested a Senegalese man wanted in his home country for “terrorist activities” who somehow got into the American interior.
  • In 2022, Border Patrol waved through a watch-listed Somali member of the al-Shabaab terrorist group near San Diego. He was freed for nearly a year before authorities untangled their mistake and finally picked him up in Minneapolis.
  • Also in 2022, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released an FBI watch-listed Lebanon-born Venezuelan who’d crossed from Matamoros into Brownsville on orders from Washington on grounds that the man was at risk of catching Covid. This release occurred against ardent FBI recommendations that he remain in detention because he was both dangerous and a flight risk. I have the FBI documents on this case, leaked no doubt out of an overabundance of frustration among those in the intelligence community who dealt with it.
  • A late 2021 accidental release case of Yemen national Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed shows that Mexico too is struggling with the Biden-fomented mass migration crisis. Mexico has long been a close partner of the United States in counterterrorism at the border. But in this case, Mexico released the Yemeni terrorism suspect without informing its U.S. partners, resulting in a “Be On the Lookout” bulletin that made its way to me about a manhunt alert that went out on the Texas side of the border.

These cases demand a public accounting as well as a classified briefing to Congress if one hasn’t happened. Each demands full investigations that produce not only recommendations for better counterterrorism but also consequences for those up and down the chains of command who perpetrated these failures.

If federal agencies won’t do the right thing, congressional lawmakers in both chambers must compel investigations into these accidental releases and turn up the political pressure with public hearings that force top officials to testify. They must propose legislation, send demand letters to DHS and other relevant agencies, and justifiably rant about this at their bully pulpits before it’s too late to do any of that, which it might well be.