Series of Mistakes Leads to Release of Terror Suspect into the U.S.
FAIR Take | July 2023
In April of 2022, amid surging numbers of illegal border-crossers, border agents apprehended and released an alien who was on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist. The details of this incident are set forth in a new, highly critical report issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that describes a series of mistakes leading to the release. Although the suspected terrorist was eventually arrested, he moved freely across the United States for several weeks with Americans exposed to a terrorist threat in the meantime.
The story begins on April 17, 2022, when the migrant and his family were apprehended by the Border Patrol in Yuma, Arizona. Per standard protocol, the Border Patrol performed a national security screening in cooperation with the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). The FBI determined that the migrant was an inconclusive match with its Terrorist Watchlist and informed Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center. The National Targeting Center (NTC) is the hub within CBP that uses intelligence and law enforcement information to target and intercept any travelers arriving in the U.S., on all forms of transportation, who pose a threat to national security.
At that point, the NTC took several actions in an attempt to resolve the inconclusive match. Unfortunately, all failed due to human error.
First, the NTC attempted to arrange an interview with the migrant to gather additional information. The NTC sent the interview request to a specialized on-the-ground CBP team that conducts interviews and performs other similar requests. However, the NTC sent the request to the incorrect email distribution list and therefore it never reached the proper individuals. The NTC acknowledged that the failure to use the appropriate email address was because it did not have up-to-date email lists.
Second, the NTC asked a multi-national intelligence organization (Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza, or GCIF), which partners with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, to help gather additional information. GCIF was able to obtain the requested information from an international source and forwarded it to the NTC, but the NTC never sent it to the FBI. According to the Inspector General, the NTC officials who received the information from GCIF could not provide a reason for failing to forward it.
Third, the NTC also asked the Border Patrol in the Yuma Sector to provide additional information from its Central Processing Center to resolve the inconclusive match. While Yuma received the request and had the information, agents simply failed to respond. One agent said the error was due to agents being assigned to process the increased flow of migrants.
Finally, in a deviation from standard protocol, the Border Patrol processed the suspected terrorist and released him on April 19, 2022– just two days after apprehension and without ensuring that the FBI and NTC had resolved the inconclusive match. According to the Inspector General, the Border Patrol gave two reasons for this failure. First, Border Patrol agents said they did not have an adequate method to keep track of an alien’s file (called an A-File) when it is deemed an inconclusive match with the Terrorist Watchlist. Second, the Border Patrol explained that the Yuma Sector was grossly over capacity due to a surge in illegal immigration, and the “pressure to quickly process migrants” meant there was less time to review each file. Fortunately, however, the Border Patrol released him under ICE’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program with a GPS ankle bracelet.
Two days after the suspected terrorist was released, he popped up on the government’s radar when he and his family checked in for a flight from Palm Springs, California to Tampa, Florida. As with all airline passengers, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened the alien prior to boarding to determine if he was on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist. At the FBI’s request, the TSA obtained the additional info which confirmed that the alien was a positive match to the Terrorist Watchlist.
Despite the positive match, the alien and his family were allowed to fly to Tampa. According to the Inspector General, FBI policy is to only stop Terrorist Watchlist matches from flying when they also fall into a subset of the Watchlist called the No-Fly list.
With confirmation of the positive match, the government then set about trying to arrest the alien. The case was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and on April 26, the arrest of the migrant was assigned to the specialized Fugitive Operations Team in Tampa. Fugitive Operations agents tracked the migrant via GPS information and requested the alien’s A-file, which could contain background information that would help protect the agents executing an arrest. The A-file, however, did not arrive until eight days later. When asked about the delay, ICE explained that because of the unprecedented traffic in Yuma, there are 1,000 – 2,000 files each week in that sector that must be reviewed, sorted, and shipped to other parts of the country. Delays in obtaining files, ICE said, are common.
However, even with the file on hand, there was one more hurdle to apprehending the alien. On May 6, 2022, Fugitive Operations agents arrived at the alien’s residence at 5:30 a.m. and waited for the alien to leave to conduct the arrest. About an hour later, three vehicles left the residence, and agents needed to confirm which vehicle the suspect was in. They contacted the Tampa ATD office to obtain the alien’s GPS information, but because the office was not open yet and therefore no staff was available. Fortunately, the agents were resourceful enough to call a different ATD office that was already open, obtained the GPS coordinates, and executed the arrest.
All told the suspected terrorist was not arrested until three weeks after being released into the country. Moreover, the actual confirmation that the suspect was a positive match to the Terrorist Watchlist occurred only because the alien and his family checked in for a flight. The Inspector General concluded that these failures were due to CBP’s “ineffective practices and processes for resolving inconclusive matches with the Terrorist Watchlist.”
The Inspector General made three recommendations to DHS:
- Recommendation 1: Develop and implement a process to maintain updated Border Patrol email distribution lists for NTC information requests.
- Recommendation 2: Identify and share best practices for resolving inconclusive Terrorist Watchlist matches before releasing migrants.
- Recommendation 3: Develop and implement a process to ensure ICE officers have immediate access to GPS data relevant to their law enforcement operations.
DHS concurred with the recommendations but seemed more concerned that the report reflects poorly on the Department. In its management response, DHS did not dispute any of the facts in the report but objected to the title of the report as misleading. It also complained that the report mischaracterized how ICE identified the agent’s location. Finally, DHS said the report did not recognize that the NTC “makes every reasonable effort to ensure each inconclusive match reaches a conclusive vetting, including in this instance.”
While the Department defended its border agents on paper, the words might carry more weight if it had not implemented a wide array of open-borders policies that undermine, and even endanger, the very agents it claims to support. These open-border policies have not only created a historic wave of illegal immigration, they have turned law enforcement agents into processing and entry specialists.
Illegal border crossings in the Yuma Sector, which spans roughly the western quarter of Arizona’s border with Mexico, have skyrocketed under these policies. In 2018, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma Sector were apprehending on average 2,200 illegal aliens per month. In the record year of 2019, that number was 5,700. By April 2022, that number had grown to a whopping 29,000 encounters, with the prior and subsequent months both surpassing 30,000. The flow of illegal traffic in Yuma only dropped when the Biden Administration created an illegal parole program and issued a new asylum rule, both of which re-directed illegal crossers to official ports of entry.
With our southern border facing a surge of illegal immigration and border agencies overwhelmed, it is clear that critical information is slipping through the cracks. This case provides a powerful example of how dangerous that missed information can be. The report shows that DHS still faces challenges when it comes to terrorist screening, which are being compounded by policies that pressure border agents to release illegal aliens into the U.S. Even one terrorist slipping through the cracks is one too many.