The Obama administration is preparing to reinstate a fraud-riddled immigration program that has brought over 36,000 Somalis into the United States under questionable circumstances, including two dozen Minneapolis men that the FBI fears may be planning a terrorist attack.
The FBI has launched an “aggressive” manhunt for the men, who have “gone to ground” and have mysteriously disappeared, terrorism experts tell Newsmax. Authorities fear the men may have been recruited by extremists to carry out suicide attacks inside the United States, or abroad.
Critics of the State Department programs that brought the Somalis to America express grave concerns about the practice of admitting refugees from failed nation-states known to harbor extremists. It can be difficult or impossible to verify a person’s identity in such a country, let alone obtain knowledge of their past associations, several experts tell Newsmax.
One Somali refugee who vanished in early November, Shirwa Ahmed, re-emerged in northern Somalia in February behind the wheel of a truck packed with explosives.
Ahmed, whose family immigrated to the Minneapolis area in the mid-1990s, drove his truck into a crowd and triggered a massive explosion that left some 30 persons dead. Ahmed’s case marked the first known suicide bombing conducted by an American citizen, according to FBI director Robert S. Mueller III.
“It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota,” Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations, warning that in the past two years, about two dozen Somali men have disappeared from their residences near Minneapolis.
Authorities say the men may have been recruited by al-Shabab, a terrorist group believed to have ties to al-Qaida. There has been speculation the men were radicalized at mosques in the area.
Ahmed’s recruitment and training, and the subsequent suicide attack, is especially worrisome for the FBI because of the other missing Somali-Americans. “It raised the question of whether these young men will one day come home, and, if so, what might they undertake here,” Mueller said.
Fox 9, a Minneapolis television station, reported that eight local refugees left the Twin Cities area on August 1, and 10 more departed on Nov. 4. The men’s families later found flight itineraries for travel from Dubai to Nairobi and on to Kenya. From there, it is believed they most likely entered Somalia by boat.
Counterterrorism experts worry that operatives who are already familiar with U.S. society and culture would be much more difficult to stop, if they were employed to attack the U.S. homeland.
Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstien-Ross recently told CBN: “There’s a concern that … they’re going to training camps and receiving the kind of training they would need to carry out some kind of mischief in the United States.”
Critics of the program that grants immigrants their refugee status, even when their past activities and associations cannot be thoroughly documented, point out that since 1991 Somalia has exhibited the same type of failed-nation status associated with the rise of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan. That nation provided al-Qaida with a safe haven prior to 9/11.
They cite the spate of piracy off the Horn of Africa, including the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips -- who was freed after U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters shot and killed three Somali pirates -- as evidence that Somalia is a dangerous hotbed of extremism.
Experts disagree over the level of cooperation between the pirates and Somalia’s radical Islamic warlords. A recent Der Spiegel report warned: “The pirates are increasingly working hand-in-hand with Islamists, who are allies of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. It’s a terrifying alliance: the Pirates supply money and arms, while the Islamists have troops and the power on land.”
Jane’s Intelligence Review reports the pirate-Islamist alliance is “fragile.” In some cases, the pirates pay a percentage of their ransom money to al-Shabab units, in return for protection against land-based attacks on their bases.
Jane’s Intelligence also states that pirates have paid for military-style training at the hands of al-Shabab, conducted in terrorist boot camps.
Conservative foreign-policy expert Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, is among those who perceives a definite link between Somali’s pirates and its violent Islamic extremists.
“Shariah-adherent Somali pirates are a threat to the world's shipping,” Gaffney tells Newsmax. “Their refugee counterparts being dumped into American communities are a threat to our country and its people. It adds insult to potentially enormous injury that, as the State Department has acknowledged, 80 percent of those refugees are here on the basis of fraudulent family-reunification grounds.”
Gaffney says the State Department “imports pirate/jihadist types into this country.”
One major concern: The pirates’ statements following the freeing of Phillips appeared to be couched in jihadist terms. They identified America as their “No. 1 enemy,” and one pirate leader told The Associated Press: “In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying.”
Don Barnett, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Services, tells Newsmax that it is clear some young refugees of Somali extraction have been recruited by extremists, and could now be working with al-Qaida or al-Shabab.
“I think that really should cause us to look at taking any refugees from Somalia with a much more fine magnifying glass,” Barnett says.
There are about 150,000 Somalis now living in the United States, and law-enforcement officials consider the vast majority of them to be peaceful and law-abiding.
Once resettled, the refugees are free to relocate and live anywhere they like.
A State Department official who asked not to be identified says refugees receive U.S. papers that identify them and their status. They are eligible to apply for a green card after residing in the United States for one year. Five years after receiving green cards, the source says, refugees are eligible to apply for American citizenship.
There are three State Department programs that vet and process refugees for admittance:The Priority One (P-1) program provides a means for individuals from Somalia and other nations to immigrate to the United States based on referrals from the United Nations, from a U.S. embassy, or from a non-governmental organization (NGO). The Priority Two (P-2) program gives refugee status to all members of a specific, persecuted group. In 1999, for example, the State Department granted blanket refugee status to some 12,000 persecuted Somali-Bantus who had been driven from their native country to Kenya. The Priority Three (P-3) program awards refugee status specifically for the purpose of family reunification with other refugees already legally residing in the United States.
When a family or individual qualifies for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, a Department of Homeland Security agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), conducts an interview with the “refugee applicant” to verify their eligibility and establish they are “otherwise admissible to the United States,” according to a State Department fact sheet about the program.
One of the purposes of USCIA is to ensure “that no one is admitted who is a threat to public safety,” according to its Web site.
The P-3 program was suspended in October, after reports of fraud led the State Department and DHS to conduct DNA testing on 3,000 applicants. Those tests revealed that as many as 80 percent of the family-reunification claims were false and did not involve relatives.
Officials suspended the program until new procedures -- such as DNA testing -- could be developed to verify claims of a family relationship. The P-1 and P-2 programs continue to be in effect.
Barnett tells Newsmax that the State Department is prepared to resume the troubled P-3 program in June. He also criticizes the P-1 program, due to U.N. refugee programs he describes as “one big long running fraud.” He adds: “The U.N. referral program itself has been subject to bribery and fraud.”
The State Department spokesman tells Newsmax it is unclear if the P-3 program will be reinstated by June, adding, “We do anticipate that the program will restart. A little later this year, we will have this program reinstated.”
Most critics of the program recognize that some resettlement in the United States is inevitable and probably beneficial. The problem, they say, comes when large numbers of immigrants arrive from chaotic nations known to harbor extremists. It is very difficult or impossible to review the backgrounds of people living in such countries, they say, because documentation and even birth certificates may be nonexistent. Advocates for refugees, on the other hand, point out that those are the very situations where resettlement may be most urgent.
Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security for Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas, tells Newsmax: “Across the spectrum, when you attempt to vet the identify of that person, you have nothing to cross reference it to.”
Burton participated in the arrest of 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef, and says the lack of intelligence about Somali extremists is quite serious.
“Whenever you have a suspected intelligence operative, whether it be from an espionage side or the terrorism side -- and it’s more foreboding from the terrorism side -- you really get a sense of dread, not knowing what he is up to,” he says.
Burton says the FBI is sparing no effort to locate the men who have gone missing in Minneapolis, but adds that it may be difficult.
“Knowing how the process works from a domestic terrorism perspective, there is no doubt the FBI is looking for the individuals involved, and probably very, very aggressively,” Burton tells Newsmax. “But then you go back to what has always been the Achilles’ heel in the counterterrorism business, your lack of human intelligence to tell you where that person is, because you lack the human sources to identify him.”
Burton states “I would certainly say the program appears to be a failure at this juncture.”
He says verifying identity is essential before admitting any refugee into the United States, and adds: “Having participated in several of those State Department meetings for many years, I would say, ‘Well, I’m sure we followed whatever process is in place, but what guarantees do we have that this process is not broken?’”
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