On September 30, 2017, a Somali immigrant who initially had himself smuggled over the Mexico-California border conducted a double vehicle ramming and stabbing attack, carrying an ISIS flag, that left a police officer and four others gravely injured in Edmonton, Alberta.
But Abdulahi Hasan Sharif arguably would never have been present in Canada for his melee had he not been able to claim one of America's most indulgent and abused immigration benefits: political asylum. Simply asking a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the border for asylum sets in motion a process that guarantees most foreign strangers legal entry into the United States for as long as processing takes, which can amount to years.
That's exactly what Sharif did as soon as he crossed from Tijuana to the San Ysidro port of entry on July 12, 2011 after a long smuggler-led journey from Somalia. It didn't matter that Sharif's claim was not granted; it got him in and free to lodge a more successful Canadian claim in January 2012. Within 36 months, Canadian intelligence was interviewing Sharif for espousing genocidal Islamist beliefs, and we know what happened later in Edmonton.
We also now know that Sharif's use of the asylum system to access what, for any foreign-born jihadist, would be a target-rich dreamland, is far from a one-off.
New research published by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which examined the extent of border-infiltrating migrant-terrorist attacks in the European Union, shows that dozens exploited overwhelmed asylum systems, similar to U.S. ones even in non-crisis times, to gain legal entry into targetable nations and time to radicalize, plot, and conduct attacks.
As reported in Part I and Part II of this series from the CIS study, a new terror travel tactic of illicit cross-border migration in Europe – and the complementary role of asylum law – hold learnable lessons for American land border and immigration security. Chief among these is how a deeply dysfunctional American asylum system, left unreformed and administered without considering security, can enable the same kind of death and destruction experienced by Europe in recent years – and in Edmonton.
How Europe's Asylum Laws Killed
The CIS study What Terrorist Migration Over European Borders Can Teach About American Border Security established that many of the 104 terrorists known to have infiltrated Europe's borders with migrant caravans between 2014 and 2018 applied for asylum and, by doing so, acquired the necessities of time and access to incubate plots or carry them out.
Before Europe's migrant crisis in 2014, European Union member states followed common procedures for granting asylum and temporary international protection to people ostensibly fleeing persecution or harm back home. Not including appeals, six months was the recommended guideline for adjudicating applications before the crisis, with legal residence and even government financial support provided during the wait.
Administrative asylum processes rarely ferret out terrorists.
By early 2015, though, hundreds of thousands of migrants from Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, arriving at the EU's southern and eastern borders, were overwhelming the system. This dramatically extended processing and wait times. In the 55 migrant-terrorism cases for which there was sufficient data, the average time between a border entry and attack or arrest was 11 months.
But even the EU's pre-crisis six months offered plenty of time for plotting and attacking, including 17 in under three months. Importantly, administrative asylum processes rarely discovered terrorists, indicating that bureaucrats with the closest interactions were neither trained nor interested in detecting the malevolent among the benevolent.
For instance, Germany approved the asylum claim of Syrian ISIS migrant Jaber al-Bakr in five months. Then, due to roommates diming him out, police arrested al-Bakr in the advanced stages of planning an ISIS-connected bomb attack using 1.5 kg. of explosives found in his apartment. In another case, German police arrested Syrian asylum seeker and mid-level ISIS commander Leeth Abdalhameed within two weeks of his arrival. Abdalhameed applied for asylum under a false name and avoided providing his fingerprints. He was only arrested after a fellow refugee informed police of his past work as a mid-level commander who smuggled money, medicine and ammunition for the terrorist group in Syria.
Plenty of other migrant-terrorists involved in actual attacks and plots took advantage of extended process delays caused by high claim volumes. In 15 cases, the time lapse exceeded 15 months. One such case was Afghan asylum seeker "Jawad S.," who arrived in Germany as an unaccompanied 16-year-old in November 2015. It took 18 months for German authorities to reject his asylum claim in August 2017 on unknown grounds, but he was able to stay pending an appeal. Two years and nine months after arriving, a film about how artists in the Netherlands ridiculed Prophet Mohammed triggered Jawad S. to travel to Amsterdam, where he stabbed two American tourists in revenge.
A Terrorist-Accommodating American Asylum System
The problem is that, even in the best of times, the U.S. asylum system, severely dysfunctional, if not completely broken, would easily accommodate migrant-terrorists and discover none. Smugglers who specialize in transporting migrants the long distances from Muslim-majority countries learn the U.S. system as well as any immigration lawyer so they can best abuse it.
Terrorists like Sharif would likely travel among the nearly 4,000 migrants from Muslim-majority countries who are apprehended annually at the U.S. southern border, most of them claiming political asylum. To proceed, claims of persecution go through an initial "credible fear" screening interview by federal officers and, if approved there, as a majority were for years until very recently, move on to an immigration judge for a merit hearing.
The vast majority of credible fear interview screenings, above 90 percent, have been positive, which contributed to vast hearing backlogs and time for any plotting or radicalization that far exceeds what developed in Europe. The backlog, for instance, grew to more than 800,000 by January 2019, with the average wait time of about 19 months to see a judge. By September 2019, the backlog had topped one million. Plenty of time for terrorist plot gestation or radicalization with little risk of detection.
The motive to commit asylum fraud is powerful. The professional smugglers who transport migrants from higher risk Muslim-majority countries literally embroider U.S. asylum system deficiencies into their very business models. After all, it is neither in the interest of the smuggler nor migrant customers who might lose tens of thousands in fees were they to lose asylum and be deported.
Court records examined in a study of this kind of smuggling show these smugglers to be highly versed in how pass the credible fear screen and later gain approval by judges. Such smugglers coach their clients in fraudulent persecution stories and in the kinds of information to withhold from American adjudicators.
For example, the Mexico City-based Nepalese smuggler Rakhi Gauchan, prior to her 2013 arrest, coached most of her Pakistani and Bangladeshi clients to tell American immigration officials that they belonged to certain persecuted political parties then in asylum vogue and not to disclose disqualifying information about asylum denials in other countries. She would critique their "life story" and suggest how to make the story more compelling.
Bogus stories, omitted information and huge backlogs would work in a terrorist's favor perhaps even better in the United States than in Europe. A Congressional Research Service report recognized that terrorists from countries of "special concern, (i.e., Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia) would seek to hide fraudulent asylum claims like these among the hundreds of thousands of pending cases."
Like European asylum, the American system rarely ferrets out potential terrorist actors or fraud. Almost repetitive Government Accountability Office investigations dating to at least 2008 find the U.S. does virtually nothing to detect asylum fraud. In 2014, four Republican congressmen asked the GAO to investigate the asylum process after a leaked DHS report showed that up to 70 percent of cases contained proven or possible fraud.
A 2015 GAO investigation found that U.S. Attorneys won't prosecute asylum fraud and that this trickles down to ICE investigators who become disinclined to investigate and send referrals.
This isn't just my assessment, either.
The Trump administration has corrected some of the worst asylum law deficiencies.
The asylum system was regarded as so vulnerable to terrorist infiltration that DHS's 2008-2013 threat assessment's "highest level of concern" was that "terrorists will attempt to defeat border security measures with the goal of inserting operatives and establishing support networks in the United States" by posing as "refugees or asylum seekers ... from countries of special interest for terrorism."
President Donald Trump in recent months has taken steps to correct some of the worst asylum law deficiencies, such as reducing carte blanch credible fear approvals. But these measures appear aimed mainly at Central American entrants. Whether this administration or the ones that follow Trump apply fixes to border entrants from Muslim-majority countries is a question the country will surely be asking when America experiences more Sharifs, or what Europe is still suffering through right now.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.