Are Terrorists Exploiting Refugee Programs?

by Nolan Rappaport

Hearing before the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence: Terrorist Exploitation of Refugee Programs [1]
(December 4, 2012)

Statement of Chairman Patrick Meehan (R-PA)[2]. An insurgency in Iraq between 2004 and 2007 produced substantial civilian displacement and emigration. In response to this humanitarian crisis, Congress passed legislation that gave Iraqis who had helped the U.S. government or military the opportunity to receive special refugee status and resettlement in the United States.

Comment. The United States only provided refuge for a small part of the displaced Iraqi population. Iraq's neighbors absorbed approximately 2 million refugees fleeing violence and instability in their home country. Jordan and Syria were the primary destinations for the displaced. Both countries had difficulty trying to provide adequate services for the largely unwanted refugee populations[3]. But it was risky for the United States to accept even a small number of refugees from Iraq. According to the National Counterterrorism Center's 2011 Report on Terrorism, which was released on March 12, 2012, more than 10,000 terrorist attacks occurred in 2011, resulting in more than 12,500 deaths, and 3,063 of those deaths (24.5%) occurred in Iraq, a number surpassed in only one country, Afghanistan, where terrorists killed 3,353 people[4]. The precautions taken to ensure that terrorists would not be included among the refugees reflect the seriousness with which the United States government regarded this threat.

In May 2011, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan, two of the Iraqi nationals who were given special refugee status, were arrested and accused by the FBI of plotting to send weapons and money to Al Qaeda in Iraq. They got their refugee status by making false statements in their applications. Neither had worked for a U.S. organization in Iraq, so they should not have received special refugee status.

Comments. Hammadi pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to terrorists; attempting to provide material support to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI); conspiracy to transfer, possess, and export Stinger missiles; and making false statements in immigration matters. Hammadi's co-defendant, Alwan, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad; conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) against U.S. nationals abroad; distributing information on the manufacture and use of improvised explosive devices; attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to AQI; and conspiracy to transfer, possess, and export Stinger missiles[5].

When FBI Director Robert Mueller testified last year before the House Intelligence Committee, he said that he is concerned about the special refugees who have an association with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Immigration authorities have given the FBI roughly 300 names of Iraqi refugees for further investigation.

Comments. The United States government's efforts to prevent terrorists from coming to the United States in the Special Refugee Program seem to have paid off. Hammadi and Alwan seem to be the only ones, and they were caught. According to the 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counterterrorism Center, no U.S. citizens were killed by terrorist attacks in the United States in 2011. Seventeen U.S. citizens worldwide, however, were killed by terrorist attacks that year. These deaths occurred in Afghanistan (15), Jerusalem (1), and Iraq (1)[6].

The U.S. government policy of resettling refugees, especially those who risked their lives helping our soldiers and diplomats, is important. The purpose of this hearing is to identify any remaining gaps in the security screening process that need to be remedied, and to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department have the necessary tools and resources to ensure security.

Comment. The concerns Chairman Meehan raises about the adequacy of background investigations are likely to come up again when serious negotiations begin on a legalization program. It arguably is even more difficult to do an adequate background investigation on an undocumented alien who is applying for legalization in the United States than it was to do them on Iraqi refugee applicants who were applying in their own country.

Testimony of Lawrence F. Bartlett, Director, Office of Refugee Admissions (State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).[7]

Since 1975, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has welcomed more than three million refugees to the United States. For decades, American communities have opened their hearts, homes, and neighborhoods to refugees from around the world. Our responsibility is to ensure that they do so with continued confidence in the security of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, a responsibility the State Department shares with DHS.

The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration conducts preliminary overseas pre-screening of refugee applicants for U.S. admissions, collecting pertinent biographic information needed for consular, law enforcement and intelligence reviews. The State Department checks all refugee applicants against the Consular Lookout and Support System known as CLASS, which has security information from the FBI Terrorist Screening Center and DHS as well as certain intelligence agencies. Some refugee applications are separated out on the basis of classified parameters for a Security Advisory Opinion. This involves requests to additional law enforcement and intelligence agencies for any information they might have on the applicants.

Comment. These checks only have value when refugee applicants are known to the intelligence or the law enforcement community and the agency that has the information is willing to share it. Information sharing has been a major problem among American law enforcement and intelligence agencies and probably still is a serious problem. According to the 911 Commission, the FBI might have prevented 911 from happening if the CIA had shared information it had about two of the hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Tawfiq bin Attash. They were being sought by the FBI in connection with an investigation of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. See the list of Operational Opportunities on pages 355-56 of the 911 Report[8]. We will never know what would have happened if the FBI had arrested and questioned Mihdhar and Tawfiq and investigated their activities in the United States.

Statement of Barbara Strack, Chief, Refugee Affairs Division (Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)[9].

The State Department is responsible for the overarching coordination and management of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including the decision on which refugees around the world are granted access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for resettlement consideration. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducts individual, in-person interviews with the applicants to determine their eligibility for refugee status and whether they are otherwise admissible to the United States.

In addition to the basic training required of all USCIS officers, refugee officers receive five weeks of specialized training that includes comprehensive instruction on all aspects of the job, including refugee law, grounds of inadmissibility, fraud detection and prevention, security protocols, interviewing techniques, credibility analysis, and country conditions research. Before deploying, overseas officers also receive pre-departure training that focuses on the specific population that they will be interviewing. This includes information on the types of refugee claims that they are likely to hear, detailed country of origin information, and updates on any fraud trends or security issues that have been identified. USCIS officers who adjudicate Iraqi refugee applications receive an additional two-day training session on country specific issues, including briefings from outside experts from the intelligence, policy, and academic communities.

Refugee Affairs Division policy requires officers to submit certain categories of sensitive cases-including certain national security-related cases-to Refugee Affairs Division Headquarters to obtain concurrence prior to the issuance of a decision.

Security Checks. Biographic checks against the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)-which includes terrorist watch list information-are initiated at the time of prescreening by the State Department's contractors.

Comments. CLASS is a database used by consular officers abroad to screen visa applicants for travel to the United States. It includes information taken from applications for a non-immigrant visa; applications for an immigrant visa overseas; from the Opinion Information Service; the Waiver Review System; the Consular Consolidated Database; American Citizen Services; independent name checks; the Travel Document Issuance System; the Passport Lookout Tracking System. It also has data from outside of the State Department, which comes from the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol); Health and Human Services; DHS; the U.S. Marshall Service; the FBI; the Terrorist Screening Center; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Department of Defense; and the Treasury Enforcement and Communication System[10]. If this database had existed when the 911 hijackers sought admission to the United States, would it have provided information that could have identified them as terrorists?

The biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview. These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and screened and enrolled in DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the United States and overseas-including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy.

Comments. IAFIS is a national fingerprint and criminal history system that responds to requests 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to help the FBI's local, state, and federal partners-and its own investigators-solve and prevent crime and catch criminals and terrorists. IAFIS provides automated fingerprint search capabilities, latent search capability, electronic image storage, and electronic exchange of fingerprints and responses[11]. IDENT is a repository of biometric and biographic data such as fingerprints, names, and dates of birth of foreign visitors, visa applicants, and certain criminals collected by various federal entities. It maintains information on about 350 million encounters since its creation in 2004. IDENT is maintained and shared with federal law enforcement and intelligence entities to assist in identifying foreign visitors and determining whether they pose a threat to national security[12].

USCIS has developed two key partnerships. First, it works with the Department of Defense (DOD) to augment its biometric screening by checking against the DOD Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), which has fingerprint records captured in theatre in Iraq and is a valuable resource for us to identify a wide array of relevant information. This includes data ranging from individuals who have been detained by U.S. forces to those who have been employed by U.S. forces. In addition, USCIS works with DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) to identify potential screening capabilities and obtain critical intelligence information, as well as to enlist its services with USCIS' enhanced officer-training program.

The vetting regime includes pre-departure checks that are conducted before a refugee applicant is scheduled to travel to the United States. Because there can be a considerable lapse of time between the initial vetting and the time of travel, these checks are important to identify new derogatory information that may not have been available when the initial security checks were conducted.

A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.

The Refugee Admissions Pipeline. DHS' commitment to a rigorous vetting regime for refugee applicants and the challenges of implementing enhancements to guard against national security risks had a negative impact on refugee admissions levels in FY 2011 and FY 2012. In both years, we fell short of the admissions ceiling authorized by the President, and we recognize that many eligible refugee applicants have had considerable wait times before receiving a final decision on their cases. Refugee admission levels began to rebound in the second half of FY 2012. In FY 2012, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program admitted a total of 58,238 refugees. This compares favorably to FY 2011's admission total of 56,424.

Comments. A legalization program could have more than 20 times as many applicants. It is certain to take a very long time to process the legalization applications, especially if serious background investigations are performed. This is why Greg Siskind and I have suggested a pre-registration program to provide a temporary, limited form of lawful status for legalization applicants when they file their applications. Essentially, it would just allow them to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation on noncriminal grounds while they wait for their applications to be processed[13].

Current Refugee Environment in the Middle East and Africa. USCIS officers conduct refugee status interviews for applicants from more than 60 countries each year, though the vast majority of these applicants are currently Iraqi, Bhutanese and Burmese nationals.

In FY 2012, more than12,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States, and since 2007, more than 71,000 Iraqi nationals have been resettled, many of whom have ties to the United States through work or family. Small numbers of Iranian and Afghani refugee applicants are also resettled through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program -1,758 and 481 respectively for FY 2012. In Africa, the vast majority of refugee applicants are Somali, Congolese, Eritrean, Sudanese, and Ethiopian nationals. Applicants from Africa accounted for 10,608 of the refugees admitted in FY 2012.

Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The SIV program is separate and distinct from the refugee resettlement program, though certain individuals may be eligible to apply for both at the same time. SIV applicants are subject to the same enhanced security vetting protocols as refugee applicants.

There are three programs under which an individual may apply for an SIV. The Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters Program allows up to 50 principal SIVs each fiscal year for Iraqi and Afghan translators or interpreters who worked for the U.S. military or under Chief of Mission (COM) authority. The Iraqi Affiliates Program authorizes up to 5,000 principal SIVs per year from FY 2008 through FY 2012 for Iraqis who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government. And the Afghan Allies Program authorizes up to 1,500 SIVs annually from FY 2009 through FY 2013 for Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government.

Individuals who wish to apply for a SIV must first obtain COM approval from the State Department, or in the case of the Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters Program, the approval can come from an appropriate U.S. military general or flag officer. These letters certify that the individual has the requisite service and otherwise meets the general qualifications of the SIV program under which he or she is applying.

USCIS conducts a biographic security check through DHS' TECS (formerly known as the Treasury Enforcement Communications System). If USCIS approves a SIV petition for an alien living outside the United States, USCIS forwards the case to the State Department's National Visa Center, which routes the case to the appropriate consulate overseas for interview of the petitioner and visa issuance. Prior to issuing the SIV, the State Department conducts additional biographic and biometric security checks-the same security vetting regime employed by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Comments. TECS is both an information-sharing platform, which allows users to access different databases that may be maintained on the platform or accessed through the platform, and the name of a system of records that includes temporary and permanent enforcement, inspection, and operational records relevant to the antiterrorism and law enforcement mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and numerous other federal agencies that it supports. TECS not only provides a platform for interaction between these systems and defined TECS users, but also serves as a data repository to support law enforcement lookouts, border screening, and reporting for CBP's primary and secondary inspection processes[14].

Statement of Dawn Scalici, Deputy Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis (Department of Homeland Security (DHS))[15]. The Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) office provides intelligence support to USCIS to help them leverage the full capabilities of the intelligence community (IC). We have worked closely with the Refugee Affairs Division to ensure all relevant intelligence is available and considered when screening applicants for refugee resettlement to the United States.

At USCIS' request, I&A has worked closely with key IC partners to develop more robust security screening processes-first for Iraqi refugee applicants and then expanding these security checks to all refugee applicant age 14 to 65. Each agency involved in this process is committed to minimizing the burden to the thousands of refugees who seek our protection and assistance while still conducting the most thorough security checks.

Over the past five years, DHS has prevented the travel to the U.S. of a number of individuals who would have posed a threat as a result of the security regime we have in place. For example, we have identified and denied refugee resettlement to the United States to applicants who were detained for several years by the U.S. military on terrorism-related grounds in Iraq; involved in terrorist or insurgent attacks against U.S., Iraqi, or coalition forces; linked to fingerprints found on unexploded improvised explosive devices; and fired from employment with the U.S. Government in Iraq on the grounds that they were linked to terrorism.

I&A has worked with the FBI, NCTC, and other agencies to identify areas where intelligence information can be used to further strengthen existing security vetting procedures. The robust security screening employed in the refugee context-and in the SIV screening mechanisms, which are modeled on it-has allowed the Department to leverage lessons learned to strengthen our collaboration with law enforcement, national security, and intelligence communities. When we institute new security checks, we re-examine individuals who have already have been admitted to the United States.

Comments. As I have indicated above, I think it was a serious risk to bring Iraqi nationals to the United States in a special refugee program, but the risk seems to have been handled extremely well by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. And I think it was a risk worth taking. I was an immigration counsel on the House Judiciary Committee when the program for Iraqi interpreters was going through the legislative process. I spoke to Marines who worked with the interpreters in Iraq. They were grateful for the assistance the interpreters provided and very concerned about what would happen to them and their families if they were not given refuge in the United States.


1 Subcommittee Hearing: Terrorist Exploitation of Refugee Programs
2 Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA)
3Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: A Deepening Humanitarian Crisis
4 2011 Report on Terrorism at p. 9
5 Iraqi National Pleads Guilty to 12-Count Terrorism Indictment in Kentucky
6 U.S. Private Citizen Victims
7Lawrence F. Bartlett
8 911 Report
9 Barbara L. Strack
10 Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)
11 Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS)
12 Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT)
13 Pre-Registration: A Proposal to Kick-Start CIR
15 Dawn Scalici

About The Author

Nolan Rappaport was a counsel on the House Judiciary Committee. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals. He also has been a policy advisor for the DHS Office of Information Sharing and Collaboration under a contract with TKC Communications, and he has spent time in private practice as an immigration lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson. He is retired now, but he does temporary and part time work.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.