ENDING TRUMP TRAVEL BAN PORTENDS RETURN TO IMMIGRATION SECURITY
By Todd Bensman
Presumed President-Elect Joe Biden vowed during the campaign that on "day
one" he would rescind President Donald Trump's "vile" and "Islamophobic"
restrictions on U.S. entry from 13 countries, the policy often referred to
as the "Muslim Travel Ban."
But repealing the president's executive order, which applies to 13
countries with terrorism and espionage concerns, portends a return to a
very recent era when U.S. security and immigration agencies often were
unable to vet travelers from those particular nations.
Trump's executive order eliminated the problem of vetting the histories,
backgrounds, hearts and minds of immigrant visa applicants from ungoverned
nations like Yemen, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, where record-keeping
systems that can track terrorists (let alone marriages and births), are
severely dysfunctional, or don't exist. Other countries were listed because
their governments are hostile and uncooperative on terrorism or espionage
vetting matters, like Syria, Myanmar, North Korea and Venezuela. These
nations would never help U.S. security establishment filter out terrorists
If Biden repeals the ban, how would the United States ensure applicants
from pre-modern countries where violent Islamic terrorist organizations
operate would be kept out of the country?
To date, neither the campaign nor the fledgling transition team has
acknowledged the problem that Trump's travel ban ostensibly addressed,
defaulting mainly to assertions that its only real purpose was to satisfy
an anti-Muslim animus.
Whatever the motive, America's inability to detect malevolent travelers
will become problematic again after travel from the countries is restored.
So what does that security vetting failure look like, and what are the
Three of many cases where undesired, potentially dangerous travelers
slipped through the pre-ban system illustrate what this could look like
When 17-year-old Mustafa Alowemer applied for refugee status in Jordan's
refugee camps at the Syrian civil war's height in 2016, adjudicators in the
refugee-friendly Obama State Department had no one to call for a security
check in Syria. Alowemer flew into New York on Aug. 16, 2016 and started
high school in Pittsburgh. By May 2019, he stood federally indicted for
plotting to bomb a church in north Pittsburgh attended by Nigerian
Christians "to inspire other ISIS supporters in the United States to join
together and commit similar acts..." and also "to take revenge for our
[ISIS] brothers in Nigeria."
It turns out that Alowemer was already a full-fledged ISIS acolyte before
applying for his refugee slip to the United States. A month before his
arrest, he told fellow ISIS adherents that he had consorted with Jordanian
mujahedeen and was arrested with them three times "because I was one of the
supporters," an FBI affidavit said.
After discussing his ideas to blow up the church with undercover federal
operatives, he went about collecting components of his bomb, sent a video
proclaiming his allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and
considered a variety of targets. Alowemer settled on leaving a large bomb
inside a bag at the church to be detonated by remote-control.
Alowemer told the undercover agent before his arrest: "We just want to
destroy it all."
The U.S.-designated ISIS-affiliated terrorist group al-Shabaab is
ubiquitous in Somalia and has controlled territory. That's one reason that
Somalis who apply for refugee resettlement have long presented a stark
security vetting challenge to American officials. From 1991-2011, the
anarchy of Somalia's civil war meant no one issued birth certificates,
driver's licenses, diplomas, passports, marriage or divorce documents, or
any other government records reflecting that citizens even existed. There
was no one to keep tabs on who belonged to terrorist groups, either, in a
place where a great many did belong.
When the 20-something married couple Mohamed Abdirahman Osman and his wife
Zeinab Abdirahman Mohamad applied in 2013 for U.S. refugee resettlement,
embassy workers could not simply call up the current Somali government and
ask for a background check or intelligence share.
The couple received visas and resettled in Tucson.
In 2018, federal prosecutors charged the couple with 11 counts of
repeatedly lying on their refugee applications and subsequent permanent
residency applications. Just about everything they said was a lie, the
indictment alleges, including their real names and nationalities, their
claim that al-Shabaab had kidnapped the couple and held them hostage, and
that Mohamed Osman lost his hands in a terrorist attack. Osman was not even
from Somalia; he was an Ethiopian, a Christian country he surely knew would
provide intelligence about him to any inquiring American intelligence
Under FBI interrogation, Osman admitted that he was a blooded al-Shabaab
fighter, as was his brother and extended family. The FBI learned that Osman
lost his hands in 2009 while handling explosives during combat operations
for al-Shabaab in the capital of Mogadishu. The brother remained a fighter
in good standing and committed a 2014 terror attack that Osman and Zeinab
knew about after they were in America. Osman sent his brother as much as
$32,000 before and after that brother orchestrated the deadly May 24, 2014
suicide bombing of a Djibouti restaurant and had to flee justice, court
The couple pleaded guilty to immigration fraud in April, agreeing to
deportation in lieu of prison. Osman was sent back to Somalia in August. At
one point during the prosecution, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly K.
Anderson argued that "if the defendant had been truthful on that
application, he and his family would never have been granted refugee
U.S. resident reputed to be Gaafar Muhammed Ebrahim Al-Wazer with a band of
Houthi rebels in Yemen. Photo from criminal complaint.
Gaafar Muhammed Ebrahim Al-Wazer made it to the United States when there
were no restrictions on travel from Yemen.
A federal indictment alleges that Al-Wazer applied for a short-term student
visa at the U.S. embassy in Saan'a in 2014. He allegedly swore on the
documents and during an interview with a State Department consular
adjudicator that he had never belonged to an armed militia group, nor
received military training. He swore he'd never belonged to any particular
tribe, like the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis whose virulently
anti-American "Ansar Allah" battalions had just seized the capital in an
Al-Wazer's application to study English was approved the same day as his
interview, court records show. The 25-year-old came to America in December
2014 and settled in Altoona, Pa.
Not until May 2016 did the FBI discover via a tip that Al-Wazer had fought
with the rebels. The suspect allegedly unburdened himself of increasingly
fervent hatreds on his Facebook page, where he wished "death to all
Americans, especially Jews," and vowed that he would stay on the path of
The Bureau found online pictures showing a heavily armed Al-Wazer and his
brother with Houthi rebels in remote mountainous settings of Yemen.
Al-Wazer with his band of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Photo from federal
One message under a group photo of fighters that Al-Wazer, who was among
them, "liked" said that "these men have taken an oath to stay on their path
and...will never be humiliated on the path to jihad. The author further
wishes death upon the United States and Israel and wishes victory to Islam.
Discerning the Malevolent from the Benevolent
These cases and others should serve as reminders to incoming policy-makers
that what Trump often notoriously called "extreme vetting" should remain a
If it won't retain a travel ban, the new administration should consider
pressing forward with the National Vetting Center, established under a
separate 2017 executive order. It aims to make more information from
intelligence and law enforcement agencies accessible for vetting visa and
While it is up and running under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it
remains an early work in progress, officials have told me. The center is
envisioned as "a collaborative, interagency effort to provide a clearer
picture of threats to border security ... or public safety posed by
individuals seeking to transit our borders or exploit our immigration
But travelers from the 13 countries and others will remain a vetting
challenge even with the center running on all engines, given the absence of
information in origin countries. There can be little doubt that Syrians,
Somalis, Yemenites and others from the travel-restricted restricted
countries have suffered and deserve American sanctuary if their claims can
Unfortunately, the true hearts, minds and experiences of most people coming
from these countries probably can't ever be plumbed or verified. And so the
value of security provided by Trump's blanket exclusions vies against the
value of Biden's emphasis on open-gates.
The greatest value of Trump's travel restrictions list was that it
eliminated the high-stakes gamble that America's security vetting systems
could suss out terrorist actors from countries with such governance
problems. Perhaps its greatest weakness, arguably, was that it did not
include enough countries with records-keeping deficiencies or diplomatic
The coming Biden administration has its reasons for moving the country from
Trump's play-it-safe table game to the gambler's table, but losses there
are a more certain outcome.