A December 2 Washington Post story about Joe Biden’s pledge to immediately do away with the travel restrictions on 13 countries – the inaccurately named but popularly known “Muslim Travel Ban”— perpetuated an unsupported Democratic partisan assertion that should not go unchallenged.
The thrice-revised travel restrictions list enacted by President Donald Trump shortly after taking office currently restricts travel from 13 countries, including diplomatically recalcitrant nations like Myanmar, Venezuela, and North Korea as well as Muslim-majority nations where terrorist groups operate like Syria, Yemen, Chad, Sudan, Libya, Iran, and Somalia. The stated grounds for restricting visas from these 13 pre-modern or diplomatically hostile countries is that they can’t or won’t help with intelligence.
But the Post story by immigration reporter Abigail Hauslohner casually dismissed this foundational rationale, without evidence, and in doing so perpetuated a demonstrably untrue Democratic narrative when she wrote:
National security experts have noted that the administration has presented scant evidence of terrorism threats originating with citizens of any of the banned countries who obtained visas.
The newspaper goes on to include, again unchallenged, a false-narrative-supporting quote from Biden’s campaign website that:
Prohibiting Muslims from entering the country is morally wrong, and there is no intelligence or evidence that suggests it makes our nation more secure.
The Post and Biden campaign’s narrative of a zero-net impact of the ban on national security, however, is eminently challengeable. The following are just four cases – among many others like them – that illustrate how undesired, potentially dangerous travelers from some of the travel-restricted countries slipped through the pre-ban system, and what the United States can expect if Biden returns the country to the pre-ban system. We can know about these terrorist perpetrators because, luckily, they were caught and prosecuted in a public court system – where records are available to newspaper reporters.
Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan – Sudan
Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan
Under the later Trump travel restrictions, the Khartoum, Sudan-born Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan would not have been able to travel to the United States at all with his violent jihadist ideology that would eventually lead to his 2017 imprisonment on terrorism charges.
But the door was wide open under President Barack Obama on June 1, 2012, when the 21-year-old Elhassan arrived with his siblings and mother who, during an extended earlier trip to the United States for medical treatment, had managed to arrange temporary Legal Permanent Residence visas for them all. At the time, Sudan would never have helped the United States with any sort of vetting; it was listed as a State Sponsor of Terror.
Within a year of his arrival, Elhassan was all over social media espousing violent, anti-American jihad under a pseudonym, according to court records. In 2013, for instance, he created a Facebook page characterizing himself as a dedicated jihadist using the Arabic words for “solo wolf” imposed over an image of a stalking wolf. In 2014, he established communications with the notorious Sudanese cleric Sheikh Mohammed Ali al Jazouli.
“The establishment of the governance of Allah on earth will be achieved only by fighting in the name of Allah,” he posted, for instance, on September 13, 2013, a sentencing memorandum showed. Another posting to the sheikh in June 2014 read, in part, “Praise be to Allah here with you is a sleeper cell. Sheikh pray for us for success and rewards.”
The FBI got on to him in late 2015 and by 2016, just before Trump was elected, Elhassan pleaded guilty to plotting with a co-conspirator to “chop heads” with ISIS in Syria. Shortly before Trump implemented his travel ban, a Virginia judge sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
Mustafa Alowemer – Syria
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. It is little wonder that by May 2019, he stood federally indictedfor plotting to bomb a church in north Pittsburgh.
Mustafa Alowemer, 22, is accused of plotting to bomb the Legacy International Worship Center in Pittsburgh.
Again, American adjudicators looking at his refugee application in 2015 could not have called up friendly Syrian government officials for intelligence; for good reason, Syria was listed as a State Sponsor of Terror, was overtly hostile toward the U.S., and worked hard to harbor terrorists from U.S. intelligence.
The Obama administration took the usual gamble and granted Alowemer his refugee card. He flew into New York on Aug. 16, 2016 and started high school in Pittsburgh.
But he arrived already a full-throated ISIS acolyte. He told fellow ISIS adherents online once that, while in a refugee camp in next-door Jordan, he had consorted with Jordanian mujahideen and was arrested with them three times “because I was one of the supporters,” a later 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. By May 2019, he stood federally indicted for plotting to bomb a Nigerian Christian church in Pittsburgh “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.”
When the 20-something married Somalian 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.
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 like Al-Shabaab, either, in a place where a great many did belong.
The Obama-era United States threw the dice and gave the couple visas on claims that Al-Shabaab had victimized them and even blew off Mohammed’s hands in a terror attack. They resettled in Tucson. Except that all along, they’d harbored the secret that they actually were members and supporters of Al-Shabaab and so were members of their extended family.
By 2018, federal prosecutors charged the couple with 11 counts of repeatedly lying on their refugee applications and subsequent permanent residency applications about everything. Under FBI interrogation, Osman admitted that he was a veteran 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. Mohammed even knew that his brother helped orchestrate a deadly May 24, 2014 suicide bombing of a Djibouti restaurant and went on the lam, court records alleged.
Osman helped his brother run by sending as much as $32,000.
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 status.”
Gaafar Muhammed Ebrahim Al-Wazer – Yemen
Gaafar Muhammed Ebrahim Al-Wazer made it to the United States when there were no restrictions on travel from Yemen during the Obama administration in 2014. There was no better security vetting for applicants then than now, either.
That year, Al-Wazer applied for a short-term student visa at the U.S. embassy in Saan’a. He swore on documents and during an interview with a State Department consular adjudicator that he’d never belonged to any armed militia group, like the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis whose virulently anti-American “Ansar Allah” battalions had just seized the capital in an armed coup.
Al-Wazer with his band of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Photo from federal criminal complaint.
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.
Except that he had lied, a 2020 federal indictment now alleges.
In May 2016, the FBI discovered via a tip that Al-Wazer had fought with the Houthi rebels and, on his Facebook page, wished “death to all Americans, especially Jews.” He vowed online to jihadists he would stay on the path of jihad.
The Bureau found online pictures showing a heavily armed Al-Wazer and his brother with Houthi rebels in remote mountainous settings of Yemen.
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.”
Parting Note to The Washington Post and Its Reporters
Get new “national security officials” for sources. Do not pretend that you know things you know nothing about. Research for facts before sitting down to write. Then, let those facts, rather than partisan feelings, guide your reporting.
Correct the record when you are wrong and incomplete, as you are now about the national security implications of lifting Trump’s travel ban.
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.