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Refugee from Iraq with alleged ties to terrorist groups slipped through US immigration system

Omar Ameen. (U.S. Attorney's Office)

When he applied for refugee status in the United States, Omar Abdulsattar Ameen told officials that he was fleeing persecution in his native Iraq. He was cleared by federal officials to live in the U.S. in 2014 and eventually settled in Sacramento, where he worked as an auto mechanic to make ends meet. But authorities say Ameen’s arrest Wednesday revealed an uglier truth: He was the persecutor.

Ameen was arrested at an apartment complex on suspicion of killing a police officer in Iraq in 2014 and is accused of having deep ties to the Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorist groups, according to the Justice Department. His arrest has stirred up disturbing questions about the country’s refugee vetting process, which resettlement agencies and federal officials have insisted is airtight.

But those agencies have declined to explain how exactly Ameen slipped through the system, and — in the minds of many — their silence has reinforced President Donald Trump’s harsh criticisms of the country’s refugee program. But experts say that while the case is one of the most alarming national security breaches involving refugees, it’s extremely rare.

“This is one of the more major screening failures that we’ve seen,” said David Sterman, a policy analyst New America, a nonpartisan think tank. “He should’ve been picked up in the screening process.”

Ameen arrived in Turkey in 2012, where he began the process of applying for refugee status, federal court documents show. He lied repeatedly about the circumstances that led to his departure from Iraq and hid his ties to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, according to the Justice Department. Ameen feared persecution in Iraq, he said, falsely claiming that his brother was kidnapped from the family home and that his father — who died from a cerebral clot — was killed for his involvement in the Iraqi military.

But could it have been as easy as that?

All the federal agencies involved in the refugee vetting process — which fall largely within the State and Homeland Security departments, deferred to the Justice Department or declined to comment. The Justice Department didn’t respond to requests for comment, and it’s unclear what part of the vetting process failed to detect Ameen’s terrorist ties.

Interviews and database searches conducted during the government’s vetting process — which can take up to two years to complete — should have revealed terrorist ties, experts say.

In 2014 Ameen was cleared in Turkey to travel to the U.S. but first went back to his village in Iraq and killed a police officer during an ambush in the man’s home, investigators now say. Witnesses told the FBI that they saw Ameen pass by as part of an armed convoy at the time of the murder, dressed in recognizable ISIS clothing, according to the criminal indictment.

He arrived in the U.S. in November 2014 as a refugee and later attempted to become a legal resident, though his application stalled as the FBI received word about his involvement in the killing and then began its criminal investigation. That investigation shows that Ameen, who faces extradition to Iraq to face trial, was a known terrorist in his native Rawah, where his family allegedly helped establish the installation of al-Qaida, according to the Justice Department.

Though the circumstances of his case are alarming, the vast majority of terrorism-related cases since 9/11 have been homegrown, according to Sterman.

“It’s necessary to remember that hundreds of thousands of people (who never committed crimes) have come in through these programs or similar ones,” he said.

Trump last year signed an executive order that “identified and implemented additional security screening procedures … with additional vetting for certain nationals of certain high-risk countries,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

“Refugee applicants are among the most carefully vetted of all travelers to the United States,” she said.

Iraq is among 11 “high-security” nations that require extra vetting by federal immigration officials. With Chad and Sudan, it was removed from Trump’s latest policy banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries.

The Supreme Court in June upheld Trump’s travel ban, which restricts travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela.

But critics say there are holes in the process.

Ameen’s case “just points out how extraordinarily difficult it is to do the kind of vetting necessary, especially for people coming from countries in disarray and with no functioning government,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration enforcement.

The U.S. resettled only 33,000 refugees last year, the fewest since the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a drastic drop from 2016, when it resettled about 97,000, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

The United Nations starts the refugee resettlement process by referring applications to Resettlement Support Centers, which are part of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The support centers — of which there are nine around the world — prepare eligible refugee applications for consideration.

They collect biographical and other information from applicants to prepare for interviews and security screening. Screening is done by the State and Homeland Security departments and includes multiple government security agencies such as the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI and Defense Department.

From there, officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services review the information collected by Resettlement Support Centers and interview each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve them for resettlement.

All refugees approved for clearance by USCIS undergo a health screening. The support center then requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees.

Breaches like Ameen’s are extremely rare, according to Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

“The refugee vetting system is not perfect, no security system is,” Nowrasteh said in an email. “It’s worth pointing out that since 1975, the U.S. has admitted more than 3 million refugees and they have only killed 3 people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since then.”

But all it takes is one person to do “extraordinary damages,” Mehlman said.

“We discovered that on 9/11,” he said. “There may be others and we just don’t know about them yet.”


©2018 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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