Admitting Terror, Part 3

Four more cases of egregious ineptitude at the Immigration and Naturalization Service

Diaz obtained a business visa in Mexico City and flew into Houston International Airport on February 23, 1992. When the 44-year-old tried to pass immigration, he came up on the Treasury Department's list as a "known terrorist." According to the INS criminal database, Diaz had been a member of a communist revolutionary group (which is itself an excludable offense) and was a suspected bank robber.

"[Diaz] was a member of the Liga Leninista Espartaco.... He went to Cuba by invitation of the Castro government ... and was arrest [sic] for trying to rob a bank to obtain money for student political activities," an INS intelligence officer wrote in the database.

How Diaz obtained his visa is confidential information, says Valerie Chittenden, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. But Chittenden says consular offices don't have direct access to federal law-enforcement watch lists and must rely on incomplete State Department databases. Therefore officials often have no way of knowing whether some applicants are suspected terrorists or criminals. "If we know that the person is a suspected terrorist, we will not issue them a visa," Chittenden says. "But we have had an ongoing problem with other federal agencies not sharing information with us."

Richard Krieger knows a lot about INS failures; he tracks down war criminals for a living
Richard Krieger knows a lot about INS failures; he tracks down war criminals for a living


INS stamped Diaz into the country with permission to stay for three weeks (records indicate he planned to stay in Jekyll Island, Georgia). INS spokesman Russ Bergeron says Diaz was granted a special waiver to enter the United States legally but won't elaborate, citing privacy issues.

New Times provided INS documents regarding Diaz to Richard Krieger, a former State Department official and one of the nation's leading immigration watchdogs. Krieger runs a nonprofit organization in Boca Raton called International Education Mission, which tracks foreign war criminals in the United States. "Unless [Diaz] was here to testify in a criminal investigation," Krieger says, "there never should have been a visa issued and he never should have been allowed into the United States."

The fact that Diaz was admitted as a businessman indicates his visit here had nothing to do with a law-enforcement matter. Authorities don't know Diaz's present whereabouts or whether he has left the United States.

While allowing a suspected communist terrorist and bank robber into the country might seem outrageous, Diaz was never known to have had any designs on the United States. Hezbollah, however, is a different matter. The organization is suspected in numerous bombings aimed at this country, including the 1983 Beirut attacks on the American Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks, which between them killed 304 people.

In 1996, after Israeli military strikes in Lebanon sparked outrage in the Middle East, the U.S. government secretly issued an alert for potential attacks by Hezbollah and other terror groups. According to a classified Federal Aviation Administration notice issued on April 18, 1996, Hezbollah representatives "declared publicly that students at the group's ďsuicide schools' are ready to dedicate themselves to ... operations against U.S. and Israeli targets."

A month later two suspected Hezbollah operatives named Tarek El Reda and Linda Bazzi tried to enter the country through Miami International Airport. It was a bold attempt. The married couple -- who were traveling with a young boy, lots of cash, and a Koran -- are suspects in the deadliest terror attack in Latin-American history.

At 9:57 on the morning of July 18, 1994, a Renault van loaded with 660 pounds of explosives blew up the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) community center in downtown Buenos Aires. The seven-story building collapsed, killing 85 people and injuring another 120. That devastation came two years after the Israeli embassy bombing that killed 29.

Twenty Argentine suspects in the AMIA bombing are now on trial, including several police officers and immigration officials, but none of the defendants masterminded the attack. The suspected ringleaders -- Hezbollah radicals and Iranian diplomats -- have never been caught.

While their names have never appeared in the media, El Reda and Bazzi are named in numerous investigative reports, says Marta Nercellas, an attorney representing the bombing victims at the trial in Buenos Aires. Nercellas reports that the couple, at the time of the AMIA attack, was known to have been dividing time between the Paraguayan outlaw town of Ciudad del Este, a place widely regarded as an outpost of terrorist operations, and Buenos Aires. Authorities suspect they funded Hezbollah through a black-market electronics business in Ciudad Del Este, the lawyer says.

El Reda and Bazzi also were known associates of a leading suspect in the attack, former Iranian cultural attaché Mohsen Rabbani, Nercellas says, adding that the couple stayed in the same building as Rabbani in Buenos Aires. The attorney also says that prosecutors in the trial are gathering evidence on numerous suspects, including El Reda and Bazzi, and will soon make a determination whether to extradite them. (New Times was unable to locate the couple.)

El Reda and Bazzi, traveling with a six-year-old boy believed to be their son, arrived in Miami from Venezuela on May 24, 1996. El Reda had somehow been granted a U.S. visa, according to INS records. It isn't clear whether Bazzi had a visa.

When they tried to pass through INS, the inspector found their names on a federal watch list, and the couple was sent to "hard secondary," where an investigation began under the direction of Frank Gonzalez, a former member of the INS Terrorism, Drugs, and Fraud Unit. "The [watch lists] said they were involved in terrorist attacks and that they were very dangerous," Gonzalez recalls.

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