The mysterious Jordanian flew into South Florida on December 3, 2000, armed only with some fake documents and a ludicrous claim that he was a U.S. citizen. Yet Mohammed Braish, who was 22 years old, still made it past the first obstacle: the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With his Jordanian passport hidden in his bag, he passed the immigration inspection at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Then he walked to the U.S. Customs area, where he found a bathroom. There he hid, hoping to sneak into the United States.
His timing was good. It was nearing 10:00 p.m., when customs closes down for the night. Braish was the very last passenger in the airport's federal area. Once the officers left, he might have dashed out an emergency door leading to the street and, if luck were on his side, could have hailed a taxi and disappeared into America.
But Braish made a mistake. He sneaked out of the latrine before customs closed. When spotted by female officers, he made a last-gasp, futile break for the door before giving up. Then customs officer Irene Rishel, who suspected he was a terrorist, peppered him with questions in Arabic. He worked at a McDonald's restaurant in New York City, where he was born, he told her. Yet Braish spoke only halting English and ultimately admitted to Rishel he was an Islamic Palestinian. A search of his baggage turned up the passport, along with the fake New York birth certificate and driver license he had used moments earlier to fool INS inspectors. He had never even presented the passport to the inspectors, who had admitted him into the country based on the phony documents.
The most alarming thing in his bag was a fraudulent Federal Bureau of Prisons employee identification card. The picture ID, which indicated he worked as a guard at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, was expertly made, right down to a copy of a prison official's signature.
Customs turned Braish back to INS, and the case was handled by immigration agent Frank Parodi, a member of the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force. It isn't known whether investigators determined he was a terrorist, but this past March Braish was convicted of falsely claiming U.S. citizenship and was deported to Jordan.
Yet the fact remains that Braish was stamped into the country by INS and nearly made it into the United States. This incident is one of four instances uncovered by New Times that provide a rare window into the inner workings of INS terrorist interdiction. The cases not only raise serious questions about the conduct and actions of the immigration service but also expose the inability of our foreign consular offices to consistently identify terrorists before issuing visas.
A second case involves a known terrorist and suspected bank robber who was admitted into the country in Houston in 1992. A third revolves around two suspected operatives of the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah; authorities believe the pair helped orchestrate a terror bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured 120 more. They attempted to enter Miami International Airport in 1996 and were eventually deported but not before wrongfully obtaining sensitive law-enforcement documents. Three former INS inspectors, including a high-ranking supervisor, contend the service handled the incident poorly and failed to properly investigate the suspected terrorists.
The fourth case involves another Argentine terror attack, the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy that killed 29 people. A suspect in that attack, who somehow was admitted into the country, is now free in America after bonding out of prison while awaiting an immigration trial.
These revelations come as President Bush and congressional leaders, in light of September 11, begin restructuring the INS in a bid to make it a more vigilant law enforcer. This past month Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a plan to split the immigration agency into two parts -- one for service, the other for law enforcement. Congress also recently passed an eighteen percent funding increase for INS, making the annual budget nearly six billion dollars. Many INS critics -- including some members of Congress and noted immigration experts -- say these measures may help but aren't enough to turn around the beleaguered agency.
The immigration service is charged with the monumental responsibility of weeding terrorists out of nearly 500 million people who enter the United States each year. Other than old-fashioned police experience, the primary tools used in this endeavor are various federal "watch lists," which are compiled on computers by numerous governmental agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department.
Several cases involving terrorists entering the country have shown just how ineffective the computer system can be, but the most famous failure involved Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Even though Rahman, a well-known anti-Western extremist, was on a watch list, he obtained a U.S. visa and was admitted into the country in 1990. Rahman was convicted of planning a rash of attacks in New York City and helping organize the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He is serving a life term in federal prison.
Rahman's case rose to prominence because of his notorious crimes. Julian Alvarado Diaz never gained such infamy, but he had something in common with Rahman. Diaz's name also was on a federal watch list when he was admitted into the United States.
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."
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 suicide 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.
The investigation was overseen by immigration officials at headquarters in Washington, D.C., Gonzalez reports. An agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was automatically alerted to the hit on the watch lists, contacted Gonzalez, who remembers the agent telling him: "Don't let them into this country." And the FBI sent an agent to interview the couple shortly after they were detained. Gonzalez says both El Reda and Bazzi were calm under pressure, especially the woman.
"She was very professional and cold -- she'd obviously been trained and knew exactly what she was doing," Gonzalez recounts. "She said she didn't know anything about it, terrorism or bomb-making or anything. Both of them were very cool, very sophisticated people."
Former inspector José Martinez assisted Gonzalez and processed the couple's belongings, which included a copy of the Koran. "There was close to half a million dollars in hundred-dollar bills in their handbags," he says. "It was a huge amount of money. I had to make copies of all the hundred-dollar bills and it took a very long time. We also found several, at least six or seven, powerful lenses for cameras."
Gonzalez says headquarters instructed him to charge the couple with terrorism and put them on the next flight back to Venezuela.
Martinez still wonders why the pair wasn't investigated further. He says there wasn't time to trace the cash and camera equipment, which he believes were simply returned to them. "That's one of the reasons I left," says Martinez, who retired from INS in 1998 after eleven years of service. "INS, to me, stands for I'm Not Sure.' Every day there were stupidities and mistreatment of cases. Nobody seems to know anything. You can't do your job."
Gonzalez echoes those sentiments. He says he learned the couple was using stolen South American passports, which could have led to criminal charges. He also says he thinks they should have been held for questioning by Argentine officials. "I would imagine that if you have these people in your hands, who are supposed to be slick terrorists, you would want to hold onto them," he says. "But [INS] never followed up on any of these things. They never bothered. They just blew it off."
By the time Gonzalez and Martinez finished the paperwork on the case, the day's last flight to Venezuela had already departed. So the family was held overnight at the Krome Detention Center. The next morning, before escorting the suspected terrorists to the airplane, Gonzalez was confronted by INS supervisor Angel Barbosa, who asked him if there "was a mistake," Gonzalez wrote in a complaint shortly after the incident. Barbosa, Gonzalez continued, told him "these people were not terrorists." (A request to interview Barbosa was denied by INS.)
Gonzalez says he assured Barbosa the pair had been positively identified as suspects in a deadly terrorist attack. While Gonzalez was escorting El Reda and Bazzi to the plane, "they said that an officer, Barbosa, had told them that morning how mistaken INS had been in charging them with this, and ... that they had to clear up this grave mistake," Gonzalez wrote in the complaint.
Gonzalez was incensed that his supervisor had apologized and told the couple the federal government had erred in stopping them. But the worst was yet to come. After Gonzalez had escorted El Reda and Bazzi onto the plane, El Reda ran off the aircraft and complained to Gonzalez that documents Barbosa had given him were no longer in his briefcase. Gonzalez ordered El Reda back onto the plane, and the alleged terrorists were soon on their way to Venezuela.
The documents El Reda had demanded, Gonzalez later learned, had been confiscated during a customs search of the couple's bags that morning. Among them were sensitive INS records and the State Department revocation of El Reda's visa. (On that document was Gonzalez's full name, which Gonzalez didn't want in the hands of a terrorist organization. "I looked at that as possibly putting me in danger," he comments.)
Barbosa also allowed the couple to obtain secret police information, says Jim Alger, former INS assistant port director in Miami. Alger, who was in charge of INS airport operations the day El Reda and Bazzi arrived, says he gave Barbosa a copy of information about the couple from a federal law enforcement watch list. (The reports also are called "lookouts.") Later he found that same information in El Reda's possession. "These lookouts are classified, and at the time we were not even permitted to inform the subject of the existence of a lookout, much less the contents," says Alger, who retired in 1998 after twenty years at INS. "I viewed this as a serious breach of security."
Alger urged INS to criminally investigate the matter. "It's aiding and abetting criminal suspects," he avers.
Instead of prosecuting Barbosa, agency officials transferred him from the airport to the district office, where he is now working in the citizenship division, says John Shewairy, the INS's Florida chief of staff. Shewairy acknowledges that El Reda obtained the sensitive documents but defends the supervisor. "Barbosa was transferred as a result of this incident, but there was no criminal act committed and there was no proof that he gave documents to anyone," Shewairy insists, adding that information from watch lists isn't secret or classified. "Mr. Barbosa was responsible for making sure the documents were held secure and that did not happen and he was held accountable."
Shewairy says Barbosa's alleged apology to El Reda and Bazzi for the "grave mistake" was never an INS concern. "If he apologized, what's wrong with that?" Shewairy asks. "Why can't you be professional in what you do? I don't know if he apologized, and I don't care."
Shewairy also contradicts Gonzalez, saying the couple had proper travel documents, not stolen passports. The real story, he contends, is that INS did its job and kept two suspected terrorists out of the United States. "This was a classic example of the system working as it should," Shewairy says.
Former State Department official Richard Krieger vehemently disagrees with that assessment. "First, they should have investigated them further," he says. "They should have made every effort to find out what was going on with them and not released them in less than 24 hours, let alone give them sensitive documents. That is egregious. [Barbosa] should have been prosecuted or, at the very least, barred from ever working for the government again."
Krieger also says he's appalled that the suspected terrorists were deported on a commercial jetliner without federal escorts. In all, he concludes, it's one of the worst cases of investigative ineptitude he's seen. But Alger says the lenient treatment of Barbosa doesn't surprise him. "Laws were ignored by INS at the airport every day," reports the former immigration official.
Gonzalez adds that Barbosa's continuing employment with INS is an example of the agency protecting its supervisors -- even when national security is at stake.
INS agents nabbed Mohammed Abass Malik in Los Angeles in August 2000. But immigration charges filed against him (which are not public) were only a pretext for something much more serious: Malik, a Pakistani, was wanted for questioning by Argentine government officials in the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.
Argentine court documents imply Malik was spotted near the building "instants before" the bombing.
After detaining Malik, federal agents questioned him about the bombing in the presence of Argentine officials, says INS spokesman Russ Bergeron. Following that interview, "the Argentine government officials had no further interest in this individual," Bergeron says.
Because of that, Malik was allowed to go free on $15,000 bond while he awaits the outcome of his immigration trial, Bergeron says. But attorney Marta Nercellas, who's intimately familiar with the bombing investigation, could not confirm that the Argentine government has cleared Malik.
Malik's present whereabouts are unknown, though Bergeron says a hearing is scheduled in his immigration case this coming February. And the crucial question remains: Is it a good idea to allow an alien who is under suspicion for a terror attack to go free in America? Bergeron defends the release. "Being quote-unquote suspected' of a crime does not constitute legal grounds for anything," the spokesman says. "There is no legal finding which formally accuses this individual of a crime, and at best there was some interest in questioning him about what he might have known."
There is no excuse for allowing a terror suspect like Malik to go free, says Steven Camarota, who is the research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. But he adds that releasing potentially dangerous aliens seems to be our immigration system's "standard operating procedure."
"That needs to change," Camarota says. "Part of the problem is a lack of detention space, but we are at war, and this is outrageous and absurd. They should hold people in cases like these, but instead they let them out."
The Mohammed Braish case is another piece of excellent work by INS, Shewairy insists. The facts of the December 2000 case, however, strongly indicate otherwise. And Shewairy's account of it was riddled with inaccuracies, New Times found.
Braish's itinerary before arriving in Fort Lauderdale was as suspicious as the story he told postarrival. His first stop after leaving Jordan was Madrid, according to federal court records. It is now known that a terrorist cell suspected to have been involved in the September 11 attacks was operating in the Spanish capital at the time -- and that suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta visited that city twice before the hijackings. Braish also stayed for a time in Cuba before coming to Fort Lauderdale via Kingston, Jamaica.
Customs officer Irene Rishel first noticed Braish's name on a passenger list she obtained before the plane left Jamaica, according to sources in customs and INS. Rishel, who wouldn't comment for this article, put Braish on a customs watch list because she had a hunch the young Arab, traveling alone from the island on the last flight of the night, might be a terrorist, sources say.
According to Shewairy, when Braish tried to pass the immigration inspection, an inspector found his name on the computerized watch list. "Mr. Braish was never admitted into the U.S., and he didn't wander alone or hide out anywhere," Shewairy declares. "He was taken to customs by INS. He was escorted to customs, and there he was questioned and returned to INS."
Shewairy's account is contradicted by court documents and a customs spokeswoman. In an affidavit INS terrorism investigator Frank Parodi wrote that Braish indeed was "admitted to the United States" by the immigration service based on false documents and his declaration that he was a U.S. citizen. Parodi also wrote that customs officers caught Braish as he tried to slip out an emergency door. Customs spokeswoman Norma Morfa confirmed that Braish had been admitted by INS and walked into the customs area without an escort.
"He had encountered INS, and they admitted him with his fake documents," Morfa says. "He was the very last passenger in the customs area, and he was seen by one of the inspectors trying to leave the area."
When Rishel questioned Braish, "the things he had told INS didn't jibe with what he presented to her," Morfa explains.
After being confronted with this information, INS spokeswoman Patricia Mancha, on behalf of Shewairy, conceded that inspectors had allowed Braish's entry and that he wasn't escorted to customs, which is located near the INS area.
When Rishel determined that Braish was a Muslim Palestinian born in Jordan and that his travel documents were fake, she handed him over to INS. During the investigation Braish admitted to INS investigator Parodi that he bought the Jordanian passport and phony New York documents for $2500 from a woman identified as Amal Habibi in his home city of Amman, Jordan, according to court records. Parodi's sworn report doesn't specify where Braish obtained the fake Bureau of Prisons ID card, which had the same picture on it as the fraudulent passport and driver license.
The prison ID most alarms immigration expert Krieger. "You can get fake birth certificates and driver's licenses anywhere," he says. "But that prison card isn't common and it indicates to me that he was working for a terrorist organization and may have had a special purpose for being in the United States involving the prison."
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A spokesman for the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Mia Ward, says Braish is the only suspect known to have had such a card and that the case is currently under investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.
Braish "was prevented from entering this country and was held accountable according to the laws of the United States," Shewairy stated in a written statement to New Times. "The system and the process worked."
Krieger again disagrees. "It was a screwup by INS tremendously," he says. "Here this guy was stamped in by INS, he was almost in the country, and he was unescorted. The primary inspector should have looked at those documents and verified their authenticity. But he didn't. Why? Because it's easier to let the guy slide."