Home News Southern border, terrorism fears and the arrest of 8 Tajik men

Southern border, terrorism fears and the arrest of 8 Tajik men

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When eight Tajik men sought asylum at the southwestern U.S. border a few months ago, federal authorities had no reason to suspect they were desperate migrants fleeing an impoverished, war-torn country in Central Asia.

But soon after they entered the country, the FBI discovered that they might have links to the Islamic State and launched a counterterrorism investigation.

This was no ordinary investigation. Officials said dozens of personnel were closely monitoring the men as they traveled to different cities across the U.S. The White House provided regular updates.

The bureau wanted to gather information about a broader terrorist network. But concerns about a possible attack at at least one location led to the arrest of all eight men earlier this month on immigration charges, according to several U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about a possible attack at at least one location. So far, none of the men have faced any terrorism-related charges.

The drama comes at a time of heightened anxiety among U.S. officials, who for months have warned that the conflict in Gaza and unrest in Central Asia could spill over into the United States, most likely in the form of small militant groups acting on their own or lone wolf terrorists.

The latest details of the FBI investigation and the decision to arrest the men highlight the multitude of terrorist threats facing national security agencies, some from well-known international powers and others from emerging hotspots such as Tajikistan.

In December, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a television interview that the FBI had received “over 1,800 threat reports or other types of tips or leads that have some connection or association to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza” since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Many of the cases were resolved without incident, she added.

National security officials are deeply concerned about the pace of the threat.

“Looking back on my law enforcement career, it’s hard for me to think of a time when we’ve faced so many different threats to our public safety and our national security at the same time, but that’s what I’m sitting here with today,” Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, told Congress this month, days before the men were arrested.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

For years, Republicans and conservative media have described the potential danger of terrorists sneaking into the United States from the southwest border along with tens of thousands of Latin American migrants. But those concerns have mostly not materialized.

It’s unclear whether the men were actually planning a terrorist attack — either directed by or inspired by the Islamic State. But the resources the FBI has devoted to the case underscore how seriously the bureau is taking the threat.

The arrests come at a time of heightened political attention on border security. The issue has become a major bone of contention between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, who often spoke of “immigrant crime.”

Still, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, urged that the incident be put into context, warning that there have been “zero lethal terrorist attacks by illegal immigrants crossing our southern border” and “zero American casualties caused by foreign terrorists entering the country illegally.”

Tajik members of the Islamic State, especially its offshoot ISIS-K, have been increasingly prominent in recent terrorist attacks. In the past year alone, Tajiks have been involved in Attacks in Russia, Iran, and Türkiyeand plots that were foiled in Europe.

ISIS-K, or Islamic State Khorasan Province, was founded in Afghanistan in 2015 by disaffected elements of the Pakistani Taliban who converted to a more violent form of Islam. By 2021, its numbers had halved to around 1,500 to 2,000, thanks to U.S. airstrikes and Afghan commando raids that killed many of the group’s leaders.

Soon after the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government that year, the group revived. In August 2021, during the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, ISIS-K launched a suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport, killing 13 US troops and up to 170 civilians.

ISIS-K has since revived its global ambitions, and more than half of its thousands of fighters are Tajiks, experts say.

Russia is a frequent target of ISIS, but ISIS-K has also vowed to attack Americans and the United States.

Most details of the FBI investigation remain secret, but interviews with several U.S. officials familiar with the case provide more insights.

Officials said the men began entering the U.S. through the Southern California and Texas borders in 2023. All were ethnic Tajiks, but at least one held a Russian passport. Some of them may have known each other.

They fled to Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, which have large Central Asian populations. The FBI sought to track them down after determining they might have ties to or sympathize with the Islamic State.

That set off a massive investigation reminiscent of the FBI’s post-9/11 effort to track multiple terrorism suspects involved in foiled attacks, such as a 2009 plot to target a New York subway. In previous high-priority terrorism investigations, the FBI has relied on aerial surveillance and a key warrantless surveillance program called Section 702 to gather intelligence.

The program authorizes the government to collect information about the overseas communications of foreigners targeted for intelligence purposes, including when those individuals interact with Americans.

For the FBI and Wray, the stakes are extremely high. If any of these individuals slip away and carry out a terrorist attack, the FBI will be blamed for not arresting them sooner and face even harsher criticism from Republicans. However, there is a reason for this. Arrests will make it more difficult to gather information about potential networks.

Officials said that in the case of the Tajik terrorists, it was still unclear what the men were doing at the time, whether they were directed by terrorist organizations outside the United States or were inspired to carry out the attack on their own.

Whatever the FBI ultimately learned about the men’s whereabouts prompted the bureau’s counterterrorism officers to take them off the street and arrest them on immigration charges. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI arrested the unnamed men over the weekend of June 8 in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Federal authorities have not yet disclosed public Investigators therefore believed that the men might be involved in terrorist activities. At the time, law enforcement officials said only that the men were arrested after unspecified “negative information” was discovered.

In a separate case, attorneys representing a group of Uzbek nationals sued the U.S. government in federal court in February, claiming that immigrants from the Central Asian country were being targeted for detention at the southern border.

Officials say Tajiks would almost certainly be deported if they were detained solely on immigration charges and not other federal crimes.

Before the suspect was arrested, Mr. Wray hinted at the threat in testimony to Congress, even as the FBI was quietly monitoring the suspect.

“But what is increasingly concerning is the potential for a coordinated attack here at home, similar to the ISIS-K attack we saw at a Russian concert hall in March,” Mr Wray said.

Several of the suspects arrested in the attacks near Moscow that killed more than 130 people were Tajiks.

Julian E. Barnes and Glenn Trash Contributed reporting.

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