By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
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 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, 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 that he was an Islamic Palestinian. A search of his baggage turned up the passport, along with the fake New York birth certificate and driver's 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 the copy of a prison official's signature.
Customs turned Braish back to the 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 the INS and nearly made it into the United States. This incident is one of four instances uncovered by New Timesthat 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 they 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 terrorist group Hizballah; authorities believe the pair helped orchestrate a terrorist 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 that the service handled the incident poorly and failed to investigate the suspected terrorists properly.
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 United States, 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 the 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 cases detailed in this article show that fundamental change is needed to effectively stop and investigate the terrorists at our gates.
The immigration service is charged with the monumental responsibility of weeding terrorists (and other undesirables) 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," or "lookouts," that 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.