FBI agents reportedly search for Uzbeks helped into US by smuggler with IS ties
Federal agents are reportedly trailing a group of more than a dozen Uzbek nationals who entered the US as asylum seekers aided by a smuggler with ties to Isis.
The extraordinary episode, which multiple US officials confirmed to CNN on Tuesday, was considered so serious that it required an emergency intelligence report to senior Biden administration figures.
The migrants entered the country at the southern border earlier this year, and dispersed. The FBI is working to “identify and assess” all of the individuals, according to a national security council (NSC) statement sent to CNN, suggesting that the agency does not know the whereabouts of all of them.
The statement stressed that no specific terror plot or threat had been identified. But an unspecified number of the individuals were being “closely scrutinized” for possible criminal activity. No evidence has yet been uncovered to justify detaining anybody, the statement said.
The incident was outlined to members of Biden’s cabinet soon after the details were established, according to CNN. The Department of Homeland Security screened the group after they requested asylum and found “no information in any of the intelligence community’s databases that raised any red flags”, the network added.
All were subsequently released into the US pending a court date.
The FBI later learned of the existence of a human smuggling network helping Uzbek nationals travel to the US, which “included at least one individual with connections to Isis”.
The agency alerted its field offices around the country, and agents were tasked with finding the migrants and looking into their backgrounds. The FBI also spoke with officials in Turkey, where the alleged smuggler was arrested with others involved with the reported operation.
Those officials were able to obtain information from him useful to the US investigation, the sources told CNN.
Adrienne Watson, a NSC spokesperson, said in the statement that authorities concluded there was no immediate cause for alarm.
“There was no indication – and remains no indication – that any of the individuals facilitated by this network have a connection to a foreign terrorist organization, or are engaged in plotting a terrorist attack in the US,” Watson said.
The episode, however, has prompted a crackdown by immigration and security officials. A number of migrants at the southern border who “fit the profile associated with individuals who were facilitated by this network”, according to Watson, have been “detained, vetted or marked for expedited removal”.
In its own statement, the FBI said that “while the [agency] has not identified a specific terrorism plot associated with foreign nationals who recently entered the US … we always work with our field offices across the country, as well as our domestic and international partners, to identify any potential illegal activity or terrorism threats.”
The smuggler with reported ties to Isis, meanwhile, is also under investigation, even though he is not physically present in the US.
The sources told CNN he was believed to be more of a sympathizer with the terrorist group than an operative, and was not acting for them when he assisted the immigrants.
Likewise, the intelligence community, according to CNN, does not believe the individuals entered the country with malicious intent. “Most are believed to be seeking a better life in the US,” the report says.
Watson’s statement added that the US was “working with foreign partners to shut down travel routes associated with the smuggling network”.
“Whenever we have indicators that criminal actors, such as those involved in human smuggling, have connections to terrorism, we work diligently with our partners to investigate and understand how foreign terrorist organizations may attempt to exploit their capabilities so that we can best mitigate any risk to the American public,” the FBI statement said.