Why Bangladeshi Migrants Pose a National Security Risk of Terrorism at the U.S. Southwest Border

By Todd Bensman

AUSTIN, Texas — In a court proceeding that passed with little notice this month, a Bangladeshi national pleaded guilty in a Laredo, Texas federal courtroom for smuggling hundreds of fellow citizens through Mexico and over the U.S. Border. But the few isolated media reports about it beg elaboration, as does an unpacked comment by U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick in a prepared Department of Justice press release, that “border security is national security.”

Mohamad Milon Miah Hossain, 39, operated his smuggling ring out of the southern Mexican city of Tapachula on the border with Guatemala. Last August, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations agents nabbed him from a flight at Houston’s George Bush International Airport, capping a two-year intercontinental investigation that is ongoing.

Mohamad and a Bangladeshi co-conspirator based in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, Moktar Hossain, busted the previous November 2018, formed a final link in a much longer chain that moved hundreds of Bangladeshis to the American border. What the American prosecutors didn’t explain was that this migration flow of more than 3,000 just since 2017 poses a national security risk because Bangladesh teems with ISIS and al-Qaeda members, followers of a radical Islamist political party now out of power, homegrown jihadists of other various strands, and foreign terrorist fighters returning from Syria with combat experience. The Muslim-majority country is regarded as so rife with Islamic extremists and violent ideology that its government has mounted a “zero tolerance” campaign to prevent it from becoming a terrorist safe haven, with U.S. backing.

The arrival at the American border of thousands of strangers from that country, whose personal histories are unknown and often unknowable, obviously speaks to the potential for terrorist infiltration, a border vulnerability that is rarely given its due alongside drug trafficking and the mass migration of Central American economic migrants. In the practice of homeland security, it doesn’t matter that terrorist infiltration terminating in actual murder and property destruction hasn’t happened yet to the United States; it has on a wide scale to Europe in very recent years and is viewed anyway as an ever-present potential warranting time, treasure, and prosecutions like these.

A migrant at Mama Africa’s Tapachula, Mexico restaurant

Despite these helpful American busts, the Bangladeshis are still coming. I know first-hand because I met and interviewed some in Costa Rica in late 2018 and again in January when I visited Mohamad’s digs in Tapachula. I went to the spot where the Americans and their Mexican federal partners arrested Mohamad and even interviewed his former employer, “Mama Africa,” who still runs a restaurant well-known to U.S.-border-bound “extra-continental” migrants as the place to go for advice about the roads north. Bangladeshis still filled the place, and Mama Africa explained that Somalis, Yemenis and Iranians still showed up every day too for their cheap meals and “free” advice.

Terrorism Presence in Bangladesh

U.S.-bound Bangladeshi migrant in Costa Rica interviewed by author in December 2018

Homeland security workers always feel a professional — and moral — obligation to find out who people really are when they’re arriving at the Southwest border from countries like Bangladesh. Intelligence types who work, for instance, in the National Counterterrorism Center, Customs and Border Protection Office of Intelligence, the National Targeting Center, and DHS’s Intelligence and Analysis want to know first what’s going on in the home country, terrorism-wise. And it’s not been looking good these days in Bangladesh, according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, considering these takeaways from the September 2018 report:

· “Dozens” of plots by terrorist groups inside the country have been foiled while several were successful inside the country in 2017 alone.

· AQIS and ISIS claimed responsibility for nearly 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015.

· Terrorist organizations used social media to “spread their ideologies and solicit followers” throughout Bangladesh.

· Bangladeshi militants have been featured in multiple publications, videos and websites associated with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Those bullet points alone provide a clue as to why higher risk must be assigned to migrants from Bangladesh on their way, often with no identification documents, to the southern border. And those State Department observations just skim the surface.

Terror Organizations Swarmed Rich Recruitment Grounds

Bangladesh is ground zero in a battle for recruiting grounds seen as rich by rival jihadist organizations. Starting in about 2014, ISIS and AQIS began aggressive recruitment campaigns for adherents, suicide bombers, and fighters for distant campaigns. In 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS and called for militants from Bangladesh, as well as from parts of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to join it, with aspirations of striking the U.S. homeland. By many counts, both groups were pretty successful. Untold dozens of Bangladeshis joined ISIS in Syria while others have committed terror attacks in Europe and in the United States.

After returning to New York from a visit to Bangladesh in September 2017, visa holder Akayed Ullah detonated a bomb at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, prompting the U.S. government to set up a Bangladesh-based “Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime” unit to fight terrorism in that country.

The U.S. embassy in Dhaka became so concerned with terrorist activity in the country that it has ordered employee families removed from the country. Some U.S. special operations forces are now deployed with the Bangladeshi coast guard.

A problem for homeland security to untangle at the border with Bangladeshis is whether they were members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP slants hard to Islamism and ruled Bangladesh until 2009 with extremist coalition partners that were U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The current ruling party is the Awami League, which for several years has engaged in what it has described as a counterterrorism crackdown on BNP. Many Bangladeshis who arrive at the border are affiliated with the BNP and ask for asylum based on the crackdown.

Canada’s high court only fairly recently ruled that “BNP is or was a terrorist organization,” in upholding a decision by an immigration officer denying permanent residency to a BNP member. Likewise, in an effort to screen and deter potential BNP extremists coming across the U.S. southern border, DHS took the position that BNP was an undesignated “Tier III terrorist organization”, which is a designation under the 2001 USA Patriot Act that allows immigration judges and lower level immigration officials to reject BNP members for asylum processes and visas.

The designation is proving somewhat controversial, with the Board of Immigration Appeals either reversing immigration judge’s rulings confirming the Tier III designation or affirming judges’ findings that it is not.

An Awful Responsibility

ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and other agencies, such as the U.S. Southern Command, occupy the tip of a spear countering smuggling organizations that transport migrants from Muslim-majority countries. The agency has logged an impressive series of Latin American smuggling network disruptions over the past year, as outlined in here about another big smuggler bust in Brazil.

Each new U.S.-based prosecution of such smugglers (about 25 since 9/11, by my count) offers a unique opportunity for federal authorities to educate the American public about how smugglers present a national security problem at the U.S. border, via the expansive intercontinental bridges over which Islamic extremists could travel there. Networks that have moved thousands of Bangladeshis over the American border are, obviously by design, shadowed in mystery so these are rare opportunities.

Perhaps new smugglers will fill the breach to keep the Bangladeshis conveyor belt moving. But also maybe not when law enforcement heat is obviously set on high.

Either way, it must be noted that HSI and federal prosecutors appropriately frame busts like these, which occur largely out of sight and mind of the American public, as the counterterrorism operations they are and explain, fully, why that is.

Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter @BensmanTodd



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Todd Bensman

Todd Bensman


Todd Bensman is Senior National Security Fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, a 9-year counterterrorism intelligence manager, and 23-year journalist