A smuggler with ties to the Islamic State reportedly helped more than a dozen migrants from Uzbekistan enter the United States, where they sought asylum, an exclusive CNN report claimed this week.
In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is working to “identify and assess” the individuals who entered the U.S., but that they had identified no specific plot. U.S. officials, the statement said, do not believe the Uzbek nationals had any terrorist ties — but at least one individual involved in the smuggling network they took advantage of was believed to have ties to a terrorist organization, which both CNN and the Associated Press identified as the Islamic State (also called ISIS).
CNN reported that the smuggler “is not believed to be a member of the terror group, but more like an independent contractor who has personal sympathies with the organization, according to U.S. officials.” They added, “The intelligence community now believes it is unlikely that he was assisting these individuals at the behest of ISIS. Most are believed to be seeking a better life in the United States.”
Law enforcement and intelligence officials speaking to CNN “privately expressed concerns that an unusual increase in the number of migrants from Central Asia, a region that isn’t known to be a major source of refugees, didn’t spark more investigation by U.S. border authorities.”
Watson’s statement, as reported by CNN, claimed that the once the intelligence became available “homeland security officials also began detaining, vetting and, ultimately, expediting the removal of other migrants encountered at the southern border who ‘fit the profile associated with individuals who were facilitated by this network.’”
The Uzbek nationals who entered the United States did so sometime “earlier this year,” per CNN. It’s unclear when that intelligence became available, but there were reports as early as December 2022 (and mish-mish, the Uzbek phrase for “rumors,” before that).
On January 3, the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan posted a statement on its Telegram channel acknowledging that it had “received questions about entering the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border.” The message warned “that individuals who attempt to journey to the United States in an irregular manner put themselves at risk of becoming victims of crime, human trafficking, and financial scams.”
That statement came weeks after the Uzbek Foreign Ministry commented on December 13, 2022, on the abduction of seven Uzbeks in Mexico. The details were murky, but the seven Uzbeks were reportedly kidnapped by a group of criminals who demanded $1,200 from the victims. No one answered the obvious question of what seven Uzbeks were doing in Gomez-Palacio, a city in northeastern Durango state, in the first place.
A few days earlier, on December 11, as I recounted in the February 2023 issue of The Diplomat Magazine:
…Uzbekistan’s state security service issued a statement on Telegram that two people in Samarkand had been caught accepting a total of $20,000 in advance payments to send two other people to the United States via “illegal means.” One person was allegedly charging $25,000 to send another via Spain and Mexico into the U.S.; a second was allegedly charging a total of $30,000 to route someone via Turkey, the UAE, and then Mexico.
Skip forward and in June 2023, Kun.uz reported that 14 Uzbek citizens trying to enter the United States illegally had gotten into a car accident when their overcrowded van rolled over in Chiapas, a Mexican state that borders Guatemala. They were reportedly en route to Ejido Hidalgo, a village in Baja California, a Mexican state that borders the U.S. state of California.
While the latest story – of a human smuggler with prior business dealings with the Islamic State shuttling Uzbeks to the U.S. border – may have come out of nowhere for many in the national security commentariat, it isn’t a surprise to those who have been paying attention to Central Asia.
Uzbeks are regularly among the top pools of applicants to the “green card lottery” – the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) program – demonstrating sustained interest in moving to the United States. Writing about Uzbeks using Mexico to gain access to the United States back in February, I argued: “When ambitions are high but opportunities minimal, people become desperate. And so, while Uzbeks are far from the majority of migrants probing the southern U.S. border for weaknesses there are some who take the chance, and clearly those willing to make a buck off their desperation – both in Uzbekistan and in Mexico.”
And those willing to make a buck off the desperation of their countrymen aren’t usually picky about their customers.
Perversely, domestic U.S. political wrangling over the matter of the southern border and immigration broadly makes it a more attractive route. If you watch Fox News, the border is wide open for walk-ins. The inability of American politicians to honestly discuss immigration reform only makes it more likely that people, both the desperate and the villainous, will attempt illegal means. This in turn makes the work of border security nearly impossible.
All reports so far stress that U.S. authorities have no reason to believe that the Uzbeks who gained entry to the United States have evil intentions. If they’d had a simpler legal pathway to immigrate or seek asylum, the business of human traffickers would dry up and only the terrorists would suffer.