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Iraqi refugee in Phoenix arrested as alleged leader of Al Qaeda assassination cell

A 42-year old Iraqi man working as a driving instructor in Phoenix, Arizonawas arrested last week as federal agents responded to an extradition request by the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government alleges that Ali Yousif Ahmed Al-Nouri was the “emir” of an Al Qaeda cell that specialized in assassinating Iraqi police in 2006, according to a now unsealed complaint written by the Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Allison. The complaint cites evidence provided by the Iraqi government that Ahmed, as he is identified, participated in at least two killings of police officers in 2006.
Later that year one of the alleged cell members was captured by coalition forces and turned over to Iraqi custody, where he identified Ahmed as one of the cell members.
Ahmed came to the United States in 2008 as a refugee.
The arrest, which has received minimal press coverage, is a hammer blow to long running claims that U.S. vetting procedures for refugees are extensive and thorough. The quality of vetting conducted for those admitted to the United States became a major issue of the 2016 presidential campaign after President Donald Trump called for “extreme vetting” of refugees and other immigrants. The former Obama Administration Director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) argued that the existing refugee screening system was sufficient to “identify any problematic history of an applicant.
If the checks truly identify any “problematic history,” however, Ahmed’s background should have stood out, as allegations of his participation in Al Qaeda first surfaced in 2006, only two years before he relocated to the United States. In 2009, the FBI would arrest two Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky for their role in planting roadside IEDs killing U.S. troops. In 2011, the Iraqi refugee flow would be temporary halted due to concerns of security threats. In 2017, the FBI would say it was investigating “dozens” of similar cases.
Critics of the refugee vetting program have argued that DHS officers were prohibited from asking questions about a refugee applicant’s ideological views or membership in groups recognized as a conveyer belt to terrorism.
The Obama Administration also issued rules which focused on removing barriers to entry under the guise of speeding up visa processing. The Trump administration rescinded those rules in 2017 as part of the effort to beef up vetting.
While there is every indication that U.S. law enforcement acted swiftly and appropriately to address this case, it is a reminder that despite claims to the contrary, U.S. vetting for refugees has been far from fool-proof. The Trump Administration can and should note the Ali Yousif Ahmed Al-Nouri case as an argument in favor of continuing to enhance refugee screenings.

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