U.S. military investigators are asking law enforcement nationwide to be on the lookout for some of the 17 Afghan military members who went AWOL while training in Texas over the past 18 months.
Air Force spokesman Gary Emery said Friday the Afghanis disappeared from Lackland Air Force Base one-by-one. The men were vetted by the military and aren't believed to be connected to one another or to any terrorist group, Emery said. All had been studying English at the Defense Language Institute as a precursor to training sponsored by the U.S. and Afghan militaries.
The disappearances were reported to immigration and federal law enforcement when they occurred, but a nationwide alert was issued Wednesday. It wasn't immediately clear what prompted the alert.
According to NBC News, nearly half of the AWOL Afghans have already been picked up or turned themselves in to authorities since they went missing.
"We have no reason to believe they had any malicious intent at all," when they disappeared from the base, an Air Force official told NBC.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn wrote a letter to Air Force Secretary Mike Donley on Friday, expressing his "serious concern" about the situation and about the fact that his office never received any notification about this "potential national security threat."
Cornyn also said that it is a mistake to approach this breach as an immigration problem, rather than as a national security issue.
According to NBC News, when one of these foreign nationals goes AWOL, the U.S. military takes a series of steps to find them, including: report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, revoke their visas, de-activate any U.S. military ID cards, notify the U.S. military service that sponsored their training, and revoke their travel orders or any airline ticket back to their native country.
These aren't the first students to go AWOL from the Defense Language Institute at Lackland. An Iraqi man went AWOL last year and later showed up in Dallas, requesting asylum in the U.S. Others from Tunisia and Guinea Bissau have also gone AWOL from the institute, according to NBC.
The Defense Language Institute trains about 4,000 foreign students from all over the world every year.