IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Man on terror watchlist was released by Border Patrol

With border security funding blocked in Congress, the case illustrates the challenges U.S. officials face in identifying migrants who may pose national security threats.
Get more newsLiveon

SAN ANTONIO — An Afghan migrant on the terrorist watchlist spent nearly a year inside the U.S. after he was apprehended and released by Border Patrol agents last year, U.S. officials told NBC News. The man was arrested in February and then released last month again by an immigration judge who was not told he was a national security threat. 

Mohammad Kharwin, 48, was freed on bond as he awaited an immigration hearing in Texas, scheduled for 2025, U.S. officials said. There were no restrictions on his movements inside the U.S.

Late Thursday, Kharwin was taken into custody again by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, a Homeland Security spokesperson said. A source familiar with the matter said that, "based on the information currently available, there is no reason to believe this individual entered the country as part of a terrorist mission."

Kharwin was initially apprehended on March 10, 2023, near San Ysidro, California, after having crossed the Mexico-U.S. border illegally.

Border agents suspected he was on the U.S. terrorist watchlist when he was apprehended because one piece of information matched a person on the list. But the agents lacked corroborating information, which officials declined to describe, that would confirm Kharwin was the person they suspected, U.S. officials said. 

After it processed Kharwin and took his biometric data, Customs and Border Protection released him as it would any other migrant, without alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement about possible terrorism ties, U.S. officials said.  

Kharwin was referred to ICE’s Alternatives to Detention Program, requiring him to check in periodically by phone with an ICE officer. He was able to apply for asylum and work authorization and fly domestically in the U.S., the officials said.

Kharwin is on the national terrorist watchlist maintained by the FBI, which includes the names of 1.8 million people considered potential security risks. The database indicates he is a member of Hezb-e-Islami, or HIG, a political and paramilitary organization that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.

According to the national intelligence director’s office, HIG is a “virulently anti-Western insurgent group” that sought to overturn the Western-backed Afghan government before its fall in 2021. 

HIG was responsible for attacks in Afghanistan that killed at least nine American soldiers and civilians from 2013 to 2015. The group is not seen as a top threat in terms of attacks inside the U.S.

The Biden administration has said it prioritizes migrants considered threats to national security for detention and deportation. After this article was published, a DHS spokesperson said CBP did not “knowingly” release a person on the terrorist watchlist. 

“At the time of the initial encounter, the information in the record could not have provided a conclusive match," the spokesperson said. "As soon as there was information to suggest that this individual was of concern, he was taken into custody by ICE. Law enforcement has been tracking the matter closely to protect against public safety risks.”

In February, the FBI passed information to ICE indicating that Kharwin had potential terrorist ties and might pose a risk to national security. Soon after, nearly a year after he was released near the border, ICE agents conducted an operation and arrested Kharwin in San Antonio on Feb. 28, according to sources familiar with the case.

Kharwin was held in ICE detention until his court hearing March 28, when he appeared before an immigration judge in Pearsall, Texas. Immigration judges decide whether migrants can stay legally in the U.S., continue to be detained or be deported. 

When ICE prosecutors appeared in court, they did not share some classified information with the judge that purportedly showed Kharwin's ties to HIG, two U.S. officials said. Prosecutors argued that he should be detained without bond because he was a flight risk, but they did not say he was a national security risk, according to sources familiar with the case. 

The judge ordered Kharwin released on bond. The Justice Department, which oversees immigration judges and courts, declined to name the judge or respond to a request for official comment. 

On March 30, ICE released Kharwin after he paid the $12,000 bond mandated by the immigration judge, which is higher than most bonds for migrants awaiting immigration court dates. 

The judge placed no restrictions on his movements inside the U.S. but required him to appear for his next court hearing in a year. ICE has not appealed the judge’s decision, sources familiar with the case said.The case illustrates the challenges U.S. officials face in identifying migrants who may pose national security threats. Kharwin’s case is the third incident in two years in which Customs and Border Protection has released migrants with suspected terrorist ties.  

A migrant with ties to the Somali terror group al-Shabaab was arrested this year in Minnesota after having lived in the U.S. for nearly a year, the Daily Caller reported.

In that case, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center made a “redetermination” that he should be placed on the watchlist after he was released, the Daily Caller reported. 

A report from the DHS inspector general in June reviewed an incident from April 2022 in which a migrant was released because information that would have linked him to the watchlist was not properly gathered. The report, which did not disclose the migrant's nationality, found that CBP sent a request for more information to the wrong email address.

In both cases, however, the migrants suspected of terrorist ties were taken into custody. 

Jason Houser, former chief of staff for ICE in the Biden administration and a senior adviser for counterterrorism for CBP in the Obama administration, said it is rare for terrorists to cross the border and even more unusual for CBP to release someone who turns out to be a threat. 

“We need to make sure we have processes in place to handle them, make sure they’re detained and we know exactly where they are,” he said. 

Houser said that DHS is now better equipped to detect terrorists and that the number of them trying to enter the U.S. is still very low, even with record numbers of crossings at the border. 

“Any terrorist or terrorist-linked individual trying to come into this country is unacceptable,” Houser said. “But we have built across the U.S. government federal law enforcement, the intelligence community, the ability to identify these individuals.”

Jason Houser, former chief of staff for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that it’s rare to see people with terrorism ties come across the U.S. border but that more resources are needed.
Jason Houser, former chief of staff for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that it’s rare to see people with terrorism ties come across the U.S. border but that more resources are needed. NBC News

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has repeatedly turned to the threat of terrorism at the border as a reason he should be elected president again.

“Terrorists are pouring in, unchecked, from all over the world,” Trump wrote on Truth Social this year.

An NBC News analysis found that the percentage of migrants on the terrorist watchlist as a proportion of the total number of CBP encounters across U.S. borders was slightly lower during the Biden administration than during the Trump administration. It remained an average of 0.02% during the Biden administration, lower than the 0.05% under Trump.

In fiscal year 2023, which ended in late September and included a surge in border crossings, CBP had 736 encounters with migrants on the terrorist watchlist at U.S. borders, the most in the past six years. The second highest year was 2019, during the Trump administration, when CBP had 541 encounters with migrants on the watchlist.

It is not known whether any migrants on the watchlist were released into the U.S. during the Trump administration.

The vetting systems used to screen migrants at the border during the Biden administration are virtually the same as those used under Trump. When a migrant comes across the border between legal ports of entry, a Border Patrol agent collects the migrant’s name, date of birth, nationality, biometric information (like fingerprints) and photos. An agent then checks a series of national security databases to see whether there is a criminal background or whether the migrant is on the terrorist watchlist.

Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said in a letter to DHS late last year that the terrorism watchlist is overly broad. They said having too many people on the list who pose little or no threat to the U.S. can erode the rights of travelers and prove ineffective at stopping those who mean to do harm on U.S. soil.

With a bipartisan immigration reform package blocked in Congress by pro-Trump Republicans, additional border security funding that might address the problems shown by the recent cases is unlikely. 

There are fears, meanwhile, that tens of thousands of migrants are evading agents as they cross the southern border. 

​​“That is a national security threat,” Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens recently told CBS News. “They’re exploiting a vulnerability that’s on our border right now.” 

This article was updated after publication to include statements from a DHS spokesperson and a source that Kharwin had been taken into custody, that there was no reason to believe he was on a terrorist mission, and to clarify the procedures CBP followed during his release.