This past weekend, Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue before he was killed by an FBI Hostage Rescue Team.
Akram was allowed entry to the United States despite having an extensive criminal record that neither U.S. intelligence nor British intelligence agencies flagged. The situation underscores several failures of intelligence and immigration systems currently in place.
Five weeks ago, Akram landed in the United States at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He likely entered to the country under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The program allows citizens of 40 countries that are considered low national security threats and have low levels of illegal immigration the ability to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa or in-person screening.
Akram qualified for this program despite having an extensive criminal record—with charges and/or red flags including:
• In 1996, he served a 6-month jail sentence for violent disorder following a baseball bat attack on a member of his extended family.
• In 1997, he served another jail term for destruction of private property.
• In 1999, he was jailed for harassment and, after release, jailed again for violating the terms of his release.
• In September 2001, he was banned from a local courthouse for threatening staff on multiple occasions, including on days when he was not due in court. According to reports, he would rant about the September 11 attacks.
• In 2012, he was arrested for stealing a phone and robbing a man of £5,000.
• While serving time in prison, he was reported by the prison Imam for “concerning and disruptive behavior” at Friday prayers.
• He regularly visited Pakistan and was reportedly a member of Tablighi Jamaat— an Islamic organization banned in several countries and known for its ties to terrorism.
• He regularly participated in anti-Semitic demonstrations and marched for the release of terrorist prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
The VWP has raised national security concerns in recent years. Despite France and Belgium qualifying for the 40-country list, the large-scale terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and in Belgium in March 2016, were perpetrated mainly by French and Belgian citizens. Just weeks before this incident, FAIR warned about the potential security risks posed by German nationals entering under VWP. Its new government recently made it less difficult to obtain citizenship, making it easier for potential security threats access to the U.S.
Akram took hostages in an effort to secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is currently serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas. Siddiqui, also known as “Lady al Qaeda,” was convicted in 2010 on seven charges including attempted murder and armed assault on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
While reports indicate that Akram was not flagged by U.S. and British intelligence agencies, he was the subject of an MI5 British investigation in late 2020. However, by the time he flew to the U.S., he was assessed to no longer be a threat. How he was designated as a non-threat in a matter of months despite an extensive criminal record and worrisome past remains unclear.
President Biden’s revocation of certain Trump executive orders—including one that sought to enhance the vetting of foreign nationals traveling to the United States—may have given Akram easier access into the country.
This revoked order called to protect “citizens from terrorist attacks and other public-safety threats” with “screening and vetting protocols” and “information-sharing and identify management” from “foreign governments.”
While many elements of the case are still developing, it is clear that several immigration and intelligence systems currently in place failed to prevent Akram from entering the country. U.S. intelligence agencies should have flagged his extensive criminal past and prohibited him from entering the country. Based on his record, MI5 shouldn’t have designated Akram as a non-threat. President Biden and his administration should have not revoked an executive order that enhanced the vetting of foreign nationals traveling to the United States—a move that counters the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.
Bottom line: What happened this past weekend shows that we must continue to strengthen vetting and that lawmakers and the media must demand answers to these flaws in order to mitigate any future threats.