When thousands of Afghans started coming into the U.S. during the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from that country in August, there was an outcry among some on the right that these refugees were not being properly investigated. Near-hysteria hinged upon the idea that terrorists could have just been let into the homeland.
While the administration might not have done its part to properly vet Afghan refugees at the beginning of the evacuation, private individuals are working hard to make sure that the refugees being brought to the U.S. are not threats.
Ben Owen, owner and founder of data intelligence company BlackRifle and the nonprofit Flanders Field, has been volunteering to help vet Afghan refugees. He told The Western Journal that he and his organization are vetting all the Afghans they are helping to get out of danger.
Owen got involved after he was approached on Aug. 15, once the withdrawal had begun, and asked if his group would be interested in helping.
“Primarily seeing if we can use the device-level activity that we use for marketing to kind of vet people overseas,” he said, referring to tracking activity on electronic devices.
At first, Owen said no, thinking he wouldn’t have the technology needed for the job in Afghanistan. But then he found out he could use public data for the vetting.
“So we were 100 percent willing to do it. We just didn’t have the ability to actually do it the way that we thought we would,” Owen said. “But we were able to leverage a lot of publicly available information to essentially do the same thing just in a less high-tech way.”
Owen then received a request from a Marine Corps lieutenant general asking him to help in the process of getting out some Afghans with whom the general had worked. They didn’t necessarily need vetting since they had been cleared by a general, but Owen and his team screened them anyway.
From there, Owen and volunteers that work with him set up a process for screening refugees.
“So we always get proof of life photos and run them through as many different systems and resources as we possibly can to make sure they are who we think they are. And then in those instances, we were using publicly available breach data to make contact with other email addresses and phone numbers that were attached to the device information we knew about them,” Owen said.
They also use publicly available data to contact people and look at browsing behavior “to figure out if, you know, they’re involved with the Taliban, whose side they’re on, how hard-line they are, and stuff like that,” he said.
Even as the situation in Afghanistan grew more desperate during the evacuation and then extremely dangerous once the Taliban took over, Owen and his Flanders Fields nonprofit continued.
They set up safe houses in Afghanistan and continued trying to get those in danger out of the country. Owen was even being contacted by other generals asking him to help get their friends out of Afghanistan.
Owen said that since the moment he became involved in this process, from the volunteer side of things, he has not been aware of anyone coming into the country completely unvetted.
However, he acknowledged that some of the early flights out of Kabul — the ones that garnered so much media attention and that the Biden administration approved — might have had unvetted individuals.
“Those first few flights where we all saw people hanging and falling from the airplanes, there was no vetting at all taking place. And this is a huge pain point for us, as the volunteer organizations, because America has labeled all of the Afghans based on the actions or the totality of these unvetted folks. So we had absolutely nothing to do with that,” Owen said.
He added, “So I do want this story to get out there, and I do want people to understand that the unvetted Afghans had nothing at all to do with the volunteer effort. That was all Washington.”
There have been major concerns over how the Biden administration has been handling vetting, particularly after a number of refugees were charged with crimes this past fall on U.S. military bases where many Afghans have been placed. In September, a federal grand jury in Wisconsin indicted several refugees on charges of assault and gun and drug crimes.
In a statement on Aug. 24, former President Donald Trump raised an alarm by saying that out of the 26,000 people evacuated at the time, only 4,000 were Americans.
“You can be sure that the Taliban, who are now in complete control, didn’t allow the best and brightest to board these evacuation flights … NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!” Trump said.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas voiced similar worries.
“I’m very concerned that the Biden administration is bringing tens of thousands of refugees into the United States without thoroughly vetting them,” he told reporters on Aug. 27, according to Fox News.
Cruz went on to say that this lack of vetting “is an invitation to terrorist attacks here in the United States.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed these concerns about vetting during an Aug. 27 news conference.
“Our security vetting process is so thorough that even as people are vetted before they come — they go through a background check before they come — we implement multiple layers of checks, including a confirmation, in some cases, on landing,” she said.
Whether that’s true or not, the process of getting Afghans out of the country has been a mess. But although it has been a rough process, there are plenty of private individuals who volunteered and are working hard to make sure that the refugees coming into the country are properly vetted. Despite the chaos, it’s not a free-for-all where these volunteers are concerned.
It’s not easy, especially since many Afghans with ties to the U.S. were told to burn any evidence of their connection.
“We had a lot of Afghans that, you know, were instructed to burn any documents that could tie them to the United States. Now the State Department wants documents that tie them to the United States to get them out,” Owen said.
But despite this and many other obstacles, refugees are being vetted by Owen and many other volunteers.
Owen’s wife, Jess, who has been participating in this effort as well, told The Western Journal that they’re working hard to screen the refugees.
“It’s been broadcasted everywhere that, you know, some people that come in that were not vetted. Of course, that was not us. That was when Biden opened floodgates early, way earlier before we had anything to do with it … everybody that we’re bringing in is extremely vetted,” she said.
Jess Owen said the effort is extraordinarily difficult, particularly because of the Taliban’s actions.
“They’re not like the old Taliban, you know. They’re good, they’re new, and they’re starting to take people’s phones. They’ll use the pictures of the families and the family’s phone and act like they’re somebody else,” she said.
Owen and the entire organization are having to be very careful and ask for proof of life pictures (a photo to prove an identity and that the individual is who they say they are), contact family members, use letters of recommendation, look at browsing data, and do everything they can to verify who they are working to rescue.
The problem that the Owens and those working with them are now seeing is that even the Afghans who have all the right documents and should be the ones to get into the U.S. can’t get out of Afghanistan.
Owen said he has Afghans just begging him to “get them to Mexico so they can just walk across.”
He has been demoralized by the fact that there are Afghan military veterans who fought with and for Americans who cannot get into the United States.
“People who fought and bled next to us can’t get here. Meanwhile, anybody from the southern border that crosses, you know, illegally and claims asylum can get in, is the perception,” Owen said.
This is the situation Afghans find themselves in even after the State Department announced in August that it would offer resettlement to Afghans who had aided the U.S. effort.
The statement said that “in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States. This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation.”
Genevieve Springer, who has also been working with Flanders Fields, has been focused on getting a specific group of teachers out. These people, who were working in the English language teaching program, have all the necessary documentation and passports. Some were trained by NATO, and many knew and worked with U.S. officials at the embassy. Springer said many personally knew the U.S. ambassador.
Yet they still can’t get out.
“So all my folks devoted their entire professional careers to these U.S.-led programs that were funded by the U.S. Embassy,” Springer said. “And at this point, they were still under contract, they still had a work contract, an active work contract, under the U.S. Embassy, to be teachers. And all of the upper-level management was evacuated, and our folks were left behind.”
Springer said the embassy officials and Americans with whom her group of teachers had connections have since moved on to new, nicer jobs while these Afghan teachers were left in desperate danger. The Western Journal reached out to these officials for comment but did not receive a response.
Despite all of these obstacles, volunteers at Flanders Fields and other organizations continue to work on screening and helping the thousands of Afghans who aided the U.S. but were then left behind.
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