Today's urgent question: How did the Dallas synagogue terrorist get into the US in the first place?

AP Photo/Jake Bleiberg

It’s a good question, and the New York Post isn’t the only one raising it. The now-deceased radical Islamist terrorist that took hostages at a Dallas-area synagogue had a track record in the UK that should have raised red flags on entry to the US. So how did Malik Faisal Akram, who had a history of mental illness and had been at one point considered a potential terrorist threat by MI6, just blithely enter the US?

The British terrorist who took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue had been investigated by UK intelligence services, but determined not to be a terroristic threat, according to reports Tuesday.

Malik Faisal Akram, who had a history of mental illness, was investigated by MI5 “in the second half of 2020” after a tip that he could be a possible Islamist terrorist threat, government sources told the Guardian.

The UK later determined that Akram’s history of mental illness and apparent adjacency to terrorism didn’t qualify him for travel restrictions:

It was “closed shortly afterwards with an assessment that there was no indication he presented a terrorist threat at that time,” a government source also told the Telegraph.

Although he was put on a list of Subjects of Interests (SOI), the spy agency concluded that he did not “pass the threshold” for a full-blown investigation, the UK paper said.

“There were no grounds for further examination and no basis to prevent him traveling,” a source told the Telegraph.

Well, okay, but how about at least a heads-up to your closest ally? That failure, and the failure to recognize Akram’s threat is now “a particular embarrassment” to MI6, The Guardian notes. Perhaps so is the fact that Akram’s previous criminal history didn’t cause anyone to alert American authorities when Akram got on a plane for the US:

The acknowledgment is a particular embarrassment to the agency, which prides itself on a close working relationship with its US counterparts. The FBI has known about MI5’s previous investigation for some time, although British sources declined to say whether they had apologised. …

Akram had a criminal record in the UK but no known terror convictions. Investigators and family members say he had a history of mental health issues.

He had been the subject of an exclusion order in 2001 banning him from Blackburn magistrates court after he made remarks about the 9/11 attacks on the US, saying he wished a court usher had been on a plane flown into buildings to commit mass murder.

And … no one considered that worthy of an alert, eh? That’s not the only signal that got missed either.  The Sun reports that law enforcement in the UK had been looking for Akram for weeks before the synagogue attack:

POLICE tried to find a Brit weeks before he was shot dead after taking four people hostage at a Texan synagogue.

Two officers visited a rented flat where a brother of Malik Faisal Akram previously lived.

But they were told Akram was not there and that his brother had moved to Pakistan in March 2020’s lockdown.

A neighbour in Blackburn, Lancs, said: “About three or four weeks ago, two detectives knocked at his door asking for Malik.

“They didn’t say what they wanted him for but needed to speak.”

Did British law enforcement reach out to the FBI at this point? Did they bother to follow up and find out whether Akram had left the country? In other words, this might not be an American security failure. Even so, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wants an immediate investigation into how this happened:

Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the details so-far known of the attack were ‘highly concerning.’

He told DailyMail.com: ‘A full investigation must be completed, any anyone else found to have been involved in this attack or otherwise engaged in illegal activity should be brought to justice.’ …

His family say he had a criminal history but somehow, he was able to get an ESTA tourist visa – which are supposed to be off-limits to foreigners who have broken the law.

Yes, but that’s a failure on the other side of the pond rather than here — or at least, that’s what it looks like at the moment. The US and UK have a looser security arrangement for tourists as part of our “special relationship” and presumed counterterrorism expertise. The ESTA process bypasses the US vetting that takes place with visa applications from other countries outside the Visa Waiver Program:

Malik Faisal Akram of Blackburn, England, entered the U.S. on a flight into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York either in late December or early January. He traveled on a tourist visa, according to a U.S. official who anonymously spoke with the Associated Press. Because visas for tourism are not required for British travelers who plan to stay for less than three months, it is likely that Akram traveled through the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.

England is one of 40 countries that the U.S. considers a lesser national security threat and the citizens of which are allowed to travel to the U.S. without having to obtain a visa. Under the Visa Waiver Program, tourists may travel to the U.S. for less than 90 days but must first be approved through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

However, travelers under the program “do not undergo the in-person screening generally required” to receive other types of visas, the Congressional Research Service concluded in an October 2021 report . Because the tourists do not have their biometric data taken, such as fingerprints, facial scans, or retina scans, that information cannot be run against the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Biometric Identification System or the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system. Instead, their biographical information is checked against other biographical databases.

It is possible that Akram, whose brother claimed he had a criminal record , lied when filling out his ESTA or that his criminal history was not mentioned in the databases that his information was screened against, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director for immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in Washington.

Perhaps Congress needs to take up some proposals to tighten the VWP in the near term to make sure that terrorists don’t exploit that slackness again. Of course, we have a sieve at the southern border by which terrorists can slip into the US if they’re intrepid enough to try, so that won’t completely resolve our vulnerabilities. It might, however, force malevolent nutcases to work harder at it, which would be at least an incremental improvement.

Next question: how did Akram get the gun? Did he have accomplices here in the US? That’s definitely a question for the FBI, and one that hopefully will get answered shortly.