Maine Gov. Paul LePage has been criticized in the media following the recent unsealing of court court records demonstrating that an Iranian refugee received welfare benefits before later joining the Islamic State terror organization. On the Maine Public Broadcasting, it was suggested that LePage’s “eagerness to reveal the radicalization of Adnan Fazeli" in order to denounce welfare for refugees “may have led him to run afoul of a federal law designed to protect the identities of welfare recipients and their families.”
Welfare officials in Maine have not yet confirmed whether Fazeli or his family members may have received benefits while living in Maine between 2009 and 2013. Federal prohibits officials from releasing that information. Only law enforcement and immigration officials, and state administrators, are allowed to know. According to federal laws governing food stamps and cash assistance, they’re not supposed to release the information.
However, a Boston Herald article cited Maine state officials who confirmed both Fazeli and family received cash and food benefits. The same officials confirmed that Fazeli ceased to receive benefits once he left the United States. He was once a student in Iran, and later studied computers at the University of Southern Maine.
Robyn Merrill, the director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, expressed concern over the possibly unauthorized release of information about Fazeli, who is now dead. She is worried that the governor is politicizing the issue to “deny help to a whole group of people.”
Cash and food benefits, known as SNAP and TANF, are funded mostly by federal tax dollars.
When news broke that Fazeli had been on welfare, Gov. LePage – a vocal supporter of Donald Trump – ordered a review of all benefit programs being directed at refugees. LePage has endorsed Trump and Trump’s call for closer vetting of refugees before they are granted entry to the country. He also said that better vetting would not have prevented Fazeli’s radicalization.
Speaking for Catholic Charities of Maine, an organization that resettles refugees, Judy Katzel said that it would prefer to leave politics to politicians. She stated that Catholic Charities is focused on providing refugee services to those here legally. Despite assertions in a federal affidavit, she said that Fazeli did not receive services from Catholic Charities of Maine. He did work briefly as a translator for Catholic Charities, but was resettled by an unidentified Pennsylvania agency.
Catholic Charities received a request for benefits from Fazeli, but turned him down because his immigrant status had changed from primary refugee to secondary migrant. Catholic Charities receives federal funding for its work in providing housing, literacy, school enrollment, and employment counseling and placement. Katzel asserted that refugees aided by the agency are vetted beforehand.
Catholic Charities gives as much as $950 per person to last 90 days. Refugees can then apply for other benefits, including food stamps and cash assistance. Because the programs are federally-funded, states have very little control about who the federal government resettles in their jurisdiction.
Fazeli arrived as a refugee in Maine in 2009, but later went to fight for the Islamic State. He died in Lebanon in 2015, according to federal court records. He was 38 years old, and had most recently resided in Freeport ME. The FBI began investigating him only after he had left behind his job at Dubai Auto in Portland, Maine, in order to fly to Turkey on August 13, 2013, and thence to combat. He did not return.
Fazeli used several aliases, including Abu Nawaf and Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwaz. He fell in battle on January 13, 2015, near Ras Baalbek in Lebanon. He died during a battle between forces of the Islamic State and the Lebanese army.
Details about his residence in Maine and his demise in Lebanon were kept on the down-low but have now been revealed. In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland in October 2015 by Maine State Police Detective George Loder, he and an FBI task force were seeking to know whether other persons were aware of Fazeli’s plans and aided him in his flight to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon area and the fighting there. While the affidavit was sealed during the investigation, it was unsealed when no criminal charges ensued.
The task force described how anonymous FBI informants spoke of the change in Fazeli’s behavior that occurred after he arrived in Portland, supposedly with the help of Catholic Charities. Fazeli grew a beard, watched plenty of Islamist material online, and made threats against the United States in public.
Fazeli’s nephew, Ebrahim Fazeli (25), told the Portland Press Herald this week that he told the FBI about his uncle’s call from Turkey to his wife. “Fazeli’s change in behavior alienated him from many of his Shia and moderate Sunni friends in the area,” Loder said in the affidavit. “However, there were a few local Sunnis who supported his fervor and treated him with a great deal of respect. Fazeli started holding occasional religious meetings at his home in Freeport.” ISIS is a movement of Sunni Islam. Iran is mostly Shia.
Fazeli’s nephew, Ebrahim, said, “I was more worried about my aunt and the kids.” He added about the “crushing” call, “I wanted to protect them from him. It was very clear to me that they weren’t important to him. That made it easier to make the call.”
Fazeli fled Iran in 2007 or 2008 after getting word that he was to be arrested by the Iranian government for anti-government behavior. Deciding not to turn himself in, Fazeli fled to Syria and was later joined by his family and went to Lebanon because they feared Syria would send them back to Iran. Once they were in the US, Fazeli did not adapt well. In the US, he converted to Wahhabism, an austere form of Sunni Islam propagated by the government of Saudi Arabia. He hated Iran because it opposed Sunni Islam. His behavior changed as he was radicalized.
Things did not go well for Fazeli and family after that. He was denied social services by Catholic Charities in Portland because he had gone there from Philadelphia and was thus not eligible. In July 2012, Fazeli and wife Jahan Elhai were evicted from their apartment in Westbrook, Maine.
Once he was overseas, Fazeli boasted in Skype conversations that he and his fellow combatants killed 1,000 enemies for every 10 of their own dead. In one video, while wearing a camouflage military uniform, Fazeli asked if federal law enforcement was inquiring about him.
One of Fazeli’s family members informed the FBI in January 2015 that Fazeli was dead. A news article in Arabic from the An-Nahar newspaper of Lebanon described how dozens of ISIS fighters were killed in a battle in Ras Baalbek, a majority Christian town near the Syrian border threatened by both the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria. One of the dead described in the article bore one of the aliases used by Fazeli: Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi.
In 2015, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before Congress that in excess of 20,000 foreign terrorists from more than 90 countries are believed to have gone to Syria fight since the effort to overthrow the Assad government began. More than 3,400 of them are from the West: more than 150 have come from the United States.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.