Sept. 11 Terrorists Were Here Legally
WASHINGTON - The Sept. 11 hijackers departed from the pattern of earlier terrorists by initially entering the country legally and breaking comparatively few laws before the attacks, according to an analysis released yesterday.
While Islamic terrorist schemes in the 1990s involved permanent U.S. residents and naturalized citizens, the Sept. 11 hijackers were foreigners who prepared for their attack while exploiting their short-term immigration status, reported the Center on Immigration Studies, a group that seeks to restrict immigration into this country.
The Sept. 11 hijackers "are different in that they don't seem to have violated the law as much as some terrorists in the past," said Steven Camarota, the center's research director and the report's author. The brief U.S. stays and general lack of actions that would have alerted law enforcement "may represent a kind of growing sophistication on the part of al-Qaida," he added.
At the same time, all the attacks by Islamic terrorists in recent years underscored specific, gaping holes in the nation's border security, including abuse of amnesty provisions and petitions for political asylum, according to the report.
The report examined the cases of 48 Islamic terrorists who were involved in plots to kill employees outside CIA headquarters, attack the World Trade Center in 1993 and bomb Los Angeles International Airport, the Brooklyn subways and New York landmarks.
Among the findings:
• Of the 48 terrorists, 17 enjoyed status as lawful, permanent U.S. residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. This group included three of those who plotted to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993 and 10 who sought to destroy famous landmarks in New York.
"The first thing I found surprising when I did the research was the large number of lawful permanent residents and naturalized citizens involved in terrorism," Camarota said. "I thought it was mostly illegals — asylum applicants, people who had abused the system or temporary visa holders."
• One-fourth of the 48 terrorists were illegal immigrants at the time of their crimes. Others engaged in sham marriages to remain in this country. Among them: Fadil Abdelgani, who schemed to bomb New York landmarks, and Khalid Abu al Dahab, a U.S. recruiter for al-Qaida, the terrorist network linked to Osama bin Laden.
Terrorists, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who was jailed for his role in the plot to blow up landmarks in New York, also violated immigration law by lying on their applications for permanent residence.
"The public record is unambiguous that at least 21 of these guys had some significant violations of immigration law prior to engaging in terrorism," Camarota said.
• Of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, most entered the United States legally with tourist visas issued by U.S. consular officials in Saudi Arabia, typically aided by a "visa express" program that streamlined the entire process.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department's inspector general released a report criticizing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for readmitting Mohamed Atta in January 2001 because his requested change from tourist to student status had not been approved.
Also, police issued a warrant for Atta in June after he failed to appear in court for a traffic ticket. Apparently, three of the 19 hijackers had overstayed their visas by Sept. 11. The information in the report draws upon previously gathered facts in a manner that dramatizes vulnerabilities of America's system of border security.
Congress has moved since Sept. 11 to enhance border security and to overhaul the INS, but severely restricting immigration, as Camarota's group advocates, remains controversial.