How the Terrorists Get In

By Camarota, Steven A. | The Public Interest, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

How the Terrorists Get In


Camarota, Steven A., The Public Interest


IN the aftermath of September 11, a host of federal agencies have come under intense scrutiny. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency have all been charged with responsibility for failures leading up to the attacks. In each case, the culture within the agency, as well as its mission, policies, and procedures, has been examined in a variety of public forums. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has also been excoriated for several spectacular gaffs--most infamously, for sending notification to a Florida flight school that two of the hijackers had been approved as students six months after their deaths. But there has been no comparable effort to examine the failures of our immigration system. For example, all of the September 11 hijackers were issued visas, but there have been no extensive congressional hearings or investigations by the General Accounting Office or the Office of the Inspector General to determine whether the Stat e Department, which issued the visas, erred in any way.

Given the fact that the current terrorist threat to the United States comes primarily from foreign-born individuals, immigration services would seem to be an obvious area of inquiry. Of course, no immigration system can be completely foolproof, but it does not have to be. Even if only some of those individuals can be detained by our immigration system, it is possible that whatever conspiracy they are part of could be uncovered.

While they were the most destructive in American history, the attacks of last September were not the first carried out by foreign terrorists on U.S. soil. To gain a more complete picture of the threat and of the holes in our immigration system, we must examine acts of terrorism in this country over the last decade. Including the September 11 hijackers, 48 foreignborn militant Islamic terrorists have been charged, or convicted, or have admitted their involvement in terrorism within the United States between 1993 and 2001. In addition to September 11, the plots examined here include the murder of employees outside of CIA headquarters in 1993, the first attack on the World Trade Center in the same year, a plot to bomb the Brooklyn subway system in 1997, plots to bomb New York City landmarks in 1993, and the Millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Almost all of them have now been linked in some way to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. To be sure, other terrorist threats exist. However, because the threat it poses dwarfs that of any other terrorist group, foreign or domestic, the emphasis here will be on al Qaeda.

Entering every which way

In the wake of September 11, some observers have emphasized the mismanagement of temporary visas, such as those issued to students and tourists, because all of the 19 hijackers were originally allowed into the country on temporary visas. Others have argued that there is a problem with illegal immigration, because at least three of the hijackers--four if Zacarias Moussaoui, who the U.S. government claims was the intended twentieth hijacker, is included--had overstayed their visas and were illegal aliens at the time of the attacks. But in fact the danger cannot be isolated to one type of immigration. Foreign-born Islamic terrorists have used almost every conceivable means of entering the country over the last decade. They have come as students, tourists, and business visitors. They have also been lawful permanent residents (LPRs) and naturalized U.S. citizens. They have sneaked across the border illegally, arrived as stowaways on ships, used false passports, or been granted amnesty. Terrorists have even exploi ted America's humanitarian tradition of welcoming those seeking asylum. At the time they committed their crimes, 16 of the 48 terrorists considered in this analysis were on temporary visas (primarily tourist visas); another 17 were lawful permanent residents or naturalized U. …

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