Preferential, fast-lane treatment for Saudi visa applicants should be considered on a reciprocal basis, with verifiable Saudi progress in stopping funding for Wahhabi-Salafist mosque construction; Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated imams; anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-West curriculum materials and jihadi fighters everywhere on Sharia battlefields.
One of the more striking—and worrisome—aspects of the April 2013 Boston Marathon terror attack and the cross-border al-Qa’eda/Iran plot to bomb a passenger railway that runs between New York City and Toronto, Canada is the realization that all four suspects so far identified in the two plots had entered legally into the United States and Canada, respectively. Crossing legally into Western countries targeted for terror attacks, entering immigrant and refugee streams without drawing attention from security services, and blending into existing multicultural communities while establishing personas indistinguishable from those of tens of thousands of other new arrivals, appears to be a tried and true modus operandi for Islamic jihadis. It definitely worked for the fifteen of nineteen 9/11 hijackers who were Saudis.
Given the reality of that threat, brought home yet again to North America with these two latest plots, now is probably not the best time for the current administration to revive the visa program that allowed the Saudi government to help screen visa applicants for fast-track entry into the U.S. And yet, that is exactly what just happened: an agreement between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was reached in January 2013 that would accept Saudi applicants into the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef heads the Saudi Interior Ministry that will screen Saudi applicants when the pilot program begins in 2014. To his credit, bin Nayef has led an internal Saudi crackdown against al-Qa’eda and survived an al-Qa’eda assassination attempt in retaliation. On the other side of the ledger, however, Saudi Arabia is the world’s foremost sponsor of both Islamic jihad and Da’wa [Islamic religious outreach], the source of funding and inspiration for promoters of Islamic Sharia law and anti-Western suicide bombers alike across the globe.
As revealed in early stages of the recent plot investigations, none of these latest accused terrorists in the Boston Marathon and passenger train plots sneaked into Canada or the U.S. or paid a coyote to get himself past border controls. Rather, all of them (or their families) worked the legal system, then later (even years later) were activated—or recruited and then activated—to carry out an attack mission. According to The Iconoclast, the Tsarnaev brothers had been admitted to the U.S., along with multiple members of their extended family, under the aegis of the Refugee Act of 1980. Tamerlan, the elder brother, arrived in 2006 and was granted Permanent Resident status, while Dzhokhar, who arrived on a tourist visa in 2002, was given asylum status as a Chechen refugee from Dagestan, and eventually achieved U.S. citizenship on 11 September 2012.
In the Canada-U.S. railway bombing plot, Tunisian-born Chiheb Esseghaier moved to Canada in 2008 and was “granted permanent residency under Quebec’s skilled worker program,” according to the Canadian National Post. Accused co-conspirator Raed Jaser, who was born in the United Arab Emirates, arrived in Canada with his parents and two brothers in 1993 on false French passports; although denied a request for asylum based on claims of persecution in Germany, most of the family eventually obtained Canadian citizenship. Jaser might have too, except that he racked up a criminal record while awaiting his final status ruling. However, because Jaser somehow was listed as a “stateless Palestinian” whose father had left the newly-established State of Israel in 1948 (instead of remaining to become an Israeli citizen), there was no place to where Canada could deport him, despite multiple efforts.
Every one of the nineteen 9/11 attack hijackers entered the U.S. on a valid passport and visa, too.
Janice Kephart served as a former counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information; a former immigration counsel to the September 11 Commission; and current National Security Policy Director at the Center for Immigration Studies. She also served as an expert witness in the Havlish case which, in December 2011, resulted in a Federal District Court ruling that Iran was co-responsible with al-Qa’eda for 9/11; and provided testimony for both the 9/11 Commission and the Havlish case. Kephart has emphasized the critical importance of travel documents for terrorists. In the affidavit she wrote for the Havlish case, Kephart discussed how Iranian material support to some of the al-Qa’eda hijackers, in the form of refraining from placing border stamps in their passports, ultimately enabled them to enter the U.S. with “clean passports” that bore no evidence of their having been in Afghanistan, Iran, or other Middle Eastern locations that would have drawn unwanted scrutiny. Although Kephart did not say so specifically, fifteen of those nineteen passports were Saudi passports — and in at least eight of those cases, Saudi officials at some level would have to have been complicit with the Iranians to arrange a bilateral agreement on the mark in the hijackers’ passports that would be seen and recognized by the Iranian border guards.
As Steven Emerson at The Investigative Project on Terrorism points out in an important — and critical — review of the new Saudi fast-track visa program, the book has never really been closed on Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, there is a 28-page classified section of the official 9/11 Commission Report that points to the “plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks,” according to former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, and which former Florida Senator Bob Graham asserts would put our understanding of the Saudi role in those attacks in a different light.
Aside from the probable Saudi passport arrangement with Iran, Saudi individuals and entities were key links in the so-called “Golden Chain” of financial benefactors to Usama bin Laden and al-Qa’eda. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, those resources were “put together mainly by financiers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.” A key list of al-Qa’eda funders was discovered in a 2002 search of the Bosnian offices of the Benevolence International Foundation, a Saudi-based funding mechanism for al-Qa’eda also designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury Department. Saudi donors featured prominently on the handwritten list of 20 names. The so-called “SAAR Network,” named after Saudi billionaire Sulaiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, was among them; it was raided by the FBI in 2002. The Rabita Trust was also a financial front founded in 1988 by Omar Abdullah Nasseef, who was then Secretary General of the SAAR-linked Muslim World League, and another senior Saudi close to the royal family—as well as to Huma Abedin, Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Clinton from 2009-2013.
Then there is the Saudi student, Abdul Rahman Ali Al-Harbi, who was named “a person of interest” and detained under guard by U.S. federal officials at a hospital after the Boston Marathon attack. Al-Harbi, whose extended family clan includes multiple members identified by the Saudi government as al-Qa’eda terrorists as well as five GITMO detainees, was (or maybe still is) in the U.S. on a student visa to attend college in Ohio — but was living in the Boston area at the time of the marathon attack. On Tuesday 16 April 2013, the day after the marathon attack, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) created an “event file” on al-Harbi, specifically citing him under a provision (212(a)(3)B) reserved for “proven terrorist activity.” In other words, as Diana West reported, al-Harbi was on a no-fly list — and apparently with good reason. Steve Emerson appeared on the FOX News Hannity show to report that al-Harbi was due to be deported on national security grounds. But then Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal; and by Wednesday, 17 April, al-Harbi’s event file had been altered and all references to there ever having been a terrorist designation for him had disappeared. Al-Harbi has disappeared, too, at least in terms of coverage by the mainstream media.
The U.S. system for background checks (Security Advisory Opinion or SAR) prior to granting visas in cases that raise or ought to raise security flags obviously has some holes in it that do not seem to have been patched since 9/11. Instead, one of the things that has changed, and significantly, is the number of Saudi students studying in this country: as of 2000, before 9/11, there were around 5,500 enrolled. Today, in 2013, according to West, there are about 35,000, thanks to a “reckless agreement” between President George W. Bush and the Saudi government in April 2005.
Before the U.S. completely turns over security of the chicken coop to the fox, we need to get a solid grip on how many other Saudi students besides al-Harbi may have slipped through the SAAR system. Congressional leaders, who have asked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano for a briefing on the al-Harbi case, have been stonewalled. The Saudi relationship with al-Qa’eda as well as Iran — whether past, present, or ever — needs both clarification and immediate termination. Preferential fast-lane treatment for Saudi visa applicants should be considered on a reciprocal basis, with verifiable Saudi progress in stopping funding for Wahhabi-Salafist mosque construction; Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated imams; antisemitic, anti-Christian, and anti-West curriculum materials; and jihadi fighters everywhere on Shariah battlefields.
Clare M. Lopez a senior fellow at the Clarion Fund, and is a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on Middle East, national defense, and counterterrorism issues.
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