Politics & Policy

Collegetown, U.S.a.

The next terrorist target?

In July 2002, a bomb blew up in the Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem, killing seven and wounding 80. The bombers had smuggled the bomb onto the campus, avoiding the meticulous security checks at all of the campus’ entrances.

Could it happen on an American campus?

Yes, warn leading American security officials.

In November 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to colleges across the United States requesting help in the fight against terrorism by assisting in identifying potential foreign agents and terrorists. The bureau sought information about foreign students’ “names, addresses, telephone numbers, citizenship information, places of birth, dates of birth, and any foreign-contact information” over the past two years.

In January 2003, federal authorities began enlisting campus police officers in the domestic war on terror, according to the Washington Post. “Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI has strengthened or established working relationships with hundreds of campus police departments, in part to gain better access to insular communities of Middle Eastern students, government officials said,” the Post reported. “The FBI and many campus police officers view the arrangements as a logical, effective way to help monitor potential terrorist threats and keep better tabs on … foreign nationals studying in the United States.”

In early February, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division sent memos to universities across the United States, warning, “The National Threat Level has been raised from “Elevated”(Yellow) to “High”(Orange)….Increasing intelligence indicates that the al-Qaeda Terrorist Network maintains an ongoing interest in attacking soft or lightly secured targets in the U.S.”

Universities are examples of “soft targets,” FBI Director Robert Mueller III explained in testimony before the Select Committee on Intelligence on February 11. Mueller warned that FBI investigations have revealed a widespread militant Islamic presence in the U.S. and that several hundred of these extremists are suspected of having links to al Qaeda. “Our investigations suggest,” Mueller told the committee, “that al-Qaeda has developed a support infrastructure inside the U.S. that would allow the network to mount another terrorist attack on US soil. Multiple small-scale attacks against soft targets — such as banks, shopping malls, supermarkets, apartment buildings, schools and universities, churches, and places of recreation and entertainment — would be easier to execute.”

Facing the potential terrorist threat, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, representing 1,000 colleges and universities, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice on a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) training program. At its international conference next month (June 28), the “college cops” will be hosting sessions on subjects such as Cyber-Terrorism on Campus; Emergency Evacuation on Campus; and Interagency Cooperation: The Only Means to Identify the Terrorists: The Pentagon and Twin Towers Bombing Investigation.

More than 500,000 foreign students attended American colleges and universities last year. Arab sources claim that in 2001, 50,000 were Arab students. (Stricter visa regulations apparently led to a 30 percent drop by 2003.) Obviously, the vast majority of those students are peaceful, nonviolent would-be scholars, but checks by the FBI and Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) are leading to the arrest and — in some cases deportation — of these visitors to American campuses. As of February 2003, more than 1230 people of Middle East descent (and including Pakistanis and Afghanis) were in Citizenship and Immigration detention, many awaiting deportation.

In late 2002, six students from the Middle East were arrested in Colorado for visa violations. Three were enrolled students at the University of Colorado at Denver, two at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and one at Colorado State University. In May 2002, three students were among five Arabs arrested in Colorado for document fraud.

In February 2003, a Saudi graduate student at the University of Idaho was arrested for visa fraud. Federal prosecutors accused him of funneling $300,000 to Michigan-based radical Islamic group and preparing websites for the group which “promoted terrorism through suicide bombings and using airplanes as weapons,” months before the September 2001 terror attacks. Simultaneous with the arrest in Idaho, federal agents arrested four men in Syracuse on charges of illegal fundraising for Iraq. One was a graduate student at Syracuse University. Another was a part-time adjunct professor at the State University College at Oswego.

In a celebrated case at University of South Florida, Professor Sami Al-Arian was arrested in February, accused by the federal government in a 50 count indictment of using his university post as a cover for masterminding the terrorist organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Incidentally, both Al-Arian and al Qaeda’s chief of operations Khalid Shaikh Mohammed were students at the predominately black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C. during the 1980s. So was Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who spent more three years in U.S. prison on secret evidence linking him to terrorists before he was deported in 2002.

Young American citizens also represent a potential terrorist danger. In September 2002, six Yemeni-American men — all residents of Lackawanna, N.Y. in their 20s — were arrested for their involvement in al Qaeda. In June 2001 they traveled to Afghanistan to train in bin Laden’s camps. At least one was a student in a local college (see “Covering Terrorism,” by William McGowan).

Research published by U.S. News in June 2002 found that radical Islam attracted many Americans to the training camps of Afghanistan and the terrorist plans of al-Qaeda. “Between 1,000 and 2,000 jihadists left America during the 1990s alone,” U.S. News reported. “They have left behind comfortable homes in Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco, volunteering to fight with foreign armies in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan.”

Where are they now, and how many returned to the United States?

Records recovered during the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed indicate that al-Qaeda may have contacts in as many as eight U.S. cities. Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan recently introduced three college students to a USA Today reporter, saying that they were training to infiltrate to the United States as “sleeper” terrorists. The New York Times reported this week (May 17) that several Arabs have been arrested in the United States while on “presurveillance” mission. “Some of the half-dozen or so recently arrested in the United States,” wrote the Times, “were said to have been studying possible locations for attacks on gasoline tanker trucks or suspension bridges. Others were in the United States awaiting future orders as “possible sleepers” or had transferred funds to other suspects.”

After the war in Iraq, Islamist bombers have unleashed a broad assault in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Israel. Who is next? American officials fear that al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other jihadi terrorists may soon emerge from their lairs to commit terror acts in the United States.

University campuses and college towns may be the ideal location for the terrorists to mix in with foreign students, set up camp, reconnoiter, and then launch their attacks.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech have been contemptuously misused by the likes of University of South Florida’s Sami al-Arian. Civil libertarians and university professors rallied — and still rally — to his defense. Last week (May 15) the American Association of University Professors charged that USF disregarded Sami Al-Arian’s rights of due process in February by firing him before he had a chance to defend himself in court.

With the new worldwide escalation of terrorism, the question needs asking: Who will defend the professors from the terrorists who may already be “sleeping” through their classes?

Lenny Ben-David served as an Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is a Middle East analyst and consultant.

Lenny Ben-David, a public-affairs consultant, writer, researcher, and historian of early photographs in the Middle East, has served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.


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