National Security & Defense

Obama Ignores the Lesson of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing

Routine immigration enforcement is crucial to national security.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the first World Trade Center attack, the 1993 warm-up act for 9/11. The bombing, which was carried out by a gang of illegal aliens and others who had been illegal aliens before securing green cards, woke Americans up to the importance of immigration controls to national security. It led to the 1996 passage of measures that sought to significantly tighten enforcement.

Despite the cries by Democrats that Republicans have jeopardized our people’s safety by not immediately funding President Obama’s lawless amnesty decrees, it’s the administration that has undermined America’s security by nullifying or ignoring enforcement tools designed to protect the country.

The immigration histories of the 1993 jihadi killers shine light on the vital role that routine enforcement should play in homeland security. In other words, while intelligence collection and other activities specifically focused on terrorists are essential, ordinary enforcement has shown itself to also be an important way to exclude, detect, or detain potential terrorists.

The first layer of immigration security is the visa process abroad. A study by my colleague Steven Camarota found that of the 48 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in the U.S. from 1993 through 9/11, at least 41 of them had been issued visas of some kind.

That includes several of the 1993 WTC plotters. One of them, Mohammed Salameh, was issued a tourist visa in Jordan in 1988. Under no circumstances should it have been approved. This is not because our consular staff was supposed to know he was going to commit a terrorist act but because he was almost the Platonic ideal of an “intending immigrant,” i.e., someone likely to overstay his visa rather than return home. Salameh was a single, 19-year-old man without roots or property and earning $50 a month. That the State Department gave a tourist visa to anyone fitting that description was a dereliction of duty.

Nor was that a one-time lapse. Joel Mowbray wrote in National Review about obtaining the visa applications of 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks. (The State Department destroyed the others before he could get them.) Not one of them should have been approved, on the same routine grounds as Salameh should have been denied. And yet they were approved, because of a pervasive culture within the State Department, summed up by the consul general in Riyadh at the time, Thomas Furey: “People gotta have their visas!” This view, that foreign visa applicants rather than the American people are to be served, continues; the number of student visas issued to Saudis, for instance, is up more than 500 percent from 9/11.

The next layer of immigration security is the border itself. Both Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing, and co-conspirator Ahmed Ajaj entered the country in 1992 with fake passports — on the same plane. Yousef boarded the plane with a fake British passport but at JFK presented a fake Iraqi passport and promptly applied for asylum. But owing to a lack of detention space, he was released with a summons to return for his hearing. Ajaj, who had earlier applied for asylum before but didn’t bother to follow up, presented a phony Swedish passport on this return flight, and had bomb-making manuals and other fake passports on him when arrested. But, again, the border inspectors’ vigilance was for naught, because after serving six months in jail for passport fraud he was released rather than delivered to Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.

Of the seven plotters in the 1993 attack, at least three were, or had been, visa overstays, entering on tourist visas and simply staying. A proper entry-exit tracking system at the border, checking foreign visitors in when they arrive and checking them out when they leave, is imperative to identifying overstays. Congress has mandated the completion of such a system eight times since 1996, and, while the check-in part has improved, there’s still no real exit-tracking system. This is especially disturbing because new research suggests that most new illegal immigrants are now visa overstays, not border jumpers.

None of the 1993 attackers snuck across the border, but other terrorists have. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, for instance, part of a plot to bomb the New York subway system in 1997, was caught by the Border Patrol three times while sneaking across the Canadian border. After taking him back twice, the Canadian authorities said he was our problem. But instead of being detained in the United States, he was released after promising to attend an immigration hearing. Instead he made his way to Brooklyn, and his plot was only foiled because of a police informant.

Here, too, the administration has weakened security. Last summer’s surge of Central American border-crossers made clear that not only can children and single mothers sneak into the United States with relative ease but that, if they are caught, the Border Patrol is required to release them and even deliver them free of charge to their illegal-alien relatives in the United States. Are ISIS — or al-Qaeda, or al-Shabaab — taking advantage of this laxity at the border? We don’t know — yet.

The stories of the 1993 attackers also demonstrate the importance of strict enforcement inside the country. It is here that the Obama administration has most thoroughly compromised our ability to protect ourselves.

Visa tracking. Eyad Ismoil, who drove the van with the explosives, came here on a student visa but left school after three semesters and got a job, thereby becoming an illegal alien. Because there was no foreign-student tracking system, there was no way to know he had become an illegal alien. Even now that there is such a system (the Student and Exchange Visitor Program or SEVP), there are only 28 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents responsible for keeping track of 1.1 million foreign students. As my colleague David North notes, “the Obama administration really, really is not interested in trying to control illegal immigration within the foreign student flows.”

Employment. In addition to Ismoil, at least three other members of the 1993 plot appear to have been employed illegally. Being able to work is imperative for any terrorist plot of this kind, both for the ability of the terrorist to support himself during the often extended time needed to organize the plot and also to escape notice by fitting in and seeming to be just another immigrant worker. Congress had prohibited employment of illegal immigrants just a few years before the bombing, as part of the 1986 amnesty compromise, but enforcement was lax and there was no reliable system to enable employers to comply with the law. Since then, the Bush administration developed E-Verify, which has come to be widely used, though it’s still not required for all hires — the open-borders crowd has been holding such a mandate hostage to amnesty. And the Obama administration has effectively prohibited worksite enforcement, preferring to focus on paperwork checks rather than actually removing illegal workers.

Detention and removal. The experience of Yousef and Ajaj, detained at JFK with their fake passports but eventually let go, highlights the importance of detaining illegal aliens and making sure they are removed. Here again the Obama administration has consciously weakened enforcement. Even after cooking the books to artificially inflate deportation numbers for political purposes, last year’s total removals were down 15 percent from the prior year. And real deportations — i.e., from the interior of the country, as opposed to the border — declined 34 percent. Even the number of convicted criminals who were deported fell 23 percent. The administration actually released 36,000 convicted criminal aliens from detention in 2013.

And this isn’t owing to the lack of detention space that prompted the releases of Yousef and Ajaj — so far this year, the administration is leaving fully 20 percent of detention capacity unused, as though, from the 11–12 million illegal aliens living here, it cannot find enough people to fill the available beds.

Amnesty. As if the 1993 World Trade Center terrorists hadn’t compromised enough of the immigration system, three of them were involved in the 1986 illegal-alien amnesty. Mahmud “The Red” Abouhalima, along with his brother Mohammed, were visa over-stayers from Egypt. They received green cards in the 1986 amnesty by pretending to be farmworkers and were able to get away with it because of the program’s notorious lack of scrutiny, as political pressure drove officials to process applications quickly. The legal documents they thereby acquired enabled Mahmud to travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training.

The Obama administration’s lawless amnesty for illegal immigrants who claim to have come here as children — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — appears to have the same low standards, driven by the same pressure to give illegal aliens work permits as quickly as possible. Documents obtained on the advice of a whistleblower showed that Homeland Security abandoned the usual background checks as too time-consuming and resorted to what the department itself called “lean and lite” checks, to rubber-stamp people as rapidly as possible. One can only imagine the level of scrutiny for an applicant load that, if the president’s November amnesty decrees are permitted to go into effect, is liable to be 10 to 15 times larger than DACA’s.

The third Trade Center plotter who applied for the 1986 amnesty was Mohammed Salameh, another visa over-stayer who also pretended to be a farmworker. Remarkably, the INS rejected his application (as it did to about 10 percent of the total), though it took fully five years to do so. But like all other unsuccessful amnesty applicants, he wasn’t deported. He simply stayed. Obama’s DACA program has an even higher rate of application approvals — 96 percent as of the end of last year — but the handful who are rejected also get to stay.

The numerous immigration-control missteps that enabled the first World Trade Center bombing make clear that one of the most important features of any successful homeland-security policy is routine, consistent, muscular enforcement of immigration laws. Any border-control system that a Honduran busboy can sneak through is one an ISIS killer can also sneak through. But the Obama administration suffers from the delusion that it can distinguish the “good” illegal aliens from the “bad” ones, and in the process has compromised immigration security in many more ways than have been outlined here.

What could go wrong?

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mark Krikorian — Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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