The direct cause of 9/11 was the fact that it was so easy for primarily Saudi nationals to obtain visas and remain in the country unvetted. Eighteen years later, we still have not learned the lesson that immigration policy is the cornerstone of national security.
At present, there are roughly 45,000 foreign students here on F visas from Saudi Arabia, much more than we admitted in 2001. Worse, we take an unlimited number of unvetted foreign students and easily grant their spouses F-2 visas when marriage and visa fraud have been known terrorist loopholes. The case of Naif Abdulaziz M. Alfallaj should remind lawmakers of the need for visa reform.
In a case eerily similar to the profile of the 9/11 hijackers, on Feb. 5, 2018, Naif Alfallaj was arrested by the FBI and charged with lying about his past history with al Qaeda in order to get a visa. He came in late 2011 from Saudi Arabia on an F-2 visa as the husband of a foreign student. According to the complaint, Alfallaj applied for flight lessons in Oklahoma based on the issuance of that visa. At the time, he denied any ties to terror, but fingerprints on an application to the notorious al Farooq al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan showed otherwise. According to the FBI, “The document was recovered by the U.S. military from an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan and included an emergency contact number associated with Alfallaj’s father in Saudi Arabia.”
Al Farooq was one of the camps where the 9/11 hijackers trained. Hani Hasan Hanjour, the 9/l1 hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, was admitted in September 2000 on an F-1 student visa from Saudi Arabia. Yet 10 years later, Alfallaj was able to obtain a similar entry after having trained at the very same camp and having used to the visa to apply for flight school in Oklahoma.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Scott L. Palk sentenced Alfallaj to 151 months’ imprisonment for visa fraud and giving false statements to federal agents.
Thankfully, the FBI caught this guy, but what is to give us confidence that out of the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern foreign students who come here every year, plus their spouses, there aren’t more terrorists among them? Remember, there is a strong pressure from the universities to bring in endless numbers of foreign students, and unlike other visa categories, there are no caps on F visas. So long as they can pay their way, they qualify for the visa.
Both the student visa and spousal visas remain vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists and require better scrutiny when they are coming from countries with terrorist activity. But it’s also about numbers. When we bring in roughly 150,000 foreign students from countries in the Middle East, it creates a pressure and precedent to keep the pipeline flowing to satisfy the universities. There is clearly no appetite in the political class to limit these visas.
Alexei Saab, the Hezbollah operative who was recently arrested in a blockbuster counterterror investigation, is accused of marriage and visa fraud when he attempted to “marry” someone who came here on a student visa in order to get her permanent status based on his naturalization.
The San Bernardino attacker, Tashfeen Malik, came here on a spousal visa from Pakistan under dubious circumstances by her husband and terrorist partner, Syed Rizwan Farook. It’s still unclear if sufficient vetting procedures have been put into place to better scrutinize marriage visas from countries of security concern. On December 2, 2015, the terror couple killed 14 and seriously wounded 22 others at a holiday party for employees of the Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
The student visa is a particular concern because there is not as much scrutiny for it as for a green card, but it offers longer-term legal status than a tourist visa. Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, who has tracked visa overstays for many years, is particularly concerned with the opportunity for terrorists to exploit this category and the fact that Saudi Arabians have a high overstay rate. “Certainly, the student visa and spouse categories are of special concern, because the category offers long-term residence, and in the case of the spouse, completely unsupervised residence,” said Vaughan. “The spouse need not show any qualifications whatsoever. Last year we issued more than 17,000 new student and student-spouse visas to citizens of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, about 4,000 of them overstayed, according to DHS. This is utterly unacceptable and suggests that the president needs to take further steps to reduce issuances.”
With numbers like that, it only takes a few terrorists to wreak havoc. Have we improved vetting since 2011? Vaughan believes that we need “further enhancements to our process to focus on specific countries and types of applicants who are a known threat and a known risk for problems.”
Very few countries were placed on the travel ban, and there remain many countries with large populations of fundamental Islamists who still come in large numbers. Absent an ironclad vetting system, it’s hard to see how we are not letting in security threats every year. As Vaughan warns, the way the FBI outed Alfallaj was quite unique: “We are not always going to be lucky enough to find fingerprints of operatives who have arrived here before they act.”
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.