Keeping Terror Out

Keeping Terror Out

Mini Teaser: If gardeners and housemaids can cross our porous borders, so can Al-Qaeda operatives.

by Author(s): Mark Krikorian

Supporters of open immigration have tried to de-link 9/11 from security concerns. "There's no relationship between immigration and terrorism", said a spokeswoman for the National Council of the advocacy group La Raza. "I don't think [9/11] can be attributed to the failure of our immigration laws", claimed the head of the immigration lawyers' guild a week after the attacks.

President Bush has not gone that far, but in his January 7 speech proposing an illegal alien amnesty and guest worker program, he claimed the federal government is now fulfilling its responsibility to control immigration, thus justifying a vast increase in the flow of newcomers to America. Exploring the role of immigration control in promoting American security can help provide the context to judge the president's claim that his proposal is consistent with our security imperatives, and can help to sketch the outlines of a secure immigration system.

Home Front

The phrase "Home Front" is a metaphor that gained currency during World War I with the intention of motivating a civilian population involved in total war. The image served to increase economic output and the purchase of war bonds, promote conservation and the recycling of resources and reconcile the citizenry to privation and rationing.

But in the wake of 9/11, "Home Front" is no longer a metaphor. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said in October 2002,

"Fifty years ago, when we said, 'home front', we were referring to citizens back home doing their part to support the war front. Since last September, however, the home front has become a battlefront every bit as real as any we've known before."

Nor is this an aberration unique to Al-Qaeda or to Islamists generally. No enemy has any hope of defeating our armies in the field and must therefore resort to asymmetric means.1 And though there are many facets to asymmetric or "Fourth-Generation" warfare--as we saw in Al-Qaeda's pre-9/11 assaults on our interests in the Middle East and East Africa and as we are seeing today in Iraq. The Holy Grail of such a strategy is mass-casualty attacks on America.

The military has responded to this new threat with the Northern Command, just as Israel instituted its own "Home Front Command" in 1992, after the Gulf War. But our objective on the Home Front is different, for this front is different from other fronts; the goal is defensive, blocking and disrupting the enemy's ability to carry out attacks on our territory. This will then allow offensive forces to find, pin and kill the enemy overseas.

Because of the asymmetric nature of the threat, the burden of homeland defense is not borne mainly by our armed forces but by agencies formerly seen as civilian entities--mainly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And of DHS's expansive portfolio, immigration control is central. The reason is elementary: no matter the weapon or delivery system--hijacked airliners, shipping containers, suitcase nukes, anthrax spores--operatives are required to carry out the attacks. Those operatives have to enter and work in the United States. In a very real sense, the primary weapons of our enemies are not inanimate objects at all, but rather the terrorists themselves--especially in the case of suicide attackers. Thus keeping the terrorists out or apprehending them after they get in is indispensable to victory. As President Bush said recently, "Our country is a battlefield in the first war of the 21st century."

In the words of the July 2002 National Strategy for Homeland Security:

"Our great power leaves these enemies with few conventional options for doing us harm. One such option is to take advantage of our freedom and openness by secretly inserting terrorists into our country to attack our homeland. Homeland security seeks to deny this avenue of attack to our enemies and thus to provide a secure foundation for America's ongoing global engagement."

Our enemies have repeatedly exercised this option of inserting terrorists by exploiting weaknesses in our immigration system. A Center for Immigration Studies analysis of the immigration histories of the 48 foreign-born Al-Qaeda operatives who committed crimes in the United States from 1993 to 2001 (including the 9/11 hijackers) found that nearly every element of the immigration system has been penetrated by the enemy.2 Of the 48, one-third were here on various temporary visas, another third were legal residents or naturalized citizens, one-fourth were illegal aliens, and the remainder had pending asylum applications. Nearly half of the total had, at some point or another, violated existing immigration laws.

Supporters of loose borders deny that inadequate immigration control is a problem, usually pointing to flawed intelligence as the most important shortcoming that needs to be addressed. Mary Ryan, for example, former head of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (which issues visas), testified in January 2004 before the 9/11 Commission that

"Even under the best immigration controls, most of the September 11 terrorists would still be admitted to the United States today . . . because they had no criminal records, or known terrorist connections, and had not been identified by intelligence methods for special scrutiny."

But this turns out to be untrue, both for the hijackers and for earlier Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States. A normal level of visa scrutiny, for instance, would have excluded almost all the hijackers. Investigative reporter Joel Mowbray acquired copies of 15 of the 19 hijackers' visa applications (the other four were destroyed--yes, destroyed--by the State Department), and every one of the half-dozen current and former consular officers he consulted said every application should have been rejected on its face.3 Every application was incomplete or contained patently inadequate or absurd answers.

Even if the applications had been properly prepared, many of the hijackers, including Mohammed Atta and several others, were young, single and had little income--precisely the kind of person likely to overstay his visa and become an illegal alien, and thus the kind of applicant who should be rejected. And, conveniently, those least likely to overstay their visas--older people with close family, property and other commitments in their home countries--are also the very people least likely to commit suicide attacks.

9/11 was not the only terrorist plot to benefit from lax enforcement of ordinary immigration controls--every major Al-Qaeda attack or conspiracy in the United States has involved at least one terrorist who violated immigration law. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, for example, who was part of the plot to bomb the Brooklyn subway, was actually caught three times by the Border Patrol trying to sneak in from Canada. The third time the Canadians would not take him back. What did we do? Because of a lack of detention space, he was simply released into the country and told to show up for his deportation hearing. After all, with so many millions of illegal aliens here already, how much harm could one more do?

Another example is Mohammed Salameh, who rented the truck in the first World Trade Center bombing. He should never have been granted a visa in the first place. When he applied for a tourist visa he was young, single and had no income and, in the event, did indeed end up remaining illegally. And when his application for a green card under the 1986 illegal-alien amnesty was rejected, there was (and remains today) no way to detain and remove rejected green card applicants, so he simply remained living and working in the United States, none the worse for wear. The same was true of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, who murdered two people at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002--he was a visa overstayer whose asylum claim was rejected. Yet, with no mechanism to remove him, he remained and, with his wife, continued to apply for the visa lottery until she won and procured green cards for both of them.

Ordinary immigration enforcement actually has kept out several terrorists that we know of. A vigilant inspector in Washington state stopped Ahmed Ressam because of nervous behavior, and a search of his car uncovered a trunk full of explosives, apparently intended for an attack on Los Angeles International Airport. Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the candidates for the label of "20th hijacker", was rejected four times for a visa, not because of concerns about terrorism but rather, according to a U.S. embassy source, "for the most ordinary of reasons, the same reasons most people are refused." That is, he was thought likely to overstay his visa and become an illegal alien. And Mohamed Al-Qahtani, another one of the "20th hijacker" candidates, was turned away by an airport inspector in Orlando because he had no return ticket and no hotel reservations, and he refused to identify the friend who was supposed to help him on his trip.

Prior to the growth of militant Islam, the only foreign threat to our population and territory in recent history has been the specter of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. To continue that analogy, since the terrorists are themselves the weapons, immigration control is to asymmetric warfare what missile defense is to strategic warfare. There are other weapons we must use against an enemy employing asymmetric means--more effective international coordination, improved intelligence gathering and distribution, special military operations--but in the end, the lack of effective immigration control leaves us naked in the face of the enemy. This lack of defensive capability may have made sense with regard to the strategic nuclear threat under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, but it makes no sense with regard to the asymmetric threats we face today and in the future.

Essay Types: Essay