SALT LAKE CITY — Mohammad Elzhabi must have seemed an ordinary student when he presented himself to US immigration officials in 1984. A Lebanese citizen, he came on a student visa, and in Houston he paid an American woman to marry him. This enabled him to get the permanent residence status that permitted him to move in and out of the US.
But he was no ordinary student. He was an Al Qaeda foot soldier, leaving the US to spend four years in Afghanistan associating with senior Al Qaeda figures and serving as a small arms and sniper instructor. Returning to the US in 1995, he ran a New York axle-repair business that was a cover for the shipment of military equipment to Afghanistan via Pakistan. Later he drove a Boston cab, associating with other Al Qaeda operatives.
The FBI had identified him as a suspected terrorist before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Yet in 2002 he got a Minnesota commercial driver's license to operate a school bus and transport hazardous materials even though his name was checked against an FBI database. He was eventually deported in 2004, but while his bus driver's license had been canceled in February, by June of that year, his license for transporting toxic materials remained valid.
Elzhabi was one of almost 100 alleged terrorists, most of whom have been indicted or convicted for their crimes, who manipulated or circumvented US immigration laws between the early 1990s and 2004. A new report by the Center for Immigration Studies details how they managed to enter the US, using weaknesses in the system to stay. Janice Kephart, the former counsel to the 9/11 commission who wrote the report, concludes that stricter enforcement of US immigration law - "at American consulates overseas, at ports of entry, and within the US" - must be an "integral part of our efforts to prevent future attacks on US soil." Her analysis shows that the terrorists listed beat the system in various ways. Some used student visas or visitor visas issued for tourism or business purposes. Some used fake passports or visas. Some claimed they lacked proper travel documents and applied for asylum. Some gained permanent residence by marrying US citizens, often through sham marriages. Once in the US, some terrorists acquired fake ID, including driver's licenses, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and immigration arrival records.
More than 500 million people - 330 million of them noncitizens - cross US borders each year at legal entry points. The 9/11 Commission made a number of recommendations for more effective screening against terrorists. Hindering their travel is as important as freezing their money, it concluded. Terrorists must travel clandestinely to meet, train, case targets, and gain access to launch an attack. But before 9/11, the commission concluded, no agency systematically analyzed terrorists' travel strategy. As many as 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks would have been vulnerable to interception, the commission found, had such a system existed. The commission recommended Homeland Security build a comprehensive screening system that would include biometric identifiers of visitors to prevent terrorists from using false identities.
Tighter border security is part of President Bush's plan to overhaul immigration laws this fall. Primarily intended to address the problem of itinerant undocumented workers, border security also has great significance in the war on terror. In this war, welcoming open-minded visitors to experience US society, culture, and hospitality plays an important role - and particularly so for impressionistic students who generally return to their homelands with enthusiasm for the US. Programs that also bring politicians, journalists, artists, and other opinion-makers from abroad are of immense value. Such visits do much to soften negative views of America that abound elsewhere.
The challenge is preventing entry of those who'd do America harm, while not alienating, or barring, the many the US wants to welcome.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.