In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, one of the earliest challenges was to ascertain how the 20 conspirators – the 19 hijackers and Zacharias Moussaoui – abused our immigration system to plot and conduct the operation.
Of the hijackers at least 6, Hani Hanjour, Satam al-Suqami, Waleed al-Shehri, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, Nawaf al-Hamzi, and Mohammad Atta had been in illegal or overstay status prior to the hijacking. Hanjour almost immediately violated the conditions of a student visa by failing to register for classes, while al-Hamzi and Atta had overstayed tourist visas. Atta left the country in December 2000. In January 2001 Atta was briefly detained in the United Arab Emirates on terrorism suspicions but released where upon he returned to the United States and was admitted – despite not having the appropriate training visa for the flight training he was undergoing. Al-Suqami overstayed a business visa.
Moussaoui was also in illegal immigration status, which allowed agents of the Minneapolis FBI field office to arrest him as part of a terrorism investigation related to Moussaoui’s attempted flight training. Moussaoui was the only hijacker intercepted prior to the plot.
Immigration fraud was recognized as a major player in facilitating terrorist travel. As a 2005 report noted that among identified terrorists between the early 1990s and 2004, “Of the 94 foreign-born terrorists who operated in the U.S., the study found that about two-thirds (59) committed immigration fraud prior to or in conjunction with taking part in terrorist activity.”
“We started looking at immigration and naturalization charges as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF). With the establishment of Homeland Security in 2003, they started focusing on immigration fraud as a specified unlawful activity or precursor offense used to facilitate potential terrorism operatives to get here and conduct attacks,” said Raymond Orzel, a former Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations and Center for Security Policy Senior Fellow, “We did a full-blown analysis of each one of [of the hijackers], what should have been a basis for having them deported or served as barrier to entry.”
Increasingly, Orzel says, federal law enforcement began to focus on immigration fraud as a basis for launching counterterrorism investigations, with good results.
But that policy would not last. Under the Obama administration, not only were customs and border patrol officers instructed to purge records regarding individuals with known terror ties, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) kept a “hands off list” of terror-linked individuals, and known terrorists were openly admitted to the United States at the explicit direction of the State Department.
Efforts to better identify, track, and deport visa overstays was stalled and beset with significant issues. A 2013 GAO report noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had lost track over “hundreds” of visa overstays thought to be a danger to national security.
By 2017 over 700,000 individuals were identified as visa overstays.
The Biden administration has moved forward with plans to completely neuter internal immigration enforcement in the United States, including an attempt to eliminate the routine enforcement and removal branch which sees to deportations. Biden’s DHS Secretary Alexander Mayorkas was notorious for discriminating against officers tasked with immigration fraud enforcement and insisting upon a “get to yes” policy where stringent vetting is disfavored.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is an important reminder of the oversights in policy and enforcement which made the attack possible. Understanding and exposing the mistakes and loopholes which made the country vulnerable to terrorism was once a high priority. Sadly, while immigration fraud enforcement was once seen as an important aspect of protect the country from terrorism, 20 years after 9/11 there is arguable less scrutiny than ever before.
Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
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