Student visa holder Quazi Nafis was arrested last week for trying to blow up the Federal Reserve building in New York City with what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb. Nafis is not the first to use easily-acquired student visas to gain legal entry to, and plot attacks against, the United States.
Nafis, a Bangladeshi national, acquired a student visa in December 2011 and entered the United States in January to study cyber security at Southeast Missouri State University. He subsequently transferred to ASA College in New York although, at the time, the transfer did not trigger an investigation by federal officials responsible for monitoring visa compliance.
Prosecutors say the suspected al Qaeda sympathizer tried to recruit people from a terrorist cell, but wound up contacting an FBI informer who introduced him to the undercover FBI agent/"explosives" supplier. Officials say Nafis considered several attack plans, including an attempt on President Obama's life, before settling on the Federal Reserve as his target.
Terrorists started using student visas to gain legal access to the United States in the 1990s. Before the 1993 terrorist attack against the World Trade Center, Evad Ismoil had entered the country on a student visa to attend Wichita State University. He dropped out of college, only to resurface driving the van full of explosives during the attack. Several of the terrorists in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, such as Mohammed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, used student visas.
More recently in February 2011, federal agents arrested Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a student visa holder. In his apartment near Texas Tech University, they found bomb-making chemicals, wiring, a hazmat suit and clocks. Aldawsari had been planning to commit a terror attack against the U.S. for years, prosecutors said. Among his targets was the home of former President George W. Bush.
The State Department is responsible for vetting student visa applications through the Consular Lookout and Support System, which keeps a list of foreign nationals who should not be granted a visa. The problem is, those who keep a low profile may not be on the list. In fiscal year 2011, the State Department issued 476,000 type "F" student visas worldwide,
After a person enters on a student visa, the Department of Homeland Security becomes responsible for monitoring visa compliance. Schools and programs approved to host foreign students must report certain information to DHS’ Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), including changes in a student’s location and academic status. When certain changes trigger a possible visa violation, DHS is supposed to investigate.
DHS has had some success in using SEVIS to track down dangerous aliens. In January 2012, ICE agents arrested a Saudi Arabian national who was admitted on student visa. He had plans to blow up the White House and the Saudi Arabian cultural mission to the United States.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) is reportedly interested in reforming the student visa system in the wake of the foiled attack against the Federal Reserve. "Al Qaeda made a decision several years ago that they were going to send people into our country who had valid papers, who are under the radar screen, who had no known terrorist connections," King said. "We are at war, and so many people forget that. This is the 15th attempted plot against New York since September 2001. It's the 60th plot against the United States."
Updated: Sun, Oct 21st 2012 @ 9:21pm EDT