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Terrorist Travel By: Janice L. Kephart
Center for Immigration Studies | Tuesday, May 05, 2009


How is it that seven and a half years after September 11, and nearly five years after the 9/11 Commission published its 2004 Final Report and the 9/11 and Terrorist Travel monograph whose purpose was to explain in detail how the 9/11 hijackers got in and stayed in the United States, we are still discussing the issue?

Not one 9/11 terrorist entered the United States via Canada

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano's April 20, 2009, comment agreeing with a reporter that the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. from Canada was more than a minor gaffe. It was a serious blunder. Whether or not the Canadian press was baiting the DHS Secretary is irrelevant; what is relevant is that any DHS Secretary who fails to have sufficient grounding in the facts surrounding 9/11 – the most serious breach of our homeland security in history – to refute the press upfront is raising serious questions about this administration's interest in actual homeland security, versus some other agenda.

Ignorance, Ms. Secretary, is definitely not bliss. Magnifying the blunder is that Secretary Napolitano has made clear through her statements and actions up to this point that she has little interest in 9/11 or in the 9/11 Commission's findings and recommendations. Review her comments and there is no reference anywhere. Offensive, perhaps, to 9/11 victims and lessons learned? Counterproductive, perhaps, to U.S. national and economic security?

In 9/11 and Terrorist Travel, my colleagues and I never mentioned Canada, because the hijackers never entered through Canada. In fact, I – being responsible for all investigation pertaining to entry into the U.S. – investigated all potential leads pertaining to entry from Canada. At one point I had found a Mohamed Atta (the same name as the operational lead of 9/11 and first pilot to crash into the WTC complex) that ended up in court in Buffalo for illegal entry from Canada, if I recall. I pursued the lead but later determined through other facts that it was not the 9/11 ringleader Atta and, in fact, there were no direct links to 9/11 via Canada other than Al Qaeda associates not directly linked to the final plot.

To set the record straight, let us be clear: the 19 hijackers entered through U.S. airports showing immigration personnel passports – often doctored or newly acquired to hide prior travel – and visas acquired often with incomplete or inaccurate information. This is what we said in our Preface:

Chapter 2, "The September 11 Travel Operation," is a detailed account of how each hijacker acquired a visa and entered the United States. In all, they had 25 contacts with consular officers and 43 contacts with immigration and customs authorities. They began acquiring their visas in April 1999 and began entering the country in December 2000. They successfully entered the United States 33 times over 21 months, through nine airports of entry, most of which were on the East Coast.

The U.S. has a problem with terrorists within its borders

America harbors terrorists. Years of porous borders, a good economy, and an open society marked by free association and free speech have meant that getting here and staying here, raising money, recruiting and training, all happen within our country. While the threat from within remains, we also know that Mexico’s open borders and excessive violence breed a lawlessness that alien smugglers can take advantage of, anonymously enabling terrorists to enter. We know that in the late 1990s Hizballah used this method for some 200 plus young recruits from a convicted Lebanese-Mexican alien smuggler. (For more, see CBS News 2005 piece "Stopping Terror at the Border").

We know that within our borders citizens such as Jose Padilla and Adam Gadahn – the latter still on the FBI most wanted list for "treason and material support to Al Qaeda" – pose a threat to the world's security. More recently, other American citizens have surfaced with recruiting videos from Somalia, including two American men who identify themselves as Abu-Muslim and Abu Yaxye who left the U.S. where they say in the video they had a "good life and good education, to fight alongside our brothers of al-Shabaab" (linked to Somali pirate activity as an alleged arm of their fundraising activity). In addition, my 2005 CIS paper, Immigration and Terrorism: Moving Beyond the 9/11 Staff Report on Terrorist Travel, showed how 20 of 21 terrorists who applied for naturalization between the early 1990s and 2004, received citizenship.

Canada does not admit it has a problem with terrorists within its borders

The northern border, however, has presented a different issue. A cordial relationship with Canada, alongside being the largest trading partnership in the world, created an open, relatively unchecked pre-9/11 border. Yet despite 9/11, and perhaps because 9/11 did not involve Canada, Canada continues to refuse to acknowledge that they also have a homegrown terrorism problem that does, in fact, create cross-border issues. (See, for instance, this recent piece by a former Canadian immigration official.) Add that to a long-standing history of fighting border security measures on the basis that they are not Mexico, and Canada continues to argue that the only issue on the table to discuss should be trade, period, end of story.

Perhaps the biggest standoff of recent years was the policy battle between the U.S. and Canada over the 9/11 Commission recommendation to require a "passport or biometric equivalent" from Americans, Canadians, and others crossing our northern border, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). Despite repeated claims by Canada that WHTI would shut down ports of entry and border crossings and no one would comply, WHTI was implemented with exceedingly high compliance at our ports of entry. That program has proven a success and even Canada is no longer fighting the final implementation of WHTI at our land borders for June 1, 2009.

Canadian terrorists set their sights on the U.S.

I testified before the House Small Business Committee (Novemvber 2005), House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration (June 2006) and Senate Finance Committee (August 2006) on issues of Canadian homegrown terrorism, fraud, and 9/11 Commission recommendations in regard to Canada. In those testimonies, I provided pages of specific information about terrorist cross-border traffic and what the U.S. needs to do to stop it. Some of it has already – or is in the process of – going into effect, including WHTI. I also addressed border incursions by suspected terrorists beyond that of Ahmed Ressam, the al Qaeda associate and Millennium Bomber caught in December 1999 trying to enter from Canada even after the French had repeatedly asked Canada to look for him as a terrorist fugitive. There are plenty of other examples of cross-border traffic, but perhaps most disconcerting are those terrorists with Canadian citizenship who have set their sights on the U.S.:

1. Mohammed Warsame was born in Somalia and sought refugee status in Canada in 1989. He became a naturalized Canadian citizen and moved to Minneapolis in 2002. He was arrested in December 2003 as a material witness in the Zacarias Moussaoui case. At the time of his arrest, he was a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. In January 2004, Warsame was indicted and charged with conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda. Warsame has admitted attending an al Qaeda training camp in 2000 and 2001 and receiving military training (weapons, martial arts). He attended lectures given by Bin Ladin and even sat next to him at a meal. Moreover, he fought with the Taliban and provided financial assistance to al Qaeda members in Pakistan once he had returned to the United States. See Immigration and Terrorism: Moving Beyond the 9/11 Staff Report on Terrorist Travel, p. 25.

2. Abderraouf Jdey studied biology at the University of Montreal. In 1995, he became a Canadian citizen, with news reports indicating he used a fake Tunisian passport and a claim of asylum to stay in Canada. In 1999, he received a Canadian passport and traveled to Afghanistan. This is what the 9/11 Commission said about Jdey:

Abderraouf Jdey, a.k.a. Faruq al Tunisi. A Canadian passport holder, he may have trained in Afghanistan with Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi and received instruction from KSM with Atta and Binalshibh. A letter recovered from a safehouse in Pakistan, apparently written by Sayf al Adl, also suggests that Jdey was initially part of the 9/11 operation at the same time as the Hamburg group. A videotape of Jdey's martyrdom statement was found in the rubble of Atef's house near Kabul following a November 2001 airstrike, together with a martyrdom video of Binalshibh. While both Binalshibh and Khallad confirm Jdey’s status as an al Qaeda recruit, KSM says Jdey was slated for a "second wave" of attacks but had dropped out by the summer of 2001 while in Canada. FBI briefing (June 24, 2004); Intelligence report, interrogation of Binalshibh, Sept. 11, 2003; Intelligence report, interrogation of Khallad, May 21, 2004; Intelligence report, interrogation of KSM, July 1, 2003. 9/11 Commission Final Report, Notes to Chapter 7, p. 526.

3. The FBI is currently seeking information on naturalized Canadian Amer Al-Maati. He is also listed on the National Counterterrorism Center website as wanted. His name was found on documents in Afghanistan. He is a licensed pilot who had vowed to hijack a plane and crash it into a U.S. building. In August 2004 there was an unsubstantiated report that he was seen at the Nantucket Airport.

4. The FBI also lists Canadian citizen Faker Ben Abdelazziz Boussora who is known to have a suicide note and concern did exist that he may try to reenter Canada to plan a terrorist attack. He is believed to have possibly entered the United States. The FBI site currently states that Boussara "is being sought in connection with possible terrorist activity within the United States."

The list goes on. Canada has gone to great lengths to cooperate on border issues involving infrastructure and intelligence at ports of entry, and worked side-by-side with our Border Patrol, and remain openly engaged diplomatically with the U.S. on these issues. This is of grave importance. Yet, a denial from any democratic country – especially our neighbor with a shared 4,000 mile border – that terrorist travel is not an issue for cross-border traffic does not make either country any safer. As James Carafano and Frank Cilluffo suggest in their April 22, 2009 report "Canada and the United States: Time for a Joint Threat Assessment," to even begin such an assessment requires both countries to acknowledge problems within their own borders.

A month of missteps

March 16, 2009. Napolitano refuses to describe the threat from Al Qaeda and spin-off and affiliate groups overseas as "terrorism," instead labeling such activity "man-caused disasters." She defends her change in rhetoric to the German press by stating that she did not want to induce fear in people by discussing terrorism, and proceeds to neither acknowledge the events of September 11 nor the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. See "The Department of Man-Caused Risk Preparation?"

April 16, 2009. Napolitano publicly endorses a poorly executed DHS "intelligence" report that labels returning overseas veterans and others as "potential terrorists" who (nebulously) fall within Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 113B, § 2331 definition for "domestic terrorism." This statement is made in contradiction to her March 16 statements about terminology no longer deemed politically correct for “international terrorism” as defined by this same section of the U.S. Code. More specifically, it was reported that she said: "I was briefed on the general topic, which is one that struck a nerve as someone personally involved in the Timothy McVeigh prosecution." Perhaps some personal involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center or New York Landmarks prosecutions, the 1998 African Embassy bombing cases, or any of the couple of dozen federal terrorism convictions post-9/11, may have broadened her viewpoint of the definition of "terrorism."

April 20, 2009. In editorials like "The Border for Dummies," the Canadians are questioning how Napolitano got her job. The exchange between reporters and Secretary Napolitano on April 20, 2009 and her follow-up correction went like this:

Napolitano: "…to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across the border, it's been across the Canadian border…"

Q: "Are you talking about the 9/11 perpetrators?"

Napolitano: "Not just those, but others as well."

and then her April 21, 2009, official statement trying to clarify her comments:

"I know that 9/11 hijackers did not come through Canada to the US. There are other instances, however, when suspected terrorists have attempted to enter our country from Canada to the United States. Some of these are well-known to the public, such as the Millennium Bomber – while others are not due to security reasons."

Why the facts matter

What is most regrettable about the 9/11-Canada gaffe is that Napolitano's official statement that "there are other instances … when suspected terrorists have attempted to enter our country from Canada to the United States" is accurate. However, the gaffe overshadows the fact that no matter what her defenders are saying now, she has shown herself to be ignorant of a key 9/11 fact.

It is bewildering then, that Sen. McCain, whose legislation (co-sponsored by Sen. Lieberman) created the 9/11 Commission, has repeated the Secretary's latest gaffe, intensifying an already somewhat justified verbal offensive by the Canadians. Sen. McCain cannot claim years in Arizona immune to the effects of 9/11 on the East Coast as a defense, as Secretary Napolitano might want to. Nor can he claim that his ideology is out of sync with the practical application of 9/11 Commission recommendations, which appears to be the case with the new DHS Secretary, at least in some instances. While supporting a fellow Arizonan may be a politically important for Sen. McCain, defending her on misstatements of facts is political failure.

What is most disturbing about both the Senator's and the Secretary's blunder is that they are discrediting not only our relationship with Canada, but a valid U.S. stance that there is a terrorist travel issue with Canada. Both politicians are proving that the 9/11 Commission facts, findings, and recommendations with regard to terrorist travel are still valid, and still stand no matter what party is in power.


Janice Kephart is former counsel to the September 11 Commission and an author of 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: A Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.


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