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Outside editorial: Saudi's bomb plot raises visa screening questions

Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2011

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Texas feels like a big target for malevolent people bent on inflicting death, destruction and terror in the U.S. That’s because we are.

Two of our 26 million residents are former presidents who waged war in the Middle East. We have the nation’s largest military base in Fort Hood. We are a leading oil refiner and home to one of the nation’s busiest seaports.

And we have hundreds of universities, colleges and community colleges whose doors have opened to nearly 60,000 foreign students from across the globe.

One of them, Khalid Aldawsari, 20, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, sits in a Lubbock jail on charges of preparing a weapon of mass destruction. His arrest is evidence of things that go right in the nation’s vigilance against terror attacks, but his very presence raises grave questions about the screening of student visa applications from higher-risk countries.

Aldawsari had written in a journal that he was almost able to carry out his attacks, with one target the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush. Aldawsari appears to fit the profile of what experts calls the most difficult security challenge — the “lone wolf” attacker.

Authorities got onto Aldawsari through tips from a North Carolina chemical-supply company, where he ordered 10 bottles of a bomb-making chemical, and from a Lubbock freight company where he was supposed to pick up the shipment. The order triggered suspicion in each place; and credit goes to the two companies for their alertness.

The FBI acted quickly. An agent questioned him in an undercover role, while others searched his apartment and conducted electronic surveillance. With his arrest last week, a portrait of a radicalized student unfolded, complete with talk of “infidel Americans” and martyrdom.

One of the most disturbing revelations is an entry in the suspect’s journal that he had been planning an act of terror since before he entered this country on a student visa in 2008.

Two congressional Republicans from Texas — Michael McCaul of Austin and Lamar Smith of San Antonio — are asking good questions about how Aldawsari’s radical views went undetected through visa screening. A budding terrorist certainly won’t divulge his intentions, but policymakers should hear from experts on ways to raise our defenses further, especially when it comes to countries with large politically radicalized populations. Saudi Arabia was the home country of 15 of the 19 hijackers from Sept. 11.

Like many Saudi students, Aldawsari came to this country with financial backing of a Saudi industrial corporation. His journal said he picked the “financial scholarship (that was) the largest, which will help tremendously in providing me with the support I need for Jihad, God willing.”

The brightest Saudi students still should have access to American universities. We want to attract the brightest minds from around the globe. But that should be only after visa applicants and their patrons undergo every reasonable measure of scrutiny.



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