Fort Dix Fix

By Mark Krikorian on May 28, 2007

National Review Online, May 28, 2007

Mercifully, today we are not commemorating 100 soldiers killed at Fort Dix this month by a group of immigrant jihadis. Their lives were spared. But we can't just rely on Circuit City clerks to defend America - Congress needs to help too.

Unfortunately, the Senate's grotesque immigration bill ignores the lessons about the intersection of immigration and terrorism that we should have learned from the Fort Dix plotters and from dozens and dozens of their predecessors. That lesson is that normal, sustained immigration enforcement, conducted across the board and without apology, is an indispensable tool in preventing and disrupting terrorist plots against our people.

What does the immigration backstory of the Fort Dix plot tell us about homeland security? Let us count the ways.

Border enforcement

The Duka brothers - Dritan, Eljvir, and Shain - the three Albanian illegal aliens among the six plotters, are believed to have snuck across border with their family near Brownsville, Texas, in 1984. Immigration maximalists (in Jonah Goldberg's useful formulation) have been telling us since 9/11 that none of the hijackers crossed the Mexican border, therefore that part of the immigration problem has no security implications.

But in modern conditions, immigration and security are indivisible - weakness in any aspect of immigration enforcement can and will be exploited. The Duka family didn't come here planning to be terrorists, intending rather to be ordinary illegal aliens doing the mythical jobs Americans won't do. But better border enforcement would have short-circuited the chain of events that led to the plot.

But it's not as though such indirect connections are needed to make the security case for tight border enforcement. Mahmoud Kourani, described in his federal indictment as a "member, fighter, recruiter and fund-raiser for Hezbollah," snuck across the Mexican border in the trunk of a car. The San Antonio Express-News recently ran a series tracking one Middle Eastern immigrant along his circuitous route from Damascus to Guatemala to Mexico to crossing the Rio Grande (near Brownsville), and finally to Detroit. Though the protagonist of the series was an Iraqi Christian, and thus obviously not linked to radical Islam, the smuggling networks bringing Middle Easterners across the Mexican border are extensive; one former Guatemalan prosecutor said "The business is gigantic. You have no idea. Everyone is involved - everyone. And for Arabs to come into Guatemala it's really easy - really easy." One U.S. agent with Mexico experience said. I think one of these days something bad is going to happen, and it's going to have a Mexican signature."

Inadequate enforcement of our Canadian border has also assisted terrorism. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, part of the plot to blow up a subway station in Brooklyn, snuck over Canadian border - three times. But the problem at the northern border was not the lack of fencing or other measures needed to cope with mass flows - in Abu Mezer's case, he was caught all three times, and twice sent back across the border, but Canada refused to take him back the third time, and so he was released into the United States on bond because of inadequate detention space and frivolous policies regarding detention of illegal aliens.

The Senate amnesty bill would not successfully address any of the border-security concerns that past terrorist plots have raised. It would require just 370 miles of fencing to be built (less than half the amount required by legislation just last year). In any case, the border-security benchmarks in the bill, which must be satisfied before Phase One of the amnesty (immediate "probationary" legal status for virtually all illegals) moves to Phase Two (the Z visa), are measurements of inputs rather than results. In other words, these requirements look to certain levels of spending, personnel, and equipment, rather than, say, a 90-percent decline in the actual flow of illegals across the border.


None of the Fort Dix plotters had received a formal amnesty, but one (Mohamad Shnewer) was a naturalized citizen, while two others (Serdar Tatar and Agron Abdullahu) were legal permanent residents - meaning that all three had been subjected to the rigorous background checks that Senate amnesty supporters tell us will weed out the bad apples in the illegal alien population. Even without the massive demand created by an amnesty for 12 million illegal aliens, such checks consist of little more than checking names against existing databases of terrorist suspects. But as one federal agent said in the Express-News series, "The bottom line is just because you don't get a hit doesn't mean he's not a terrorist."

If it's true that "there is no evidence they received direction from international foreign terrorist organizations," as White House spokesman Tony Snow has said of the Fort Dix plotters, then the three illegal aliens among them almost certainly would have passed whatever perfunctory security screening the Senate amnesty would require - especially since the Senate amnesty bill requires that Phase One of the amnesty (probationary status resulting in a Social Security number, plus the right to work and not be deported) be given to illegals within one business day, whether or not even the perfunctory check is completed.

The limitations imposed by the lack of legal status are obvious to terrorists. The criminal complaint in the Fort Dix plot makes clear that the plotters appreciated the importance of having legal status: "ELJVIR, SHAIN, and DRITAN DUKA all explained that they could not have firearms because they do not have "green cards." ... DRITAN DUKA again confirmed that he owned a black gun and a shotgun but acknowledged the illegality of doing so because he didn't have a Green Card."

Earlier terrorists also understood the importance of acquiring legal status through amnesty. According to the 9/11 Commission staff report on the immigration histories of terrorists (the large pdf file is here), Egyptian brothers Mohammed and Mahmoud Abouhalima, who were involved in the first World Trade Center attack, received provisional legal status during the last amnesty (passed by Congress in 1986) after fraudulently claiming to be farmworkers. Mohammed was later rejected, when it became clear he was lying, but he just stayed on illegally, since there was no effort to remove even the relatively small number of unsuccessful amnesty applicants. Mahmoud, nicknamed "The Red," successfully got a green card - i.e., permanent status - despite suspicions that he was lying. That permitted him to work and travel freely until he took part in the attack, then left for Egypt.

Highlighting the government's lack of seriousness about immigration security is this fact: We don't know all the details of Mahmoud the Red's immigration history because, as the 9/11 Commission staff report says: "His INS immigration file (A 90 568 993) was not available for review. DHS informed us that the Privacy Act barred the Commission from obtaining immigration files on legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens, even those convicted of terrorism or related crimes."

State and Local Enforcement
The nation's 700,000 state and local law-enforcement officers encounter illegal aliens every day in the normal course of their duties, and police cooperation is essential to any successful federal effort at immigration control. The Senate bill, however, actually undermines security by ensuring, in Section 136(d), that "Nothing in this section may be construed to provide additional authority to any State or local entity to enforce Federal immigration laws."

This is especially pertinent regarding the Fort Dix plot. The three Duka brothers - illegal aliens all - were stopped by police on various New Jersey jurisdictions 75 times without any inquiry into their lack of immigration status. (See the list of their encounters with the police here.)

The security value of state and local coordination with federal immigration authorities shouldn't be news to anyone. After he had overstayed his visa during his first visit to the United States, and thus became an illegal alien, Mohammed Atta was stopped in the spring of 2001 in Florida for driving without a license - but police had no way of knowing that he was illegal. Likewise with Hani Hanjour, another of the 9/11 hijackers and an illegal alien, when he was stopped for speeding in Virginia a month before the attacks.

A related concern is the issue of "sanctuary cities," where local politicians prohibit their police and civilian employees from checking on immigration status. While Cherry Hill, N.J., where most of the Duka brothers' traffic violations occurred, wasn't formally a sanctuary city, many others are, such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston, etc. Congress actually prohibited this practice in 1996, saying that "a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit or in any way restrict any government entity or official from sending to or receiving - information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual." But in the eleven years since, including the current Senate amnesty bill, neither Congress nor two administrations have made any attempt to enforce this provision.

In fact, the Senate bill's rejection of an increased state and local role in immigration enforcement merely reflects the Bush administration's preferences. In 2002, the White House prevented the publication of a legal opinion by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel clarifying the inherent constitutional authority of state and local police to make arrests for civil violations of federal immigration law. (See a pdf of the redacted version of the 2002 memo here.) This left in place an erroneous Clinton-era policy, based on rulings of the activist Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that is apparently more to the liking of the Bush administration. This unwillingness by the president and Congress to clarify the state and local role in immigration enforcement underlines the federal government's profound aversion to using immigration law to protect the nation.

There's More!

Other aspects of the Fort Dix plotters' histories illustrate the security importance of a tightly run immigration system. For instance, five years after sneaking into the United States, the Duka family applied for asylum - in other words, they sought to be reclassified from "illegal alien" to "refugee." The problem was that their application remained in limbo for nearly two decades, and, as Newsweek has reported, "While the asylum application was under consideration, the government effectively suspended any effort to deport family members as illegal aliens."

Another of the plotters, Agron Abdullahu, was admitted in 1999 as a Kosovar Albanian refugee. To put it baldly, this highlights the dangers of resettling Muslim refugees in the United States in the midst of a global war against radical Islam - something Congress and the administration need to keeping mind in considering how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Iraq.

The Fort Dix case has important lessons for Americanization policy as well. After 20 years in the United States, the Duka brothers were superficially assimilated; they spoke English, had American nicknames ("Tony" and "Elvis"), and were entrepreneurs, having started their own roofing company. But genuine Americanization - what's been called "patriotic assimilation" - obviously failed to take place. A Pew Research Center survey shows the same thing; fully one-quarter of Muslims in American under age 30 said that suicide bombings of civilian targets in defense of Islam could be justified.

The Senate amnesty bill makes a feint toward promoting assimilation, but as expected, its effect would be the opposite how it's billed. First of all, the very words "assimilation" and "Americanization" do not even appear, replaced instead by what John Fonte calls "the Euro-speak weasel word "integration."" What's more, the bill's approach to this vital concern is simply to shovel money into the hands of racial chauvinist groups like the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

It's clear that the drafters of the Senate amnesty bill learned nothing from the Fort Dix plot or the 15 years' worth of prior experience with foreign-born terrorists. If homeland security is one of the goals of immigration policy - as it surely is - then only sustained, across-the-board enforcement, leading to gradual attrition of the illegal population, can achieve that goal. A policy of attrition through enforcement is politically popular, administratively feasible, and can actually deliver improved security. As we honor today the memory of those who gave their lives to protect our nation, why are we even contemplating anything else?

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.