Terrorist travel may not still be at the top of the agenda for politicians on Capitol Hill, but travel remains a top priority for terrorists. The world was given a glimpse of how al Qaeda top leadership conducted reconnaissance in a recent trial in the United Kingdom of a British Airways employee now serving 30 years for his participation in an airline plot with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed by a drone in Yemen last September.
British authorities have made public that al-Awlaki, considered a key operational and inspirational guide for al Qaeda, especially after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in April of last year, was prolific in providing guidance to a worldwide network of jihadis via e-mail. By 2009, al-Awlaki, the first American on the CIA's kill or capture list, knew he was the target of U.S. and foreign intelligence services. He stopped using phones and turned to his keyboard because he believed e-mail communications were more secure. Al-Awlaki used more than 60 e-mail addresses and sent tens of thousands e-mails to his followers, some with encryption and code words, while under FBI surveillance. Some of those emails were exchanged with the Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan.
British court documents show al-Awlaki used encrypted emails when providing specific operational instructions to blow up a British plane heading to the United States. Some of them went to Rajib Karim, a British Airways employee, now serving 30 years in a British jail. A British transcript of court proceedings shows that in January 2010, al-Awlaki asked Karim the following, in addition to asking him to use a different e-mail account for communication. Al-Awlaki's comments and questions included:
We search for such men and women. I pray you are one of them, dear brother. I am excited by hearing of your profession.
What ways can you help us based on what you know of your job and our objective?
How much access do you have to airports?
What information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems?
What procedure would travelers from the newly listed countries have to go through?
Once more, we see that al Qaeda is willing to recruit and indoctrinate those with qualifications necessary for an operation. In this case, a British Airways employee whose brother had established a relationship with al-Awlaki was a high-value target for recruitment, with encouragement locally and support from al-Awlaki himself. Perhaps more interesting, however, are Awlaki's focus on aviation, travel and border vulnerabilities, and heightened security that he clearly perceived as obstacles that Karim could perhaps help him overcome.
The manner in which terrorists travel and their constant focus on "cracks in systems" were the baseline for 9/11 Commission border, travel, and aviation recommendations. And after years of shoring up vulnerabilities, the president's loosening of border security through immigration measures will persuade terrorists who once may have been discouraged from attempting to enter the United States to give it a try.
It remains important to note — as al-Awlaki's queries of Karim above make clear — that terrorists are always watching us, and seeking to take advantage of our border and travel vulnerabilities. The reduction or elimination of visa interviews, policies leaving open physical borders, lack of enforcement of immigration laws, failure to allow states to enforce immigration law or secure their borders, legal immigration benefits beyond those conferred by law, and, of course, amnesty, all bend the nation toward allowing anyone to get in, stay in, and assimilate. So while we are not watching, the terrorists are. And while President Obama continues to reiterate that his policies are in place to support those who seek to come here for a better life, he is forgetting about the handful we were once vigilant about — the terrorists who seek to come here to make American lives much worse.