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On Dec. 28, 2008, the "El Paso Times reported that terrorist and Lebanese national Mohammad Kamal Elzahabi is (finally) facing deportation. Elzahabi has been held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement since his conviction on three counts of possession of false immigration documents in August 2007. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota, evidence "showed that on Sept. 6, 2001; Sept. 21, 2001 and Feb.7, 2002, Elzahabi used an alien registration receipt card, commonly referred to as a 'green card,' as evidence of his eligibility to stay and work in this country. That card, however, was obtained by fraud."
What the government has not mentioned is that Elzahabi's story is 25 years old – that he was recruited here in the United States in the early 1990s to serve what later became al Qaeda, and that if the government had followed through with his deportation in 1988, he never could have acquired the foothold in the United States to further his terrorist activity for another 15 years. It is an old story of wasted government resources, government information systems that don’t talk to each other or carry inadequate information, and policies recommended but not implemented. It may be an old story, but it is one worth repeating.
Immigration fraud. Elzahabi arrived on a student visa in 1984 to attend English as a Second Language classes at the University of Houston. Also in 1984, he paid an exotic dancer, Kathy Ann Glant, a waitress and dancer at the Pink Pussy Cat Club, $5,000 to marry him in order to get a green card. The two never lived together, and in 1988 the two divorced and admitted the fraud. Also in 1988, Elzahabi was recruited to fight in Afghanistan at an Islamic Conference in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, deportation proceedings were initiated, but there was no follow-through. No one in the federal government bothered to follow-up and divest Elzahabi of his legal immigration status or note that his green card was obtained by fraud. In 1995, with deportation proceedings in abeyance, he had managed to leave and return again to the United States after being wounded in combat in Afghanistan. He set up shop sending dual-use field radios to compatriots in Pakistan out of New York. In 1998, asked to train recruits at the Khalden Camp, instead he ended up in 1999 and 2000 fighting on behalf of al Qaeda in Chechnya, where he admitted to the FBI he had killed men. He once more successfully returned to the United States.
Driver's licenses. On September 11, 2001, Elzahabi applied for a job with a national school bus driver company, First Student. Located in Ohio, First Student (as of 2004) employed 19,000 bus drivers on 15,000 school buses nationwide. At that time, Elzahabi held a valid Massachusetts driver's license and a school bus commercial license, including hazmat clearance. He did not have legal status, yet there was no way for either Massachusetts or Minnesota to know because (1) the federal government had not done its job and properly notified the entire immigration system of Elzahabi's (still) pending deportation; and (2) neither of these states were likely checking federal legal status when Elzahabi was applying for his licenses.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI had identified Mohammad Kamal Elzahabi as a suspected terrorist. Yet according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Division of Driver Vehicle and Licensing, the FBI "ran his name through a database and cleared him."
So, for four months immediately after 9/11, Elzahabi was transporting students in the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Elzahabi was only fired in January 2002 for failure to report to work. In February 2002 he tried to get his job back, but was denied due to his unreliability. His terrorist ties were only learned of two years later, despite Elzahabi's fingerprints having been sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension prior to his hire and the FBI clearing Elzahabi to drive. The FBI's failure to flag Elzahabi's fingerprints never received any comment by the Bureau, despite the Bureau's having flagged him prior to the 9/11 attacks as a potential terrorist. In June 2004, Elzahabi's license for transporting toxic materials was still valid, though his school bus driver's license had been canceled in February 2004 for reasons unknown.
Terrorist operations. In a September 2005 CIS paper, Immigration and Terrorism: Moving Beyond the 9/11 Staff Report on Terrorist Travel, I discussed Elzahabi's terrorist background as follows:
Upon obtaining his green card, Elzahabi left the United States to fight jihad in Afghanistan and met the key jihadi figures Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Raed Hijazi, and Bassam Kanj. He again traveled to Afghanistan in 1991 and remained there about four years. During this time, he was a sniper in combat and served as an instructor in small arms and sniper skills for other jihadists attending the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan. Elzahabi admitted that while he was in Afghanistan, he personally knew Abu Zubaida and knew of KSM.
Elzahabi returned to the United States in 1995 and moved to New York City, where he ran an axle-repair business. He used this business to help ship to Pakistan portable field radios, later found in Afghanistan by U.S. troops.
From 1997 to 1998 Elzahabi lived in Boston, working as a cabdriver. There he associated with Raed Hijazi, whom he aided in obtaining a Massachusetts driver's license in 1997. Raed Hijazi (born in California to Palestinian parents and later radicalized) was later convicted in Jordan for masterminding the failed Millennium bombing plot that had targeted American and Israeli tourists in that country. While in Boston, he lived with Bassam Kanj, who had married an American in 1988 and was later naturalized. Kanj helped Hijazi lease a taxi that officials believe was used to fund the Jordan plan. Also working with these taxi drivers was Nabil Al-Marabh, discussed in the illegal entry section below.
Elzahabi also traveled to Lebanon, where he provided small arms training to the group of fighters that Bassam Kanj had formed to overthrow the government of Lebanon. Kanj was killed in 2000 in Lebanon.
Conclusion. Elzahabi operated in the United States under the guise of a sham marriage for 20 years. Once in the federal immigration system with a green card, deportation proceedings were ignored time and again as this key al Qaeda operative moved in and out of the United States; established a viable business that transferred combat gear to al Qaeda out of New York; made it through an FBI background check subsequent to his terrorist travel and initial deportation proceedings; and, most unnerving, obtained driver licenses in more than one state that included driving school children in the Minneapolis school system for four months.
In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission Final Report made the following observations and recommendations:
All points in the border system – from consular offices to immigration services offices – will need appropriate electronic access to an individual's file. Scattered units at Homeland Security and the State Department perform screening and data mining; instead, a government-wide team of border and transportation officials should be working together. A modern border and immigration system should combine biometric entry-exit system with accessible files on visitors and immigrants, along with intelligence on indicators of terrorist travel.
It is almost 2009. These recommended systems regarding electronic access to an individual's file are either not available or are not being used adequately. Not all states are checking legal status in driver license applications (four still don't). However important that is, it is dependent on the federal government keeping its information up to date. As long as the states are willing to do their part, the federal government – including the FBI – needs to do its part in ensuring the information it provides its customers is valid.
When a known terrorist 20 years out of legal status gets a school bus driver's license and uses it in a post-9/11 world, it's hard to argue that securing our borders, or securing ID issuance, doesn't matter to national security. Try telling that to the parents whose children were driven to school by Mr. Elzahabi.