The Case of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Overshadowed in the extensive national coverage of the Najibullah Zazi terror case is the case of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year old Jordanian man arrested on Thursday, September 24, in Dallas. Smadi was taken into custody by FBI agents shortly after throwing the switch on what he believed was a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in an SUV he had parked in the basement of a 60-story Dallas office tower, in an attempt to kill thousands of people timed to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Like several other terrorists before him, Smadi apparently was a student visa overstay.

According to news reports, Smadi was issued a student visa to study at a high school in Santa Clara, Calif. Actually, he was living in Italy, Texas, a small town south of Dallas, and working at a Shell station there. Friends and neighbors knew him as "Sam," saying he was "popular, friendly, and loyal, and never missed a party." He came to the attention of FBI agents who were monitoring an on-line chat room for violent jihadists. That Smadi was caught is a testament to the value and effectiveness of federal counter-terrorism programs. That he was here at all raises old questions about loosely-monitored student and exchange visa programs that serve little diplomatic or academic purpose, but are obviously still providing access for terrorist-wannabes.

The latest report from DHS' Student and Exchange Visit Program (SEVP) says that as of January 2009, there were nearly 10,000 schools in the United States approved to host foreign students and exchange visitors. These range from the top user, the City University of New York (11,600 students) to scores of beauty schools, English language programs, massage therapy establishments, and aviation training institutes, to cite some on just on the first page of the list. DHS lacks the staff and resources to do more than a cursory examination of the schools every few years.

As of January, there were just over one million active foreign students, exchange visitors, and their dependents in the United States. About 20,000 are enrolled in high school level programs.

When a foreign student does not show up for classes in the program for which he was admitted, the institution is supposed to notify DHS. There is an office within ICE, the Compliance Enforcement Unit, that is tasked with evaluating the information and forwarding leads and records from SEVIS and two other monitoring programs (US-VISIT and NSEERS) to ICE field offices for investigation and possible enforcement. According to ICE agents I spoke to just recently about this effort, very few of the leads they receive are specific or current enough to act on. Since 2003, the unit has received more than 550,000 leads, ultimately resulting in 3,190 arrests.

Meanwhile, the State Department continues to crank out the student visas. In 2008, consular officers issued 767,266 visas to students and exchange visitors, up from 525,098 in 2004, an increase of 46 percent. This increase is partly the result of intense lobbying by the higher education industry to reverse stricter policies put in place after 9/11 (one of the 9/11 hijackers entered on a student visa, as have 19 other terrorists before him. See here for details). But many State Department managers support a more relaxed approach to foreign students, and both the Bush administration and congressional Democrats were keen on expanding access to foreign students, especially in community college and other less selective programs.

Temporary visitor visa issuances in Jordan are not what they were prior to the peak in 2001, when more than 25,000 were issued, but have been climbing back steadily, from 13,174 in 2002 to 17,295 in 2008. Most of these are regular temporary visas for business or pleasure, but just over 2,000 were to students and exchange visitors. In addition, the State Department issued more than 3,000 green cards in Jordan in 2008, nearly all based on family relationships, plus 30 based on employment and 24 lottery winners.

The Smadi case and other recent cases of disrupted terrorist plots illustrate several key points:

1. Terrorists continue to exploit our loosely monitored visa programs, so adjudicators must continue to be alert to this risk. Why would a consular officer issue a visa to a teenage Jordanian male to study English in an obscure high school in California? Smadi would seem to be a classic example of someone who should be refused on ordinary grounds, apart from any security concerns. According to one report, he already had a criminal record.

2. The monitoring programs implemented slowly after 9/11, such as SEVIS, US-VISIT, and NSEERS, need to be maintained and improved upon. Did the high school report Smadi's absense to DHS? If so, what did they do about it?

3. Programs that deter employment, such as E-Verify, need to be made universal. If Smadi had not been able to get a job, he might not have been able to stay here to hatch his plot.

Update (10/7/09): On September 30, 2009, DHS confirmed that Smadi in fact entered on a regular tourist visa, not a student visa, as had been previously reported. He entered with the intention of overstaying to seek "a better life," according to the manager of the apartment where he lived in California. This new information is little comfort, and yet another reminder of the ease with which foreign nationals from countries of special interest in the war on terror can still enter and find work without fear of detection as a visa overstay. Smadi is a poster child for tighter visa and entry standards, universal mandatory E-Verify, and the Exit recording and overstay tracking capability Congress first wrote into law in 1996.