Defense & Homeland Security

Is arrest of Saudi student a ‘see something’ win, or security flaw?

Lawmakers are at odds over whether the arrest of a Saudi man on bomb
charges is a victory for U.S. homeland security and intelligence
officials or a spotlight on the country’s vulnerabilities and a call to
heighten security and immigration measures.

The FBI arrested Saudi national Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari last
week for allegedly trying to purchase chemicals to make a bomb and
planning out possible attack scenarios, including one to plant
explosives in toy dolls and another to smuggle a bomb into a nightclub
inside a backpack.

{mosads}The case of Aldawsari, who was in the U.S. on a student visa and
enrolled at a community college in Texas, has ignited a debate among
House lawmakers over whether further steps need to be taken to screen or
monitor people in the U.S. on visas.

House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants to
increase surveillance and screening measures on individuals in the U.S.
on visas from countries known for terrorist activities, such as
Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

“I think we have to realize that if they come here from these
countries, they’re going to be subjected to more surveillance than
others,” King said Friday on Fox News. “If they fit a certain profile,
if you’re coming from Saudi Arabia and you want to major in chemistry…
I think you should be able to monitor the Internet and be able to see
what these people are doing.” 

Next Thursday, at the committee’s hearing to discuss the DHS budget,
King said he plans to question Homeland Security Secretary Janet
Napolitano about Aldawsari and suggest an increase in screening and
monitoring on foreign students in the country.

“I want to know what she thinks can be done to
improve our security going forward,” said King in a statement on Saturday. “In this case, you have a student
from Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, on a student
visa studying chemistry, with an interest in explosives. I believe we
need to better screen student visa applicants, certainly those from
countries like Saudi Arabia. 

“Then once they are here studying,” he said, “we need
to have a way to more closely monitor them.”

The ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence,
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (Md.) heralded the Aldawsari case as a
success but told The Hill that lawmakers and U.S. officials need to be
careful to weigh security concerns while not deterring foreign students
who come to the country and add to its economic and educational

“We don’t want to discourage people coming from other countries to
come to our education systems, because that makes us stronger as a
country,” said Ruppersberger in an interview.  “[Foreign students] are
going to other countries, like China and Russia, who I believe are a big
threat to us from a military and power point of view. We can’t
discourage students from other countries coming to our country.”

Ruppersberger suggested that the U.S. focus on intelligence
gathering and sharing, isolating trends in recruitment tactics by
terrorist groups and radicalized segments of communities, both physical
and online. He credited the public for alerting authorities to
Aldawsari’s alleged suspicious activities and pointed to the success of
certain provisions in the Patriot Act in allowing officials to respond

The chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike
Rogers (R-Mich.), also used Aldawsari’s arrest to push for an extension
of the Patriot Act’s “lone wolf” provision, which loosens the rules
around when law enforcement officials can monitor individuals they
suspect of terrorist activities.  

“From what we’ve heard so far it looks like this was a nice piece of
work by the FBI and some alert citizens in preventing a potential
terrorist attack,” said Rogers in a statement. “This case also
highlights the need for continued vigilance against  ‘lone wolf’
terrorist threats, as well as the need for Congress to make the ‘Lone
Wolf’ provision of FISA permanent so the FBI has this crucial tool at
its disposal for use against precisely this type of threat.”

Congress recently passed a 90-day extension of three provisions in
the Patriot Act amid much argument over civil liberty and security
concerns. The provisions include greater access to roving wiretaps and
business records, in addition to the “lone wolf” provision.

Ruppersberger said concerns over violating civil liberties are
necessary to ensure that a proper system of checks and balances is
maintained. He said, however, that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Court (FISA) was created for that reason.

“The most important thing for me in the Patriot Act is that you have
judicial supervision,” he said. “Our country is based on checks and
balances. But you need to also give those people whose job it is to
protect us the resources to do their job pursuant to the Constitution.”

But King said that those civil liberty concerns go out the window
when authorities are dealing with foreign nationals in the U.S. on

“If they feel that that’s so much of an infringement on
their freedoms or liberties, well, no one’s making them come here in the
first place,” said King. “We’re not talking about American citizens.
We’re talking about people who are coming here at the sufferance of the
United States.”

“I realize there’s a lot of civil liberty concerns,” he said. “I quite frankly
don’t share them in these cases when you’re talking about someone who is
not a citizen [and] who is here because we’ve allowed them into the
country [and] we’re giving them a special privilege to be here. There
should be monitoring. There should be surveillance.”

The lawmakers and the FBI credit the arrest to several calls made
by private citizens who were concerned about Aldawsari’s alleged
actions. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been heavily
pushing a new national security campaign called, “If you see something,
say something,” which asks citizens to alert authorities to suspicious

Earlier this month Aldawsari allegedly tried to buy a shipment of
the chemical phenol, or carbolic acid, which can be used to make
explosives, according to the FBI. But both the chemical supplier and the
freight shipper contacted law enforcement officials, saying that they
thought the order was suspicious.

Aldawsari allegedly canceled the order, but had previously been
successful in acquiring two other chemicals that could be used to create
an improvised explosive device, said the FBI.

The FBI said
surveillance of Aldawsari revealed that he allegedly e-mailed himself
chemical recipes, plus instructions on how to convert a cellular phone
into a remote detonator and how to prepare a booby-trapped vehicle using
common household items. He also allegedly purchased a gas mask, a
Hazmat suit, a soldering iron kit, glass beakers and flasks, wiring, a
stun gun, clocks and a battery tester.

The FBI says that it found many of these items when they searched
his house, as well as a journal that allegedly indicates his long-held
desire to carry out a terrorist plot.

According to the FBI, one
journal entry reads, “And now, after mastering the English language,
learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the
infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”

Aldawsari faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and filed a not-guilty plea in court on Friday.

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