Saudi Student Arrested on Terrorism Charges: The Visa Impact

As VOA reported Thursday, Saudi national Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, who was studying in the Texas, was arrested on a federal charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.  He allegedly bought chemicals and equipment necessary to make bombs, and his email records allegedly indicate that he sent himself lists of potential targets and jihadist messages.

Aldawsari was also, according to the FBI’s affidavit, in the country legally on an F-1 student visa issued in 2008. He arrived in the U.S. first for a year-long English language program, and then entered Texas Tech University with a major in chemical engineering. He had recently transferred to nearby South Plains College and was majoring in business.

Aldawsari’s studies were funded through a scholarship with a Saudi-based industrial corporation, which paid his educational and living expenses.

In his diaries, translated in the FBI’s affidavit, Aldawsari writes that he was accepted for both a government scholarship and the corporate scholarship, choosing the corporate scholarship because:

First, [it] sends its students directly to America, …contrary to [the other[ which requires its students to study in the Land of the Two Holy Places for one year. Second, [the sponsoring corporation’s] financial scholarship is the largest, which will help tremendously in providing me with the support I need for Jihad, God willing.

Interestingly, according to the Tennessean, court records indicate that Aldawsari’s blog contradicts this account.  His blog entries from 2008 apparently paint a picture of a student adjusting to life in America:

On his blog, he talked about learning English, chemistry and physics. He quoted the movie Meet Joe Black, described his love of zombie movies and video games. And he fell in love with a Vanderbilt student helping at the English Language Center.

“I am falling in love of her. …” He wrote. “She is gorgeous that I cann’t forget her just right away … I am asking Allah the great to covert her to Islam and marry me.”

Aldawsari expressed hope that he could eventually score a job at Google and openly admired America’s culture of volunteerism. In recalling an outing when he and other students helped build a home, he remarked, “I think this trip is really a good one that we saw how volunteering is a big part of the American culture and I so interested in volunteering because I like help the others.”

The Tennessean says it was in 2010 when the tone of the blog changed dramatically.

The number of Saudi students in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years, largely thanks to scholarships being offered by the Saudi government – the type Aldawsari said he turned down. The latest data from the Institute for International Education shows that foreign student enrollments from Saudi Arabia increased 25% in 2010.

Not surprisingly, some U.S. lawmakers have reacted by questioning the efficacy of U.S. student visa policies. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, responded with a statement calling for tighter enforcement of immigration laws. He said in the statement, “We shouldn’t be surprised that terrorists continue to enter the U.S. on visas when our immigration laws are so loosely enforced. The 9-11 hijackers entered the U.S. after obtaining visas. And the Christmas Day bomber was able to board a plane en route to Detroit because he too had a visa.”

(Although, to be fair, the 9/11 hijacker who was in the U.S. on an F student visa was in gross violation of his visa terms, having never showed up to the English language school he had claimed he would attend (as reported by the 9/11 Commission). And the so-called Christmas bomber was on a multiple-entry tourist visa, not a student visa).

According to Reporter News, Representative Mac Thornberry said this case should be used to generate lessons learned for screening of student visa applicants. Reporter News also quotes Representative Mike Conaway as saying that these allegations shouldn’t affect the way the U.S. hands out student visas:

Big Country Rep. Mike Conaway said having foreign students in the country is valuable because they learn about Americans.

“And they take a little bit of the good from America back with them,” said Conaway, a Midland Republican.

He said he doesn’t think the allegations against the Lubbock student call for eliminating student visas.

“But we ought look at how this fellow got his, what was done to check him out, to see if there were any indications that he was going to do this that we should have seen before he got the visa,” Conaway said.