Assume the Position

Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Connecting The Dots - In Advance

How much have attitudes really changed since Sep 11, 2001? Instead using 20/20 hindsight to pick and choose among dots to develop a case about intelligence failures prior to the hijackings, let's connect a couple of dots that are out there right now, describe an all too imaginable scenario, consider one small mitigating action that can be taken, and see how a prototypical warblogger reacts.

Two dots:

  1. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists are still out there planning operations against the US and its interests.

  2. On Sep 9, 2001, two days before the US hijackings, the biggest indigenous threat to the Taliban (and potentially the US's best ally in Afghanistan) was assassinated by al-Qaeda. The assassins posed as a television reporter and cameraman, and blew themselves up to kill Ahmad Shah Masoud, described by Pepe Escobar as:

    …mujahideen hero, the Lion of the Panjshir, former vice-president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, resistance leader for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and the closest to a nationalist leader and hero Afghanistan has had in a long time…

    The plot to kill Masoud was carried out by a Brussels-based Tunisian terrorist cell. Masoud was assassinated by two killers in their 30s posing as journalists and carrying fake Moroccan passports. The "reporter" called himself Karim Touzani - affable and relaxed. The surly, burly "cameraman" - who carried explosives in his battery pack - called himself Kacem Bakkali. Their letters of introduction presented them as television journalists from a certain Islamic Observation Center, based in London and concerned with "human rights issues for Muslims all over the world".

The imaginable scenario: Islamist terrorists posing as journalists will attempt to assassinate one or more prominent Americans in the US. They may be Indonesian Muslims travelling on real or fake Australian passports, Algerian Muslims travelling on real or fake French passports, or from nearly anywhere else travelling on nearly any country's real or fake passports. They may plan to use a camera-bomb or other any other method to kill their target, but they will rely on their journalism cover to get close enough to the target to carry out their plan.

A mitigating action: Enforce the existing Journalist (I) Visa requirement for foreign journalists.

The reaction of a prototypical warblogger: How about Matt Welch? His reaction is in this National Post article, "Journalists expelled, terrorists allowed in - Washington uses obscure visa as political weapon," which concludes:

Meanwhile, real terrorists will keep plotting real acts of violence, while maintaining their spotless record of never entering the United States by claiming to be journalists. And the United States will continue to win the booby prize of being just about the only Western country to join Cuba, Serbia, China, Indonesia, Laos and other hellholes to be criticized repeatedly by respectable international press-freedom organizations for using "journalist visas" as a political weapon.

This is the post-Sep 11 world, but what is imaginable from connecting-the-dots doesn't seem to matter as much as the opinions of "respectable international press-freedom organizations" and that terrorists haven't already used that method at least once in the US.

Welch's article is better than either the headline or the concluding paragraph indicate, and he may have forgotten or never known how Masoud was assassinated. In his post announcing the article, he said, "This is one of the rare instances where I'd like to distance myself somewhat from a headline..." Welch makes some good points in the article: 1) the rules surrounding the I-Visa requirement are confusing and haven't been well publicized, 2) enforcement currently seems to only happen at LAX, 3) the contrast between the I-Visa requirement for all foreign journalists and the ease of entry for most other citizens visiting for business or pleasure from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) eligible countries who don't need the standard Business/Tourist (B-1/B-2) Visas, and 4) the treatment of visa-less journalists in several cases (if not exaggerated) seems to have been mistreatment.

Where Welch's article misses is in failing to recognize that journalists, once in the country, are granted a lot more leeway and access based on their credentials than most visitors. Who would have a better chance of arranging for a brief chat with the Commander of CENTCOM, the Chief of Naval Operations, or the Commander of US Joint Forces Command at West 2004 in the San Diego Convention Center: a foreign tourist, a foreign engineer, or a foreign journalist?

Possibly because his article focuses on journalists, it also seems Welch is saying journalism is the only activity denied Visa Waiver Program-Business entry for stays less than 90-days. It's not. Students attending courses of any length require a Student (F-1/M-1) Visa. Anyone doing temporary work for any length of time requires a Temporary Work Visa, and those include not just the H series visas (H-1A nurse, H-1B technical specialist, H-2A agricultural worker, H-2B other unskilled, and H-3 trainees) but also P visas for athletes and entertainers, Q visas for participation in cultural exchange programs, R visas for ministers, E visas for treaty traders and investors, O visas for extraordinary ability in various fields, and, if you hadn't guessed yet, the I visa for journalists. (How well those requirements are enforced is probably a different story.)

It's a bit of definitional tom-foolery, but conducting business is not considered to be working. That means foreign customers from eligible countries attending a trade show in the US can enter under without a visa; but foreign entertainers hired to perform during the show, foreign journalists covering the show, and the Archbishop of Canterbury brought in to give an opening benediction, would all require the appropriate temporary working visa (the Pope, however, could probably use his diplomatic passport and not require a visa).

Finally, the VWP applies to citizens of eligible countries, not merely legal residents. While some terrorists, like shoebomber Richard Reid, are citizens, the larger source of terrorists coming from VWP eligible countries are legal and illegal immigrants to those countries, like LAX Millennium bomber Amhed Ressam. One more paragraph from Escobar to show why I used the US Embassy in Belgium for the visa links:

Already in 1999 European intelligence had begun to notice increased al-Qaeda recruiting activity among Tunisians living in Europe. A key recruit was Abdul Sattar Dahmane, a Tunisian resident of Belgium. He had been trained in one of al-Qaeda's Afghan military camps, where he lived in a house nearby with his Moroccan wife, Malika. In the spring of 2001 Dahmane was selected for a crucial mission. As he had studied journalism in Tunisia and Belgium, he would pose as a television interviewer, alongside another Tunisian posing as a cameraman - Rachid Bourawi, an illegal immigrant to Belgium. According to European intelligence, Dahmane was an operative in Brussels and London for the Tunisian Fighting Group, an organization with ties to al-Qaeda. The established European theory for the Masoud hit is that the Tunisian Fighting Group agreed to kill Masoud in exchange for its fighters training in al-Qaeda's Afghan military camps.

Changes to the law in 2000 gave Belgium one of the loosest nationalization laws in the world, requiring only 3 years as a legal resident to become a citizen.

If it was up to me, I'd end the Visa Waiver Program. It would inconvenience a lot of travellers (Americans, too, since the rules are based on reciprocity), but it's the VWP that is a liability in the current day, not temporary work visas, including the I visa for journalists.

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.