On this day 25 years ago, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and six other individuals carried out the first successful terrorist attack on the World Trade Center – an act which killed six people and wounded more than a thousand.
Just after noon of Feb. 26, a bomb ripped through the underground garage of the World Trade Center taking the lives of John DiGiovanni, Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen A. Knapp, William Macko, Wilfredo Mercado, and Monica Rodriguez Smith.
The bombing showed the plotters failed to achieve their goal of bringing down the Towers, but the “greatest terrorist attack on U.S. soil” had exposed failures in the nation’s immigration system.
The mastermind of the 1993 bombing was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an individual who boarded a plane in Pakistan on a false British passport before traveling to the U.S. on a fake Iraqi passport and entered the United States in September 1992 without a visa.
He was permitted to enter provisionally after asking for asylum, and but was not detained for further review because of lack of detention space.
Yousef came to the U.S. on the same plane as Ahmed Ajaj, a Palestinian who arrived on a fake Swedish passport, was found to have bomb making videos and manuals in his luggage and was arrested on a passport fraud charge.
- Mohammed Salameh entered the United States in 1988 on a Jordanian passport and a visitor’s visa issued in Amman, Jordan. He applied for legal residence status was turned down, but continued to be in the country for years on appeal of that decision.
- Mahmud Abouhalima, entered on a tourist visa and applied for and gained amnesty under the agricultural worker provision of the 1986 IRCA amnesty despite living in New York and working as a taxi driver. Abouhalima fled to Saudi Arabia. He was extradited back to the United States and was convicted and sentenced to 240 years imprisonment.
- Eyad Ismoil, a Jordanian citizen, was born in Kuwait, but educated in Jorddan. It was in 1989 that he came to study engineering at Wichita State University in Kansas and never left.
Congress convened hearings to determine how the terrorists were able to enter the country without raising red flags and promised to reform the legal immigration system. Less than a decade later, the terrorists achieved their goal and more than 3,000 people perished at their hands.
The exploitation and violation of U.S. immigration laws by terrorists is not isolated to the World Trade Center attacks.
- Mir Aimal Kansi, who was responsible for the murder of employees outside of CIA headquarters in 1993;
- Lafi Khalil, who was involved in the New York subway bomb plot in 1997;
- Fadil Abdelghani, who took part in the 1994 plot to bomb New York landmarks, all exploited the visa system to enter and then stay in the United States.
Even after two of the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil, the legal loopholes remain. Last fall, it was reported that Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who drove into a crowd of bicyclists and pedestrians near the World Trade Center, had gained access to American shores via the diversity visa lottery.
Last May, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released data underscoring the ongoing problem of visa overstays. In FY 2016, U.S. Customs and Border protection (CPB) processed 50,437,278 nonimmigrant admissions at air and sea ports of entry – all of whom were expected to leave by the end of 2016 – but 739,478 overstayed their admission and almost 630,000 remained in the U.S. by year’s end, according to the DHS report.
Five percent of the 1.5 million student or exchange students ignored their visa terms and of the more than 21.6 million Visa Waiver Program, 147,282 overstayed their visa.
If we do not learn the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. But what happens if we just ignore those lessons?