Bangladeshi Quazi Ahsanullah displays a photograph of his son Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis as he weeps in his home in the Jatrabari neighborhood in north Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo credit: AP
Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafi, who was arrested on Wednesday in an FBI sting operation after he tried to blow up the Federal Reserve building with what he thought was a 1,000 pound car bomb, was in the United States on a State Department-issued student visa, the department confirmed on Thursday.
And while he was reportedly in contact with al-Qaeda before he entered the United States in January to attend Southeast Missouri State University and student cyber security, the State Department system that checks visa applicants found no reason to deny him entry into the country, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports.
“The suspect did have a student visa to attend a legitimate academic program in the United States, for which he was qualified,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland defended on Thursday.
“Visa decisions are made in accordance with applicable law and department regulations. Each case is looked at on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the information contained in U.S. government databases and in consultation with other government agencies,” she added.
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The State Department has its own database for vetting visa applications, called the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), which keeps a list of those foreigners who should not be granted a visa. There are 39 million records in that system but Nafis wasn’t one of the, Nuland said.
The State Department’s visa vetting program last came into question after the failed terror plot in December 2009 by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In that case, the plotter’s father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son was dangerous. In this case, the plotter’s father has said he can’t believe his son was an aspiring terrorist.
In fiscal year 2011, the State Department issued 476,000 type “F” student visas worldwide, 1,136 of them for Bangladeshis.
However, there seem to have been plenty of warning signs that were missed.
Nafis spoke of his admiration for Osama bin Laden, talked of writing an article about his plot for an al-Qaida-affiliated magazine, and said he would be willing to be a martyr but preferred to go home to his family after carrying out the attack, authorities said. And he also talked about wanting to kill President Barack Obama and bomb the New York Stock Exchange, a law enforcement official said.
Jim Dow, a 54-year-old Army vet and the suspect’s former classmate at Southeast Missouri State, also said Nafis spoke admiringly of bin Laden to him. At the same time, “he told me he didn’t really believe bin Laden was involved in the twin towers because he said bin Laden was a religious man, and a religious man wouldn’t have done something like that,” Dow said.
He said Nafis gave Dow a copy of the Quran and asked him to read it. But he “didn’t rant or rave or say crazy stuff,” Dow said.
“What really shocked me the most was he had specifically spoken to me about true Muslims not believing in violence,” Dow said.
Federal investigators, often accused by defense attorneys of entrapping and leading would-be terrorists along, said the 21-year-old Nafis made the first move over the summer, reaching out for accomplices and eventually contacting a government informant, who then went to federal authorities.
They said he also selected his target, drove the van loaded with dummy explosives up to the door of the bank, and tried to set off the bomb from a hotel room using a cellphone he thought had been rigged as a detonator.
During the investigation, he and the informant corresponded via Facebook and other social media, talked on the phone and met in hotel rooms, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Investigators said in court papers that he came to the U.S. bent on jihad and worked out the specifics of a plot when he arrived. While Nafis believed he had the blessing of al-Qaida and was acting on behalf of the terrorist group, he has no known ties, according to federal officials.
Nafis, who at the time of his arrest Wednesday was working as a busboy at a restaurant in Manhattan, was jailed without bail. His attorney has not commented on the case, but in other instances where undercover agents and sting operations were used, lawyers have argued entrapment.
Investigators would not say exactly how he initially contacted the government informant.
CBS News has some additional details:
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, whose department had a role in the arrest as a member of a joint federal-state terrorism task force, said the entrapment argument rarely prevails.
“You have to be otherwise not disposed to do a crime,” Kelly said. “And if it’s your intent to do a crime, and somehow there are means made available, then generally speaking, the entrapment defense does not succeed.”
Nafis’ family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, denied he could have been involved – he was incapable of such actions and came to America to study, not to carry out an attack, his parents said. His father, a banker, said Nafis was so timid he couldn’t venture out onto the roof alone.
“My son couldn’t have done it,” Quazi Ahsanullah said, weeping.
Belal Ahmed, a spokesman for the university, said Nafis was a terrible student who was put on probation and threatened with expulsion if he didn’t bring his grades up. Nafis eventually stopped coming to school, Ahmed said.
Ahsanullah said his son persuaded him to send him to America to study, arguing that a U.S. degree would give him a better chance at success in Bangladesh. “I spent all my savings to send him to America,” the father said.
Nafis moved to Missouri, where he studied cybersecurity at Southeast Missouri State University. He also became vice president of the school’s Muslim Student Association and began attending a mosque.
But he withdrew after one semester and requested over the summer that his records be transferred to a school in Brooklyn. The university declined to identify which school.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.