The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s keen interest in the release of a Pakistani scientist serving an 86-year prison term in Texas drew attention to U.S. student visa laws, but experts say the concern is overblown.
Before ISIS circulated a video of American journalist James Foley’s beheading last week, it demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated neuroscientist known throughout the Middle East as “Lady al Qaeda.”
The militant Islamist group this week reportedly sent U.S. authorities a new set of demands to prevent the killing and possible release of other American prisoners. That laundry list again included Siddiqui's release.
Still, foreign policy experts are defending U.S. student visa laws out of concern that they will be targeted for changes as they were after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after the discovery that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the plan to fly jets into the twin towers, went to Chowan College in North Carolina before transferring North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University in Greensboro, where he graduated in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
The State Department issued another one of the hijackers a student visa but he never showed up for class.
“We always get some kooks and misfits whose time in the U.S. points them in the wrong direction,” Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and expert on Middle East politics and military affairs at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Examiner.
“But overall, the student visa program has been a huge success — creating large numbers of people who are sympathetic to the U.S. (or, at least, more sympathetic than they otherwise would be), helping develop their own societies, creating bridges between the U.S. and their countries, and helping enrich the U.S. as well.”
In fact, he said, overall the “the brain drain works in our favor.”
Many schools and universities also have strongly objected to tighter regulations requiring prospective foreign visitors to undergo an interview as part of the application process. They argue that Congress voted in the restrictions without providing more State Department money to hire additional visa workers, delaying students entry into the United States sometimes until well into the school year.
After news broke about ISIS demands for Siddiqui’s safe return, Twitter lit up with posts about her education in the United States.
Siddiqui came to the U.S. in 1990 and earned a bachelor’s degree from MIT and later a doctorate from Brandeis University in 2001. Shortly after she returned to Pakistan in early 2003, the FBI placed her on a “wanted for questioning” list.
Five years later Afghan authorities picked up Siddiqui, now believed to be in her mid-40s, in the summer of 2008 and found in her possession handwritten notes that referred to a “mass casualty attack” and listed various locations in the United States, including the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge, as possible targets, according to the FBI.
Other notes she was carrying referred to the construction of “dirty bombs,” and discussed various ways to attack “enemies,” including by destroying reconnaissance drones, using underwater bombs and deploying glider planes.
When a team of U.S. servicemen and law enforcement officers attempted to interview Siddiqui day after she was captured, she grabbed an American officer’s M4 carbine and tried to shoot another. While firing the rifle, she shouted her intent to kill Americans, eyewitnesses testified in her trial.
After a 14-day jury trial in a Manhattan court, Siddiqui was unanimously convicted in September 2010 on 15 counts related to armed assault and attempting to kill U.S. nationals abroad.