Sixty of 62 were charged with cheating on tests. A federal agency earlier found other cases were wrongly labeled.
By Mark Fazlollah
Inquirer Staff Writer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 2, 2003.
With 62 people indicted last year in cases it is calling "international terrorism," the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey was the busiest in the nation in rounding up people who are allegedly a threat to this country.
But 60 of those people were Middle Eastern students charged with paying others to take their English proficiency tests – a requirement for college or graduate school – an Inquirer review has found.
Federal judges have freed nearly all the students on bond.
Of the nine students convicted thus far in the scam, most have been fined $250 to $1,000 and returned to their home countries.
"There is not one whit of evidence that connects any of these people to terrorism," said Lawrence S. Lustberg, who represents 25 Saudi students indicted on charges that they hired impostors to take their English tests.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, said last week that every one of the 60 student cases was correctly listed as international terrorism.
With its 62 terrorism cases in fiscal 2002, New Jersey ranked top in the nation, according to the Justice Department.
"That really shouldn’t be surprising," Drewniak said. "We can look right across the river and see what was the home of the World Trade Center. There were just a lot of cases developed here, given our proximity."
One of the 62 prosecutions was clearly a terrorist: the March 2002 indictment of Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh for kidnapping Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The indictment was in New Jersey because Pearl’s employer, Dow Jones & Co., is located there. A Pakistani court in July sentenced him to death. The case will probably not be tried in the United States.
The 62nd case apparently involved a Middle Eastern man who was jailed for five months before pleading guilty to using a false visa. He was sentenced to the time he had already served and turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for possible deportation.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia last year claimed to have two terrorism cases. One man pleaded guilty to using a false passport; the other to entering the country illegally. Both served brief jail sentences and were deported. Their attorneys disputed any terrorist links.
The General Accounting Office, in a report released Feb. 19, harshly criticized the Justice Department for inflating its terrorism-conviction statistics.
The nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency said that at least three-fourths of 174 convictions last year were wrongly categorized by federal prosecutors as international terrorism.
The GAO study, initiated in response to a December 2001 article by the Inquirer Washington bureau, said that without accurate information on terrorism, Congress is blinded as to how the justice system handles such cases.
The 62 New Jersey cases – most of which had yet to go to trial – were not included in that review.
Data on the New Jersey cases were released by the Justice Department to Syracuse University’s nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has said that since 1983, the government "has defined terrorists as those who perpetrate premeditated, politically motivated violence against noncombatant targets."
Nail Al-Juberi, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington, called the terrorist labeling of students "an issue of credibility."
"If you have someone who cheated on a test and there was no linkage to terrorism, let’s not play the numbers game," he said. "To label them as terrorists, I have a concern with that."
Months before Sept. 11, 2001, the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) suspected that a number of Middle Easterners had used stand-ins for the firm’s Test of English as a Foreign Language.
These exams are required for foreign students seeking admission to about 4,000 U.S. schools.
After 9/11, FBI and immigration agents aggressively investigated the ETS information. Federal prosecutors in New Jersey directed the case because ETS is in their jurisdiction.
The agents quickly tracked down Fahad Alhajri, a student at Norfolk State University in Virginia. He paid an English-speaking man about $1,500 to take his proficiency test.
The agents found that Alhajri – a popular television sportscaster in Qatar who was attending Norfolk State on a Qatar government scholarship – had pictures of the World Trade Center stored on a computer.
Before moving to the Norfolk area, Alhajri had used a suburban Washington address. When investigators searched that home, they found a date book with a 9/11 entry reading "trackd the World Traed Cente or the Pentagon trackd for the Plaen."
Investigators have said the notation apparently was made after 9/11.
Alhajri was released on bond two weeks after his arrest in May. He pleaded guilty in January to one count of wire fraud in plotting the English test deception and is awaiting sentencing.
Investigators also found that some students who cheated on the test were pilots.
Mohammed Al-Masari, an employee of the Saudi-based Aramco oil company, last year was learning to fly helicopters at the University of North Dakota.
Al-Masari pleaded guilty to wire fraud and was deported. A local newspaper quoted the judge’s sympathetic remarks at sentencing.
"It’s really too bad… . I wish I could do something different than what I’m going to do, but I have no choice," said U.S. Magistrate Richard Goldberg. "Mr. Al-Masari, the court wishes you luck."
And there was Fares Albakeri, a police officer from the United Arab Emirates who was a graduate student at Washington’s American University. He pleaded guilty last month to wire fraud, was fined $500, and has returned to his country.
Other students charged have been cleared of any connection to terrorism, their attorneys said.
Lustberg said all 25 Saudi defendants were released on bail, typically $5,000 to $10,000, which was posted by their embassy in Washington.
"They wouldn’t have gotten bail if there was any terrorism connection," Lustberg said of his clients.
Similarly, all 23 students from the United Arab Emirates were released on bail, said Washington lawyer Thomas Abbenante, who was hired by the U.A.E. Embassy.
"None of the students I represent was affiliated with any form of terrorist activities," Abbenante said. "All are on scholarships, either through the military or cultural division of their country."