National News

Saudi Who Attended Qaida Camp Is Arrested in Oklahoma

Posted February 6, 2018 10:38 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2018 10:42 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — A Saudi immigrant who attended al-Qaida’s most notorious training camp was arrested on a charge of lying to the FBI and on two counts of visa fraud in Oklahoma, where he had been living for years with his family, federal law enforcement officials announced Tuesday.

The FBI discovered the man, Naif Abdulaziz Alfallaj, only recently, when authorities matched his fingerprints to those taken from a document captured in Afghanistan, officials said. The document was a five-page application for the Farooq camp, where four of the Sept. 11 hijackers trained.

He apparently filled out the application in September 2000, when he was a teenager, officials said, well after al-Qaida had made its intentions of attacking the United States and its allies known to the world. Anyone who tried to join the camp would have known that al-Qaida was a terrorist organization, law enforcement officials said. The U.S. military recovered the document at a Qaida safe house in Afghanistan in December 2001, prosecutors said, who added that the document had an emergency contact for Alfallaj’s father in Saudi Arabia.

Typically people who applied to the camp filled out what was known as a “mujahedeen data form.” They needed an invitation to join the camp and a reference from someone known and trusted by al-Qaida. Trainees learned how to use weapons and explosives at the camp. After training, camp attendees fought with al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his top deputies frequently visited the camp.

Alfallaj, 34, used a fraudulent visa to take private flying lessons in October 2016 in Oklahoma, according to federal court records. Noncitizens are required to submit fingerprints as part of the licensing process. The Federal Aviation Administration revoked his license last year after the FBI made the discovery.

Alfallaj was arrested Monday and made an initial appearance in federal court in Oklahoma City. A message left with a public defender assigned to represent Alfallaj was not immediately returned.

Alfallaj, who is from Riyadh, came to the United States in late 2011 on a nonimmigrant visa based on his wife’s status as a foreign student. He had been living in Weatherford, Oklahoma, about 70 miles west of Oklahoma City, the authorities said. Prosecutors say that he falsely answered questions on his visa application, including about whether he had supported terrorists. The FBI said he lied about whether he had contacts with anyone from a terrorist group when agents interviewed him in December. The next month, Alfallaj confirmed that the telephone number found on the application belonged to his father, the FBI said.

The FBI had been watching him for several months and had been trying determine whether Alfallaj was involved in terrorist activity in the United States.

Alfallaj and his family did not interact with neighbors and stayed mostly to themselves. Alfallaj’s apartment complex was not far from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. A student there said that many Saudis attended the school and that they often mingled and had cookouts, but that Alfallaj did not attend these gatherings.

The case highlights the difficulty facing the government in processing the large amounts of fingerprints, photographs, messages, email addresses, phone numbers and DNA samples that have been collected in nearly two decades of war.

Many documents and electronic media collected in Afghanistan land on the shelves of a unit in the FBI’s counterterrorism division. The materials, which are stored in federal facilities in Northern Virginia and at FBI headquarters in Washington, have been a vexing problem for the agency. U.S. officials have long wanted to exploit the materials but lacked the resources as the FBI has focused on other pressing terrorism investigations over the years.

The number of documents was staggering, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, said a former FBI official who worked in the unit. Much of the information is in other languages, such as Arabic. To inspect the materials, the FBI would need to reassign linguists from other cases.

The case of Alfallaj is similar to one brought in 2011 against two Iraqi men who were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky, after they had entered the United States. The FBI discovered the men after finding fingerprints on explosive devices that had been used to attack U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The two men were later convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to life in prison.

After the men were discovered, the FBI deployed hundreds of people to pull fingerprints off improvised explosive devices stored at the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, known around the bureau as the Bomb Library of America. Officials said a similar effort was underway to make sure other materials similar to the training camp application were examined.

In March 2017, the FBI decided to go through the terrorist camp applications to determine whether any fingerprints could be identified as part of a renewed effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, federal court documents show. Seven months later, the FBI matched the fingerprints taken from Alfallaj when he applied to become a pilot.

Alfallaj should never had been able to enter the country, said James W. McJunkin, the former head of counterterrorism at the FBI.

“I’d say there was a number of breakdowns going back to where the original intelligence was maintained and stored,” McJunkin said. “He should have been on a watch list.”