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Twice Warned Still Foolish

March 20 2002

On the wind-bitten morning of February 26, 1993, just before 4 AM, he pulled his blue Honda into a Jersey City gas station behind a Ryder truck. Both filled up, he paid with a single bill, then headed north. Eight hours later, the truck was demolished, blown to bits by its own deadly handiwork: the first attack on the World Trade Center.

The Honda driver was called Mahmud the Red - so named because his ginger hair was scarcely Egyptian standard issue. The pious fourth son of a mill worker, Mahmud Abouhalima grew up in Kafr al-Dawar, a cheerless suburb of Alexandria. As a teenager, he found friends among al-Jama'a Islamiyya, a fundamentalist sect dedicated to making Egypt an Islamic state. When the group was outlawed on college campuses in 1980, he quit school and left the country.

Germany granted the young radical a tourist visa, and he took up residence at the Islamic Center in Munich. At night, he studied language. By day, he washed dishes and cut meat for a local grocer - the perfect profile of a "hardworking immigrant." His employers found him polite and punctual, but within a year, German officials turned down Abouhalima's request for political asylum and gave him just two weeks to leave the country. He answered by marrying a neighbor, German nurse Renate Soika.

By then, Abouhalima was established in the revolutionary Muslim underground, and Renate's home became a hive for dissident Egyptians, united by shared bitterness and common orthodoxy. But the marriage of convenience couldn't withstand the strain of Abouhalima's increasingly subversive views. Renate refused to convert, and her visa-hungry husband moved on to 21-year-old student, Marianne Weber. They eventually married, and in 1985, flew to New York for a three-week trip that lasted until 1993.

After six months in the U.S., Abouhalima's tourist visa expired, but this time he didn't have to plead political danger or find an American paramour. The United States Congress solved his problem. Under the amnesty grant of 1986, an illegal alien had only to prove that he was a migrant farmer. Though Abouhalima had probably never owned a houseplant, he found a lawyer to affirm that he had worked seven months on a South Carolina farm. His wife would later testify that they had only ever left New York to visit a friend in Michigan, but the INS bought his horticultural yarn and rubber-stamped permanent residency.

For five years, Abouhalima made a home in Brooklyn, driving a taxi under the shadow of the Twin Towers. With his green card, gift of the clueless Congress, he was free to come and go at will. And he did, making frequent trips to Pakistan, where he trained for Afghan jihad and took direction from the radical cleric Sheik Omar. He would regularly return clad in fatigues and combat boots, skilled in terror and steeped in hatred. From his cab's cassette player, he blasted anti-American sermons. At home, he papered the walls in revolutionary slogans. But the same system that eased his entry failed to notice that the adoptee wasn't exactly assimilating.

We know how the story ends - with a 200-foot crater, six dead, 1,000 injured - a murderous plot that didn't fully succeed until last September.

Having twice failed to detect enemies among us, one might think the U.S. Congress would alter the system by which we grant residency. It did -- by assuring that others The Red will have an even easier time in the green card giveaway.

Just six months after Abouhalima's successors finished his work, the House voted 275 to 137 to once again extend amnesty to illegal aliens, and this time they don't even have to be faux farmers. By the Hill's calculus, they need only to join the political party most willing to pander.

"It is lunacy - sheer lunacy," Sen. Robert Byrd pronounced. And so it is. While Americans decipher rainbow warning systems and submit to airport strip searches, a million strangers will be rewarded with citizens' privilege. All we know about them is that their first American act was a violation of our law.

Would withholding a visa have stopped Abouhalima's treachery? Would more stringent residency standards have saved us? Perhaps not. But that first shockwave through the Towers should have awakened us to the danger of heedless pardon. Instead, we learned nothing, and eight years later were reminded with gruesome result. Like the figure who stares at his face in a mirror and, turning away, forgets what he looks like, we learn no lesson - something the Abouhalima's of the world know well and will use to full advantage.

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