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New York terror case: Is recruitment process for foreign students flawed?

The suspect, who arrived in New York this summer, initially attended college in Missouri after a commission agent was used to recruit him. One critic talks of 'a gold-rush mentality when it comes to foreign students.'

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This courtroom sketch shows Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis (c.) and his attorney, Heidi Cesare (l.), in federal court in Brooklyn, Wednesday, Oct. 17, in New York.

Elizabeth Williams/AP

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The case of the Bangladeshi man charged with attempting to blow up the New York Federal Reserve Bank raises some troubling questions related to the international-student process.

This spring, Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis was studying cybersecurity at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.

How did he get from Bangladesh to the school, some 8,255 miles away? Who was responsible for screening him? And how did he end up in New York City, where he was arrested, instead of Southeast Missouri State?

There are any number of ways a student like Mr. Nafis could have arrived at the school, education specialists say. He might have applied online or might have had a friend who attended it. The university might have gone to Bangladesh to recruit students. Or, it might have used an agent who gets paid per student to supply foreign students to schools.

In Nafis’s case, Southeast Missouri State used a commission agent who was paid a fee for his enrollment, says Ann Hayes, a spokeswoman.

“The problem is the agents work for themselves, not for you,” says Barmak Nassirian, an independent consultant and former associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.

“You are handing your institution’s name and credibility to someone overseas, and you don’t know what they are doing,” says Mr. Nassirian, who has been a critic of the practice.

One thing Southeast Missouri State didn’t know during Nafis’s application process: He had been enrolled at North South University in Bangladesh, Hayes says. Instead, he sent the US school his high school national exam data and his English test scores. Because they were above what is recommended for international students, he was accepted, she says.

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Universities have turned to the agents because “there is something of a gold-rush mentality when it comes to foreign students,” Nassirian says. Foreign students typically pay full tuition, so universities do not need to give them scholarships. In addition, schools can then tout that they have students from scores of foreign countries, giving US students a broader view of the world.

However, how is a university to know whether it has a potential terrorist arriving on campus if it has not even met the student?

This is an issue, Nassirian says. “They don’t have the ability to screen for terrorism,” he says. “The best they can do is judge academically.”

Then again, maybe they should not be screening for potential terrorists. “It’s not the responsibility of whoever is screening a student, nor the institution, to ascertain the intent or background of the student,” says John Deupree, executive director of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) in Bethesda, Md., which certifies student recruiting agencies overseas. “It’s the responsibility of the institution and advising party to ensure the student has the proper academic and language background to succeed at the university.”

Screening out potential terrorists, Mr. Deupree says, is the responsibility of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Under 5 percent of institutions use agents to recruit foreign students, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found in an October 2010 survey. Slightly less than 20 percent say they use their own staff plus agents. Most of those who do use foreign agents pay a commission based on the number of students who enroll. (It is illegal in the United States for universities to pay agents to recruit students domestically.)

According to the State Department, 447,410 F-1 (student) visas were issued in fiscal year 2011. Another 175,253 were refused.

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 700,000 international students were in the US in 2010-11.

To obtain a visa, a student has to appear at a US embassy with proof of admission to a US school and a completed immigration form (I-20).

“The US consul has to be satisfied they can support themselves and the application is not just a backdoor way to immigrate to the US,” Nassirian says. “They have to show an intent to return and in the case of Muslims and in regards to men, the possibility of other issues is present.”

As for Nafis, once he arrived at Southeast Missouri State, he asked to get credit for his courses at North South University in Bangladesh, Hayes says. Since he should have told the school about North South when he applied, his status was changed to “transfer probation,” which meant he had to have at least a 2.0 grade-point average by the end of the semester. When that did not happen, he was academically suspended, Hayes says.

In July, Nafis asked to have his records transferred to a school in Brooklyn, she says. Southeast Missouri State did that and notified the DHS about the transfer.

In theory, this may have put him in violation of his visa. However, Nassirian says, the State Department recognizes that foreign students may want to transfer to another school. “They must apply elsewhere and be accepted,” he says. “But in practice, people drop out and disappear and show up elsewhere.”

That’s what apparently happened to Nafis. He arrived this summer in New York. According to the New York Daily News, he enrolled in English classes at the ASA Institute of Business and Computer Technology this fall. But, the paper says, he stopped showing up for classes this Tuesday, the day before he was arrested.

However, his alleged efforts to create mayhem apparently started this summer.

According to the complaint filed against him, he contacted an undercover informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the first time in early July. The agent was posing as a co-conspirator.

Nafis told the undercover agent that he came to the US to commit jihad, according to the complaint. He said he was an admirer of Osama bin Laden.

FBI undercover agents recorded hours of conversations with Nafis, who said he wanted to find other martyrs.

“I just want something big,” Nafis is alleged to have said. “Something very big. Very, very, very, very big that will shake the whole country.”

On Wednesday, the FBI undercover agents helped him put together what he thought was a powerful car bomb, the complaint says. Instead, the bomb was a dud. When Nafis tried to set it off with a cellphone, it failed to work. That is when he was arrested.


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