Al-Qaida infiltrating America as patients
The post-9/11 trend concerns authorities who fear al-Qaida could be using the medical industry to infiltrate terrorist cells into the country.
The Caster Eye Center in Beverly Hills, Calif., for example, stopped granting such foreign requests after a couple of no-shows.
"In the last few years, we have granted this request only twice. The first was for someone in Uganda, and the other was for someone in Sri Lanka," said Diane Sylvester, surgery coordinator at the Caster Eye Center, one of the leading Lasik eye surgery clinics in Los Angeles. "On both occasions, we issued the letter of invitation, and on both occasions the patient in question never showed up at our facility."
Sylvester told WND the clinic recently has received additional requests for letters from nationals in Pakistan and other al-Qaida hotbeds. Foreign nationals can use the letters to obtain B-2 visitors visas from the State Department to receive medical treatment.
Requests sent to the Caster Eye clinic via e-mail, copies of which were obtained by WND, show nationals have not only requested letters for themselves but for groups as large as a dozen people.
"My concern is that our facility is helping people we cannot personally vouch for to gain entry into the U.S. – or even worse, helping people get visas which are then given or sold into the wrong hands," Sylvester said.
"How many other medical facilities are churning out letters like this under similar circumstances?" she added.
A spokesperson for the State Department, which grants U.S. visas through its embassies abroad, said there are no post-9/11 restrictions on medical facilities issuing invitation letters to foreign nationals. Nor has the department issued any cautions to the health-care industry.
"I'm not sure which I'm more alarmed by – people scamming for visas, or the casual attitude of those overseeing the granting of visas," Sylvester said.
The department added, however, that a letter of invitation from a medical facility does not necessarily guarantee approval of a foreign patient's visa.
In the wake of the recent "doctor jihad" in the UK, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are scrutinizing foreign nationals who have applied to the U.S. for visas to attend medical school or practice medicine here.
Two of the UK physicians who plotted to car-bomb London's entertainment district had applied for permission to work in the U.S. One made contact with the Philadelphia-based Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.
Terrorists posing as patients also are a growing concern, federal authorities say.
FBI case agents contacted by WND confirm al-Qaida in the past has tried to infiltrate operatives into the U.S. by claiming they need medical treatment.
The dangerous al-Qaida operative and one-time bodyguard for Osama bin Laden – who helped plan both the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the earlier bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa – tried to enter the U.S. from Yemen before 9/11 to participate in the attacks.
In 1999, FBI sources say, he assigned a suspected U.S.-based facilitator for al-Qaida to solicit a Seattle-area medical clinic to vouch for him as a patient so he could receive a U.S. visa.
The facility, called NovaCare Orthotics & Prosthetics, issued a letter to the suspected al-Qaida facilitator confirming the appointment he made for his "friend" bin Attash – who unbeknown to the clinic, was one of the world's most dangerous terrorists.
Despite the letter of invitation, bin Attash's visa requests fortunately were denied by the U.S. government. He was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2003, and is now in U.S. custody.
In 2004, a Pakistani national from Bahawalpur – another known hotbed for terrorist recruits – demanded the Caster Eye Center in Los Angeles issue him a letter of invitation he could present to the U.S. consulate to obtain a visa.
"I want a free visa for sergury [sic]," Nabeel Ahmed Bhatti wrote in an e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by WND. He claimed to have what he described in his limited English as a "short problem" with his left eye.
Pakistanis posing as disabled travelers
Additionally, the FBI and Homeland Security have warned consular officers in Pakistan, as well as law enforcement in the U.S., to be on the alert for al-Qaida terrorists posing as medical aides to disabled persons.
In November 2003, for example, WND has learned U.S. intelligence intercepted information about a plot by al-Qaida to employ the scam to obtain U.S. visas for terrorist operatives at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.
Here is the text of the warning issued in a closely held intelligence-driven action bulletin by Homeland Security at the time:
"As of mid-November 2003, Islamic extremists were supposedly planning to send operatives to the United States and United Kingdom to conduct attacks. The attacks will allegedly take place in April 2004. The operatives will be Pakistani individuals who would obtain U.S. visas in Islamabad, Pakistan. The operatives will accompany a disabled person and act as the disabled person's assistants when obtaining the visa."
The two-page DHS intelligence bulletin, marked "SENSITIVE LAW ENFORCEMENT INFORMATION" and obtained by WND, added that operatives could conceal weapons, explosive materials or other contraband inside prosthetic limbs or in wheelchairs on board inbound flights to the U.S.
"This method fits with current al-Qaida methodology," the bulletin said, "as al-Qaida has been trying to recruit individuals who would draw less scrutiny from U.S. law enforcement entities."