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Jun 18, 2004 | 17:06 GMT

7 mins read

The Sleeper Cell Threat: A Search in Unlikely Places

An unfolding case against a man arrested in Tyler, Texas, points to potential threats posed by a combination of the United States' need for workers with specific qualifications, visa processes and the ability of sleeper cells to remain dormant — and inconspicuous — for years.
A Pakistani man arrested in May in the small Texas town of Tyler has been accused of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks on the West Coast. FBI agents arrested Osama Haroon Satti after he bought a handgun and silencer from an undercover agent and asked where he would be able to acquire more. Satti allegedly has been linked to a group of men who were arrested in Virginia on suspicion of involvement with terrorist organizations. There is little in Satti's background to mark him as an aspiring Islamist militant: He first entered the United States on a student visa in 1990, and worked in the computer industry before returning to Pakistan 11 years later. He holds an MBA from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Satti — like many other foreign workers in the United States — has been caught up in the nation's counterterrorism dragnet, as federal officials seek out members of dormant sleeper cells. If the allegations against Satti and others are true, authorities could be rooting out militants from some seemingly unlikely places. Higher Education Two characteristics that appear repeatedly in the backgrounds of suspected militants arrested by U.S. authorities are high levels of education and an interest in technology. Though millions of foreign workers with similar backgrounds — and absolutely no connections to terrorism — have entered the country for years, it is noteworthy that militant organizations easily could infiltrate by exploiting the visa process. In fact, at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers — Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who entered the country on tourist visas — were approved for M-1 student visas shortly before carrying out their attacks. Approval forms from the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrived at the al Qaeda members' Florida flight training school exactly six months after Atta and al-Shehhi died at the helms of the planes that plowed into the World Trade Center towers. Consider also the following cases:
  • Maher "Mike" Mofeid Hawas: A naturalized U.S. citizen who worked as a lead engineer for Intel Corp. He was arrested in August 2003 after traveling to China and allegedly attempting to enter Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Hawas pleaded guilty in August 2003 to aiding terrorist organizations and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
  • Mohammed Atique: A Pakistani native who arrived in the United States in 1996 to study electrical engineering. Atique worked for a number of wireless communication companies before his arrest May 8, 2003. He is among the group of 11 men who have been dubbed the "Virginia Jihad," accused of colluding with militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Atique was sentenced in December 2003 to more than 10 years in prison.
  • Khwaja Hassan: Another member of the "Virginia Jihad." Hassan is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan who holds a master's degree in business technology. He was arrested while working as a teacher in Saudi Arabia and extradited to the United States in July 2003 on suspicion of involvement with LeT. A federal court sentenced Hassan to more than 11 years in prison in November 2003. These are only a few examples of men who have been accused of belonging to militant sleeper cells within the United States. Though the actual proof in many cases is open to question, the security threat posed by sleeper cells is not. The case of the Virginia Jihad — nine of whose 11 members ultimately were convicted — is of interest, in part because it involves an eclectic assortment of suspects that includes native U.S. citizens, a Korean immigrant and a former U.S. Marine. These backgrounds, along with high education and stable employment histories, obviously would help sleeper cell members to blend into the populace while planning any attacks — unlike those who are involved with document falsification or other crimes that can draw the attention of investigators. Sleeper cells might not be an exclusive club for foreign-born jihadists: Testimony during the trials of the Virginia Jihad suspects showed this group was not planted in the United States for militant purposes, but rather that its members were ideologically sympathetic to Islamist movements and were recruited into the LeT cause after living in the United States for years. Given the level of sophistication that was evident in the Sept. 11 attacks — and that likely is required to carry out further strikes within the United States — it is logical to conclude that the leaders and members of militant sleeper cells are required to have a higher level of education than are the jihadist foot soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also is conceivable that they maintain stable, legal employment with American companies. Additionally, it is worth noting that, in light of the current focus on counterterrorism, sleeper cells and locally grown Islamist movements likely are operating with minimal guidance from al Qaeda, and are planning or carrying out operations on their own. This makes it all the more difficult to identify and disrupt the cells. Focus on Background Checks The May 1 attacks in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, prompted many Western corporations to re-evaluate their own employees and security procedures. It is possible for dormant militants to remain in place for years before showing any signs of posing a threat: Some of the attackers in Yanbu were longtime employees of the targeted company, ABB Lummus — they possessed access badges and enjoyed the confidence of their colleagues. Such a scenario is equally plausible within the United States, which places heightened emphasis on solid corporate security measures. For privately held companies, conducting a thorough background check on workers can be extremely difficult. The required infrastructure in countries such as Pakistan and India, which contribute large numbers of workers to the United States, is practically nonexistent — heightening the potential for militants to exploit the L-1 visa process, which allows U.S.-based companies to import foreign workers with little diplomatic oversight. Moreover, U.S. corporations do not have access to government-run counterterrorism databases — making it difficult to know if an employee has been identified by federal officials as having links to militant groups. STRATFOR previously said Yanbu-style attacks — or small-scale assaults involving well-trained, knowledgeable operatives — would become more likely. Such attacks depend on militants having intimate knowledge of their target and the trust of coworkers and employers. Though it is impossible to measure the number of people involved with sleeper cells in the United States or to give a definitive description of their backgrounds, a few facts are worth noting:
  • Because of a dearth of American workers with qualifications in math, science and engineering, large numbers of foreign workers have entered the United States to pursue careers in those fields — frequently on student, or F-1/M-1, visas.
  • The high tech industry, which draws on workers with math, science and engineering degrees, offers an economic and social status that law enforcers tend to view as incompatible with public threats.
  • The number of visas awarded to foreign workers was reduced following the Sept. 11 attacks, after investigations showed that some of the hijackers entered the country legally with F-1/M-1 status. However, since the sleeper cell cycle is measured in years, it is entirely possible that militants who entered the country some time ago with student visas would only now be entering into an active attack phase.
  • Members of any new sleeper cells seeking to enter the United States likely would seek other forms of cover — whether legal or illegal. The lack of a broad base of support for Islamist causes within the United States — unlike in Europe, where there are large sympathetic populations with pre-existing communication channels and "safe houses" — makes it less likely that cells would exist entirely of illegal immigrants and unemployed militants.
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