Terrorism too close to home

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri State University were briefly placed in the national spotlight in a way that could have been the stuff of nightmares when a young man from Bangladesh was arrested in October for attempting to detonate a 1,000-pound car bomb in New York City.

Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Absan Nafis had been a student at the university for a semester this spring before being told his grades disqualified him from returning to campus. He transferred his records to a college in Brooklyn where, according to law enforcement officials, he began reaching out on the Internet to form what he hoped would be an al-Qaida terrorist cell.

Thanks to a sting operation of the FBI, the nightmare never came to fruition. The bomb, which could have caused multi-block devastation with tremendous loss of life if real, had been constructed by Nafis with the assistance of undercover FBI agents and included only inert materials. As Shafik Malik, a native of Pakistan who knew Nafis at the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau, told this newspaper, "There was not one thing that I saw -- nothing -- that would make me suspect him. ... But if he did the things they are saying, he does not deserve our sympathy."

Nafis' time before arriving in the United States will be scrutinized, as will his actions here. A central question local residents want to know is, When and where did radicalization take place? At this point it's not clear. The FBI's criminal complaint comprehensively captures Nafis' leadership and intentions in planning the foiled terrorist attack. It also quotes him as saying his original purpose in coming to the United States was to wage jihad. But was that simply the bravado of a young man who was going through a series of personal and academic failures who wanted to make himself seem bigger than he was? So far, no evidence has been shared that he, in fact, communicated with actual terrorists, and it appears that his activism started after arriving in New York.

What is absolutely clear, according to the FBI, is that no one in Cape Girardeau or on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University were at risk. And the university appropriately followed the rules and regulations of the government's Student and Exchange Visitor Program administered by Homeland Security.

Cape Girardeau residents will continue to follow this case closely. In part, it's a sad story about a young man from a good family who has wasted his life and disappointed everyone around him in the worst way, and potentially created problems for future international students as well as for the image of his religion and native country. In another way, it's a success story for the FBI, who identified a man with radical forethought who sought to put a murderous plan into action and kept him from fulfilling it. The United States is safer today because of such diligence and tactics by our officials.

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