Lawmakers Alarmed by Missing Egyptians

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The New York Sun

The disappearance of 11 Egyptian nationals who cleared American customs on student visas but never reported to an academic program as expected elicited sharp concern among lawmakers yesterday, as a national manhunt is under way.

Federal authorities were notified August 3 that the 11 students — whose names were not released — went missing July 29. They were last seen at JFK International Airport in New York, authorities said. In a statement yesterday, the FBI denied the students had any association with terrorist or criminal groups, saying, “There is no threat associated with these students.”

The New York Police Department declined to comment on the missing students.

Even while acknowledging the small chance of nefarious intentions, lawmakers such as Rep. Peter King voiced concern. “In the world we live in since September 11, I do take it seriously,” Mr. King, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, said. “If you have 11 students coming from Egypt, which has a very strong Al Qaeda Islamic terrorist base, and you find 11 students disappearing when they get to the U.S., it’s very much cause for concern.”

The students, who traveled from Cairo with six others, were scheduled to arrive July 29 at Montana State University for a cultural exchange program, a spokeswoman for the university, Cathy Conover, said. The program, in its first year, was to play host to 17 Egyptian students from Mansoura University during the month of August. The students each paid $2,000 to take English language and American history classes, she said. The school also hosts Japanese and Turkish exchange students.

Ms. Conover said the undergraduate students, ages 19 and 20, were selected by Mansoura University. All but one missed a connecting flight in New York, she said, and by August 3, with 11 still missing, school officials notified authorities.

A spokeswoman for the FBI in New York, Christine Monaco, said authorities promptly issued a be-on-the-lookout alert and launched a multi-agency investigation led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said the incident was being considered a “visa violation.” The NYPD is taking part in the investigation, she said.

Rep. Vito Fossella, a Republican of Staten Island, said America cannot afford to take chances, even if this incident is not related to terrorism. “Not to be an alarmist, but in this day in age, we have to err on the side of caution and vigilance when these situations arise,” Mr. Fossella said. “The fact is that in situations like this, bells and whistles start going off because it’s identical to the way September 11 hijackers found their way here.”

Calls to the Egyptian Consulate General in New York were not immediately returned.

However, a representative of the Egyptian community in New York City, which has a stronghold in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, lamented such an immediate jump to conclusions.

Asked about less ominous speculation that the individuals entered the country on student visas with the intention of finding jobs, the chairman of the Egyptian-American Business Association, Maged Riad, acknowledged that America is a popular destination for Egyptian immigrants. “I think not just in Egypt, but America is the dream of most people around the world,” Mr. Riad, an attorney who is also the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Pope in North America, said.

In diplomatic circles as well, news of the missing students was met with tempered reactions.

With little indication from federal authorities that the missing students represent a terrorist breach, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, said the incident amounts to a law enforcement issue. Egypt and America have enjoyed a “longstanding and very strong” relationship, the chairman of the Middle East Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, Mr. Kurtzer, said. Over the years, Egypt has received between $50 billion and $70 billion in American military and economic aid, he added.

Others agreed.”It’s too big a number to smuggle in people for political activity,” a professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Andrew Hess, said. According to Mr. Hess, tension in the Middle East may prompt the American and Egyptian governments to be nervous about an escalation in the situation, however.

“I think the emphasis on terrorism and everything else is part of the reason why there’s suspicion automatically,” Mr. Hess said. Even though there are legitimate groups entering the country legally, there are also “nasty organizations out there that would put people in place in the U.S. for reasons which are not good,” he said.

The New York Sun

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