- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Two al Qaeda suspects were taken into custody as they tried to enter the United States after their fingerprints were matched with ones lifted by U.S. military officials from documents found in caves in Afghanistan, law-enforcement authorities said yesterday.

The two men are among 330 aliens apprehended at the border since September as presumed law-enforcement threats, as part of a federal program known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System a fingerprinting system that matches foreign visitors against databases of known criminals and terrorists.

The unidentified men are of Middle Eastern descent. It was not clear yesterday where the men were detained or where they are being held.

The U.S. military, during risky and often time-consuming searches, destroyed scores of al Qaeda and Taliban caves, confiscated tons of arms and ammunition, and found dossiers with photographs, papers containing the fingerprints of various individuals, computers, tape recordings, instruction manuals and receipts.

American soldiers, assisted by federal law-enforcement authorities, lifted what was described at the time as "a great number" of latent fingerprints from papers found in the caves, and others seized in abandoned hideouts and training camps for al Qaeda and Taliban members. The prints were added to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System for screening incoming aliens.

Thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas disappeared from Afghanistan after the Taliban regime collapsed in November 2001. They abandoned a number of training camps, which yielded significant intelligence about the activities of al Qaeda and the terrorism network's founder, Osama bin Laden.

Fingerprints taken from the hundreds of detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also have been added to the computer database to prevent others from using their identities to enter the United States, the authorities said.

Those detained by immigration officials at the border under the program also include wanted criminals, aliens who committed more-serious felonies in the United States in the past, aliens with fraudulent documents, persons who were deported and were attempting to re-enter the country illegally, and others who had previously violated U.S. immigration laws.

One alien, identified as a Tunisian national, was held after his fingerprints identified him as having been convicted of multiple drug-trafficking offenses, one federal law-enforcement official said. Another detainee was a Dominican Republic national who had been convicted of aggravated assault and burglary and been deported on a prior visit to the United States.

Attorney General John Ashcroft implemented the first phase of the Immigration and Naturalization Service program on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, establishing fingerprint checkpoints using state-of-the-art digital technology at all ports of entry.

"This system will expand substantially America's scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may present an elevated national security risk. And it will provide a vital line of defense in the war against terrorism," Mr. Ashcroft said at the time.

Congress required in the USA Patriot Act that the Justice Department develop the entry-exit system to provide greater protection against terrorist attacks.

A total of 54,000 visitors from 148 countries have been checked through the program, the authorities said.

U.S. law has long required that aliens who stay in the United States for more than 30 days be registered and fingerprinted.

However, such requirements have been suspended for decades with respect to most visiting foreign nationals.

The Justice Department has since vigorously reinstituted a program requiring male visitors 16 years and older from 18 countries, most of them predominantly Muslim, to register with the INS.

The domestic registration program, law-enforcement authorities said, has resulted in the apprehension of 15 felons illegally in the United States, including an Iranian national thrice convicted three times of assault with a deadly weapon and twice on grand theft.

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