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After 9/11, U.S. gave more visas to Saudi students

By Garrett Haake and Robert Windrem
NBC News

Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, the Saudi student arrested Thursday on charges that he planned to build bombs for terror attacks inside the United States, was granted a U.S. student visa after qualifying for a generous scholarship sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, according to the indictment against him. (Read the FBI affidavit supporting an arrest warrant. The affidavit describes the evidence against Aldawsari.)

Aldawsari was one of more than 10,000 Saudi students granted student visas in 2008, an NBC News analysis of the visa program shows.

Indeed, the number of Saudi students approved for entry into the United States has jumped more than fourfold since 15 young Saudis helped carry out the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. At the same time, visas granted to other Middle East nations dropped often precipitously or remained at the same level.

The analysis shows that 26,744 Saudi students received US F-1 and F-2 visas in 2010, up from 6,836 in 2001. The numbers have steadily increased as the Kingdom has provided financing for students, believing the students' exposure to the U.S. and its education system would help US-Saudi relations.

While overall non-immigrant visas from Saudi has dropped during the period from 2001 to 2010, the education visas have skyrocketed, in large part, say U.S.officials, because of the King Abdullah Scholarship program which sponsored Aldawsari.

Aldawsari is the only recipient of the scholarship known to have been accused of terrorism.

The King Abdullah Program annually sponsors thousands of Saudi students. It generously "provides the means to best world universities to pursue studies that lead to degrees (bachelors, masters and doctorate) and medical fellowships."

Administered through the Ministry of Higher Education, it is one of the most generous programs anywhere. According to the program's website, King Abdullah Scholarships provide financial support for scholarship recipients. Among the privileges it offers are the following:

  • Monthly stipend
  • Full tuition and fees paid directly to the educational institution
  • Cost of attending conferences, symposia and workshops
  • Expenses for scientific trips
  • Allowances for books and clothes
  • Financial support for spouse and dependents
  • Medical insurance

Aldawsari referred to the program as the "Traitor of the Two Holy Places Scholarship," a play on the Saudi king's most revered title, "Protector of the Two Holy Places." The FBI says he chose the program because, unlike other Saudi scholarships, it would allow him to go directly to the U.S. without having to first study in college-level programs in Saudi Arabia.

A review of State Department records show that Saudi students got far more visas than others from the region. Students from the United Arab Emirates, for example, received a total of 1,233 student visas in 2010, compared with 1,246 in 2001. Yemeni students received 279 visas in 2010, compared with 376.

Pakistani students had the most precipitous drop, declining from 3,880 in 2001 to 1,093 visas in 2010, a drop of 72 percent. Pakistani officials complain that the drop has dramatically hurt U.S.-Pakistani relations, because those seeking visas are the children of the most affluent and pro-U.S. Pakistanis.

Garrett Haake is an associate producer for NBC Nightly News. Robert Windrem is investigative producer for special projects for NBC News.