Clues Missed on 9/11 Plotters

Times Staff Writers

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot, obtained a visa to come to the United States just weeks before the attacks despite being under a federal terrorism indictment, a report by the federal commission investigating the attacks revealed Monday.

And as many as eight of the hijackers entered the country with doctored passports that contained "clues to their association with Al Qaeda" that should have been caught by immigration authorities, commission investigators said.

The newly disclosed findings challenge previous claims by top CIA and FBI officials that the hijackers' records and paperwork were so clean that they could not have aroused suspicion.

The commission also heard testimony from a U.S. customs agent who blocked the entry of a Saudi citizen investigators now believe may have been the intended 20th hijacker.

Authorities later learned that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Al Qaeda cells that executed the Sept. 11 attacks, was at an Orlando, Fla., airport that same day -- possibly waiting to meet up with the Saudi man, Mohammed Al-Qahtani, who is now in U.S.custody.

The disclosures were included in the first set of staff reports to be issued by the commission since it opened its inquiry last year, and came during a daylong hearing devoted to immigration and intelligence-related failures by government agencies.

Government witnesses described on Monday reforms that they said have shored up serious shortcomings in border security systems, visa screenings and information-sharing among agencies responsible for generating watch lists of suspected terrorists.

But commissioners and investigators on the panel voiced concern that certain agencies have not come to grips with the magnitude of the problems that allowed Al Qaeda operatives to slip past security systems and checks.

"We are not sure that these problems have been addressed," said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission, referring to failures to put Al Qaeda operatives on federal watch lists. "We are not sure they are even adequately acknowledged as a problem."

Also on Monday, President Bush identified an Al Qaeda operative caught in Iraq 12 days ago as a senior official in the organization who had close ties to Mohammed.

Bush said that when he was captured, Hassan Ghul was in Iraq trying to facilitate attacks by insurgents against U.S. troops. He said that in the past, Ghul "reported directly" to Mohammed, the operational commander of Al Qaeda who was captured in Pakistan in March.

"He was a killer," Bush said of Ghul. "He was moving money and messages around South Asia and the Middle East to other Al Qaeda leaders. He was a part of this network of haters that we're dismantling."

As part of their presentation at the commission hearing, Zelikow and other staffers unveiled significant pieces of information. Among them was the disclosure that Mohammed had obtained a visa to visit the United States on July 23, 2001 -- about six weeks before the attacks.

The information suggests Mohammed may have been planning a last-minute trip to shepherd some aspect of the plot, a move that would have carried enormous risks because he had been under federal indictment in the United States since 1996 for his role in earlier terrorist plots.

Mohammed applied for the visa using a Saudi passport and alias -- Abdulrahman al Ghamdi -- even though he is Pakistani-born and was not believed to have been in Saudi Arabia at the time the application was filed, according to a portion of the staff report read by Susan Ginsburg, senior counsel to the commission.

"He had someone else submit his application and a photo" through a third party visa application system known as Visa Express, Ginsburg said, adding that "there is no evidence that he ever used the visa to enter the United States."

Mohammed was captured in Pakistan last year and is being held by American authorities at an undisclosed location.

Ginsburg cited a series of other security breakdowns that had not been previously disclosed. She said investigators now believe eight hijackers entered the country on passports that had been doctored "in ways that have been associated with Al Qaeda."

She did not elaborate on those methods, citing security concerns. But she said investigators have been able to examine four of the hijackers' passports that were either recovered from crash sites or found in luggage, and that digital copies of other passports were recovered in "post-9/11 operations." She challenged CIA Director George J. Tenet's description of 17 of the 19 hijackers as arriving in the country "clean" of activities or paperwork that would have aroused suspicion, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III's claim that "each of the hijackers ... came easily and lawfully from abroad."

"We believe the information we have provided today gives the commission the opportunity to reevaluate those statements," Ginsburg said.

But at least one commissioner cautioned that members of the panel were only presented with the staff statements over the weekend, and that they do not necessarily agree with their conclusions.

Some of the most startling details to surface Monday centered on the case of Al-Qahtani, the Saudi who was turned away by customs officials upon his arrival at an Orlando, Fla., airport Aug. 4, 2001. The man was screened by Jose Melendez-Perez, an inspector with Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Testifying before the commission, Melendez-Perez said he was immediately suspicious of Al-Qahtani, who arrived with no return ticket, no hotel reservations, spoke little English, behaved menacingly and offered conflicting information on the purpose of his travel.

"The bottom line: He gave me the chills," Melendez-Perez said, describing Al-Qahtani as well groomed, "combative" and in "impeccable shape."

At one point, the Saudi said there was someone waiting for him upstairs in the airport, Melendez-Perez recalled. But when asked that person's name, "he changed his story and said no one was meeting him."

Although authorities didn't know it until after Sept. 11, surveillance cameras caught Atta at the airport that day. And records showed him making a cellphone call to a number linked to the 9/11 plot.

Citing that Atta connection and other information the panel could not disclose, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said: "It is extremely possible and perhaps probable that [Al-Qahtani] was to be the 20th hijacker."

The Saudi withdrew his application for entry. As Al-Qahtani boarded a return flight to Saudi Arabia, he stopped and said, "I'll be back," Melendez-Perez testified.

Al-Qahtani, 26, apparently made his way from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, where he was caught by American forces and sent to a U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Melendez-Perez said that leading up to Sept. 11, customs officials were discouraged by their superiors from hassling Saudi travelers, seen as big spenders who made frequent visits to theme parks in the Orlando area. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

The committee staff also disclosed the names of two other suspected co-conspirators in the Sept. 11 plot who had tried and failed to get into the United States -- including a man identified as the nephew of Mohammed.

That man, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, was "heavily involved in financial and logistical aspects of the 9/11 plot," according to a second staff statement, written by Ginsburg.

The panel's senior counsel said Aziz Ali tried to get a U.S. visa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, about two weeks before the attacks, saying he intended to enter the U.S. on Sept. 4, 2001, for one week. As a Pakistani visa applicant in a third country, Ginsburg said, he probably received greater scrutiny from U.S. officials and was denied a visa because it was deemed possible that he intended to disappear into the country.

Another man, a Saudi national, was identified Monday as a potential hijacker, the commission staff statement said.

Saeed al Gamdi, also known as Jihad al Gamdi, "apparently intended to participate in the 9/11 attacks," said Ginsburg's report, noting that Gamdi was not the Saeed Alghamdi who actually became a hijacker.

The Gamdi who failed to get permission to enter the U.S. applied for a tourist visa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 12, 2000, the same date as 9/11 hijacker Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, the statement said. Haznawi was approved, but Gamdi was denied after an interview with a consular officer who believed he intended to stay here illegally.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°