How the 9/11 Highjackers Got Into the US

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Immigration 101 tracks my course at Hofstra Law School.

This is the second in a multi-part series on 9/11 and immigration.

Myths abound about the way the 9/11 highjackers came into the United States. They are sometimes depicted as criminal masterminds carrying cleverly devised forged documents designed to deceive even the most diligent observers. I hear them referred to as “immigrants”, or “illegal immigrants”. They are all also commonly believed to have come here on student visas issued for them to enroll in flight school. None of these characterizations are correct.

When I ask my students why 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis, the usual response brings up Whahhabism, the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, and the repressive nature of the Saudi government. When I point out that Qaeda members are as likely to be Egyptian and Yemeni as Saudi, they draw a blank.

All of the 9/11 highjackers entered the United States legally under their own names. None was an immigrant. They all came into the U.S. with non-immigrant visas intending not to settle here, but to kill large numbers of civilians.

The way non-immigrant visas were issued helps to understand a lot about who was selected by Osama bin Laden to come to the United States and why they were not detected as possible terrorists.

The 9/11 Commission provides extensive information on terrorist travel in its main report, as well as in its staff reports and staff statements. In Staff Statement No. 1 Entry of the 9/11 Highjackers into the United States, the Commission’s staff detailed how the terrorists got their visas to come here.

The Saudi highjackers were traveling under their own names on real Saudi passports. The report notes that because of corruption in the Saudi government, it was easy for the terrorists to get passports that were “scrubbed” of inconvenient information, like travel to Afghanistan, that might link them to Qaeda.

Before 9/11 people applying for a non-immigrant visa, particularly those form wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, were treated very differently from those trying to immigrate. While an immigrant from Mexico would have had to submit biometric identifiers and endured a long background check and interview, non-immigrants from Saudi Arabia were participants in the “Visa Express” program which often issued visas without the applicant ever seeing a U.S. official before getting on the plane to the United States.

The application was checked against a lookout database called CLASS which included a terrorist watchlist called TIPOFF.

Our immigration system before 9/11 focused primarily on keeping individuals intending to immigrate from improperly entering the United States. In the visa process, the most common form of fraud is to get a visa to visit the United States as a tourist and then stay to work and perhaps become a resident. Consular officers concentrated on interviewing visa applicants whom they suspected might leave and not return.

Saudi citizens rarely overstayed their visas or tried to work illegally in the United States. The same was true for citizens of the United Arab Emirates. So, while consular officials in both countries always screened applicants in CLASS, including TIPOFF, they would not interview them unless there was something about the applications that seemed problematic. [Staff Statement No. 1]

Because Saudis were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as other non-immigrants, terrorists tried to obtain Saudi passports for travel to the U.S. The Commission’s staff recounted the issuance of a visa to the terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed traveling under an assumed name with a Saudi passport.

With the exception of our consulates in Mexico, biometric information like a fingerprint was not routinely collected from visa applicants before 9/11. Terrorists therefore easily could exploit opportunities for fraud. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the chief tactical planner and coordinator of the 9/11 attacks, was indicted in 1996 by Federal authorities in the Southern District of New York for his role in earlier terrorist plots. Yet, KSM, as he is known, obtained a visa to visit the United States on July 23, 2001, about six weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Although he is not a Saudi citizen and we do not believe he was in Saudi Arabia at the time, he applied for a visa using a Saudi passport and an alias, Abdulrahman al Ghamdi. He had someone else submit his application and a
photo through the Visa Express program. There is no evidence that he ever used this visa to enter the United States.
[Staff Statement No. 1]

The highjackers had few problems in obtaining their visas according to the Commission staff:

Beginning in 1997, the 19 hijackers submitted 24 applications and received 23 visas. The pilots acquired most of theirs in the year 2000. The other hijackers, with two exceptions, obtained their s between the fall of 2000 and June 2001. Two of the visas were issued in Berlin, and two were issued in the United Arab Emirates. The rest were issued in Saudi Arabia. One of the pilots, Hani Hanjour, had an application denied in September 2000 for lack of adequate documentation. He then produced more evidence in support of his student visa application, and it was approved. Except for Hanjour, all the hijackers
sought tourist visas.
[Staff Statement No. 1]

The Commission staff were particularly disturbed by the ease with which one highjacker, Al Mindhar, had been able to get a visa under his real name even after the U.S. consultate in Saudi Arabia had been alerted that he might be a terrorist:

Al Mihdhar’s case was uniquely problematical. He had not been entered into the TIPOFF watchlist at the time of his second visa application in June 2001. In January 2000 the American consulate in Jeddah had been asked about Mihdhar’s visa status in conjunction with an ongoing urgent terrorist intelligence investigation and confirmed that this al Qaeda operative had a U.S. visa. When Mihdhar applied again in June 2001, the check
against the worldwide TIPOFF watchlist took place, but no system then in place included a notation of the prior visa status check. Neither the investigating agency nor the post had made the appropriate lookout entry. Thus, in effect, the post could not remember relevant suspicions a year-and-a-half earlier about this same person, who was traveling again with the same biographical information.
[Staff Statement No. 1]

The failure of four terrorists believed to have been connected to the plot to obtain visas tells us a lot. Here is the staff’s report on this:

At least four individuals implicated in the 9/11 plot tried to get visas and failed: Ramzi Binalshibh, Zakariya Essabar, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Saeed al Gamdi. This Saeed al Gamdi is a different person from the Saeed al Ghamdi who actually became a hijacker. Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni, apparently intended to train as a pilot along with his Hamburg friends, Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah. Binalshibh applied for a visa three times in Berlin and once in Yemen. He first applied in Berlin on the same day as Atta. He was interviewed twice and denied twice. Yemen is a much
poorer country than Saudi Arabia. Both times, consular officers determined he did not have strong ties to Germany and he might be intending to immigrate unlawfully to the United States. Binalshibh tried again in Berlin, this time for a student visa to attend aviation school in Florida. He was denied again for lack of adequate documentation and failure to show sufficient ties to Germany.

Essabar, a Moroccan who may also have intended to be a pilot, tried to get a visa in Berlin at least once and failed because he failed to demonstrate sufficient ties to Germany, such as a job or family there. Third country visa applicants in Berlin were held to significantly higher standards—in terms of documentation and showing ties with their country of residence—than were Saudi and Emirati citizens applying from their own countries.

Ali Abdul Aziz Ali is the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and was heavily involved in financial and logistical aspects of the 9/11 plot. He tried to get a U.S. visa in Dubai about two weeks before the attacks. His visa application states that he intended to enter the United States on September 4, 2001, for one week. As a Pakistani visa applicant in a third country, he would have received greater scrutiny from U.S. officials from the start. In any event, it was deemed possible that he intended to immigrate, and accordingly he was denied a visa.

Saeed al Gamdi al Gamdi, apparently intended to participate in the 9/11 attacks. He is a Saudi and applied for a tourist visa in Jeddah on November 12, 2000, the same date as 9/11 hijacker Ahmad al Haznawi. Haznawi was approved, but al Gamdi was denied after an interview with a consular officer, because the consular officer believed he was intending to immigrate. [Staff Statement No. 1]

So, only one of those denied entry to the U.S. was a Saudi.

While Saudis were attracted to al Qaeda for a variety of religious and social reasons, al Qaeda used Saudis as the main group of 9/11 highjackers because of the ease of obtaining scrubbed Saudi passports and the relaxed attitude the U.S. State Department took towards issuing visas to Saudis.
Read other parts of this series:

Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.

 


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