Passports Hijackers 9/11
Entry of the 9/11 Hijackers into the United States
Staff Statement No. 1
Members of the Commission, we have developed initial findings on how the individualswho carried out the 9/11 attacks entered the United States. We have also developedinitial findings on terrorists who failed in their efforts to enter the United States. Thesefindings lead us to some tentative judgments on the way the United States targets thetravel of international terrorists.
This staff statement represents the collective effort of several members of our staff.Susan Ginsburg, Thomas Eldridge, and Janice Kephart-Roberts did most of theinvestigative work reflected in this statement.
The Commission was able to build upon a large and strong body of work carried out bymany talented public servants at the Department of State, the Central IntelligenceAgency, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department ofHomelandSecurity,andtheFederalBureauofInvestigation. TheAmericanpeopleshould be proud of the many extraordinary professionals now serving them. To theextent we have criticisms, they are comments less on the talent available and more onhow that talent was used.
As we know from the sizable illegal traffic across our land borders, a terrorist couldattempt to bypass legal procedures and enter the United States surreptitiously. None ofthe 9/11 attackers entered or tried to enter our country this way. So today we will focuson the hijackers’ exploitation of legal entry systems. We have handed out a list of thenames of 9/11 attackers to help you follow our discussion.
To break down some of al Qaeda’s travel problem, view it from their perspective. Formostinternationaltravel,aterroristhastohaveapassport. Tovisitsomecountries,terrorists of certain nationalities must obtain a document permitting them to visit—a visa.Finally the terrorist must actually enter the country and keep from getting detained ordeported by immigration or other law enforcement officials. Susan Ginsburg, SeniorCounsel to the Commission, will begin by examining how the hijackers navigated thesestages.
Four of the hijackers’ passports have survived in whole or in part. Two were recoveredfrom the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. One belonged to ahijacker on American Airlines Flight 11. A passerby picked it up and gave it to anNYPD detective shortly before the World Trade Center towers collapsed. A fourth
passport was recovered from luggage that did not make it from a Portland flight toBoston onto the connecting flight, which was American Airlines Flight 11. In addition tothese four, some digital copies of the hijackers’ passports were recovered in post-9/11operations.
Two of the passports that have survived, those of Satam al Suqami and Abdul Aziz alOmari, were clearly doctored. To avoid getting into the classified details, we will juststate that these were “manipulated in a fraudulent manner,” in ways that have beenassociated with al Qaeda. Since the passports of 15 of the hijackers did not survive, wecannot make firm factual statements about their documents. But from what we knowabout al Qaeda passport practices and other information, we believe it is possible that sixmore of the hijackers presented passports that had some of these same clues to theirassociation with al Qaeda.
Other kinds of passport markings can be highly suspicious. To avoid getting into theclassified details, we will just call these “suspicious indicators.” Two of the hijackers,Khalid al Mihdhar and Salem al Hazmi, presented passports that had such suspiciousindicators. We know now that each of these two hijackers possessed at least twopassports. All of their known passports had these suspicious indicators. We haveevidence that three other hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi, Ahmed al Nami, and Ahmad alHaznawi may have presented passports containing these suspicious indicators. But theirpassports did not survive the attacks, so we cannot be sure.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. There were significant securityweaknesses in the Saudi government’s issuance of Saudi passports in the period when thevisas to the hijackers were issued. Two of the Saudi 9/11 hijackers may have obtainedtheir passports legitimately or illegitimately with the help of a family member whoworked in the passport office.
We do not yet know the answer to the question whether the knowledge of these particularclues existed in the intelligence community before 9/11. From the mid-1970s, whenterrorists began to launch attacks in the Middle East and Europe, intelligence and borderauthorities knew that terrorists used forged or altered travel documents. By the 1980s theU.S. government had developed a “Red Book” used to guide and train consular,immigration,andcustomsofficersthroughouttheworldonspottingterrorists. Itincludedphotographs of altered or stolen passports, and false travel stamps (also known ascachets) used by terrorists. The importance of training border officials on use of the RedBook is evident from a U.S. government film entitled “The Threat is Real.” Here is abrief excerpt.
The U.S. government ceased publication of the “Red Book” by 1992, in part because ithad fallen into the hands of terrorist groups, although there continued to be a number ofgovernment efforts to provide information about generic forgery detection and documentinspection techniques.
Staff Statement No. 1 2
Before 9/11, the FBI and CIA did know of some of the practices employed by al Qaeda.They knew this from training manuals recovered in the mid-1990s and from tracking andinterrogations of al Qaeda operatives. Some of this knowledge was revealed in individualcriminal cases prosecuted in the United States in the 1990s. And yet, between 1992 andSeptember 11, 2001, we have not found any signs that intelligence, law enforcement, orborder inspection services sought to acquire, develop, or disseminate systematicinformation about al Qaeda’s or other terrorist groups’ travel and passport practices.Thus, suc h information was not available to consular, immigration, or customs officialswho examined the hijackers’ passports before 9/11.
The State Department is principally responsible for administering U.S. immigration lawsoutside of the United States. Consular officers, a branch of our diplomatic corps, issueseveral kinds of visas for visitors and for permanent immigrants. In 2000, thesediplomats processed about 10 million applications for visitors’ visas at over 200 postsoverseas. U.S. law allows nationals of certain countries to enter without visas on areciprocal basis, under the visa waiver program. None of the 9/11 hijackers, however,were nationals of a visa waiver country.
Before9/11,visaapplicantsprovidedtheirpassportandaphotograph. AStateDepartment employee checked the passport for any apparent questionable features. Aconsularofficercouldcalltheapplicantinforaninterview. Theapplicant’sessentialinformationwentintoaStateDepartmentdatabase. Theinformationwasthencheckedagainst a large “consular lookout” database called CLASS, which included a substantialwatchlist of known and suspected terrorists, called TIPOFF.
Our immigration system before 9/11 focused primarily on keeping individuals intendingto immigrate from improperly entering the United States. In the visa process, the mostcommon form of fraud is to get a visa to visit the United States as a tourist and then stayto work and perhaps become a resident. Consular officers concentrated on interviewingvisa 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 officialsin both countries always screened applicants in CLASS, including TIPOFF, they wouldnot interview them unless there was something about the applications that seemedproblematic.
Visa applicants from these countries frequently had their applications submitted by thirdparty facilitators, like travel agencies. In June 2001, the U.S. consular posts in SaudiArabia instituted a third party processing program called Visa Express. It requiredapplicants to apply through designated travel agencies instead of by mail or in person.The program was established in part to try to keep crowds of people from congregatingoutside the posts, which was a security risk to the posts and to the crowds themselves.We have found no evidence that the Visa Express program had any effect on the
Staff Statement No. 1 3
interview or approval rates for Saudi applicants, or that it reduced the scrutiny given totheir applications. It actually lengthened the processing time.
With the exception of our consulates in Mexico, biometric information—like afingerprint—was not routinely collected from visa applicants before 9/11. Terroriststherefore easily could exploit opportunities for fraud. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the chieftactical planner and coordinator of the 9/11 attacks, was indicted in 1996 by Federalauthorities 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, aboutsix weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Although he is not a Saudi citizen and we do notbelieve he was in Saudi Arabia at the time, he applied for a visa using a Saudi passportand an alias, Abdulrahman al Ghamdi. He had someone else submit his application and aphotothroughtheVisaExpressprogram. Thereisnoevidencethatheeverusedthisvisato enter the United States.
Beginning in 1997, the 19 hijackers submitted 24 applications and received 23 visas. Thepilots acquired most of their s 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 inBerlin, and two were issued in the United Arab Emirates. The rest were issued in SaudiArabia. One of the pilots, Hani Hanjour, had an application denied in September 2000for lack of adequate documentation. He then produced more evidence in support of hisstudent visa application, and it was approved. Except for Hanjour, all the hijackerssought tourist visas.
Of these 24 visa applications, four were destroyed routinely along with other documentsbefore their significance was known.
To our knowledge, State consular officers followed their standard operating procedures inevery case. They performed a name check using their lookout database, including theTIPOFF watchlist. At the time these people applied for visas, none of them—or at leastnone of the identities given in their passports—were in the database. We will say moreabout this in another staff statement later today.
All 20 of these applications were incomplete in some way, with a data field left blank ornot answered fully. Such omissions were common. The consular officials focused ongetting the biographical data needed for name checks. They generally did not think theomitted items were material to a decision about whether to issue the visa.
Three of the 19 hijackers submitted applications that contained false statements that couldhave been proven to be false at the time they applied. The applications of Hani Hanjour,Saeed al Ghamdi, and Khalid al Mihdhar stated that they had not previously applied for aU.S. visa when, in fact, they had. In Hanjour’s case the false statement was made in anearlier application for a visit, in 1997, not his final visa application in 2000. Hanjour andMihdhar also made false statements about whether they had previously traveled to theUnited States. Information about these prior applications was retrievable at the Jeddahpost where each applied.
Staff Statement No. 1 4
These false statements may have been intentional, to cover up the applicants’ travel onold passports to suspect locations like Afghanistan for terrorist training. On the otherhand, these statements may have been inadvertent. During this period, Saudi citizensoften had their applications filled out and submitted by third parties. Most importantly,evidence of the prior visas or travel to the United States actually would have reducedconcern that the applicants were intending to immigrate, so consular officers had no goodreason to deny the visas or travel.
Al Mihdhar’s case was uniquely problematical. He had not been entered into the TIPOFFwatchlist at the time of his second visa application in June 2001. In January 2000 theAmerican consulate in Jeddah had been asked about Mihdhar’s visa status in conjunctionwith an ongoing urgent terrorist intelligence investigation and confirmed that this alQaeda operative had a U.S. visa. When Mihdhar applied again in June 2001, the checkagainst the worldwide TIPOFF watchlist took place, but no system the n in place includeda notation of the prior visa status check. Neither the investigating agency nor the posthadmadetheappropriatelookoutentry. Thus,ineffect,thepostcouldnot‘remember’relevant suspicions a year-and-a-half earlier about this same person, who was travelingagain with the same biographical information.
At least two of the hijackers were actually interviewed in person in connection with theirvisa applications. Hanjour was interviewed twice. Satam al Suqami was apparentlyinterviewed in Riyadh. Another hijacker, Ahmed al Nami, was apparently interviewedbriefly, but just to clarify an entry on his application. The three consular officersinvolved have some memory of these interviews. All stated that the reason for the irinterviews had nothing to do with terrorism. They saw nothing suspicious.
At least four individuals implicated in the 9/11 plot tried to get visas and failed: RamziBinalshibh, Zakariya Essabar, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Saeed al Gamdi. This Saeed alGamdi 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 hisHamburgfriends,MohamedAtta,MarwanalShehhi,andZiadJarrah. Binalshibhapplied for a visa three times in Berlin and once in Yemen. He first applied in Berlin onthe same day as Atta. He was interviewed twice and denied twice. Yemen is a muchpoorer country than Saudi Arabia. Both times, consular officers determined he did nothave strong ties to Germany and he might be intending to immigrate unlawfully to theUnited States. Binalshibh tried again in Berlin, this time for a student visa to attendaviation school in Florida. He was denied again for lack of adequate documentation andfailure to show sufficient ties to Germany.
Essabar, a Moroccan who may also have intended to be a pilot, tried to get a visa inBerlin at least once and failed because he failed to demonstrate sufficient ties toGermany, such as a job or family there. Third country visa applicants in Berlin were heldto significantly higher standards—in terms of documentation and showing ties with theircountry of residence—than were Saudi and Emirati citizens applying from their owncountries.
Staff Statement No. 1 5
Ali Abdul Aziz Ali is the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and was heavily involved infinancial and logistical aspects of the 9/11 plot. He tried to get a U.S. visa in Dubai abouttwo weeks before the attacks. His visa application states that he intended to enter theUnited States on September 4, 2001, for one week. As a Pakistani visa applicant in athird 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 hewas denied a visa.
Saeed al Gamdi, also known as “Jihad” al Gamdi, apparently intended to participate inthe 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 alGamdi was denied after an interview with a consular officer, because the consular officerbelieved he was intending to immigrate.
Entry into and exit from the United States
With a visa, an individual can travel to a United States port of entry. Upon arrival, theindividual must seek admission into the United States from an inspector of what used tobe called the INS, an agency whose personnel now form part of the Department ofHomeland Security. Property being brought into the United States is checked byinspectors of the U.S. Customs Service, whose personnel are now also part of DHS.
The 19 hijackers entered the United States a total of 33 times. They arrived through tendifferent airports, though more than half came in through Miami, JFK, or Newark. Avisitor with a tourist visa was usually admitted for a stay of six months. All but two ofthe hijackers were admitted for such stays. Hanjour had a student visa and was admittedfor a stay of two years, and Suqami sought and was admitted for a stay of 20 days.
The four pilots passed through INS and Customs inspections a total of 17 times before9/11. Hanjour came to the United States to attend school in three stints during the 1990s.His final arrival was in December 2000, through the Cincinnati/Northern Kentuckyairport. The other three pilots, Atta, al Shehhi, and Jarrah, initially came in May andJune 2000. They arrived for the last time between May and August 2001. All made anumber of trips abroad during their extended stays in the United States.
Of the other 15, only Mihdhar entered the United States, left, and returned. Nawaf alHazmi arrived in January 2000 with Mihdhar and stayed. Al Mihdhar left in June 2000and returned to the United States on July 4, 2001. Ten of the others came in pairsbetween April and June 2001. Three more arrived through Miami on May 28.
The INS inspector usually had about one to one and a half minutes to assess the travelerand make a decision on admissibility and length of stay. For all the entries, a primaryINS inspector would work a lane of incoming travelers and check the people and theirpassports. The inspector would try to assess each individual’s demeanor. No one notedany anomalies in these passports despite the fact, we now believe, that at least two and as
Staff Statement No. 1 6
many as eight showed evidence of fraudulent manipulation. The inspector would use thepassport data, especially if it was machine readable to check various INS and Customsdatabases. The databases would show the person’s immigration history information, aswell as terrorist watchlist and criminal history information.
Of the five hijackers who entered the United States more than once, three of themviolated immigration law.
Ziad Jarrah entered in June 2000 on a tourist visa and then promptly enrolled in flightschool for six months. He never filed an application to change his immigration statusfrom tourist to student. Had the INS known he was out of status, they could have deniedhim entry on any of the three subsequent occasions he departed and returned while hewas a student.
Marwan al Shehhi came in through Newark in late May 2000, followed a week later byMohamed Atta. Both were admitted as tourists and soon entered flight school in Florida.In September they did file applications to change their status. Before 9/11, regulationsallowed tourists to change their status at any time, so they were in compliance. But bothoverstayed their periods of admission and completed flight school to obtain commercialpilot licenses. Atta and al Shehhi then left within a few days of one another and returnedwithin a few days of one another in January 2001, while their change in visa status fromtourist to student was still pending.
Atta and al Shehhi did get some attention when both said they were coming back to finishflight school. Primary inspectors noticed with each that their story clashed with theirattempt to reenter on tourist visas. The rules required them to get proper student visaswhile they had been overseas, since their earlier pending applications for a change ofstatus were considered abandoned once they left the United States. Atta and al Shehhiwere each referred by the primary inspectors to secondary inspection.
At secondary, more experienced inspectors could conduct longer interviews, check moredatabases, take fingerprints, examine personal property, and call on other agencies forhelp. The inspectors involved have stated they do not remember these encounters. Thereports indicate that both men repeated their story about still going to flight school andtheirpendingapplicationsforachangeofstatus. ThesecondaryinspectorsadmittedAttaand al Shehhi as tourists.
Flight 93 hijacker Saeed al Ghamdi was referred to secondary immigration inspectionwhen he arrived in late June 2001. He had no address on his I-94 form. He spoke littleEnglish. He had a one-way ticket and about $500. The inspector wondered whether hewas possibly intending to immigrate. Al Ghamdi convinced the inspector that he was atourist and had enough money.
Customs officers took a second look at two of the hijackers but then admitted them. OnMarwan al Shehhi’s first entry into the United States, a customs officer referred him tosecondary inspection, completed the inspection, and released him. In May 2001, Waleed
Staff Statement No. 1 7
al Shehri and Satam Suqami departed Florida for the Bahamas but were refusedadmission. On their way back to the United States, a customs officer conducting a pre-clearance in the Bahamas referred al Shehri to a secondary inspection. Customs thenreleased al Shehri to return to the United States with Suqami.
We do know of one success by immigration secondary inspection that affected the 9/11plot. An al Qaeda operative, Mohamed al Kahtani, arrived at Orlando airport on August4, 2001. Evidence strongly suggests that Mohamed Atta was waiting there to meet him.Kahtani encountered an experienced and dedicated inspector, Jose Melendez-Perez. Wewill hear his story later this morning.
During their stays in the United States at least six of the 9/11 hijackers violatedimmigration laws. We have noted Jarrah’s failure to adjust his status while he was inflight school and the violations by Atta and al Shehhi. Hani Hanjour came on a studentvisa in December 2000 but then did not attend the English language school for which hisvisa was issued. Nawaf al Hazmi overstayed his term of admission by nine months.Suqami overstayed his term of admission by four months. None of these violations weredetected or acted upon by INS inspectors or agents.
Two programs might have helped detect such violations. One dealt with violations ofstudent status. The other dealt with overstays.
National security concerns about foreign students are not new. By the late 1980s the INShad established a Student/School System to track students, but the system did not work.After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when it was discovered that a participant inthe plot had been a student who had overstayed his visa, the Department of Justice askedINS to devise a better way to track students. INS officials recommended a new studenttracking system and a student ID card that used biometric identifiers.
In 1996, Congress mandated a new system to be installed by 1998, without appropriatingprogram funds. The INS scraped together $10 million and piloted a successful studenttracking program in the Atlanta area in June 1997, which included a flight school.However, advocates of education interests argued that the program would be burdensomeand costly. Upon the order of senior INS management, the project manager wasreplaced. In 1998, INS indefinitely deferred testing of the biometric student ID card.
The program stalled. Senators declared an interest in repealing the 1996 law and soughtto obstruct further INS funding for it. Thus, when Atta and al Shehhi lied whenquestioned about their student status on their reentries in January 2001, and whenHanjour failed to show up for the school for which he was issued a visa in December2000, a student tracking system was far from available to immigration inspectors oragents.
Congress required the Attorney General to develop an entry-exit system in 1996. Thesystem’s purpose was to improve INS’s ability to address illegal migration and overstaysof all types of foreign visitors. By 1998, Congress had appropriated about $40 million todevelop the system. Advocates for border communities, however, were concerned that
Staff Statement No. 1 8
an entry-exit system would slow down trade. INS officials decided to forego the systemat the land borders and only to automate the entry process. The automation process wasnot successful. The result was that when hijackers Suqami and Nawaf al Hazmioverstayed their visas, the system Congress envisaged did not exist. Moreover, whenfederal law enforcement authorities realized in late August 2001 that Mihdhar hadentered with Hazmi in January 2000 at Los Angeles, they could not reliably determinewhether or not Hazmi was still in the United States, along with Mihdhar.
The Director of the FBI testified that “[e]ach of the hijackers ... came easily and lawfullyfrom abroad.” The Director of Central Intelligence described 17 of the 19 hijackers as“clean.” We believe the information we have provided today gives the Commission theopportunitytoreevaluatethosestatements. Basedonourevaluationofthehijackers’travel documents, the visa process, the entries into the United States, and the compliancewith immigration law while the attackers were here, we have a few observations.Considered collectively, the 9/11 hijackers:
Included among them known al Qaeda operatives who could have beenwatchlisted;
Presented passports “manipulated in a fraudulent manner;”
Presented passports with “suspicious indicators” of extremism;
Made detectable false statements on their visa applications;
Were pulled out of the travel stream and given greater scrutiny by border
Made false statements to border officials to gain entry to the United States; and
Violated immigration laws while inside the United States.
These circumstances offered opportunities to intelligence and law enforcement officials.But our government did not fully exploit al Qaeda’s travel vulnerabilities.
Why weren’t they exploited? We do not have all the answers. Certainly neither the StateDepartment’s consular officers nor the INS’s inspectors and agents were ever consideredfull partners in a national counterterrorism effort. This is exemplified by the Bureau ofConsular Affairs’ statement that before 9/11 they were not informed by anyone in theState Department or elsewhere that Saudi citizens could pose security risks. Nor were theConsular Affairs bureau or INS given the resources to perform an expanded mission.Between 1998 and 2001, visa applications rose by nearly a third, an increase of 2.5million per year. Trained staff did not keep pace with the volume increase. In Jeddahand Riyadh, for example, each consular officer had responsibility for processing, onaverage, about 30,000 applications per year and routinely interviewed about 200 peopleper day.
The INS before 9/11 had about 2,000 agents for interior enforcement. As long as the topenforcement priorities were removal of criminal aliens and prosecution of employers whohired illegal aliens, a major counterterrorism effort would not have been possible. This is
Staff Statement No. 1 9
not to pass judgment on immigration policy generally. What we can do is highlight theway those policy choices affected counterterrorism efforts before 9/11, and potentiallyaffect the m today. For our front line border inspection services to have taken asubstantially more proactive role in counterterrorism, their missions would have had tohave been considered integral to our national security strategy and given commensurateresources.
Today, the level of systematic effort by the intelligence community focused on terroristtravel is much greater. But terrorist travel intelligence is still seen as a niche effort,interesting for specialists, but not central to counterterrorism. Nor have policymakersfully absorbed the information developed by terrorist mobility specialists. Much remainsto be done, within the United States and internationally, on travel and identity documentsecurity, penalties and enforcement policy with respect to document fraud, and traveldocument screening efforts at the borders. If we have one conclusion from our work sofar, it is that disrupting terrorist mobility globally is at least as important as disruptingterrorist finance as an integral part of counterterrorism.