Working from "instinct," a border agent at Orlando International Airport two years ago refused entry to a young Saudi man who the U.S. government now suspects was planning to rendezvous with the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Agent Jose Melendez-Perez, testifying Monday before a national commission investigating the al-Qaida attacks, said the Saudi man he interrogated on Aug. 4, 2001, gave him "a bone chilling cold effect." Melendez-Perez told supervisors that the Saudi man refused to answer questions under oath, did not have a return ticket or have plans for his stay.
The Saudi man, identified as Mohamed al-Qahtani, was put on a plane back to Dubai. Officials now believe that he came to Orlando to assist Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 19 al-Qaida hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
Stopping al-Qahtani from entering the country was cited as the "one success" uncovered by the commission's investigators during their yearlong inquiry. Overall, the commission revealed a visa and immigration system rife with loopholes for terrorists to exploit.
For example, the hijackers included people who should have raised red flags, but didn't.
Two of the men presented fake passports that were manipulated in ways associated with al-Qaida, the commission found.
At least two others used passports with "suspicious indicators" of Islamic extremism. Three hijackers submitted visa applications with false statements that could have been easily detected, such as denying that they had applied for a visa before. And six hijackers violated immigration laws by overstaying their visas or not attending the school they had said they would attend for a student visa.
In addition, Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi raised suspicions during their re-entry to the United States to finish flight school in January 2001.
Immigration rules required them to get proper student visas overseas. Immigration inspectors noted that their stories about the visa application "clashed with their attempt to re-enter on tourist visas." But both hijackers were ultimately allowed to enter on tourist visas despite border inspectors' initial concerns, according to the commission report.
And Saeed al Ghamdi, another hijacker, was referred to a secondary inspection review because he didn't provide an address on his visa form. Al Ghamdi spoke little English, had a one-way ticket and little cash to support himself. But al Ghamdi convinced the inspector that he was a tourist.
"The circumstances offered opportunities to intelligence and law enforcement officials," the commission staff wrote in a 10-page report. "But our government did not fully exploit al-Qaida's travel vulnerabilities."
Some of the vulnerabilities in the visa system can be attributed to severe budget constraints, staff shortages and a lack of intelligence sharing, according to Mary A. Ryan, former assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department.
On the Web
For more from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, visit www.9-11commission.gov.