9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States Page: 2
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Two Saudis were carrying passports that might have been provided to them by a family
member working in the Saudi passport ministry. The Saudi passport authority was rife
with patronage and security weaknesses known by then to the State Department and CIA,
but they were not the subject of intelligence analysis, diplomatic or security policy, or
The 19 hijackers applied for 23 visas and obtained 22. Five other conspirators were
denied U.S. visas. Two more obtained visas but did not participate in the attack for
They began attempting to acquire U.S. visas in April 1999, two years and five months
before the attack. Consular officers were unaware of the potential significance of an
indicator of potential extremism present in some al Qaeda passports, had no information
about fraudulent travel stamps that are associated with al Qaeda, and were not trained in
terrorist travel tactics generally.
Two Yemenis were denied visas in Yemen for reasons of U.S. immigration law unrelated
to terrorism. At the same time, two Saudi hijackers obtained visas in Saudi Arabia. When
these two Saudis later showed up in Afghanistan, they were selected for the mission in
part because they already had U.S. visas. Later, most of the operatives selected were
Saudis, who had little difficulty obtaining visas.
In early 2000, four conspirators sought U.S. visas to learn how to become pilots in the
plot. An Egyptian and a Lebanese obtained visas easily in Berlin, because they had
established ties to Germany and so did not look like intending immigrants. Both
presented new passports. A Yemeni who wanted to be a pilot was repeatedly turned down
for a visa because he did not have strong ties to Germany, failed to complete the
necessary paperwork, and looked like an intending immigrant.
Thirteen of the hijackers presented passports less than three weeks old when they applied
for their visas, but the new passports caused no heightened scrutiny of their visa
Two hijackers lied on their visa applications in detectable ways, but were not further
questioned about those lies.
Two hijackers were interviewed for reasons unrelated to terrorism. Most simply had their
applications approved and their passports stamped with a U.S. visa. Consular officers
were not trained to detect terrorists in a visa interview. Terrorism concerns were handled
through the watchlist, and all the conspirators' names were checked against the terrorist
watchlist without producing a match.
One Saudi, one Moroccan, and one Pakistani were each denied visas for reasons
unrelated to terrorism. The last conspirator, the Pakistani, was denied on August 27,
2001, in the United Arab Emirates.
The mastermind of the operation, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, used a travel facilitator to
acquire a visa on July 23, 2001, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, using an alias.
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Eldridge, Thomas R.; Ginsburg, Susan; Hempel, Walter T., II; Kephart, Janice L. & Moore, Kelly. 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, report, August 21, 2004; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1213676/m1/10/?q=cornerstone: accessed July 25, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.