9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States Page: 3
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Ports of entry
Once the operation was under way, the conspirators attempted to enter the United States
34 times over 21 months, through nine airports. They succeeded all but once. Border
inspectors at U.S. airports were unaware of the potential significance of indicators of
possible terrorist affiliation in conspirators' passports and had no information about
fraudulent travel stamps possibly associated with al Qaeda. No inspectors or agents were
trained in terrorist travel intelligence and document practices. The culture at the airports
was one of travel facilitation and lax enforcement, with the exception of programs to
interdict drug couriers and known criminals.
When they began to arrive at the U.S. airports in January 2000, the pilots traveled alone.
With the exception of two of the hijackers, the "muscle" operatives arrived between late
April and late June 2001. They came in groups of two or three, and in four cases were
screened by the same inspector.
All but one of the hijackers presented visitor visas that immigration inspectors used to
decide whether to admit them as tourists or on business. All but two of the nonpilots were
admitted as tourists and were granted automatic six-month stays. This allowed them to
maintain a legal immigration status through the end of the operation. One of the two
nonpilots admitted on business was granted a one-month stay; he, along with another of
the nonpilot operatives, was in violation of immigration law for months before the attack.
The one pilot who came in on a student visa never showed up for school, thereby
violating the terms of his U.S. visa. Another of the pilots came in on a tourist visa yet
began flight school immediately, also violating the terms of his U.S. visa. This pilot came
in a total of seven times on a tourist visa while in school. In both cases, the pilots violated
the law after their entry into the United States.
Five hijackers attempting entry were referred by primary inspectors for a more intensive
review by secondary inspectors. One pilot was referred at two entries, in one case by a
customs inspector trained to look for drug couriers, and in the other by an immigration
inspector thinking the pilot might be an intending immigrant. One pilot was referred for
having the wrong visa and one nonpilot hijacker for failing to have a visa. Two others
were referred for failing to complete their arrival and customs forms and for being unable
to communicate with the inspectors. No lookouts or visa revocations were posted alerting
border authorities to the terrorist association of two of the hijackers until after each has
entered the United States for the last time.
Four hijackers were admitted after the secondary inspectors who interviewed them were
unable to, or did not, verify information supplied by the operative, misunderstood the
law, or failed to follow procedures. One was interviewed at length by a border inspector.
The inspector concluded, on the basis of his hostile and arrogant behavior and
contradictory statements, that he was unlikely to comply with U.S. immigration law and
posed a risk. He was denied entry. The inspector was backed up by his superior, but acted
in the face of a general expectation of leniency toward Saudi citizens at that airport.
These entries occurred during a period when approximately 20 million people applied for
visas, and more than 10 million people came into the United States through 220 airports
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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/m1/11/?q=cornerstone: accessed July 24, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.