9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States Page: 1
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Introduction: Factual Overview of the September 11 Border Story
Terrorists travel for many reasons, including to train, communicate with other terrorists,
collect funds, escape capture and interrogation, engage in surveillance of potential
targets, and commit terrorist attacks.'
To avoid detection of their activities and objectives while engaging in travel that
necessitates using a passport, terrorists devote extensive resources to acquiring and
manipulating passports, entry and exit stamps, and visas. The al Qaeda terrorist
organization was no exception. High-level members of al Qaeda were expert document
forgers who taught other terrorists, including Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, their
The entry of the hijackers into the United States therefore represented the culmination of
years of practice and experience in penetrating international borders. We introduce our
monograph with a retelling of the September 11 events from the perspective of border
security as we understand it today.
Twenty-six al Qaeda terrorist conspirators-eighteen Saudis, two Emiratis, one Egyptian,
one Lebanese, one Moroccan, one Pakistani, and two Yemenis-sought to enter the
United States and carry out a suicide mission.3 The first of them began to acquire the
means to enter two years and five months before the 9/11 attack.
Intelligence about terrorist travel
Three hijackers were known or knowable by intelligence authorities as al Qaeda terrorists
in early 2000, but their biographical information was not fully developed and
communicated to border authorities for watchlisting at U.S. consulates abroad (by the
State Department) and at the border (by immigration and customs border inspectors). The
travel plans of all three also were known or knowable in 2000, in part because of
cooperation from Arab and Asian country intelligence services and border authorities.
The 19 hijackers used 364 aliases, including different spellings of their names and noms
de guerre.4 As they passed through various countries, their names were recorded by
governments and their intelligence and border authorities.
Three were carrying Saudi passports containing a possible extremist indicator present in
the passports of many al Qaeda and other terrorists entering the United States as early as
the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. This indicator had not been analyzed by the
CIA, FBI, or our border authorities for its significance. Indeed, passports seized by the
FBI in terrorist investigations were not routinely made available to the CIA for analysis.
Two hijackers were carrying passports that had been manipulated in a fraudulent manner.
They contained fraudulent entry-exit stamps (or cachets) probably inserted by al Qaeda
travel document forgers to hide travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training. Our analysis
of their travel patterns suggests that several more hijackers whose passports did not
survive the attacks were likely to have had similar false stamps in their passports. The
existence and significance of these stamps was not known to border authorities.
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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/m1/9/?q=cornerstone: accessed June 25, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.