In this series, Newsweek traces the course of September 11 as it happened 20 years ago, day in and day out.
Mohammed Atta and Khalid al-Mihdhar meet at William Patterson State College in Wayne, New Jersey, on August 9. Atta flew to New Jersey to take a human measurement. Al-Mihdhar would prove to be the most problematic of the 19 hijackers, a Saudi chosen early by Osama bin Laden himself to be a pilot, and one of the first to arrive in the United States in January 2000. After failing to attend the flight school in San Diego, he decides (contrary to Al-Qaeda’s instructions) to leave the United States and return to the Middle East in June 2000. He says he is going to Yemen to visit his wife and newborn son in Yemen (he is of Saudi nationality).
On leaving California, al-Mihdhar blocked Nawaf al-Hazmi, another Saudi pilot candidate, and bin Laden, who did not speak English and did not attend flight school either. Atta traveled to San Diego after al-Mihdhar left to check on al-Hazmi, asking him to wait for the fourth pilot, Hani Hanjour (another Saudi), to arrive and take him under his wing.
According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Atta pleaded to remove al-Mihdhar from the plot, but the Al-Qaeda center in Afghanistan insisted that he participate as a so-called “muscular man” (he was associated with Hani Hanjour to attack the Pentagon).
On June 13, al-Mihdhar applied for a new visa at the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He used a different Saudi passport (issued 13 days earlier) than the one he used to enter the United States in January 2000. And on his visa application, he said he had never been to the country. State Department visa officials later told the 9/11 Commission that the only reason al-Mihdhar’s visa could have been refused was obvious deception, and although the CIA suspected al- Mihdhar to be an al-Qaeda agent, the department’s consular computer system had no information to this effect. He was not on any watch lists for terrorism or entry into the United States.
What makes al-Mihdhar’s story even more tragic is that the CIA “knew” that al-Mihdhar was affiliated with al-Qaeda and that he had had an American visa since 1999. It had set up a operation developed with the secret police of the United Arab Emirates in January. 2000 to obtain a copy of al-Mihdhar’s old passport as he crossed the country. The CIA then followed al-Mihdhar to Malaysia where, along with Nawaf al Hazmi and other al Qaeda notables, he stayed in the condominium of another suspected terrorist and attended some sort of meeting. When the two left Malaysia for Thailand, US intelligence attempted to follow them. Thai intelligence agencies are reportedly unable to provide information that the two have boarded a flight to the United States for more than a year. The details are daunting. The two men landed at Los Angeles International Airport and were again undetected despite markings on their passports and al-Mihdhar’s “known” terrorist affiliation. They meet Saudi government agents, who help them settle in San Diego. There they started English lessons and a flight school until they both quickly dropped out. They have become a fixture in the Arab community of San Diego, a friend of theirs, even obviously an FBI informant.
Defying instructions, Mihdhar then left the United States and after a year outside the country on July 4 returned from Riyadh to JFK Airport on Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 53. There were irregularities in his passport again (it did not have an expiration date and had a stamp indicating his connection to radical Islam), but immigration officials overlooked the first and were not aware of the second. Al-Mihdhar was granted a six-month visa. On September 11, al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi, and three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
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