As the Obama administration tries to use politically correct terms to describe terrorists, new revelations about why the suspected 20th hijacker was turned away before 9/11 are relevant and poignant.
The gripping story appears in “Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism” by Stewart Baker.
Editor's Note: Get Stewart Baker's book. Go here now.
Baker is a former general counsel of the National Security Agency (NSA) and a former first assistant secretary for policy of the Department of Homeland Security.
On Aug. 4, 2001, Mohammed al-Kahtani, who is believed to have been tasked to take down the plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, arrived at Orlando International Airport on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London.
“He had come to Florida on a martyrdom mission for al-Qaida,” Baker writes. “At that moment, Mohamed Atta was waiting upstairs, on the other side of border control, talking to al-Qaida’s man in Dubai on a pay phone, demanding to know where the new arrival was.”
Atta was a ringleader of the 9/11 plot and would crash American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.
Like all passengers from abroad, Kahtani had to pass through Customs. When he strode to the immigration booth, Kahtani told the officer he spoke no English. He had left his customs and arrival form blank.
“Little things, but they made the officer suspicious,” Baker says.
In four years at the Orlando airport, this was the first Saudi she had encountered who did not speak at least a bit of English. She sent him to secondary inspection, where an experienced officer from what is now U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be prepared to ask a few more questions.
“That’s when Kahtani met Jose Melendez-Perez,” says Baker, who interviewed him for the book. “Melendez-Perez is a quiet man with glasses and a mustache,” he writes. “He’d been in the military for 26 years as an enlisted man in the Army before starting a second career as a border inspector.”
Melendez-Perez called Kahtani into the interview room. Kahtani was well-groomed, with short hair, a thin mustache, a black long-sleeved shirt, black trousers, and black shoes.
As they made eye contact, Kahtani began behaving suspiciously.
“He gave the inspector a long stare with more than a hint of arrogance in it,” Baker says. “Kahtani wasn’t happy. He’d been cooling his heels in secondary inspection, and he was already impatient.”
Through a translator on a speakerphone, Melendez-Perez began asking him questions.
“Why don’t you have a return ticket?” Melendez-Perez asked.
Kahtani made it clear he resented the question. He displayed anger by waving a finger in Melendez-Perez’s face.
“Where are you going when you leave the United States?” the officer asked.
“I don’t know; a friend is coming to the U.S. to travel with me,” he said.
“And when will the friend arrive?” Melendez-Perez asked.
“In three or four days,” the Saudi replied.
“And what is the purpose and length of your visit?” the officer asked.
“I’ll be here for six days. I’ll travel around the United States with my friend,” Kahtani said.
That made no sense, Melendez-Perez thought. Why would the Saudi wait around for his friend for three or four days if the whole stay would be just six days?
“It was clear that he was upset,” Melendez-Perez told Baker. “He didn’t have answers to my questions, so he started to get aggressive.”
Unfazed, Melendez-Perez kept pressing.
“And where will you stay?”
“At a hotel.”
“Won’t it be hard to stay at a hotel if you don’t have a reservation and don’t speak the language?”
“I’ve got a friend upstairs waiting for me,” Kahtani told him, changing his story.
“And what is your friend’s name?”
“Actually, I’m going to call my friend once I’ve found a place to stay.”
“So, what’s your friend’s phone number, then?” Melendez-Perez asked.
“That’s none of your business,” said Kahtani. “It’s personal. There’s no reason for you to contact him.”
“How are you going to pay for your hotel and your travel and your flight home?” Melendez-Perez asked him.
Kahtani had $2,800 in cash and no credit cards. That would not cover a one-way ticket to Dubai booked on short notice, plus a hotel and meals for six days.
“My friend is going to bring me some money,” Kahtani said.
“Why would he bring you money?” the officer asked.
“Because he is a friend,” said Kahtani.
“How long have you known this person?”
“Not too long,” said Kahtani.
By now, an hour had passed.
“Kahtani must have known that his answers weren’t satisfactory, but he didn’t seem to care,” Baker writes. “In the end, he expected to be admitted no matter what he said. After all, his papers were in order. A search of his luggage had turned up empty. Melendez-Perez had nothing concrete, just a bunch of answers that he didn’t like.”
As a rule, that would be enough reason for him to send Kahtani back home.
“But Kahtani was a Saudi,” Baker says. “And as far as Melendez-Perez knew, no Saudi had ever been turned away by a border inspector. The Saudis who came to the United States “knew they were going to get taken care of,” Melendez-Perez told Baker.
The United States wanted Saudis to feel welcome when they came to this country.
“They were good for business, and anything that made them uncomfortable would provoke criticism from the tourism industry,” Baker says. “And they had clout.” Saudi diplomats “were wired in Washington, and unhappy Saudi tourists were quick to call the embassy. In fact, Washington had already made the front-line border supervisors nervous about anything that hinted at cultural insensitivity or discrimination.”
When he started work in Miami, “I got instructions about arriving flights with Saudi passengers,” the officer says. “We were told, ‘Don’t do anything to offend Saudi passengers.’ When a flight with a lot of Saudis would arrive in Miami, the line supervisors would get nervous. They would tell the officers, ‘Make sure you treat these people well and follow protocols for them.’”
In Orlando it was the same story.
“Even the supervisors were nervous about how Saudi passengers are greeted,” Melendez-Perez said. “No one was into refusing Saudis.”
Melendez-Perez stepped out of the interview room to check Kahtani’s records on a computer. As he stood by the computer, one of his co-workers walked by.
“Hey, you’re trying to refuse a Saudi,” he said. “Are you crazy? You’ll get in trouble for that.”
Melendez-Perez decided to chance it. Since Kahtani was a Saudi, Melendez-Perez knew he would have to obtain support from a supervisor to eject him. The supervisor was willing to approve the request to reject him, but only if he could find someone to back him. He called the assistant area port director at home. The man asked to talk with Melendez-Perez. Why was he pushing the issue so hard? He asked. The officer explained his suspicions, but given that the man was a Saudi, that was not enough.
“He needed something more, a clear bureaucratic line of defense, not all this talk about Kahtani’s ‘chilling’ demeanor and unconvincing answers,” Baker says.
The assistant port director found what he needed. He quoted the immigration law, which says that an applicant for admission may be required to state under oath any information sought by an immigration officer regarding the purposes and intentions of the applicant in seeking admission to the United States.
According to what Melendez-Perez told Baker, the assistant port director suggested that he put him under oath. If Kahtani continued to refuse to answer questions, that would be clear grounds for rejection.
Recognizing that he was being exactly the same questions all over again, Kahtani refused to answer questions under oath. Threatened with detention, he agreed to withdraw his application to enter the U.S. Ninety minutes later, Kahtani was on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow. Before he left, he cockily said to Melendez-Perez, “I’ll be back.”
For the first time during their encounter, he spoke English. No one thought to call the FBI. Mohamed Atta left the airport that day without his soldier.
“Five weeks after Kahtani was sent home, Flight 93 took off with four hijackers on board,” Baker writes. “Every other hijacked flight that day had a team of five.”
Recognizing their plight, passengers on board United Flight 93 stormed the cockpit. The hijackers decided to crash the plane in a field near Shanksville, Pa. If the fifth hijacker had been on board, the terrorists would have been able to keep the passengers at bay, Baker says. The hijackers’ likely target was the Capitol in Washington.
As it turned out, Kahtani did return to the U.S., but in shackles. He was captured in Afghanistan as an enemy combatant in 2002.
While Melendez-Perez testified before the 9/11 commission, he did not tell the entire story of what happened in Orlando.
The episode should be a wake-up call as the Obama administration tries to roll back the clock to the politically correct atmosphere that existed before 9/11. Calling terrorism “man-caused disasters” and outlawing the terms “Islamists” or “jihadists” in describing the enemy is a signal to the FBI, CIA, and immigration authorities that they should tread carefully when ethnic sensitivities are involved.
Before 9/11, “The entire government knew an attack was coming — somewhere,” Baker writes. “And yet so entrenched were civil liberties and international interests that it took an act of individual courage to keep even one hijacker out of the United States in the months before the attack.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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