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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IMMIGRATION

Visa Dates Give Notable Hijack Clues

November 22, 2001|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities have determined that all 19 suspected hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks entered the United States legally on temporary visas issued at U.S. consulates in the Middle East and Europe, Immigration and Naturalization Service documents show.

The new data offer important clues in unraveling the mass murder scheme, providing some of the strongest evidence to date for a central investigative theory: that the conspiracy incubated with a core of Arab militants from various nations who came to the United States more than a year before the attacks, determined to inflict destruction.

It was not until this spring that 13 men, mostly Saudi volunteers with no known flight training, began arriving here at breakneck pace, presumably to carry out a finely tuned plot then nearing execution.

"What this clearly indicates is that a great deal of the planning took place outside the U.S. borders," said a Justice Department official who asked for anonymity. "Certain key individuals had come over early, probably to handle the intelligence gathering and planning that needed to be done at this end. But they didn't want to risk bringing the whole crew over too early."

The federal government has moved to tighten rules for entering the U.S. since the attack, but officials concede that no changes to date would necessarily have stopped any of the 19 suspected terrorists. That is because none had a criminal or terrorist record known to U.S. authorities when he applied for a visa.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar previously had said that authorities could not establish accurate entry dates for six of the hijacking suspects. That was in large part because of varying versions of the suspects' names on visa records and the flight manifests of the four doomed airliners.

There is still some question about whether one or more of the hijackers may have been using false or stolen identities. But investigators now have established a definitive link for the names used by the 19 to apply for visas abroad, enter the United States and then commandeer the airlines, the Justice official said Wednesday.

The hijackers' ranks appear to have consisted of 15 Saudis, two United Arab Emirates citizens, one Lebanese and one Egyptian--Mohamed Atta, whose tight-lipped photograph has come to embody the face of the plot.

On Sept. 11, 16 of the hijackers were legal visitors in the U.S. Two others had overstayed visas and a third, Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who is believed to have helped steer American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, violated his student visa by never showing up for classes.

The entry dates bolster the theory that the plot consisted of two key groups, or cells.

One included Atta and Arab associates who previously lived in Hamburg, Germany, home to a large Middle Eastern student community. The Hamburg cell spawned two other hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah of Lebanon and Marwan Al-Shehhi of United Arab Emirates. All three took pilot lessons in Florida. INS records show that the three shuttled among the United States, Europe and the Middle East in the months before the hijackings, their travel facilitated by multiple-entry visas.

Authorities say the three wound up piloting different aircraft on Sept. 11--the two jets that toppled the World Trade Center and the flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

Atta and Jarrah received visas at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, records show, while Al-Shehhi obtained his travel papers at the U.S. consulate in Dubai. Documents indicate that another alleged Hamburg plotter, Ramsi Binalshibh, from Yemen, was denied a U.S. visa. He is now a fugitive. Binalshibh also sought flight training in Florida and is now believed to have been designated as the 20th hijacker.

The second group of plotters encompassed a trio of Saudis who were primarily based in Arizona and suburban San Diego.

The three Saudis--Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi--had been in and out of the United States for years, according to visa data and interviews. Suspicions about links to terrorism prompted U.S. intelligence officials to place Almihdhar and Alhazmi on a federal law enforcement watch list in August, but agents never tracked the pair down. On Sept. 11, Almihdhar, also a trained pilot, was legally present on a visitor's visa. Alhazmi had overstayed a visa issued on his last known U.S. entry in January 2000. All three were aboard the flight that hit the Pentagon.

There is enduring mystery about how the two groups got together. Some authorities say key leaders may have met in terrorist gatherings in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but no public proof has emerged.

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