Tuesday, January 27, 2004
The longstanding question of the identity of hijacker # 20 has been answered. Both Zacharias Moussaoui and Ramzi Binalshibh have been nominated by the media for this role, but they clearly don't fit it: The twentieth hijacker would only have been a soldier, not a pilot, and Moussaoui was being groomed for pilot duty, clearly for a later operation. Binalshibh, refused entry to the USA entirely, was originally supposed to have been pilot #4, so he wouldn't have gone as a soldier either.
It turns out hijacker #20 was to have been one Mohamed al Qahtani, who entered the USA on a one-way ticket.
Jose E. Melendez-Perez, now an inspector with the Department of Homeland Security, recounted an interview he conducted with a Saudi national, Mohamed al Qahtani, who investigators now believe was planning to meet Atta at the Orlando airport on Aug. 4, 2001. Al Qahtani had no return ticket and no hotel reservations, and he refused to identify a friend who, he said, would provide him with money and other assistance on his trip.
"The bottom line was, he gave me the creeps," Melendez-Perez said in his prepared statement, adding that his first impression was that al Qahtani was a "hit man" because of his hostile and arrogant attitude and his refusal to disclose his plans. "A 'hit man' doesn't know where he is going because if he is caught, that way he doesn't have any information to bargain with," he said. "My wife said I was watching too much movies."
Before departing, al Qahtani turned to Melendez-Perez and said, in English: "I'll be back."
The story goes on to note that American troops captured al Qahtani in Afghanistan, which means--I cheerfully note--that his boast is very nearly true, because Guantanamo Bay (where this guy almost certainly is today) is not that far away.
The story also nominates Melendez-Perez as a hero because the absence of a fifth hijacker on Flight 93 may have made a difference in the outcome of the passenger revolt that ruined the mission, and I think they may be right. And there's one more item I want to mention among the other interesting things in this story:
Under questioning from commissioners, Melendez-Perez also said that when [Mohamed] Atta attempted to reenter the United States in January 2001, his case raised enough red flags that he should have been blocked from getting in.
Let us note that Atta's entry took place right at the moment of the change of presidential administrations. I point this out not for any political purpose except for my hope that this business gets depoliticized. 9/11 was the result of a catastrophic systemic weakness in our immigration and intelligence agencies, and the fact that a key event in the plot--Atta's readmission to America--took place during a change of presidential administrations, was and is symbolic. The failures that led to 9/11 were organizational, even cultural, but not political.