The New York Daily News recounts Customs inspector Jose Melendez-Perez's encounter with Al-Qahtani, a man officials suspect was planning to be the 20th hijacker.
A U.S. customs inspector praised for keeping the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 plot from getting into the country told Congress yesterday that the "hostile" Saudi gave him the creeps and vowed, "I'll be back." Jose Melendez-Perez told the 9/11 Commission, the panel probing the attacks on America, that he was spooked enough by the man identified only as "Al-Qahtani" to put him on a plane out of Orlando after he arrived in the U.S. from London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with a one-way ticket and $2,800 in cash.
Al-Qahtani was dressed head-to-toe in black when he arrived on Aug. 4, 2001, a month before the Sept. 11 hijackings, Melendez-Perez said. As an interpreter grilled him about his travel plans, the "arrogant" Saudi grew visibly angry, he recalled.
"When the subject looked at me, I felt a bone-chilling, cold effect," he added.
He wondered if the Saudi was "possibly a hit man - but my wife said I've been watching too many movies."
When Al-Qahtani was ordered deported, he "turned and said in English something to the effect of, 'I'll be back.'"
Arriving the same day in the same Orlando airport, officials said, was lead hijacker Mohamed Atta. While Melendez-Perez did the right thing, commission officials said, "at least two and as many as eight" of the 19 other hijackers' papers, including Atta's, "showed evidence of fraudulent manipulation" that went undetected.
"This is an example of how a well-trained and alert inspector performed admirably in refusing admission to the United States of an individual who should not have gained entry," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commission member and former Watergate prosecutor.
"If everyone was as professional as you were, the Sept. 11 attacks would not have taken place," former chief Navy John Lehman, a commission member, told Melendez-Perez.
Incredibly, FBI agents investigating the 9/11 attacks never interviewed Melendez-Perez. An FBI source told the Daily News that Melendez-Perez escaped the bureau's attention because agents instead interviewed Al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held since his capture in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The FBI concluded in July 2002 he was probably supposed to be the fifth hijacker aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. The FBI source added that Melendez-Perez may soon be debriefed.
The commission, whose chairman is former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, also revealed yesterday that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed used a fake identity to obtain a visa on July 23, 2001, but did not use it. The congressional 9/11 inquiry previously reported that Mohammed, busted a year ago in Pakistan, visited the U.S. as late as May 2001.
The panel is looking at government agency failures across the spectrum relating to 9/11. Today, it is set to look at airline safety.