A former top Homeland Security official reveals in a forthcoming book that the FBI failed to examine “stacks of boxes” of potential evidence containing the applications of thousands of young Saudi men who had applied for and received visas to travel to the U.S. around the same time as the 15 Saudi hijackers.
While the FBI says it can find no evidence of al-Qaida cells here, the agency has not looked at all the Saudi-based evidence since 9/11, warns former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin.
Ervin, who resigned early last year, says he discovered several unexamined boxes of Saudi visa applications in a storage room at the U.S. Embassy during a trip two years ago to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He was told by consular officers there that FBI agents neglected to go through the boxes and pull the files to see if there might have been any connections — tribes, families, villages, occupations, addresses, phone numbers and so on — between those applicants and the hijackers.
Even in the aftermath of 9/11, “predictably, the FBI fell woefully behind in vetting these applications,” Ervin says in the galley proof of his soon-to-be-released book, “Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable To Attack” (Palgrave MacMillan). The FBI missed clues to the first World Trade Center terror plot in 1993 because they were buried in boxes of unexamined evidence from an earlier terror case.
Ervin says a team of FBI agents did visit the embassy in the months after the 9/11 attacks and asked the consular section to pull some of the files.
But for some unexplained reason, he says the agents left the embassy in Riyadh without examining the thousands of other applications stored in the stacks of boxes, even though Saudi Arabia is a known al-Qaida hotbed.
“As I write these words today,” Ervin says on page 45 of the galley copy I’ve obtained, “these applications have yet to be examined, and the more time goes by, the less potentially useful any intelligence they might contain will be.”
Even when the FBI has screened visa applicants, it hasn’t done it fast enough to weed out terrorist suspects and prevent them from entering the U.S.
For example, in the months after 9/11, the FBI and CIA scoured the visa applications of all males between the ages of 16 and 45 from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries for any terrorist connections, Ervin says. They found some 200 applicants with terrorist ties.
But by the time they made the connections, the State Department had already issued the men their visas, he says. The department duly revoked the visas, but it was too late — the men had already entered the U.S.
“Our government had no idea whether any of these terrorists were still in the country, and if so, where,” Ervin says. “It is possible that all 200 of them are in America somewhere today, waiting for just the right moment to launch another attack.”
Osama bin Laden recently warned that al-Qaida is making final preparations for another massive attack on America. Assuming the terrorist kingpin isn’t bluffing, experts say, he could have terrorist cells secreted inside American cities.
While the FBI says it’s found no evidence of such terror cells here, it also said much the same thing before the 9/11 attacks. And Ervin points out that the bureau nonetheless figures there are at least 1,000 al-Qaida sympathizers in the U.S. today — a number that he calls “low.” It’s possible there are thousands of sympathizers supporting and facilitating hundreds of terrorist operatives inside the U.S., he fears, and the FBI has yet to make the connections.
“It’s safe to say, then, that a not insignificant number of suspected terrorists are known to be in the country today,” he says.
Ervin speculates that the FBI chose not to examine the other Saudi visa applications because “doing so was too much trouble.”
Asked about it, FBI spokesman Bill Carter says it’s the first he’s heard of any unexamined boxes of Saudi visa applications. He says generally it’s the State Department’s duty to check out visa applicants, and the FBI plays only a minor supporting role in the process.
“The State Department is usually responsible for the processing of visa applications. And generally what happens in that regard is there’s a name-check process,” Carter says. “In other words, they would send the names over to the FBI, and we run it through our case files to determine if there’s anything in the FBI databases that would preclude or prevent that individual from coming into the United States.”
“But,” he adds, “I’m not familiar with the fact that there are boxes that remain unreviewed.”
Carter says the FBI’s legal attache office in Riyadh — which has come under fire recently — may have been involved initially in reviewing the visa files. But he maintains it was not ultimately responsible for running down terror leads on Saudi individuals after 9/11. “Most of what that [office activity] had to do with was tracking financial issues with regard to support of terrorist groups,” Carter explains.
FBI agents in Washington have complained that they received little help after 9/11 from the bureau’s office in Riyadh, which was run by two Muslim agents. One, Egyptian-born Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, says they were understaffed and hobbled by an antiquated computer system.
But he and his boss Wilfred Rattigan, a black convert to Islam, nonetheless found time to travel to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage, where they surrendered their FBI cell phones to Saudi nationals and were out of contact with officials back in the U.S. who were trying to ring them up about investigations into al-Qaida and 9/11.
Both Rattigan and Abdel-Hafiz, who have since been reassigned within the bureau, wore traditional Muslim headgear and robes while on the job in Saudi Arabia, further annoying fellow agents.
When a senior FBI supervisor paid a visit to the Riyadh office nearly a year after 9/11, she found secret documents strewn about the office, some even wedged between cabinets. She also found a huge backlog of boxes each filled with three feet of paper containing secret, time-sensitive leads. Much of the materials, including information on Saudi airline pilots, had not been translated or reviewed.
Ervin, now a homeland security expert at the Aspen Institute in Washington, insists that someone in law enforcement — whether the FBI or an agency within DHS — still needs to review the unexamined boxes sitting in the embassy in Riyadh.
“Why hasn’t anyone from the Department of Homeland Security bothered to look through them to see whether there might be links between any of those applicants and any of the hijackers?” he complains in his book.
DHS, for its part, says it has introduced a program meant to add another layer of security to State’s visa application process. Two years ago, under the Homeland Security Act, it deployed so-called Visa Security Officers (VSOs) to Saudi Arabia, still a hotbed of terrorism, to review applications for people who could be considered national security threats.
But the Saudi program has been plagued with problems. The Government Accountability Office last year reported that officers assigned there are spread too thin by a heavy workload. And the case volume is expected to grow. Reportedly, the administration recently agreed to a request by the Saudi royal government to ramp up the number of student visas issued to Saudi nationals, a process that was slowed after 9/11.
Making matters worse, only one of the first 10 VSOs sent to Saudi Arabia could speak Arabic. “Needless to say,” Ervin says, “the officers’ effectiveness was severely limited by their inability to speak and read the language of the visa applicants.”
While it remains unclear how many other Saudi terrorist suspects have received visas to travel to the U.S., authorities have identified several Saudi nationals associated with the hijackers or al-Qaida, or both, who are still at large and may pose a potential threat to America. Here are a few:
Ali Abd al Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi: Originally a candidate for the 9/11 operation, he was held in reserve by bin Laden for a later, even larger operation. He was recently given amnesty by the Saudi government.
Saud al-Rashid: He also trained for the suicide mission. Photos of him were found with those of three other hijackers. Saudi authorities released him from custody in 2002.
Adnan al-Shukrijumah: U.S. investigators consider the former Florida resident — a.k.a. “Jafar the Pilot” — to be “the next Mohamed Atta.” The Saudi national, who conspired with dirty-nuke suspect Jose Padilla, was last spotted in Central America.
Ervin warns that al-Qaida is “bound and determined to hit us again, and even harder than last time.”