- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Accused terrorist mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has told investigators that al Qaeda chose so many Saudis to carry out the September 11 attacks partly because it was an easy place to get visas, a Saudi official said.

Al Qaeda leaders “felt that the nationality that would not ring a bell when it came to security screening at that time would be Saudis,” the Saudi official told reporters in Washington this week, on the condition that he not be identified.

A diplomat with direct knowledge of the interrogations confirmed the Saudi official’s account.

Fifteen of the 19 Islamic militants who crashed planes onto the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania in 2001 were Saudis.

At least two other Arabs who planned to take part in the attacks — Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni, and Zakariya Essabar, a Moroccan — were denied visas, in Binalshibh’s case five times. Binalshibh is now in U.S. custody, but Essabar is still at large.

The Saudi official added that Mohammed said the plotters also hoped to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and turn U.S. public opinion against the Persian Gulf kingdom.

“[The choice was made for] political reasons. They wanted to hit Saudi Arabia as much as the United States. They knew the ramification this could have on the relations between the two countries … on American public opinion,” the official said.

The official pointed out that though most of the hijackers were Saudis, only one of the pilots was Saudi. “They were not happy that they did not have enough time to train Saudis to be able to fly the aircraft,” the official said.

Mohammed, who had identified himself in an interview with Al Jazeera television as the chief operational planner for the attacks, was seized in Pakistan this year and is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.

The Saudi official said he had learned of Mohammed’s comments from U.S. officials.

No U.S. officials with knowledge of Mohammed’s interrogation would confirm the Saudi’s account, but a diplomat, who has direct personal knowledge of the intelligence gleaned from it, said the account was accurate.

The diplomat said Mohammed had also provided a third reason for the preponderance of Saudis among the hijackers.

“It was easy to recruit Saudis,” he said Mohammed told his interrogators, “because of the general resentment [there].”

Prior to September 11, Saudi Arabia was one of several countries where the “Visa Express” program operated. It granted visas to Saudis without requiring interviews with U.S. Foreign Service officials.

New regulations stipulate that every Saudi adult male who wants to come to the United States must be interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed, and decisions about whether to grant a visa are now reviewed by Homeland Security officials.

• Anwar Iqbal contributed to this report.

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