- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

At least three and possibly more people thought to be part of the September 11 terror attacks did not get into the United States because consular officers refused their applications for a visa.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the investigation said on the condition of anonymity that Yemeni national Ramzi Binalshibh was identified in September after he told an Al Jazeera television how he repeatedly was frustrated in his efforts to enter the United States. And German federal authorities said a second member of Binalshibh’s terror cell in Hamburg, a Moroccan by the name of Zakariya Essabar, was supposed to take his place but also was refused a visa.

However, this is the first time it has been revealed that these two weren’t the only plotters to be refused a visa.

“It was not denied for any special reason,” said the official of the third application, adding that officials “didn’t like the look of the paperwork,” and had refused to grant a visa on the grounds that the applicant might try to settle in the United States.

Officials would not reveal the man’s nationality or when he attempted to get into the country; nor would they comment on what his role in the plot was thought to be. But they said more details would be disclosed next week at a public hearing of the September 11 commission when senior immigration and State Department officials are expected to testify.

“A lot will be revealed Monday,” commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said. “The public will learn things that will change the way they think about the events of that day, change the familiar narrative.” He declined to give further details ahead of the hearing.

State Department spokesman Derwood Staeben and Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra also declined to comment in advance of officials’ testimony.

Saudi officials and other diplomats said last year that the operational planner for the September 11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, had told U.S. interrogators that the plotters had decided to use Saudi nationals to carry out the plot in part because it was easier for them to get visas.

Congressional officials were told during hearings after the attacks that the screening for Saudis requesting visas was much less rigorous than those for other Arab nations.

Another U.S. official, who asked not to be named or quoted directly, also confirmed that a fourth man believed associated with the plot had been turned away at an Orlando, Fla., airport a few days before the attacks. An alert immigration inspector turned away the third man — identified by Newsweek magazine as a Saudi national named al-Qahtani — because he was dissatisfied with answers the Saudi gave to questions, the official said.

That inspector is scheduled to testify at the September 11 commission next week.

Investigators have long wondered why one of the planes hijacked was seized by only four men, when there were five in each of the other terrorist teams.

Suspicion about a 20th hijacker first focused on Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was arrested in August 2001, after telling instructors at a flight school in Minnesota that he wanted to learn how to fly a plane, but not how to land or take off. Though Moussaoui remains the only defendant charged by the United States in connection with the September 11 plot, authorities appear from court papers to have abandoned their effort to prove that he was supposed to be on board one of the four planes seized that day.

Reports last year said that Mohammed had also told his interrogators that the original September 11 plot had involved suicide hijackings aimed at targets on the West Coast, but that those plans had to be abandoned.

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