There is a story put about by the 9/11 Commission that when 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar obtained US visas in April 1999 , they had not yet been selected for the 9/11 operation. Although this is a fourth-hand account of information allegedly tortured out of a detainee who was demonstrably lying some, if not most of the time, and is contradicted by other evidence, it has gained some currency. I was most displeased to see the claim repeated in James Bamford’s new book The Shadow Factory , which motivated me to write this up.
The key paragraph in the 9/11 Commission report (p. 155) says:
Bin Ladin also soon selected four individuals to serve as suicide operatives: Khalid al Mihdhar, Nawaf al Hazmi, Khallad, and Abu Bara al Yemeni. During the al Matar meetings, Bin Ladin told KSM [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] that Mihdhar and Hazmi were so eager to participate in an operation against the United States that they had already obtained U.S. visas. KSM states that they had done so on their own after the suicide of their friend Azzam (Nashiri’s cousin) in carrying out the Nairobi bombing. KSM had not met them. His only guidance from Bin Ladin was that the two should eventually go to the United States for pilot training.
The endnote for this section of the report is quite long:
For the four individuals, see Intelligence report, interrogation of KSM, Aug. 18, 2003. Abu Bara al Yemeni is also known by the names Abu al Bara al Taizi, Suhail Shurabi, and Barakat. Ibid. KSM has also stated that he did not learn of the selection of Hazmi and Mihdhar for the planes operation until November 1999. Intelligence report, interrogation of KSM, Apr. 2, 2004. For Mihdhar’s and Hazmi’s eagerness, see Intelligence reports, interrogations of KSM, Jan. 9, 2004; Feb. 20, 2004 . For Bin Ladin’s instruction, see Intelligence report, interrogation of KSM, Feb. 20, 2004. Hazmi obtained a B-1/B-2 multiple-entry visa issued at Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 3, 1999; Mihdhar obtained the same type of visa at the same location on April 7, 1999. DOS records, NIV applicant details for Hazmi and Mihdhar, Nov. 8, 2001. Hazmi and Mihdhar both obtained new passports shortly before they applied for visas. FBI report,”Summary of Penttbom Investigation,” Jan. 31, 2003, p. 9.
There is one clear problem here: KSM was tortured and this claim is a claim produced by torture, rendering it unreliable. The statements made by KSM were obtained using techniques such as waterboarding and the CIA itself did not believe half of what he came out with; one of the analyses on his interrogations was called “Precious Truths, Surrounded by a Bodyguard of Lies,” and a CIA manager later said that up to 90% of the information he gave up may have been crap.
Second, as we can see from the two excerpts, KSM variously claimed that he first learned Almihdhar and Alhazmi would work on the plot in the spring of 1999 (main text) and in November 1999 (endnote). These claims are mutually exclusive, as he cannot have learned this information for the first time twice. Given that he clearly lied about this specific issue, why should we believe either one of his claims?
Third, look at the timeline given. KSM says that they were inspired to get US visas by Azzam’s martyrdom, but this happened on 7 August 1998 , eight months before they obtained the visas. If they were so excited about Azzam murdering 200 people in Nairobi, why wait a full eight months to get the visas?
Fourth, check KSM’s substitution for testimony at the Moussaoui trial . On page 4 KSM says that the meeting the 9/11 Commission report mentions was in “March or April” of 1999. March would mean it was before Alhazmi and Almihdhar obtained visas.
Fifth, KSM has a reason to lie. Alhazmi and Almihdhar presumably received help in Saudi Arabia from al-Qaeda sympathisers when they went to get their US visas. If discovered by the authorities, it would certainly be worse for these sympathisers if they were helping two terrorists who had already been tipped for 9/11, better for them that the two hijackers only had a vague antipathy towards the US, but no specific plan that they could be told.
Sixth, the 9/11 Commission did not speak to KSM directly, it read CIA reports about interrogations of him; however, these interrogations were not focused on the genesis of the attacks, but on future plots. The commission asked follow up questions through the CIA and got the detainees tortured all over again , but this procedure was less than satisfactory . The claim Alhazmi and Almihdhar applied for US visas of their own volition was passed from bin Laden to KSM to the CIA to the 9/11 Commission. Even if one were to claim bin Laden always speaks the truth (he doesn’t), there would be plenty of scope for the “Chinese whispers” effect.
Finally, Alhazmi obtained his visa on the very same day that Khallad bin Attash, one of the other operatives selected for plot, also applied for a US visa, in Sana’a, Yemen. The 9/11 Commission Report says (same page 155):
When Khallad applied for a U.S. visa, however, his application was denied. Earlier in 1999, Bin Ladin had sent Khallad to Yemen to help Nashiri obtain explosives for the planned ship-bombing and to obtain a visa to visit the United States, so that he could participate in an operation there.
The source for this is again an interrogation of bin Attash , so may be unreliable as “enhanced techniques” may have been used to obtain it. However, the fact of the visa application is confirmed by State Department records. Given that bin Attash was a member of a terrorist organisation strongly opposed to US foreign policy, the statement that he applied for a US visa to participate in an operation there is certainly plausible. After all, he wasn’t going to Disneyland.
I just can’t believe that Khallad applied for a US visa at bin Laden’s direction at the same time as Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Alhazmi’s brother Salem happened to apply for US visas allegedly as a result of something that happened eight months earlier. Given that Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Khallad were selected for the same mission by bin Laden around this time, this is just too big a coincidence to accept–Almihdhar and Alhazmi must have already been selected by bin Laden for the operation.