History Commons Groups

March 19, 2010

The Secret Coded Indicator in 9/11 Hijackers’ Passports: ‘Holy Capital’?

The “secret coded indicator” of “terrorist affiliation” placed in some of the 9/11 hijackers’ passports by Saudi authorities appears to have been a special reference to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. Islam’s holiest city is sometimes known as “Holy Capital,” a term used to describe the passports of two of the hijackers containing the indicator in 9/11 Commission documents found at the National Archives by History Commons contributor Erik Larson.

The words Holy Capital appear in the context of the passports with the indcator in three separate 9/11 Commission documents. One document found at the National Archives refers to the passports as, “‘Holy Capital’ passports of Khalid Almihdhar and Salem Alhazmi.” Another states that a passport used by Khalid Almihdhar was “issued at ‘Holy Capital’” and makes the same claim for Salem Alhazmi’s passport. An endnote to a draft of the commission’s Terrorist Travel Monograph also says that a copy of Almihdhar’s passport “indicates it was issued in “Makkah” [Mecca] and includes the words ‘Holy Capital.’” This endnote did not appear in the final version of the monograph.

In addition, the FBI issued a statement in June 2003 linking the term “Holy Capital” to passports carried by al-Qaeda operatives. “Numerous al-Qaeda terrorists have also carried Saudi passports issued in the Holy Capital, another term for the city of Mecca,” said the bureau.

The presence of the indicator in the passports of some of the hijackers was first revealed in an endnote to the 9/11 Commission’s report:

Khalid Almihdhar and Salem Alhazmi presented passports with a suspicious indicator of Islamic extremism. There is reason to believe that the passports of three other hijackers (Nawaf Alhazmi, Ahmed Alnami, and Ahmad Alhaznawi) issued in the same Saudi passport office may have contained this same indicator; however, their passports have not been found, so we cannot be sure.

The commission’s Terrorist Travel monograph, which calls the mark an “indicator of possible terrorist affiliation,” contains more details about it. For example, it highlights the fact that this indicator had been on Saudi passports since the early 1990s:

Three terrorists who were involved with the first World Trade Center bombing reportedly traveled on Saudi passports containing an indicator of possible terrorist affiliation. Three of the 9/11 hijackers also had passports containing this same possible indicator of terrorist affiliation.

Despite this, according to the commission, nobody in the US noticed the indicator until after 9/11.

The Shadow Factory, a 2008 book by NSA expert James Bamford, revealed on page 58 that the sign was a “secret coded indicator, placed there by the Saudi government, warning of possible terrorist affiliation.”

The discovery that the indicator was probably “Holy Capital” has several implications. First, it is further confirmation that the Saudi authorities were tracking at least some of the hijackers, a claim the Saudis have made repeatedly. It also makes less likely the theory that Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi were associating with Saudi intelligence operatives, such as Osama Basnan and Omar al-Bayoumi, because they knew these operatives were rogue elements really loyal to Osama bin Laden. If the Saudis were tracking the hijackers, the proximity of Saudi operatives to them would logically seem to be part of these tracking efforts. What precisely these tracking efforts consisted of, and why they failed are yet to be explained.

In addition, the 9/11 Commission must have known that the indicators were placed there by the Saudi authorities, but omitted to mention in its final report, staff statements, monographs and at its hearings.

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