Visas that Should Have Been Denied
A look at 9/11 terrorists’ visa applications.
Joel Mowbray | October 9, 2002
The cover story in National Review's October 28th issue (out Friday) details how at least 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers should have been denied visas — an assessment based on expert analyses of 15 of the terrorists' visa-application forms, obtained exclusively by NR.
In the year after 9/11, the hand-wringing mostly centered on the FBI and CIA's failure to "connect the dots." But that would not have been a fatal blow if the "dots" had not been here in the first place. If the U.S. State Department had followed the law, at least 15 of the 19 "dots" should have been denied visas — and they likely wouldn't have been in the United States on September 11, 2001.
According to expert analyses of the visa-application forms of 15 of the 9/11 terrorists (the other four applications could not be obtained), all the applicants among the 15 reviewed should have been denied visas under then-existing law. Six separate experts who analyzed the simple, two-page forms came to the same conclusion: All of the visa applications they reviewed should have been denied on their face.
Even to the untrained eye, it is easy to see why many of the visas should have been denied. Consider, for example, the U.S. destinations most of them listed. Only one of the 15 provided an actual address — and that was only because his first application was refused — and the rest listed only general locations — including "California," "New York," "Hotel D.C.," and "Hotel." One terrorist amazingly listed his U.S. destination as simply "No." Even more amazingly, he got a visa.
The experts — who scrutinized the applications of 14 Saudis and one from the United Arab Emirates — include four former consular officers, a current consular officer stationed in Latin America, and a senior official at Consular Affairs (CA) — the division within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance — who has extensive consular experience.
All six experts strongly agreed that even allowing for human error, no more than a handful of the visa applications should have managed to slip through the cracks. Making the visa lapses even more inexplicable, the State Department claims that at least 11 of the 15 were interviewed by consular officers. Nikolai Wenzel, one of the former consular officers who analyzed the forms, declares that State's issuance of the visas "amounts to criminal negligence."
The visas should have been denied because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), which states that almost all nonimmigrant visa (NIV) applicants are presumed to be intending immigrants. The law is clear: "Every alien [other than several narrowly exempted subcategories] shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant [visa]." State's Deputy Press Secretary Phil Reeker recently remarked that 214(b) is "quite a threshold to overcome." It just wasn't for Saudi applicants.
Defying the conventional wisdom that al Qaeda had provided its operatives with extensive training to game the system with the right answers to guarantee a visa, the applications were littered with red flags, almost all of which were ignored. The forms were also plagued with significant amounts of missing information — something that should have been sufficient grounds to deny many of the visas. For example, while all but one terrorist claimed to be employed or in school, only on three forms is the area marked "Name and Street Address of Present Employer or School" even filled out. At the very least, the CA executive points out, "The consular officers should not have ended the interview until the forms were completed."
Any discrepancies or apparent problems that would have been resolved by way of explanation or additional documentation should have been noted in the area reserved for a consular officer's comments — yet this was only done on one of the forms. Which begs the question: Were 11 of the 15 terrorists whose applications were reviewed actually interviewed as State claims?
Though all of the 15 applications obtained by NR should have been denied, some were worse than others. Here are some of the worst:
Wail and Waleed al-Shehri
Brothers Wail and Waleed al-Shehri applied together for travel visas on October 24, 2000. Wail claimed his occupation was "teater," while his brother wrote "student." Both listed the name and address of his respective employer or school as simply "South City." Each also declared a U.S. destination of "Wasantwn." But what should have further raised a consular officer's eyebrows is the fact that a student and his nominally employed brother were going to go on a four-to-six-month vacation, paid for by Wail's "teater" salary, which he presumably would be foregoing while in the United States. Even assuming very frugal accommodations, such a trip for two people would run north of $15,000, yet there is no indication that the consular officer even attempted to determine that Wail in fact had the financial means to fund the planned excursion. They appear to have received their visas the same day they applied.
On June 18, 2001, Abdulaziz Alomari filled out a simple, two-page application for a visa to come to the United States. Alomari was not exactly the ideal candidate for a visa. He claimed to be a student, though he left blank the space for the name and address of his school. He checked the box claiming he was married, yet he left blank the area where he should have put the name of his spouse. Although he claimed to be a student, he marked on his form that he would self-finance a two-month stay at the "JKK Whyndham Hotel" — and provided no proof, as required under law, that he could actually do so.
Despite the legal requirement that a visa applicant show strong roots in his home country (to give him or her a reason to come back from America), Alomari listed his home address as the "ALQUDOS HTL JED" (a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia). Alomari didn't even bother filling in the fields asking for his nationality and gender, apparently realizing that he didn't need to list much more than his name to get a visa to the United States. As it turns out, he didn't. He got his visa.
When he arrived in the United States, he connected with his friend, Mohammed Atta. And less than three months later — on September 11 — he and Atta helped crash American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The most troubling of the applications reviewed is Hanjour's. It appears that Hanjour was the only applicant of the 15 who was initially refused — although this is not entirely clear, because the consular officers did not always circle "Issued" or "Refused" (as required by law) on the other forms. Hanjour had received a student visa in 1997 in order to study English at the ELS Language Center in Melbourne, Fla. On his first of two attempts to obtain a second visa in 2000, Hanjour requested a travel visa for the purpose of a "visit" — for "three years." An unidentified consulate employee, likely a Foreign Service national (a Saudi resident), highlighted the obvious problem with an applicant stating a desire to overstay his visa (the maximum length for a travel visa is 24 months) with an extra-long "visit." The unknown employee wrote in the comment box: "like to stay three years or more!" and circled the remark. That employee or a different one also scribbled something underneath about Hanjour's wish to find a flight school during the trip. This application was refused — but only temporarily.
On the subsequent application filed two weeks later, Hanjour was armed with all the right answers. Rather than stating "AZ, Rent home" as his U.S. location, he gave a specific address, complete with a house number and street name — the only one of the 15 applicants to have done so. On the second go-round, Hanjour applied for a twelve-month student visa, and changed the purpose of the visit to "study" and the desired length of stay to a more appropriate "one year." But so many changes, all of which smoothed out rough spots on the original application, should have troubled the consular officer. "It's never a good sign if someone cleans up his paperwork too well," comments the current consular officer stationed in Latin America.
As disturbing as the visa forms are, perhaps more disturbing is that State's handpicked candidate to be the new chief enforcer of visa policies, Maura Harty, had not even looked at them as of her Senate confirmation hearing last week — yet the Senate is poised to rubber stamp her nomination. That's a real shame, because examining the applications yields many valuable lessons. The most important is that we're not going to keep out terrorists until State figures out that it needs to enforce the law.
9/11 Terrorist Visa Applications
Hani Hanjour, 1997 (~167k file)
Hani Hanjour, 2000 (a) (~205k file)
Hani Hanjour, 2000 (b) (~169k file)
Waleed al-Sherhi, 2000 (~169k file)
Wail al-Sherhi, 2000 (~206k file)
Abdulaziz Alomari, 2001 (~259k file)