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Context of 'September 14, 2001: Revealed: Saudi Students May Attend Florida Flight Schools Without Background Checks'

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In the wake of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (see June 25, 1996), the Saudi government continues to stonewall about their knowledge of radical militants in the country. Official inquiries about bin Laden go unanswered and the Saudis give no help to a US probe about the bombing. But often the US does not even ask the Saudis questions for fear of upsetting the Saudi government. Former US officials will later claim that even after the bombing, the CIA instructed officials at its Saudi station not to collect information on Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia. (Kaplan, Ekman, and Latif 12/15/2003) It is not known how long this policy will continue, but there is evidence it continues until 9/11. In August 2001, former CIA agent Robert Baer will attempt to give the CIA a list of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but the CIA will show no interest in it (see August 2001). Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers will reportedly come from Saudi Arabia.

Salem Alhazmi.Salem Alhazmi. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]9/11 hijacker Salem Alhazmi flies from Saudi Arabia to Beirut.
Tracked by Saudis - According to the 9/11 Commission, Alhazmi’s passport has an indicator of Islamic extremism (see April 4, 1999). Such indicators are used by the Saudi authorities to track some of the hijackers before 9/11 (see November 2, 2007), so the Saudi authorities presumably register his departure.
Alleged Iran Link - The 9/11 Commission will mention this flight in a section of its report dealing with possible co-operation between Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda on travel issues (see October 8-13, 2000, After October 12, 2000, and Mid-November, 2000), but there are no direct links between this flight and Iranian operatives. The co-operation consisted of Iran allowing al-Qaeda operatives to transit Iran without stamping their passports on the way to and from Afghanistan (see After October 12, 2000), so the Commission suggests this flight may be the first step on a journey to Afghanistan. The 9/11 Commission’s statement that Alhazmi took this flight is based on intelligence reports from the NSA, mostly drafted shortly after 9/11. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 240-1, 529; Shenon 2008, pp. 370-3)
Reason for Presence in Saudi Arabia Unclear - Although several of the hijackers are in Saudi Arabia at this time to obtain visas, it is unclear why Alhazmi would be in the country, as there is no mention of him obtaining a US visa around this time. (9/11 Commission 8/21/2004, pp. 13-16 pdf file)
Returns, Leaves Again - Alhazmi leaves Saudi Arabia again on January 1, 2001, traveling to Yemen. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 10/2001, pp. 116 pdf file) He is presumably tracked by Saudi authorities as he enters Saudi Arabia after returning from Beirut and also as he leaves Saudi Arabia for Yemen.

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar enters Saudi Arabia on a flight from Sana’a, Yemen. (Bamford 2008, pp. 64) Almihdhar is on the terrorist watch list there (see 1997), and his passport contains an indicator the Saudi authorities use to track terrorists (see April 6, 1999), so the Saudis presumably register his arrival. Almihdhar likely visits the monitored Yemen hub at this time, since it is in Sana’a and his wife, baby, and other family live at the hub (see (May 26, 2001)).

After a complete air flight ban in the US began during the 9/11 attacks, some commercial flights begin resuming this day. However, all private flights are still banned from flying. Nonetheless, at least one private flight carrying Saudi royalty takes place on this day. And in subsequent days, other flights carry royalty and bin Laden family members. These flights take place even as fighters escort down three other private planes attempting to fly. Most of the Saudi royals and bin Ladens in the US at the time are high school or college students and young professionals. (Tyler 9/30/2001; Unger 10/2003) The first flight is a Lear Jet that leaves from a private Raytheon hangar in Tampa, Florida, and takes three Saudis to Lexington, Kentucky. (Steele 10/5/2001) This flight apparently takes place several hours after a private meeting between President Bush and Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US. Some think the idea of the flights were approved at that meeting (see September 13, 2001). For two years, this violation of the air ban is denied by the FAA, FBI, and White House, and decried as an urban legend except for one article detailing them in a Tampa newspaper. (Steele 10/5/2001) Finally, in 2003, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke confirms the existence of these flights, and Secretary of State Powell confirms them as well. (MSNBC 9/7/2003; Unger 10/2003) However, the White House remains silent on the matter. (Lichtblau 9/4/2003) Officials at the Tampa International Airport finally confirm this first flight in 2004. But whether the flight violated the air ban or not rests on some technicalities that remain unresolved. (Lexington Herald-Leader 6/10/2004) The Saudis are evacuated to Saudi Arabia over the next several days (see September 14-19, 2001).

In interviews with the Boston Globe, flight instructors in Florida say that it was common for students with Saudi affiliations to enter the US with only cursory background checks and sometimes none. Some flight schools, including some of those attended by the hijackers, have exemptions that allow the schools to unilaterally issue paperwork that students can present at US embassies and consulates so they can obtain visas. Saudi Arabia is possibly the only Arab country with such an exemption. (Socolovsky 7/17/2002)

Abdulaziz al-Muqrin.Abdulaziz al-Muqrin. [Source: Agence France-Presse]A suicide bombing at a housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, kills 17. Most of the victims are Muslims working in Saudi Arabia. US and Saudi officials believe the bombing was masterminded by Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, believed to be al-Qaeda’s top figure in Saudi Arabia. (BBC 12/6/2004)


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