Video: Was there a 20th hijacker?

By MSNBC anchor
updated 9/11/2006 12:13:09 AM ET 2006-09-11T04:13:09

It remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks:  Was there a 20th hijacker?

The aircraft that hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower had five hijackers on board. The plane that hit the South Tower had five. The aircraft that hit the Pentagon had five. United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, had just four hijackers. 

“For whatever reason, they had one person who didn’t make it on time, didn’t show, whatever,” said Bill Harlow, a former spokesman for the CIA.  “It had a significant impact.  Perhaps if they had an extra hijacker, it might have had a different result.”

Just a month after 9/11, Vice President Cheney said federal authorities believed they had a would-be 9/11 hijacker in custody — Zacarias Moussaoui.  Moussaoui had been arrested in August 2001 in Minnesota on immigration charges while seeking flight training on jumbo jets. After 9/11, Moussaoui filed handwritten court motions from jail in which he called himself “the 20th hijacker.”

But to this day, there is no hard evidence that Moussaoui ever communicated with any of the 19 hijackers.  Furthermore, he showed up for flight school months after the others had completed their training.  This year, after Moussaoui was convicted of 9/11-related charges, Osama bin Laden issued an audio tape saying Moussaoui had “no connection whatsoever with the events of 9/11.” 

“We now know, based on what Bin Laden has said, that there was a 20th hijacker who was trying to come into Florida but was refused entry,” said Roger Cressey, a terrorism analyst for NBC.  “And ultimately, they relied upon the 19.  Moussaoui was not the 20th hijacker.” 

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst, agrees that Moussaoui was not part of the plot.  He says Moussaoui was “clearly a meathead, not someone they would have used for an operation that required such sophistication and secrecy.”

Most of the speculation now related to the possible 20th hijacker focuses on a Saudi Arabian man named Mohammed Al-Qahtani and a man from Yemen named Ramzi Binalshibh.  Both had problems obtaining a U.S. visa. 

A month before 9/11, Qahtani flew on Virgin Atlantic to Orlando, Fla., with $2,800 in cash and no return airline ticket.  He couldn’t answer several questions posed by immigration officials and was denied entry. 

“Some of the papers that were collected in Afghanistan … after the war began indicated he may have been one of the group that had been selected to help conduct the operation,” Scheuer said.

Had Qahtani made it through immigration in Florida on Aug. 4, 2001, the evidence suggests he would have been met by 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta, who investigators now believe was waiting in a rental car outside the Orlando airport.

As for Binalshibh, he had been a roommate of Atta in Germany.  Binalshibh is believed to have helped plan the al-Qaida terror attack in October 2000 that killed 17 American sailors on board the USS Cole.  After that attack and before 9/11, evidence collected by the 9/11 commission shows that Binalshibh tried and failed on four occasions to get a U.S. entry visa.  Binalshibh is prominently featured in a newly released 2001 videotape of bin Laden training al-Qaida associates for the 9/11 attacks.

Binalshibh and Qahtani have both been in U.S. custody for more than a year.  Despite the intelligence information the U.S. has obtained from them about the 9/11 plot, one of the 9/11 targets in Washington, D.C., has never been confirmed. 

Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back and tried to storm the cockpit.

Were the hijackers on that aircraft targeting the White House, the Capitol, CIA headquarters, or someplace else in Washington?  We will examine that unanswered question on Sunday.

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