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Officials suspect detainee may be 20th hijacker

Guantanamo Bay prisoner reportedly not talking to investigators

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a March 2002 photograph.
Detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a March 2002 photograph.

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One of a handful of men suspected of being the 20th 9/11 hijacker was turned away by immigration officials in Florida prior to the attacks. WKMG's Louis Bolden reports (January 21)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A prisoner at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is among a handful of people suspected of being the so-called 20th al Qaeda hijacker planned for the September 11 attacks, according to U.S. officials.

A senior official said the detainee, known as al-Qahtani, is "one of a half dozen or so individuals" whom investigators suspect the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, may have planned to put on United Airlines Flight 93.

That plane crashed into the fields of rural Pennsylvania near Shanksville after passengers overpowered the hijackers.

Speculation of a possible 20th hijacker emerged immediately following the terrorist attacks. Four hijackers were aboard Flight 93, while five hijackers were on the three other planes, which hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington. (Full story)

Al-Qahtani (whose full name has not been disclosed) is "not saying anything" to his interrogators at Guantanamo, an official said.

Newsweek magazine first reported that al-Qahtani was suspected to have been a potential 20th hijacker and that he was captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. immigration authorities turned the man away at Orlando International Airport in Florida in August 2001, Newsweek reported. The immigration officer who stopped him from entering the United States is expected to testify soon before the independent commission investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials said.

Government officials confirmed to CNN that there is evidence showing that Atta was at the Orlando airport at the time al-Qahtani arrived there, and that Atta made an international phone call while at the airport.

The only defendant facing prosecution in the United States in connection with the attacks is Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent in federal custody in Virginia. Authorities initially suggested Moussaoui might be the 20th hijacker. He has admitted to being a member of al Qaeda but has denied involvement in the attacks.

The case is on hold while the government appeals U.S. District Judge Brinkema's ruling barring the prosecution from pursuing the death penalty against Moussaoui and from introducing any evidence of the September 11 attacks. Brinkema imposed the sanctions on the Justice Department for refusing to make three al Qaeda captives available for testimony.

The United States considers the Guantanamo detainees to be terrorism suspects. They are housed at a facility known as Camp Delta. Most were captured in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban regime.

For more than two years, the U.S. government has been interrogating the detainees and deciding whether they will face military tribunals or be released.

Human rights groups have criticized the United States over its indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo. The U.S. government has said the interrogation of detainees has yielded important information.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two appeals over whether hundreds of terrorist suspects in secret custody are being held unlawfully. (Full story)

This month, the high court also agreed to hear the case of a U.S.-born man captured during the fighting in Afghanistan and held incommunicado and without charges. (Full story)


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