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Agent cites 'sixth sense' in denying man's entry into U.S.

Saudi among suspects who may be so-called 20th hijacker

U.S. customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez says he was suspicious when a young Saudi tried to enter the United States in August 2001.
U.S. customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez says he was suspicious when a young Saudi tried to enter the United States in August 2001.

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(CNN) -- Five weeks before 9/11, a U.S. customs agent was questioning a young Saudi trying to enter the United States at Orlando International Airport.

The well-dressed man with military bearing told the agent he was in Florida for a six-day vacation -- normal enough for someone arriving in the hometown of Walt Disney World.

But something didn't make sense, agent Jose Melendez-Perez said Tuesday as he recalled the encounter on CNN's "American Morning."

U.S. officials now say Melendez-Perez had reason to be concerned.

The Saudi, identified as Mohammed al-Qahtani, is among a handful of suspects who may have been the so-called 20th hijacker in the September 11, 2001, attacks, a senior U.S. official said.

The customs agent said the way al-Qahtani looked at him when they met and how he carried himself during the 90-minute interview made him think the man was hiding something.

"He seemed like a military person or a person who had received some military training," the agent said Tuesday.

Through an interpreter, al Qahtani said he didn't have hotel reservations or a ticket for a return flight home, the agent said. He told the agent he was meeting a friend -- but not for a few days. And during the interview, he changed answers to some of his questions, Melendez-Perez said.

"My first instinct was just that sixth sense that something wasn't right, that the guy was hiding something, that the guy was coming to do harm in some way," Melendez-Perez said.

"This doesn't make any sense, that he's going to wait for somebody for three or four days when he was coming for a six-day vacation."

Melendez-Perez put al-Qahtani on a plane back to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, denying him entry into the United States.

"My first belief, impression, when he said he didn't have a return ticket [was] that he was a hit man," Melendez-Perez said, "because a hit man doesn't know where he is going. That way if he gets caught he doesn't have anything to bargain with."

Officials suspect that al-Qahtani came to Florida in August 2001 so he could prepare to board United Airlines Flight 93. On September 11, that plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers overpowered the hijackers.

Flight 93 was the only one of the jets overtaken by four hijackers that day. The two that hit the World Trade Center in New York and the one that slammed into the Pentagon outside Washington each had five, leading officials to suspect that a 20th hijacker was planned.

Al-Qahtani later was captured fighting with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He is in custody at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the American government has been interrogating detainees and deciding whether they will face military tribunals or be released.

As of last month, al-Qahtani had not provided much information to his interrogators, officials said.

Melendez-Perez testified January 26 before the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks.


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