Back in the Lion's Mouth | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Back in the Lion's Mouth

When September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta entered the United States this past January 10, federal inspectors mistakenly gave him two extra months on his visa, New Times has learned.

While immigration policy dictated that Atta be allowed six months in the country after returning from a trip to Spain, inspectors at Miami International Airport gave him eight months, Immigration and Naturalization spokesman Rodney Germain said Tuesday. The wrongful visa extension allowed the Egyptian to remain legally in the United States until September 10, the day before Atta and his underlings hijacked four planes and killed thousands in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

In a remarkable display of gall, Atta made a mistake of his own: He challenged the INS on behalf of his frequent companion and fellow hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi, says Stanley Mungaray, vice president of the INS union chapter in Miami. Al-Shehhi, who is suspected of piloting the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, had been given only a six-month visa extension when he entered the United States this past January.

So Atta, with Al-Shehhi in tow, made a trip to the INS building in Miami this spring and complained that his friend should also have been given eight months, Mungaray reports.

The INS, however, refused to grant Al-Shehhi the extra time. Instead, officials reduced Atta's visa extension to six months. "Six months is the admission time given to people, and Atta got eight months," says Germain, who wouldn't provide the date of the pair's meeting with immigration officials. "Eight months was given to him by mistake, and that was corrected."

Still, this new information illustrates just how little fear Atta -- the man Osama bin Laden referred to as a "brother" on the recently released videotape -- had of the nation's immigration authority.

It also adds to the evidence that the INS bungled Atta's January 10 admission after his trip to Madrid. Atta, New Times disclosed October 18, tried to get past a primary inspector using an expired tourist visa, stating that he planned to be a student. An inspector detained Atta and sent him to a room known as "hard secondary," where he was questioned further. In the end, inspectors decided to let him into the country. INS officials have defended their decision to allow Atta's entry, but the agency's chief spokesman, Russ Bergeron, conceded to New Times that, had inspectors strictly enforced immigration laws, Atta would have been expelled.

Atta's later visit to INS headquarters provided immigration officials with a second close encounter with the terrorist, and again, the agency failed to investigate him -- despite the apparently fraudulent games he had been playing with his visa. "I guess he knew that he wouldn't get caught," Mungaray surmises. "It's just sad that he was admitted in the first place."

Adds José Touron, another INS union official: "He was daring -- he put his head right back in the lion's mouth. It's amazing they didn't take him to investigations."