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The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Contacts With Two September 11 Terrorists: A Review of the INS's Admissions of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, its Processing of their Change of Status Applications, and its Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States

May 20, 2002
Office of the Inspector General


  1. Introduction

    On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked 4 airplanes as part of an attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, New York. Three of the planes were flown into the buildings, resulting in the deaths of over three thousand individuals, the complete destruction of the Trade Center Towers, and extensive damage to the Pentagon. The fourth plane crashed in Southwestern Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people onboard. Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian citizen, is believed to have been the pilot who flew American Airlines flight number 11 into the Trade Center's North Tower. Marwan Alshehhi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, is believed to have flown United Airlines flight number 35 into the South Tower. Both terrorists died in the attacks.

    Six months later, on March 11, 2002, Huffman Aviation International, a small flight training school in Venice, Florida, opened official documents sent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) relating to Atta and Alshehhi. Both had taken pilot lessons at the flight school. Although Atta and Alshehhi had entered the United States legally in the spring of 2000 with visitor visas, in September 2000 they had requested that the INS change their nonimmigrant status from that of "visitor" to that of "vocational student" so they could continue attending flight training school. The documents opened by the flight school on March 11, 2002, were INS I-20 forms, which indicated that Atta's and Alshehhi's requests for vocational student status had been approved. Within a day, media across the country were reporting the story, and the INS came under intense criticism. 1 In a news conference on March 13, President George Bush stated that he was "stunned" and angry after he read about the incident in the newspaper. The mailing of these forms was cited by many as a further example of why the INS needed to be radically reformed and improved.

    President Bush directed the Attorney General to investigate why the student status notifications were mailed after Atta and Alshehhi were recognized worldwide as terrorists who helped perpetrate the September 11 attacks. By memorandum dated March 13, 2002, the Attorney General requested that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conduct a "thorough review of the circumstances surrounding the [INS's] sending of documents to the Huffman Aviation International flight school of Venice, Florida, which notified the school of the approved vocational student status of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi six months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001." The Attorney General asked that the OIG's review include "not only the INS's failure to stop delivery of the notification letters but also the source of the seven-month delay in the processing of these notification letters." The Attorney General asked that the OIG's investigation and report of its findings be completed expeditiously.

    At the time the OIG received the Attorney General's request, we had already begun two reviews that were substantively related to the incident that gave rise to the Attorney General's request. The OIG was reviewing the INS's admissions of Atta into the United States. In addition, in November 2001 the OIG had initiated a review of the process by which the INS tracks and monitors foreign students who enter the United States.

    In order to provide greater context to the investigation requested by the Attorney General, the OIG expedited and completed its review of Atta's entries into the United States. We also broadened that inquiry to include the appropriateness of Alshehhi's entries into the United States. In addition, the OIG completed its review of the process by which foreign students enter the United States and are tracked and monitored by the INS. The results of these reviews are incorporated into this report.

    To conduct our review, the OIG assembled a team of three attorneys, four special agents, and three program analysts. The team conducted almost 100 interviews over a 3-week period beginning on March 18, 2002. We interviewed personnel from INS Headquarters; the INS Texas Service Center in Dallas, Texas; and the INS's Miami, New York, Newark, and Atlanta Districts, including inspectors who work at airports in these districts. We also interviewed personnel from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and three private companies, Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (ACS); Uniband Enterprises; and Huffman Aviation International.

  2. Organization of the Report

    This report is organized into nine chapters. Chapter One contains this introduction. Chapter Two provides an overview of the INS's organizational structure as it relates to our investigation, as well as background information on visitor and student visas and the change of status process.

    Chapter Three details our review of Atta's and Alshehhi's entries into the United States and our analysis of the actions of the INS inspectors who admitted them. We first provide an overview of the inspection process by which a nonimmigrant enters the country, including routine questions asked by inspectors, a description of the computer systems used by inspectors, and the secondary inspection process. We examine Atta's three entries into the United States, including his referral to the INS's secondary inspection process during his second entry, the reasons for his admission on each occasion, and our analysis of those admissions. Next, we describe Alshehhi's three entries, including his referral to secondary inspection during his second entry, the reasons for his admission on each occasion, and our analysis of those admissions.

    Chapter Four addresses the questions regarding Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications and how the notifications of the decisions on those applications were sent to Huffman Aviation six months after the terrorist attacks. This chapter also describes generally the processing of INS forms I-539s (the application for change of status) and I-20s (the form providing school and course information), and traces how the INS handled the applications and files of Atta and Alshehhi. We also describe how private contractors participated in the processing of Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status forms. We discuss the reasons that the INS took several months to process Atta's and Alshehhi's applications.

    In Chapter Five, we discuss our findings and conclusions regarding the reasons why the INS documents were not stopped from being sent to Huffman Aviation after September 11, 2001.

    The OIG's evaluation of the INS's tracking of foreign students is described in Chapter Six. We examine the INS's processes for certifying schools as eligible to receive foreign students, the INS's current process for collecting information on foreign students, and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an automated system currently being developed by the INS to track information about foreign students.

    In Chapter Seven, we examine the INS's proposed changes to the federal regulations concerning the admission of nonimmigrants, the INS's proposed changes for the foreign student program, and specific procedural and operational changes made by the INS in light of the events that gave rise to this report. In Chapter Eight, we set forth our recommendations for systemic improvements in the INS and its foreign student program. Chapter Nine summarizes our conclusions.


  1. The early criticism of the INS's actions implied that the INS had approved Atta's and Alshehhi's request to change their status after September 11. In fact, the approval had occurred several months before the terrorist attacks. It was the notification to the school that arrived subsequently.