How an Orlando inspector stopped the fifth hijacker on Flight 93

Remembering a local hero on Sept. 11

Jose Melendez-Perez, testifying before the 9/11 Commission in 2004. The Orlando Border Patrol agent is credited with stopping the 20th hijacker before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (File photo/WKMG)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Three years after Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a U.S. immigration inspector working at Orlando International Airport was honored for his actions when he stopped the 20th hijacker from entering the U.S.

Jose Melendez-Perez, a Vietnam veteran, is credited for helping save the White House or the U.S. Capitol, because the man he stopped, Mohamed al-Qahtani, would have been the fifth hijacker on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania, but he never made it on.

Tuesday marks the 17th year since four U.S. planes were hijacked by 19 terrorists which resulted in the deaths of  2,977 people in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

News 6 and is retelling the story of what inspector Jose Melendez-Perez did, just by following his instincts and protocol, that earned him international recognition for stopping the 20th hijacker from entering the U.S.

Saudi-born Mohamed al-Qahtani arrived at OIA on Aug. 4, 2001 on board a Virgin Atlantic jetliner carrying $2,800. At the time, Melendez-Perez was a immigration inspector for Immigration and Naturalization Service, which later became part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Melendez-Perez questioned al-Qahtani, but after the visitor refused to answer some questions, couldn’t produce a return ticket and had no specific plans for his visit to the U.S., Melendez-Perez put him back on a plane to Dubai.

It wasn't until January 2004, while Melendez-Perez was testifying before the 9/11 Commission that he and the public learned al-Qahtani would have been the fifth hijacker on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania.

Flight 93 was the only Sept. 11 flight that had four hijackers aboard, the three other planes all had five.

[Watch the 2004 News 6 report below after the 9/11 Commission hearing]

Melendez-Perez was told during the commission testimony that 9/11 planner, Mohammed Atta, was at the Orlando International Airport the same day as al-Qahtani and was probably there to meet him. Officials tracked Atta's credit card records to figure out he was at OIA. Atta made two phone calls to the Middle East from a payphone at the airport, apparently to check up on the missing passenger.

[Related: Kids of United Flight 93 heroes carrying on fathers' legacies]

Federal investigators said on Jan. 19, 2004, that the planned 20th hijacker had never resided in the U.S. and when he did try to enter the country, he was put back on a plane and deported. Newsweek was the first to detail how the 20th hijacker was turned away by the Orlando agent.

At the time al-Qahtani was sent back to Dubai, there was no sign he was connected to terrorism, according to Newsweek.

“The bottom line was, he gave me the creeps," Melendez-Perez said in his description of al-Qahtani.

The agent remembered that he thought of al-Qahtani as a possible hired assassin.

“A ‘hit man’ doesn’t know where he is going because if he is caught, that way he doesn’t have any information to bargain with … My wife said I was watching too much movies," Melendez-Perez said.

Al-Qahtani’s final words to Melendez- Perez were chilling, when he said “I’ll be back.”

By the time Melendez-Perez was testifying at the hearing, al-Qahtani was in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay after being captured near Tora Bora on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in December 2001, but they still hadn't connected him to the 9/11 attacks.

A National Park Service Ranger presents a wreath at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the 16th Anniversary ceremony of the September 11th terrorist attacks in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Officials were able to put it all together in 2002 when al-Qahtani's fingerprints were analyzed after his capture and internment in Cuba and compared with information from his attempted entry in the U.S. 11 months before. At Guantánamo, al-Qahtani was known as Detainee 063.

During a July 2005 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, investigators said al-Qahtani had finally admitted he was supposed to be the 20th hijacker and that he had extensive knowledge of the 9/11 plot.

However, on the same day as that hearing, Time magazine revealed that interrogators at Guantánamo were able to get the information out of al-Qahtani only after using inhumane interrogation techniques. The story came to light after Time gained access to an 84-page secret interrogation logbook never meant to leave Camp X-Ray. Time eventually published the entire log on the Internet for the March 3, 2006 edition of the magazine.

Three years after Sept. 11 Melendez-Perez went on to work as an inspector for the newly formed Customs and Border Protection section of Homeland Security. He still lives in Orange County.

About the Authors:

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise