ORLANDO, Fla – Some might call it a hunch or an instinct, the supernatural moment that stops you in your tracks.
Jose Melendez-Perez knows the feeling. After all, it was a gut feeling Melendez-Perez had 20 years ago that some believe changed the course of history and saved thousands of lives.
“That day, as long as I live, I will remember how everything unfolded,” Melendez-Perez said.
Twenty years ago, weeks before the 9/11 attacks, on Aug. 4, 2001, Melendez-Perez was working as an immigration inspector at the Orlando International Airport conducting secondary screenings.
That day would have been otherwise uneventful, except on that day, Melendez-Perez met a man he says gave him ‘the chills.’
“The first thing that came to me was that he was a hitman,” Melendez-Perez said.
“He was well dressed, in all black, with a military haircut. He kept looking into my eyes with his little, black devil eyes. I thought, ‘something is not right,’” Melendez-Perez said. “But I did not know what it was, because his passport is good, his visa was good.”
The man was a Saudi national who had not properly filled out his customs paperwork and claimed to not speak English, so, per protocol, he was sent to secondary screening for an interview with Melendez-Perez.
“This guy was staring at me giving me this dirty look, and I say, ‘something is not right with this individual,” Melendez-Perez said. “The first question I asked was, ‘Why don’t you have a return ticket?’
By law, you were supposed to have a return ticket.
“A friend of mine is coming, and he will take care of it,” the man told Melendez-Perez.
“And how long have you known this person,” Melendez-Perez asked the man.
The man told him a week.
“‘You have known this person for a week, and he wants to buy you a $1,800 ticket?’ That did not make any sense. That was the first flag,” Melendez-Perez said.
Investigators now know that Melendez-Perez was questioning Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national who was later identified as the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks.
At the time, however, all Melendez-Perez could do was trust his gut.
“The more question that I asked, the fewer possible answers that I could believe, at that time. He would not tell me the name of his friend,” Melendez-Perez said.
At the same time Melendez-Pérez was questioning al-Qahtani, the lead hijacker of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, was at OIA waiting for someone to arrive.
Investigators said Atta even used an airport payphone to dial a number later associated with the terror attacks, concerned about his missing passenger.
While Atta waited, Melendez-Perez discovered that al-Qahtani did not have a return ticket, did not have a hotel reservation, had $2,800 in cash and could not provide an explanation for his visit.
“When I was asking him questions, he got upset. He got rude,” Melendez-Perez said.“When I came out of the interview room, I told my supervisor, ‘This guy is like, you know, he’s challenging me.’”
Despite his gut feeling, the red flags would not have been enough for Melendez-Perez to deny entry to a Saudi national, who, according to Melendez-Perez, faced little scrutiny when going through customs.
“I am not sure how it is now, but back then they were almost untouchable. They are allies, you know. They got the money.”
When Melendez-Perez put al-Qahtani under oath, the Saudi national refused to answer questions. Legally, that was enough.
“When I took him to the gate, he turned to me and another immigration officer and said, in English, something to the effect of, ‘I’ll be back.’
Five weeks later, when the first plane hit the first tower, that gut feeling came back. “We were watching as the second plane came crashing, and the first thing that I did was to call the airport. I call them and said, ‘Pull the file from al-Qahtani ...and give it to the FBI.’”
Investigators now believe al-Qahtani was supposed to be among the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93, the one destined for the U.S. Capitol.
Instead of hitting their target, however, the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
While the other planes had five hijackers, Flight 93 only had four.
“That fifth person could have made a difference in power,” Melendez-Perez said, who did not even learn about the role he had played until 2004 when he was asked to testify before the 9/11 Commission.
“Your actions…may well have contributed to saving the Capitol or the White House, and all the people who were in those buildings,” 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste said at the time, to applause from the crowd, which included families affected by the 9/11 attacks. “For that, we all owe you a debt of thanks and gratitude.”
20 years later, that moment still makes Melendez-Perez emotional.
“When I was at my deposition, I had no idea that is how the people were going to respond.”
Some might call him a saint. Others may call him a hero or a lifesaver, but Melendez-Perez calls it his purpose. “I was just doing my job.”
Today, when a Customs and Border Patrol employee does something outstanding, like thwarting a terrorist or helping to prevent an attack, they can receive an anti-terrorism award named in part after Inspector Jose Melendez-Perez.
Al-Qahtani was captured in the battle of Tora Bora and later detained at Guantanamo Bay. He has been cited as the first detainee to reveal the name or pseudonym of Osama bin Laden’s courier, who eventually led the CIA to bin Laden’s hideout roughly 10 years after the attacks.
Al-Qahtani was charged with war crimes related to the 9/11 attacks, but his charges were ultimately dropped after it was revealed al-Qahtani’s interrogators tortured the 20th hijacker. Al-Qahtani is still detained at Guantanamo Bay.