Free to do as he pleases, living out his days in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, a Syrian national who is a known associate of the 9/11 hijackers never has to worry about deportation by the U.S. government, according to an investigation by Fox Files.
With nearly 400,000 people waiting for U.S. citizenship, Daoud Chehazeh last November received political asylum for a third time after a series of bureaucratic screw ups at the federal level, according to a review of court documents and interviews with former federal and state investigators.
"It's a slap in the face to Americans, especially the victims of 9/11 and the families," said Jim Bush, who as a New Jersey state criminal investigator was part of the 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOMB. His partner in the investigation was Bob Bukowski, a now-retired FBI special agent.
"Three thousand people were murdered," Bukowski said. "(Chehazeh) was definitely part of that conspiracy. ... He facilitated the moves and protection up to the whole flight, basically, of Flight 77. Could we prove that in a court of law? No. But there are other remedies. Deport him. That's what should have been done in this case."
“This is an example of our national security policy gone mad,” Debra Burlingame, the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, said. Fox Files’ findings and the connection between Chehazeh and the Flight 77 hijackers were especially disheartening because Burlingame’s brother, Charles, was the pilot of Flight 77, which was hijacked and slammed into the Pentagon.
“This is what comes of demilitarizing the 'War on Terror' and political correctness, treating enemies with the rights of ordinary people," she said. "We owe a person like this absolutely nothing. His confederates were summarily executed by drone. This is an utterly incoherent national security policy.”
Chehazeh arrived in the U.S. in July 2000 from Saudi Arabia and quickly settled into Paterson, N.J.'s Middle Eastern community. Paterson was the launching pad for the plot, where 11 of the 19 hijackers passed through before the attacks.
In Paterson, Chehazeh met up and lived with another key facilitator of the hijackers, a Jordanian named Eyad al Rababah. The significance of the Chehazeh-Rababah support network for the hijackers in Virginia and New Jersey was first reported by Fox News in May 2011. Law enforcement sources told Fox News that revelations Chehazeh was still living in the U.S. went to the most senior levels of the FBI.
Seven months before the attacks, Chehazeh, who had no job and no known source of income, suddenly decided to leave Paterson. Along with his roommate, Rababah, the two men moved to suburban Washington, D.C., and almost immediately made contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, who was the imam at the mosque in Falls Church, Va.
Fox Files' exclusive reporting showed al-Awlaki, killed in September 2011 by a CIA drone strike in Yemen, was a guest speaker at the Pentagon five months after the 2001 attacks and that there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence suggesting the cleric was an overlooked key player in the plot.
By April 2001, beside al-Awlaki, Chehazeh's new circle of friends and neighbors included future Flight 77 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, a pilot. Chehazeh made a point to tell Rababah, even though both men later admitted to investigators they were not religious men, to go to the mosque and ask Imam al-Awlaki for work.
"Al-Rababah returns home with two of the hijackers," Bush explained. "And that's the first time, that we know of, that Daoud Chehazeh met the hijackers."
Rababah got the hijackers an apartment in Virginia. He helped them get settled. And in May 2001, Rababah drove al-Hazmi, Hanjour and two of the newly arrived muscle hijackers to Connecticut and New Jersey. The 9/11 Commission Report said that within a few weeks seven of the hijackers were living in New Jersey in a one-room apartment.
Bukowski and Bush are still haunted by a piece of evidence.
"When (Chehazeh) was arrested, in his car we found booklets, flight information from (New Jersey's) Teterboro Airport, where we know Hani Hanjour, again the pilot, practiced out of," Bush said. Chehazeh "didn't know how the hell they got there."
Bukowski and Bush say they still believe there was an unknown relationship between al-Awlaki, Chehazeh and Rababah. At least five of the hijackers were tied to these men. And it is striking that the 9/11 Commission report makes no reference to Chehazeh.
"Chehazeh was still being a little bit investigated at the time when we were interviewed by the 9/11 Commission.," Bukowski explained. "I guess they believe that Al-Rababah played, uh, was more of the leader, but we found out, no, he was more of the one that was just being told what to do."
For more than a decade, the U.S. government has spent more than half a million dollars trying to deport Chehazeh. Bush and Bukowski said Chehazeh knew how to play the system. While the FBI was on his trail after 9/11, the immigration judge was apparently in the dark about his hijacker connections. It is unknown who or what government agency dropped the ball.
In 2001, court documents show U.S. immigration judge Annie Garcy helped Chehazeh fill out his asylum application. She would eventually rule that he belonged to a social group of "people who are hopelessly in debt."
"I think it was unusual for a federal judge to grant him asylum based upon his being a member of a social group called hopeless debtors," said Andrew Napolitano, a superior court judge in New Jersey for eight years who now is a senior judicial analyst for Fox News. "The federal judge concluded that he would be tortured or killed in Syria."
Chehazeh was free to live in this country. But the case was reopened in 2007 when the FBI claimed Chehazeh was a danger to national security. Bukowski said the basis was "his connection to the hijackers."
In 2007, the Board of Immigration Appeals reopened Chehazeh's case. And this time, Chehazeh had high-powered pro bono attorneys from the New York City law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. Fox Files contacted Chehazeh and his attorneys numerous times, but they declined to provide a written statement or otherwise comment.
For now it looks like Chehazeh is never leaving the United States. Last November, the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed its decision to reopen Chehazeh's case. And on Feb. 13, the case was officially closed and entered into court records of the United States District Court District of New Jersey.
Napolitano described the Chehazeh case as closed with “clarity and finality.”
But others suspected of 9/11 connections faced very different outcomes. Rababah was deported to Jordan in 2003. And al-Awlaki was killed by drone in Yemen in 2011.
Pamela K. Browne is Senior Executive Producer at the FOX News Channel (FNC) and is Director of Long-Form Series and Specials. Her journalism has been recognized with several awards. Browne first joined FOX in 1997 to launch the news magazine “Fox Files” and later, “War Stories.”
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.