9/11 – Another
By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- Late
one evening in August of 2001, Nancy Hanlon finished her shift as the
secretary at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester and headed
to C.J.'s, a downtown bar where she sometimes stopped for a drink after
In a town whose civic identity
is dominated by a paragon of straitlaced professionalism, the Mayo
Clinic, C.J.'s has always stood out. A cavelike,
beer-and-peanuts honky-tonk located two blocks from Mayo's front door,
the club's walls are lined with bright-red Bud signs, dart-team trophies,
and VFW plaques. Its patrons have long included an eclectic crowd of
local office workers and farmers, clinic patients, and members of the
dwindling tribe of Mayo doctors and support staff who steal away for
During the 1990s, C.J.'s also played host to a more rarefied clientele:
extremely wealthy visitors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
and other countries. It was this crowd of English-speaking, cognac-sipping,
cosmopolitan Arab men that attracted Hanlon on those summer nights in
2001. The men were neither especially charming nor very warm, in her
view, but they were nonetheless a source of intrigue in Rochester, where
social life often oscillates between dead slow and perfectly moribund.
They were smart, worldly, and ready for verbal sparring, especially on
matters of sex and politics. The latter was the most uncomfortable subject
of all. None of them liked America much, as it turned out.
into their world was a welcome counterpoint to the workaday
routine of her own life. As the single, 46-year-old
mother of two young daughters,
Hanlon kept very busy. Besides her job as a ward secretary
at the hospital, she was studying for her nursing degree at
a local community college.
It was nice to be able to leave it all behind for an hour
On the August night in question, Hanlon was actually hoping to run into
one particular Middle Eastern man she had encountered the night before,
an elegant and mysterious fellow named Khalid.
But Khalid wasn't there, so she took a seat at the bar next to a Saudi
man of an entirely different sort. Young, disheveled--and utterly despondent.
"I'm a Ghost"
"He was slumped over
a glass of beer," Hanlon recalls. "He
was wearing jeans and a khaki-colored plaid shirt right out of the
catalog. I looked at him and said, 'Hi,' and he looked up at me.
It was overwhelming--the despair that a person can give out! Out of
of him. His face.
"I said, 'You look like
you're carrying the whole world on your shoulders.' And he looked at
me and said, 'I am. I am.'"
His name was Mohand, he said. He would not go into the details of
his troubles, but they sounded bad. "Several times he told me to quit
talking to him, because he was a dead man," Hanlon says. "'You
are talking to a dead man,' he said. 'I don't exist. I'm a ghost.
I'm not even here, I'm dead.' I thought he was going to kill himself,
even that night."
They talked for three hours. There was no piercing his fatalism,
but the brooding man did brighten a few times when he talked to Hanlon
great big wonderful thing," in her words, that he claimed was forthcoming. "We
are really going to show your country something," she says he told
her. "Something big. It's going to be really big." She
had no idea what he meant; he was clearly distraught, and she wasn't
any of it meant anything. But each time, the spells of euphoria passed
as quickly as they came and he would be morose.
Hanlon never saw him again, and after a few days she had little time
or reason to think of him any further. The events of September 11
shocked her, but for whatever reason they never caused her to think
young man Mohand--until a year later, when every television network
nonstop documentaries and news reports dedicated to the 9/11 anniversary.
A Company Town
Even then, it was nothing she saw that prompted her to think of him.
Rather, it was what she heard. The recycled words of the terrorists
and radical clerics she heard sounded uncannily like the sentiments
Mohand and the other men at the bar had been expressing the summer
before. Hanlon contacted the FBI. Soon she found herself sitting
in the bureau's
Rochester office looking at mug shots. Finally, there he was.
"I know him," Hanlon says she told Agent David Price. "I really
know this guy. Where is he? What ever happened to him?"
"And Price said, 'Nancy,
he was on the plane. The only good thing about him is that he is dead.
He's one of the terrorists--one of
The young man's name was Mohand Alshehri, she learned. He was
22 years old and part of the team of hijackers aboard United
of Boston, the second jet to crash into the World Trade Center
Nancy Hanlon's story conjures a lot of questions, first among them
the matter of its own credibility. The most glaring objection
is the obvious
one: Rochester? How plausible is it that a member of the 19-man
terrorist cadre that carried out the 9/11 atrocities would be living
visiting Rochester, Minnesota, only weeks before the attack?
Quite plausible, actually, though the reasons why are largely invisible
to anyone unfamiliar with the exceptional history and character
of the city. That exceptional nature begins with the fact that
a company town. The company is the Mayo Clinic. Renowned worldwide
for the quality and breadth of its medical services, Mayo has
a vastly disproportionate share of the world's wealthiest and
most powerful people to southern Minnesota.
They have included some of the most important figures from various
Middle Eastern countries. Jordan's King Hussein, battling advanced-stage
cancer, ran his entire government from a suite at St. Mary's
hospital for the last year of his life. During that time, his
emblazoned with the bright green seal of the Hashemite Kingdom
of Jordan, remained parked in the cornfields at Rochester International
His wife, Queen Noor, became a familiar figure to the operators
local shops where she popped in occasionally to buy flowers and
The notion that Rochester might have been on the international
terrorism map occurred some time ago to many local residents
and to the FBI,
which for years has had two permanent agents stationed in Rochester.
9/11, they have worked closely with the local police and sheriff's
office as part of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
A thriving Middle Eastern subculture sprang up in Rochester in
the 1990s, thanks to a steady flow of patients from the region
often with large families and royal retinues in tow. Citizens
of the United Arab Emirates were the most populous group of Middle
Easterners living in Rochester in those days, but Saudi Arabian
the biggest splash in economic and cultural terms.
For decades, Mayo Clinic doctors
have seen patients from the Saudi royal family--including King Fahd,
for whom it sometimes
to Riyadh on an emergency basis. In the 1990s, young Saudi princes
who were only distantly related to the royal family (but nonetheless
on handsome monthly stipends from the House of Saud) became frequent
long-term visitors to Rochester. It was not unusual to see them
wandering the downtown shopping district, dressed variously in
suits or ankle-length white robes, blowing thousands of dollars
on expensive shoes, liquor, gold watches, and cars purchased
were sometimes surprised to look out their windows and see Saudi
women--obviously unaware that lawns are usually private property
in the U.S.--sitting
on their front yards chatting intimately, their veils billowing
in the breeze.
The Blind Sheikh
The impact of wealthy Middle
Easterners on the city's day-to-day life went beyond mere tourism.
An infrastructure of local businesses
up to serve them, including several restaurants, a grocery, a
downtown storefront prayer room, a travel agency, a real estate
an express package service specializing in deliveries to Saudi
There was something else, as well. Rochester, for reasons that
had nothing to do with the Mayo Clinic, was also a heated symbol
and al Qaeda adherents in particular. One of fundamentalist Islam's
most exalted spiritual leaders, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman--widely
known as "the
blind Sheikh"--resided in Rochester from 1998 to 2002, at
the Federal Medical Center prison.
Abdel Rahman, a diabetic with heart problems, was sentenced to
life in prison in 1996 for conspiring to blow up the United
FBI office, and all the bridges and tunnels going into New
York City. An outspoken advocate of violent action against America's
pro-Israel regime, Abdel Rahman had previously attracted hundreds
of young acolytes
to live near his homes in other cities. They came to seek his
teachings, or sometimes in pilgrimage.
Could this have happened in Rochester, too? The possibility was
surely entertained by the U.S. government, which after 9/11 turned
Federal Medical Center prison into a fortress surrounded by razor-wire
fences and roaming guards with machine guns. Alarm over the Sheikh's
presence in Rochester rose even higher when, after 9/11, Osama
bin Laden reportedly announced that he planned to free the cleric,
violence if necessary. There was talk of kidnapping U.S. officials
them for ransom. Gil Gutknecht, Minnesota's Republican congressional
representative for the First District, complained so vehemently
about the security threat posed by the blind Sheikh's presence
that Abdel Rahman was ultimately transferred to another federal
prison in April 2002.
Wary and Distant
However unmistakable its presence may have been, though, Rochester's
Middle Eastern subculture existed almost entirely outside the
prevailing Midwestern folkways of the place. Mostly the visitors
way around town without incident. Culture clashes did erupt
from time to
time. One letter to the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin
complained of how Saudi men acted at a local grocery store,
they forced their wives to walk several steps behind them.
On another occasion, a messy lawsuit was brought against a local
allegedly failing to stop sexual harassment of its maids by
Middle Eastern guests.
But for the most part, the Middle Eastern contingent made its
accommodations with the local culture--each tacitly acknowledging
the ways it
needed the other but remaining wary and distant all the same.
Somehow, Rochester never got mentioned in national discussions
about terrorism and domestic security. Even after a major al
Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who briefly attended Pan
Am International Flight Academy in Eagan--got busted in the Twin
even after it
was publicly reported that members of the Saudi royal family
had supported al Qaeda financially, there was never any public
the potential significance of the quiet little city 80 miles
south of the
metro where powerful Saudis, among others, had come and gone
for years without arousing suspicion.
As the bartenders at C.J.'s recall it, their Middle Eastern customers
in the days shortly before 9/11 came in two varieties--old ones
and young ones. The older customers seemed friendly, worldly, easygoing.
receptive to casual conversation. The younger ones, by contrast,
kept to themselves more, talking intensely in quiet voices and
chilly eye on strangers. But sometimes the younger Saudi men
would welcome a
local woman to their table and engage her in a conversational
dance that was part flirtation, part mutually curious observation of
part political debate.
The Word "Airport"
"They were from a different
culture, and I gave a certain amount of respect to that, but some of
their views were racist and ignorant," Hanlon
says. "I'd say 'Where is your wife, why don't you bring
her here?' And they would say, 'I would never bring her,
it would never happen.'
"They also made it clear
they were no friends of Americans. They had no love for us as a people
or country. Every Saudi guy in
the place would say, 'You Americans need to get out of our country, take your
and planes and get out, and you need to back off in Israel.
You are totally aligned with Israel, so you are our enemy.' I'd ask them, 'If
stand us, what are you doing here? Why are you here in
One night Hanlon met a Saudi named Khalid who was "immaculately
dressed, in a perfectly snow-white shirt with a high collar--almost
clerical. Black dress pants with a kind of sheen to them. And a gold
right on the bar."
She bantered with Khalid in the usual way, asking about his
home and family and jibing him about his absent wife. When
her own home was located near the Rochester airport--an incidental
detail in her mind--he perked up. "He just lit up like a Christmas tree," she
says. "Just the word 'airport' seemed to have some significance
for him. I was like, what? What's that all about?"
The next night Hanlon returned to the bar after work, thinking
she might see Khalid again and rekindle their conversation.
He was nowhere
found. She took a seat at the bar, next to the man she would
later identify as Mohand Alshehri.
Hanlon remembers their three-hour encounter in striking detail.
It was the way he looked as much as his words. "He just seemed like a frightened
boy," she says. "A little man, slight and frail.
Not dangerous. He was suffering and I extended myself to
Pilot's ID Card
said, 'Tell me what's wrong.' At first he was like, 'I can't
tell you, I don't want to talk about it.' He fought against
Then he kind of sighed and said, 'I've got myself into something
there is no way out.
There is no way out.'"
He wouldn't explain what he was talking about. Hanlon tried
other approaches. She asked what he did for a living.
He claimed he was a pilot. "I looked at this guy and just couldn't
see it," she says. "This disheveled wreck of a man, cheaply
dressed with matted hair--I thought he was talking about crop dusting
back in Saudi Arabia." The man saw her skepticism
and pulled some kind of pilot's identification card from
his wallet. It looked real;
his picture was on it.
Gradually he began sharing a few personal details. He had
a wife and a daughter in his country, he told Hanlon.
put my arm around him, and he let me," she says. "He just
crumpled. It was like he wanted to start crying. But
he couldn't, because he was a man. I said, 'You need to think of your
wife and children. You
are so young, whatever you've done, maybe if you go
to the authorities, even if you have to go to prison, it would still
be worth it. You still
could see your wife and your child again. You really
need to think about that.' He said, 'I am thinking about that, but
this is really the end
of the road.'
odd thing he said is, 'It has been decided. He has decided
it. It is done. It is finished, Nancy.' Which was very religious-sounding
to me. Always when I felt I was getting to him, that there was a
it was as if he'd start to argue with
himself. He'd say, 'No, it is decided, he has decided, he has
I said 'Who is He? Do you mean Allah? Has Allah spoken?' I
assumed he was talking about Allah, because it sounded so
prophetic. But today I think it was probably bin Laden."
Why a Year?
The hour grew late. Nothing she said seemed to help.
When it was time to go, says Hanlon, "He turned and took hold of my arm. The last
thing he said to me was, 'Nancy, promise me you won't forget me. And
remember the things I told you.'" He kept insisting on the last
point, she claims: "You remember what I told you."
The Rochester FBI office has declined to comment on
her story, reiterating its conventional line that the
it conducts with tipsters. Paul McCabe, the bureau's
regional spokesperson in Minneapolis,
also declined to comment on Hanlon's story, offering
only that "members
of the Joint Terrorism Task Force continue to work numerous counter-terrorism
matters and cases." (After I summarized Hanlon's claims and previewed
this feature in my weekly Rochester Post-Bulletin column last Wednesday,
the Star Tribune wrote a follow-up on Friday in which McCabe went further: "The
FBI could not substantiate the tipster's claims. We have no reason to
believe that Mohand Alshehri has ever been in Rochester, Minnesota.")
Besides the seeming incongruity
of terrorists in semi-rural Minnesota, the other inescapable question
credibility is why it took her a year to reexamine her experience and
contact the FBI.
It was only by an accident of circumstance that Nancy Hanlon
wound up telling her story to me. I grew up in Rochester,
was in my
grade at school. I lost touch with her, along with
most of my classmates, when I left town for college and a career
years later I moved back to Rochester. After I signed
up for a high school class reunion, Hanlon found my e-mail
me. She had
been reading my columns in the Post-Bulletin, the note
said, and there was a story she wanted to tell me about a
In the dozen or so meetings I had with her in reporting
this story, Hanlon could never say with any assurance
why it took
her so long
to see any
connection between her encounters at the bar and 9/11.
She admits she can't entirely explain it herself. Certainly
played a part. Never an avid reader of political news,
she was one of the people who could see no reason to
in the city she sometimes refers to, without any sense
of irony, as "little
"I Feel Sick"
Still, a year? Shouldn't bells have gone off when she
heard of the publicized Twin Cities arrest of Moussaoui?
didn't happen. The thought
didn't dawn on her until September 2002, when the media
launched their 9/11 one-year anniversary coverage.
When the possible tie did occur to Hanlon, she says,
it scared her. The aspect that haunted her most was
words ascribed to al Qaeda leaders in the media's anniversary
retrospectives and the ones she had heard from some
of the Saudi men in C.J.'s
the summer before. She realized it didn't prove anything,
but she remembers
struck by a wave of dread that only grew the longer
she thought about it.
"I was at a football
game with my kids when it really hit me. The floodgates kind of opened.
I was in the middle of a big crowd
and I just said, 'We have to go home, I feel sick.' I remembered all the conversations
had with these guys. They hated America, they said
the same things the terrorists were saying--it was all just too close. I couldn't
news and I quit reading newspapers and magazines.
Finally one day I picked up the phone and called the FBI and said, 'I think I
know these guys,
I'm sorry it took so long.'"
At the FBI office in Rochester, Hanlon says that
Agent David Price showed her photographs of dozens
particularly interested in one of them--Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, the top al Qaeda
who is believed to have masterminded 9/11 and would
later be apprehended in March 2003. But no, Hanlon
Khalid she met in the bar prior to meeting Mohand.
The Khalid at C.J.'s
was a slender man. He didn't look anything like the
no, no, no, no," she said as Price showed her photo after
photo. She couldn't positively identify any of the men shown in the
on her third and final visit to his office, Price
pulled out another file. The men in these photographs were of less
urgent concern to the
FBI, because their present whereabouts and activities
were no mystery. They had all died in the planes they hijacked on September
11. The man
she knew as Khalid wasn't there. But Mohand was.
Feelings of Guilt
Having her apprehensions confirmed only made Hanlon
more upset. After leaving Price's office, "I
got in my car and I just wept. Then I wished
I had never ever walked into that bar. I wished
it hadn't happened
crawled into bed for three days. My kids were scared."
Dr. Brandi Witt, Hanlon's family physician at the Mayo Clinic, corroborates
that Hanlon came to her in the late fall of 2002
with symptoms of depression. "She
remembered she'd spent some time with a man who she later found out was
one of the 9/11 hijackers," Witt recalls. "She
was having some feelings of guilt. She was wondering
if she should have known, or if
there was something she could have done."
Witt and Hanlon's mother, Barbara Hanlon, both
confirmed to me that Nancy Hanlon told them exactly
story in fall
me now. Barbara Hanlon adds that her daughter
was "upset and overwhelmed" at
the time, but says "she kind of shut up about it" after
her first attempts to share the experience were
rebuffed by friends.
"They looked at me like
I was nuts," Nancy Hanlon remembers. "People
just didn't want to hear about it. They didn't
want to imagine that this might have happened right here in Rochester,
Minnesota. One of my girlfriends
said, 'I wish you hadn't told me that.' Like
I'd befriended a mass murderer. But he wasn't a mass murderer when
I met him--not that I know of."
Others simply didn't believe her. There is
no material evidence to support her story,
all. She didn't
take a photograph
received no gifts or notes from him. Their
conversation was not noticed by anyone who
would recall it
later. At C.J.'s,
confirm that Saudi men frequented their establishment
until 9/11, when they
disappeared over-night. But they don't recognize
a picture of Alshehri.
A Subculture Vanishes
But if there is no proving that Hanlon's encounter
with Alshehri ever occurred, there is some
her story's plausibility. The CIA's timeline
of his whereabouts prior to
9/11, for example, has him arriving in the
U.S. in Miami on May 28, 2001. Other timelines
September 7, 2001, and the Boston Globe reported
that on September 10, he and three other hijackers
in Boston, where
they called several escort services but ultimately
made no deal. The available record of his movements
includes the month of August 2001.
The portrait that Hanlon paints of Mohand Alshehri
as a despondent waif is also consistent with
the little that's
about him elsewhere.
In testimony given by former CIA director George
Tenet to the U.S. Congress, Tenet said the
9/11 hijackers fell
Cell (including the alleged ringleader, Mohammed
al Qaeda veterans, and young Saudis. Mohand
Alshehri was in
group. Some of the
young Saudis "had struggled with depression or alcohol abuse, or
simply seemed to be drifting in search of purpose," Tenet
After 9/11--quite literally the day after, in many cases--the Middle
East Arab subculture that had flourished in
Rochester seemed to disappear altogether. No more billowing white Saudi
robes were seen downtown.
The city's shop owners bemoaned the end of
had learned to expect. The Mayo Clinic disclosed
that its international patient traffic, especially from the Middle
up. The downtown prayer room closed. So did the Arab
travel agency and
Arab real estate
The sudden change felt suspicious to some locals,
though it really wasn't. The same thing occurred
the United States as
Arab visitors of
all nationalities felt the sting of the new
public paranoia, and also of new federal policies
singled out many
closer scrutiny. Citizens of Saudi Arabia,
especially those connected to the
royal family, beat a path back home in the
days immediately after September 11, many of
on planes authorized
the rest of
the American commercial and private aviation
system remained grounded.
Perhaps the fact that the milieu she's talking
about has vanished so completely from Rochester
to believe today. She knows she can't do anything
about that. "I kept
quiet for a long time because I was asked to," Hanlon says. "The
FBI said they would appreciate if I kept the
story to myself. I always thought it would
come out some other way, that they were here.
it would come out through the FBI. Then the
years passed and no one said anything. It's
hard to believe that it has to be me.
really happened," she sighs finally. "It's real."
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report
article was originally published in the Minneapolis weekly
newspaper, City Pages, on June 30.