June 30, 2004

9/11 – Another Minnesota Connection?

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Late one evening in August of 2001, Nancy Hanlon finished her shift as the cardiac ward 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 work.

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 a smoke.

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.

Peering 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 or two.

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 Ward's 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 every part 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, maybe 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 about "this 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 sure 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 of the young man Mohand--until a year later, when every television network was running 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 that 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 monsters.'"

The young man's name was Mohand Alshehri, she learned. He was 22 years old and part of the team of hijackers aboard United Flight 175 out of Boston, the second jet to crash into the World Trade Center complex.
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 in or 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 Rochester is a company town. The company is the Mayo Clinic. Renowned worldwide for the quality and breadth of its medical services, Mayo has always drawn a vastly disproportionate share of the world's wealthiest and most powerful people to southern Minnesota.

Saudi Patients

They have included some of the most important figures from various Middle Eastern countries. Jordan's King Hussein, battling advanced-stage kidney cancer, ran his entire government from a suite at St. Mary's hospital for the last year of his life. During that time, his personal jetliner, emblazoned with the bright green seal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, remained parked in the cornfields at Rochester International Airport. His wife, Queen Noor, became a familiar figure to the operators of local shops where she popped in occasionally to buy flowers and gifts.

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. Since 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 who flocked to Mayo, 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 visitors made 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 even dispatched physicians to Riyadh on an emergency basis. In the 1990s, young Saudi princes who were only distantly related to the royal family (but nonetheless traveled 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 tailored Western suits or ankle-length white robes, blowing thousands of dollars on expensive shoes, liquor, gold watches, and cars purchased with cash. Local residents 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 grew up to serve them, including several restaurants, a grocery, a downtown storefront prayer room, a travel agency, a real estate firm, and an express package service specializing in deliveries to Saudi Arabia.

There was something else, as well. Rochester, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Mayo Clinic, was also a heated symbol to radical Islamists, 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 Nations, New York's FBI office, and all the bridges and tunnels going into New York City. An outspoken advocate of violent action against America's infidel, 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 the city's 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, by violence if necessary. There was talk of kidnapping U.S. officials and holding 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 in Rochester 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 made their 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, especially how they forced their wives to walk several steps behind them. On another occasion, a messy lawsuit was brought against a local hotel's management for 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 Qaeda suspect--Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who briefly attended Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan--got busted in the Twin Cities, even after it was publicly reported that members of the Saudi royal family had supported al Qaeda financially, there was never any public acknowledgment of 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. They were receptive to casual conversation. The younger ones, by contrast, kept to themselves more, talking intensely in quiet voices and casting a 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 an alien species, 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 troops 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 you can't stand us, what are you doing here? Why are you here in Rochester?'"

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 money clip 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 she mentioned that 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 to be 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 him.

Pilot's ID Card

"I 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 it. 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.

"I 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.'

"One 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 way out, it was as if he'd start to argue with himself. He'd say, 'No, it is decided, he has decided, he has spoken.' He.

"And 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 agency never discusses interviews 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 concerning Hanlon's 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, and Hanlon 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 in journalism. Twenty-eight years later I moved back to Rochester. After I signed up for a high school class reunion, Hanlon found my e-mail address and wrote to 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 guy she'd met at C.J.'s.

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 her own small-town outlook played a part. Never an avid reader of political news, she was one of the people who could see no reason to think there might be terrorists in the city she sometimes refers to, without any sense of irony, as "little old Rochester."

"I Feel Sick"

Still, a year? Shouldn't bells have gone off when she heard of the publicized Twin Cities arrest of Moussaoui? Maybe. But it 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 the uncanny resemblance between the 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 being 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 I'd 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 watch the 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 of suspected terrorists, but was particularly interested in one of them--Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the top al Qaeda operative who is believed to have masterminded 9/11 and would later be apprehended in March 2003. But no, Hanlon said, that was certainly not the 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 terrorist Khalid.

"No, 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 pictures--until, 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 to me.

"I 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 the same story in fall 2002 that she was telling 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, after all. She didn't take a photograph of Alshehri, and she received no gifts or notes from him. Their conversation was not noticed by anyone who would recall it later. At C.J.'s, the bartenders do 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 additional circumstantial corroboration of 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 show him traveling from Fort Lauderdale to Newark on September 7, 2001, and the Boston Globe reported that on September 10, he and three other hijackers stayed at the Milner Hotel in Boston, where they called several escort services but ultimately made no deal. The available record of his movements features a large gap that 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 been revealed about him elsewhere. In testimony given by former CIA director George Tenet to the U.S. Congress, Tenet said the 9/11 hijackers fell into three main groups--the Hamburg Cell (including the alleged ringleader, Mohammed Atta), al Qaeda veterans, and young Saudis. Mohand Alshehri was in the third group. Some of the young Saudis "had struggled with depression or alcohol abuse, or simply seemed to be drifting in search of purpose," Tenet told Congress.
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 the lavish shopping sprees they had learned to expect. The Mayo Clinic disclosed that its international patient traffic, especially from the Middle East, had dried up. The downtown prayer room closed. So did the Arab travel agency and the Arab real estate company.

The sudden change felt suspicious to some locals, though it really wasn't. The same thing occurred all over the United States as Arab visitors of all nationalities felt the sting of the new public paranoia, and also of new federal policies that singled out many Middle Easterners for 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 them on planes authorized for takeoff while the rest of the American commercial and private aviation system remained grounded.

"It's Real"

Perhaps the fact that the milieu she's talking about has vanished so completely from Rochester makes Hanlon's story even harder for some 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. I expected 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.

"This really happened," she sighs finally. "It's real."

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report

Permanent Link: www.mcgillreport.org/alshehri

This article was originally published in the Minneapolis weekly newspaper, City Pages, on June 30.