9/11-Another Minnesota Connection?

Nancy Hanlon says she met and talked with one of the 9/11 hijackers in a Rochester, Minnesota bar just weeks before the attack. Is it true? There's no telling for sure. Is her story plausible? Yes.

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.

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 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.

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.

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