By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
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.
"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.
"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.