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.

"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."

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."

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.

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.

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