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