By the light of more modern unlikelihoods and conspiracy theories, this tale seems pretty tame — more Area 51 than “Pizzagate.”
A 9/11 hijacker sits down at a Rochester bar — the former CJ’s — and pours his heart out to a Rochester woman in a three-hour conversation taking place only one month before the 2001 terrorist attacks.
As it goes, that conversation doesn’t tickle the woman’s memory until about a year after 9/11; she goes to authorities and identifies Mohand al-Shehri from a collection of FBI photos. Local law enforcement and the FBI express high skepticism about her claim, but she swears it's all true.
Like that one? A terrorist in Rochester on the eve of 9/11? Then maybe you’re ready to kick things up a notch.
Enter James P. Jensen’s self-published work, “100 Minutes With Osama Bin Laden.” Jensen, a small business owner and lifelong Iowan, tells a conversational and entertaining — if at times perplexing and confounding — story.
In it, his convenience store along Interstate 80 in eastern Iowa is the spot where a group of about a half-dozen Middle Eastern men, driving a pair of compact cars, make a fated rest stop on Labor Day weekend, 2001. Among them is a “tall slender robed man” who has a beard and a sickly complexion. Jensen later concludes that this was Osama Bin Laden. (Al-Qaida's mastermind in a Ford Tempo — the Escalade must have been in the shop.)
Like with many 9/11 things, the evidence for Jensen’s story is circumstantial and maddeningly incomplete. It's arguable, and at the same time, completely implausible. There is no official report placing Bin Laden, who was then already on the FBI's Most Wanted list, in the U.S. a week prior to the 9/11 attacks. Nor is there any good reason to think he was.
If only Jensen’s own documentation were more helpful. He jots down the license plate numbers of the two cars as they leave, only to find later that his scribbled note on a scrap of wax paper is impossible to read.
Looking around his store after the entourage leaves, he finds on the floor a piece of lined notebook paper written in a “different language.” “Maybe it’s an itinerary for that last group, or maybe it’s just rambling thoughts,” Jensen writes. He resolves on the spot to have it translated by an Arabic-speaking friend. Only, 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened. Le sigh.
Is Jensen’s story true? Is the Rochester al-Shehri story true? I find them both completely implausible, but if you're a believer, I'm a generous opponent: I will lend you some tinfoil for your hat.
Yet, I do find in both stories the same hard nugget of something very real — that unforgettable, visceral sense of fear, and the desperation for answers, that for a time gripped us all as we recoiled from something that had once been truly unimaginable, and for a time, any horror seemed possible.
“100 Minutes with Osama Bin Laden,” by James P. Jensen, is available through Amazon. An e-book is $9.11, and the paperback edition is $19.11.