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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Kidnapped to Egypt; A Father's Nightmare

Aired April 13, 2013 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight: a father's search for his children, his two sons taken, one child 4 years old, his brother not even 1.

Both were kidnapped by their own mother, spirited away across the world to another culture, another kind of justice. Now, that alone would be bad enough, but all of this happened nearly a dozen years ago.

Today, Michael Shannon's two sons are 16 and 12 and nearly unrecognizable to him. Try to imagine what that's like for a father. His long and sometimes lonely battle to get them back is far from over. In fact, it gets more heartbreaking by the day.

Tonight, his story and his wife's. That's right. We will also talk to the mother who defied a court order and took her children and his all those years ago.

Tonight, correspondent investigative correspondent Drew Griffin with "Kidnapped to Egypt: A Father's Nightmare."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is all Michael Shannon has left of his sons, a final picture, Adam at 4, Jason, just 10 months.

MICHAEL SHANNON, FATHER: I can't stop picturing them as a 4- and a 1-year-old, or a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old.

And I have had no photos, and I'm trying to imagine what they would look like at 16 and 12 and hoping that they don't hate me for not saving them.

GRIFFIN: This is a story you could tell 1,000 times over, an international kidnapping to Egypt, a country that takes in billions of dollars in aid from the United States, but refuses to recognize international law when it comes to returning the United States' stolen children.

According to court records, Michael Shannon's sons were illegally taken here 12 years ago by their mother. And despite winning every court case since, despite rulings that his American citizen sons must be returned to their father, the illegal separation has lasted more than a decade.

STEPHEN CULLEN, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL SHANNON: Nothing has worked.

GRIFFIN: Attorney Stephen Cullen is an expert in fighting international custody battles.

CULLEN: If we went over there...

GRIFFIN: He's taking on Shannon's case for free because he says even the United States government isn't helping.

CULLEN: And it's horrible to have to admit to Michael we have all failed him. The system has failed him. The legal system has failed him. We have all failed him because nothing has happened to get his children back.

GRIFFIN: It is an international nightmare that began with a most American of love stories. In 1995, Michael Shannon was a computer specialist in Chicago, when his best friend invited him to a company softball game.

The company was the engineering giant Bechtel. And on that softball field, he met a Bechtel employee, Nermeen Khalifa, and fell in love.

(on camera): She was in your eyes...

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL SHANNON: Americanized.

I didn't find out until three months after we were dating that her father was born in Cairo.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Her Egyptian father was an extremely wealthy and powerful businessman who made sure his daughters, including Nermeen, were born U.S. citizens.

It wasn't long before Michael Shannon and Nermeen Khalifa were married and Michael found out just how wealthy the Khalifa family was.

(on camera): For a while, was it a good marriage, fun?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Sure, of course. I got to travel to Zurich and stay at a chalet and spend three weeks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Cairo, in Alexandria, had a $3 million mansion El Alamein on the Mediterranean. And her father wanted me to stay there.

GRIFFIN: Osama Khalifa was very successful, chairman of Bechtel Egypt. He sat on several Egyptian government boards of the then- dictator Hosni Mubarak. And he still runs his financial and banking consulting firm near the family apartment building he owns.

But one thing Osama Khalifa did not have was a grandson to take over his empire.

(on camera): He wanted grandsons?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Oh, yes. He had four daughters and six granddaughters, no male children.

But that changed soon after Nermeen and Michael were married. Adam Shannon was born on February 2, 1997, the first male grandchild of the Khalifas. Nermeen's mother, Afaf Khalifa, came over for the birth. Pictures show a beaming mother, father and grandmother. There was even time for a family visit to Cairo.

Michael Shannon says his father-in-law was so overjoyed to have a grandson, he offered Michael a job and a house, with just one condition. They had to live in Egypt.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I said, well, the problem is, your daughter, my wife hates this country. She hates Egypt. Women are second-class citizens there. She can't smoke. She can't drink.

GRIFFIN: There was another reason not to move to Egypt. Michael Shannon's son from another marriage, Mike, was 11 years old when Adam was born. Now 27, he recalls the little brother from whom he became inseparable.

MIKE SHANNON, HALF-BROTHER OF ADAM: I go to bed and trying to kick him out of my room the hardest I could, get him to go to his room, and knowing that I had to wake up for school the next morning and my alarm going off at 6:00 in the morning and waking up, and there he is, like already back in my bed cuddled up next to me.

GRIFFIN: It was idyllic only in pictures. Michael Shannon says his wife had a drinking problem, something she denies.

Maryland police records show Nermeen was charged with assaulting her husband and placed on probation. As part of that probation, she was ordered to undergo treatment at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center.

MICHAEL SHANNON: At one time, I had to take him to the hospital. And she came in there drunk and tried to remove him from the hospital, and they called social services and did an investigation.

GRIFFIN: The couple separated, Michael taking custody of Adam. Nermeen could visit, but Shannon insisted a third party be present, his own father.

MIKE SHANNON: Honestly, I felt like things started quieting down, with my grandfather being there a lot, being the guardian. And Nermeen couldn't do as much as she could do before. Her drinking had to be controlled. Her anger had to be controlled, because she did have a guardian there at all times.

GRIFFIN: The situation did get better. And Michael Shannon and Nermeen Khalifa briefly reconciled resulting in the birth of another son, Jason, born in January of 2001. But the relationship fell apart again. Within months, the couple divorced. Adam would live with the Shannons. Jason would live with Nermeen.

No one was happy. What Michael Shannon didn't realize was that Nermeen Khalifa and her mother were plotting to change everything. MIKE SHANNON: I remember when the time came where they asked, well, would it be OK if her mother was the guardian for watching Adam for a weekend? And I remember how difficult that decision was.

GRIFFIN: August 2001, Nermeen's mother, Afaf Khalifa, flew from her home in Cairo to Baltimore to visit her daughter. And there was something else. Afaf Khalifa was asking permission to take her two grandsons and her daughter for a rare weekend trip out of state to New York to visit a relative. Shannon was suspicious, but reluctantly agreed.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I said -- to my father, I said, well, there's no way she can take him to Egypt. I have full custody. I have full rights. I have their passports locked in a safe. How could she possibly get them out of the country?

GRIFFIN: Sunday night, the boys weren't back. Phone calls to the cousin in New York went unanswered.

MIKE SHANNON: And then it just becomes, let's get in the car and go find out. What's going on? Where are they?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): August 22, 2001, Michael Shannon has reluctantly agreed to allow his son Adam to take a trip to New York with his mother, Nermeen.

Nermeen's mother, Afaf Khalifa, has given word that she will watch over the child and return him four days later, at 6:00 p.m., August 26. It's the first time since the divorce Adam has been allowed on a visit with no one from the Shannon family present. He will join his infant brother, Jason, on the trip to visit a cousin. Their older half-brother, Mike Shannon, recalls just how nervous his father was.

MIKE SHANNON: Nobody wanted to say it, but the thought was always in the back of your mind, what are they getting at here? Why all the sudden change? But, at the end of the day, you kind of want to understand that from a grandmother's standpoint, she wants to have some time with her grandson.

GRIFFIN: The Shannon family's trust in Afaf Khalifa was misplaced.

Thomas Fleckenstein, the state's attorney in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, says the facts would later reveal Adam and Jason's grandmother was the co-conspirator of an international kidnapping weeks in the works.

THOMAS FLECKENSTEIN, MARYLAND DEPUTY STATE'S ATTORNEY: She came from her home country of Egypt. She came here. She participated in the planning of the removal of the children from Maryland. She participated in the story that was told to the father as to where the children were going to be in New York, when they would be back.

The fact that she was visiting was part of the impetus for the children to visit and spend time with the grandmother. And she was actively involved in helping the children travel to Egypt.

GRIFFIN (on camera): It was well-planned.

FLECKENSTEIN: It was well-planned.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It had to be. Michael Shannon held the passports for both of his boys in a safe at home. He had legal custody of Adam, and Jason was not allowed to leave Maryland without the father's consent.

But there was a loophole. Early in 2001, one parent could simply call the State Department and report a child's passport lost, apply for a new one, and it was granted. That is exactly what Nermeen Khalifa had done. The Egypt Air tickets were purchased in New York by a relative. The Khalifa family arranged for an international moving company to empty the apartment where Nermeen Khalifa was living.

And in the final days of August, Afaf Khalifa would arrive to supervise the escape.

(on camera): Do you feel that before this woman, grandma, left Egypt, that was the plan all along?

FLECKENSTEIN: That's what we believe, yes.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Michael Shannon knew nothing until it was too late. Clinging to the belief his legal custody, the locked passports and the grandmother's word be enough, he waited and paced as hours went by and the children did not come back.

MIKE SHANNON: Everyone started pacing the house. No one is returning phone calls. No one is picking up on the phone calls. And then it just becomes, let's get in the car and go out what's going on. Where are they?

GRIFFIN (on camera): What was they day like when you pulled up?

MICHAEL SHANNON: I went to the apartment to pick them up. It looked like it was ransacked.

I went to the property manager, what happened? He said there was a truck out here with an international moving company, Greenmount. I finally got ahold of them, and that Sunday afternoon, I called the Baltimore County and Anne Arundel police. And I just knew what had happened.

Look at the one picture she left. See the picture above the bed?

They were out of the country before we even knew they were gone.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): They had gone straight to New York, straight to JFK, straight to Egypt Air.

And before Michael Shannon had even realized they were gone, Nermeen Khalifa, Adam and Jason and their grandmother, Afaf Khalifa, were landing in Cairo, untouchable. Confirmation would finally come at the most unlikely time.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Oh, yes. I received a call from Adam right after 9/11. And he said: I'm not in America anymore. I'm not even in New York, because he thought New York was a separate country.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL SHANNON: He was only 4 years old at the time. He said, when are you and pop-pop coming to get me? And I said as soon as we can.

GRIFFIN: Shannon had every intention of doing just that, heading to Egypt armed with the law on his side and bringing his boys home. Then he called the State Department for help. But officials there said there was nothing they could do.

(on camera): You have seen no files?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Nothing.

The State Department won't get any because they said that the family won't allow it. It's intrusive. I have asked for wellness and wellness checks. And the embassy writes letters to the family, and the family simply refuses them.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The people who (AUDIO GAP) these buildings down will hear all of us soon!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): There may have been another reason for the State Department's lack of interest.

In late 2001 and early 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States was leaning heavily on Egypt and its president, Hosni Mubarak, for support in the war on terror.

BUSH: We have got a good friend. Americans have a good friend.

GRIFFIN: It would be a bad time to bring up a minor issue, like the kidnapping of Michael Shannon's two boys by the family with ties to Egypt's president. Suddenly, Michael Shannon felt very alone.

And in a letter from Nermeen Khalifa's sister, Michael Shannon was told give up. "Force and bad tactics will only serve to put you farthest away from your objective," she writes. "The children need to be with their mother. This is Islamic law." And, finally, Eman Khalifa wrote: "Please don't worry about them. You should be happy for them."

Michael Shannon's fight was only beginning. (END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL SHANNON: This is Adam holding Jason at home.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): By the late spring of 2002, Adam and Jason Shannon had been gone for almost a year. Back in Maryland, their half-brother, Mike Shannon, had been tirelessly monitoring the Internet for any electronic clues, hoping against hope.

Suddenly, Afaf Khalifa's name popped up in a live chat room.

MIKE SHANNON: And here this name came up on my buddy list for AOL, and I remember asking my dad, what time is it in Egypt right now? And he said something like, oh, it's 3:00 in the morning in Egypt.

And I said, what time is it in California? He said, I don't know. I think it's like around 6:00 or 7:00 at night in California. I said, well, they're online right now. Why would they be online at 3:00 a.m. in the morning?

GRIFFIN: They weren't. Nermeen's mother, Afaf Khalifa, and Nermeen's father were, in fact, at the family-owned condominium north of San Diego. They had flown there not knowing that Afaf was the subject of an international arrest warrant for her part in aiding and abetting the kidnapping of Adam and Jason.

MIKE SHANNON: We thought it was too good to be true. We didn't really think too much of it. But, hey, what the heck, let's just go ahead and call out there. And, sure enough, someone picked up the phone at their home in California.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I called the FBI. I said they're in San Diego at their house. I called the number. Impossible. She's red-flagged. She can't get through customs. She can't get through INS.

I finally had the Maryland State Police call out there and say they were with Pacific Bell and Electric Company and asked for her. And she picked up the phone. They got the San Diego County Sheriff's and they kicked the door in within an hour and arrested her.

GRIFFIN: Afaf Khalifa spent one night in jail and then was extradited to Maryland.

(on camera): And you really thought that was going to be a break?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Yes.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): And it looked as if it was. Prosecutors in Maryland wanted her to face criminal charges. But, mostly, they said, they wanted Adam and Jason Shannon returned to their father. (on camera): Did the authorities here believe that that arrest would have eventually led to those children being reunited with their dad?

FLECKENSTEIN: Well, certainly, the charge and the arrest is to prosecute her for her own criminal acts. Certainly, if the ability to get the children back and reunite them with their father resulted from that, that would certainly have been a goal as well.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It took nine more months for the case to be heard here in this colonial-era courthouse in Annapolis, Maryland. Prosecutors even offered in writing to drop the charges in exchange for return of the children. "If this can be accomplished," the prosecutor wrote, "I believe it is in all parties' best interests that it be done as quickly as possible."

(on camera): At any time, do you know if there was some kind of negotiation with the family in Egypt to say, OK, we give, we're going to bring these kids back?

FLECKENSTEIN: Not that I'm aware, no.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): A judge heard the case and sentenced Afaf Khalifa to 10 years in prison on multiple counts, a sentence later reduced to three years, a 60-year-old woman. She began serving her time here at the Maryland's women's prison in Jessup, Maryland.

Fourteen months passed. Then Afaf Khalifa, the only bargaining chip Michael Shannon had left to get back his children, disappeared.

(on camera): She was suddenly gone, deported back to Egypt, before the state of Maryland, before the prosecuting attorneys, before even Michael Shannon knew she had been released from prison.

Were you notified?

FLECKENSTEIN: No. No, the office was not notified that she had been paroled, nor that there would be any action taken by immigration officials at the time.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): If you're wondering how that could have happened, you're not alone. The State Department told CNN it doesn't interfere in deportation cases. That is up to the U.S. Immigration Service.

And no one from Immigration has returned multiple phone calls and e-mails asking for comment. Michael Shannon hired the lawyer who arguably knows more about international child abduction than anyone in the country who believes the U.S. government not only has done nothing to help; it may have expedited Afaf Khalifa's deportation.

CULLEN: These are American boys, American citizens. They're not entitled to be Egyptian citizens and they're being held in a foreign country for 12 years, and the government, unfortunately, has done nothing about it. GRIFFIN: Michael Shannon turned to an Egyptian court for help, hiring an Egyptian attorney to help him enforce his U.S. custody rights. The case was filed in 2002. It was postponed two years until December 30 of 2004, then another two-year postponement until February of 2006, then nothing.

(on camera): It has lingered in this court ever since, American orders to bring American citizens back to the United States, ignored.

CULLEN: The bottom line is, when we took the American orders to Egypt and asked for them to be, in the lingo of this specialty, domesticated, we were just laughed at.

GRIFFIN: This was a pure and simple kidnapping with a lot of elements involved, a lot of planning involved. I keep going back to this family that you married into and knew. Are you still stunned at this?

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL SHANNON: Stunned, of course. I never thought they would go this far.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): But just who is Nermeen Khalifa? And who is telling the truth about what really went on nearly 12 years ago?

It is why CNN came to this upscale neighborhood in Cairo to find the mother who kidnapped her own children and ask her, why?

NERMEEN KHALIFA, MOTHER: Hello?

GRIFFIN (on camera): Hi, Nermeen. This is Drew Griffin with CNN.

(voice-over): It is a story being told very differently than the tale being told in the United States.

(on camera): He basically, and according to the courts, feels that you have kidnapped these children and have held them captive here for 12 years.

KHALIFA: I'd Like to explain my point of view.

GRIFFIN: OK.

(voice-over): When we come back, the woman wanted for kidnapping insists she is the real victim.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The Khalifa family lives here in Cairo's upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis. It's where Khalifa's father runs his construction, banking and finance consulting business. The family lives in this apartment building owned by the father. Nermeen Khalifa has kept her sons and her silence here for years, only once agreeing to an interview with an Arab media outlet.

NERMEEN KHALIFA, KIDNAPPED SONS TO EGYPT: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

GRIFFIN: She's refused all requests from the west until now.

(on camera): All right, Nermeen. This is Drew Griffin with CNN.

(voice-over): Though she refused to be interviewed on camera and even refused to meet with us off camera, she did agree it was time for her to talk, at least by phone.

KHALIFA (via phone): I'd like to explain my point of view.

GRIFFIN (on camera): OK.

(voice-over): Her story is a completely different account of the marriage, the kidnapping and the U.S. court record on the case. And though it may sound far-fetched in the United States, in Egypt and in the Middle East, it is easily believed that the entire U.S. justice system conspired against her.

(on camera): Nermeen Khalifa tells us it was not she that was the abuser; it was him. Not she that was the alcoholic; it was him. And not she that kept the family apart; it was him. And in a not-so- unbiased way, told us that an anti-Arab anti-Muslim U.S. judicial system is the root of all her problems.

KHALIFA: I had to leave the United States with my kids on my own accord to protect myself and my sons. He's a manipulator. He's a liar. And I had to leave. I had to go. The system failed me. The system was against me.

GRIFFIN: And you believe the system was against you because you're Arab American?

KHALIFA: I'm an Arab Muslim. Definitely. Yes.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Nermeen Khalifa illegally abducted her two sons and left the country on August 25, 2001.

In Maryland, a court hearing was immediately scheduled. It would be held in two weeks. The date? September 11, 2001.

On the very morning terrorist planes were hitting World Trade towers, a Maryland state court ruled Michael Shannon should be granted sole custody of his two abducted children, and the state issued a warrant for Nermeen's arrest.

To Nermeen Khalifa, the coincidental date of the hearing and her absence from court proves she's a victim of discrimination.

(on camera): And that's the root of all of this legal custody issues? KHALIFA: The ruling happened on 9-11. So what more do you want? The judge granted the custody without even hearing me, seeing me or knowing anything about me. He gave him immediately custody of both kids.

GRIFFIN: And you don't feel that that court decision had anything to do with the -- I mean, what I saw on records of abuse by you, alcoholism by you, et cetera?

KHALIFA: This is all his fight, all his talk. This is all his side of the story. These are all his lies. And I don't know how it's on record, on court records at all. Because I never had any rulings against me for any of these things that he mentioned.

GRIFFIN: I have the court records with me. I can show you them. I'm stunned that you haven't seen them. You were part of them.

KHALIFA: I have not seen any court records at all.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): There is no record at all that Nermeen, herself, was abused. Again, she says, that is a conspiracy.

KHALIFA: I had a broken tooth. And a swollen nose.

GRIFFIN (on camera): The reason I ask is because I have gotten huge files on this case through the years, and I haven't seen any of that.

KHALIFA: I'm telling you, even the police were fighting against me.

GRIFFIN: And that's why you fled to Egypt?

KHALIFA: Why do you have to word it that way? I didn't flee. I was protecting myself and my children.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Nermeen Khalifa has refused to even share a photograph of Adam and Jason with their father.

KHALIFA: I'm tired of this saga. I've been suffering at his hands since the day I met him. Until now, he's still trying to make my life miserable. He won't leave me alone. The man just won't leave me alone. What does he want?

GRIFFIN: Well, he wants his sons back, he says.

KHALIFA: Well, he wants to see his sons so much, why hasn't he come here?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Nermeen, baby Jason and Adam.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Back in Maryland, Michael Shannon told us he has tried to talk to his boys every year since their disappearance. He says the Khalifa family has refused to put them on the phone. He has sent e-mails for his sons. They are unanswered.

(on camera): Would you know your son after 12 years?

(voice-over): He has even asked for the U.S. embassy for a picture of his two sons. The family refused to allow the State Department to take a photo.

What he showed us are vitriolic e-mails sent by a much different Nermeen Khalifa than the composed person we were interviewing by phone.

This one, sent January second of this year, a profanity-laced diatribe in which Nermeen insults Shannon's new wife as being "another old hag" and telling him to give up hope of "ever again getting even a whiff of anything of mine."

And on the news that Michael Shannon's mother, her son's own grandmother, Betty, almost died, she writes this: "Good riddance. Another one to feed the hungry flames of hell."

When asked why she won't even send a photo or post one online, she says no one has asked.

KHALIFA: I haven't tried to keep any photos from him. He has all the photo albums.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Do the boys know anything about their father?

KHALIFA: Of course they do. Of course both of my boys know about their father. I'm not -- I'm not keeping them from him. He can come here any time and meet them.

GRIFFIN: They can't come to the United States, though?

KHALIFA: No, not yet.

GRIFFIN: Not yet meaning when they're adults and no longer under the court custody ruling, you will allow them to go to the United States?

KHALIFA: It's up to them.

GRIFFIN: They are United States citizens, right? Are they at some point Egyptian citizens?

KHALIFA: No. I'm not going to answer any more questions. I'm sorry, thank you very much. I hope you air my entire statement and don't take anything out of context.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It is Sunday morning, the beginning of the school week in Cairo. At 7:05 a.m., two teenage boys are about to leave the apartment building where Nermeen Khalifa lives with her sons. When we come back, are these two young men Michael Shannon's kidnapped sons?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Almost immediately, after Adam and Jason Shannon were abducted, Michael Shannon learned how powerless his U.S. court orders and his own country would be in Egypt. He turned to the U.S. State Department for help and found out he is not alone.

SUSAN JACOBS, SPECIAL ADVISOR ON CHILDREN'S ISSUES, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: We are aware of 22 cases. But remember that this is self-reporting, and there might be many more cases.

GRIFFIN: Ambassador Susan Jacobs is the U.S. State Department's special advisor on children's issues. Egypt, she says, is a difficult country to deal with, because it's not signed onto the Hague Convention regarding children's issues, which allows, in some cases, for the return of abducted kids.

(on camera): As an American citizen, whose tax dollars go over there, is there no way we can't say to Egypt, "You want $3 billion a year for your military? Give us back these 22 kids that are American citizens."

JACOBS: Well, I would argue that we have a very complex relationship with Egypt that goes beyond military aid. We are trying to work with Egypt's government as they transition to democracy to encourage all kinds of new practices. And one of them would be adherence to the Hague convention or to recognize U.S. court orders, and we'll continue to urge them to do that.

But I don't think we're going to just say, you know, we're through with you if you don't do this one thing. Because we have many things that we want you to do. This is one of them.

GRIFFIN: Michael Shannon has heard that same explanation for more than a decade.

(on camera): And all that time, he has been fighting a court case back in Maryland, Michael's sons have been growing up here. Twelve long years. Twelve years, not even seeing a single photograph.

(voice-over): But that is about to change. It's 7:05 a.m. Sunday morning, the beginning of the school week in Cairo. And two boys, appearing to be about 16 and 12, are walking out of the apartment building where Nermeen Khalifa lives with Michael Shannon's two sons.

Khalifa has refused to give CNN a picture of her boys. She has refused to allow the U.S. State Department to take a photo of Adam and Jason and, for over a dozen years, has denied her father a single image. These undercover pictures, blurred to protect their identities, will be the first Michael Shannon has seen of his children since August 22, 2001.

(on camera): Listen, I want you to do something. I know you've got a computer in front of you. I want you to just open up that computer, and I want you to hit play.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I see it. And I'm looking at a young man with a black and yellow tie.

GRIFFIN: Does he look familiar?

MICHAEL SHANNON: No. Are you serious? Are you talking about the man with the tie?

GRIFFIN: Yes, and then you should see another shot of a smaller boy. We believe these are your sons.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Well, it's been 11 years, but -- oh, my God, that could be him.

GRIFFIN: We believe that first boy, who looks like a man now, is Adam. And the second, who is about 12 years old...

MICHAEL SHANNON: Is Jason?

GRIFFIN: ... is your son, Jason.

(voice-over): Michael Shannon is stunned and in disbelief.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Where's the one with him holding Jason?

GRIFFIN: He asks for old photographs to compare.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Oh, there they are.

GRIFFIN: In the confusion, he gets the names wrong. It is Adam he's trying to recognize.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I'm looking at one from 2001 right before they were kidnapped, and Jason was 4 1/2 years old. Oh, my God, the ears could be identical. Would you know your son after 12 years?

GRIFFIN (on camera): I pray I'd never have to be in your situation. So I don't -- I don't know.

MICHAEL SHANNON: It could be him. It could be. Yes, it could be him.

GRIFFIN: He looks like a man.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Yes. I spent the last 11 years with the image of a 5-year-old in my mind.

GRIFFIN: And what about Jason?

MICHAEL SHANNON: There's no way to tell. The picture I have of Jason, he's ten months old. That could very easily...

GRIFFIN: Do you see any of your family in him?

MICHAEL SHANNON: Certainly I do. He looks like my daughter.

GRIFFIN: How does it feel to be looking at these photographs of these people and after you said, 11, 12 years, you can't even determine if these are, indeed, your son?

MICHAEL SHANNON: It's why I've been trying to get a photo for ten years from the government, from the U.S. embassy, Office of Children's Issues, State Department. They all live down the street. Just send me a photo. If these are my sons, this is the first time I've seen them in 11 years.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): As we hang up, Michael Shannon is still not 100 percent sure. Later, Nermeen Khalifa sent an e-mail to CNN, claiming the boys in the images are not her sons. But she refused to give us any pictures.

In a phone call to a CNN producer, she threatened to sue if these pictures we took were broadcast. When asked why she would consider a lawsuit if the photos were not of her sons, she didn't answer.

Through it all, Michael Shannon cannot pull himself away.

MICHAEL SHANNON: That's definitely not an Egyptian boy. That could be Adam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's going through your head right now seeing these pictures?

MICHAEL SHANNON: What? Why, why, why? Why did it take 11 years for one photograph? This is -- this is only two miles from the U.S. embassy.

GRIFFIN: It is a small victory. A possible photograph.

Coming up, a phone call to CNN from Michael Shannon's older son.

ADAM SHANNON, MICHAEL'S SON: She's a great, caring mother.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: For years, Michael Shannon kept a calendar counting each day apart from his boys. He kept track of all the missed birthdays and skipped holidays. From his oldest son, Mike, from a first marriage, that calendar was a signature part of his growing up.

MIKE SHANNON, MICHAEL SHANNON'S OLDEST SONG: For a long time, I remember every single day was circled with a number on it. And I think one was how many days they've been gone. And one may have been how many days since we last had contact with them. And pretty soon, numbers were on top of numbers.

And I don't think any of us -- at that point, none of us could even imagine. Maybe even a year later, I probably would have told you within the next year they would have come back. And even five years later, I would have told you any day now they'll come back. I never in my wildest dreams thought it was going to last this long.

GRIFFIN: Mike Shannon is still searching for his younger half- brothers online, holding onto hope that they can be a family once again. MIKE SHANNON: It's very difficult to pick up where you left off, because the last thing I saw was a 5-year-old boy. We should have picked up where we left off. Now it's -- you know, someone that was my age when he left, so we would just have to start fresh. We'd have to start over as a family again.

I think there's a lot of good moments to still be had, though. It would just feel really good to close that chapter and start something new.

Don't act like you don't want to look at me.

GRIFFIN: Michael Shannon has since remarried, a third time. And last year, he lost his father at the age of 73. He died without seeing his grandsons again.

(on camera): You want the boys to come home right now?

MICHAEL SHANNON: They will. They have to.

GRIFFIN: What will that be like?

MICHAEL SHANNON: I dreamt for years of always meeting them at an airport and seeing them.

When a parent loses a child, it's -- when they die, you die with them, at that age. And I -- and my wife has, the last two years, finally cleared out Adam's room. You know, everything was the same as the day he left. But I can't stop picturing them as a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Maryland prosecutor Thomas Fleckenstein says, legally speaking, Michael Shannon has done all he could.

THOMAS FLECKENSTEIN, MARYLAND PROSECUTOR: The only criminal prosecution was done by our office. He brought a civil suit for damages that actually ended up being pretty ground-breaking in Maryland. He's won every step of the way. He has availed himself of every legal option that's available to him in his 12-year fight to get his children back.

And, yet, notwithstanding having won at every step of the way, he's still, with all of that, not in a position to compel their return from Egypt.

GRIFFIN: In Washington, Ambassador Susan Jacobs had no real answers, either.

(on camera): In this specific case, Michael Shannon has not even seen a photograph of his children in 12 years.

JACOBS: I am -- and this is true in other of the 22 cases. I'm not going to speak about a specific case, but all of these cases are very sad, horrible cases where one of the parents has been deprived of their children for long periods over time. Half of the cases are more than ten years old, and the others date from 2012. But those are only the cases that we know about.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Michael Shannon says the last time he spoke with his oldest son, Adam, was years ago, and it was a bitter phone call.

MICHAEL SHANNON: About six years ago, on his birthday, she let me speak to Adam. At the time, he was 10, and Jason was 6. And he was, you know, "I hope bulldozers knock your house down. And they burn down your house." And he's been watching too much of the Israeli-Palestinian thing.

And she told me that they told Jason, the younger boy, that their father had been killed in an accident when he was a baby. But that Adam had told him different. That the father was still alive, and he was living in America.

GRIFFIN: After we returned from Cairo, we got a phone call, too.

(via phone): Adam, do you and Jason want to see your dad?

(voice-over): The young man on the other end said he was Michael Shannon's son, Adam. Most of that phone call was off the record. But he did allow us to record this about his mother, Nermeen.

ADAM SHANNON: She's a great, great -- great caring mother. Very considerate. And she -- she does whatever I ask. If I asked her at this moment to take me to the United States and give me a ticket, she would love, proudly to do it. Without hesitation.

GRIFFIN: Michael Shannon believes his ex-wife has turned his sons against him. But, against all the odds, he's optimistic to this day.

MICHAEL SHANNON: It's like they say in Egypt, Insha'Allah, it's God's will. They have to come back to the United States. They're U.S. citizens.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Michael Shannon can only hope now for the future, the days his sons each turn 18 and can leave Egypt on their own. That is the day he believes they will finally know the truth about their father. That he never stopped fighting for them. That he never stopped loving them. That he never stopped trying to be their dad.

MICHAEL SHANNON: Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker's man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, when a father can't absolutely be certain that the images he's being shown are, in fact, pictures of his sons, that tells you in a heartbeat how long, how tragic and just how desperate Michael Shannon's search really is.

I'm Anderson Cooper. Thanks for watching.