RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The last time Ahmed al-Shayea was in the news, he was in the hospital at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, being treated for severe burns from the truck bomb he had driven into the Iraqi capital on Christmas Day, 2004.
Today, he says, he has changed his mind about waging jihad, or holy war, and wants other young Muslims to know it. He wants them to see his disfigured face and fingerless hands, to hear how he was tricked into driving the truck on a fatal mission, to believe his contrition over having put his family through the agony of believing he was dead.
At 22, the new Ahmed Al-Shayea is the product of a concerted Saudi government effort to counter the ideology that nurtured the 9/11 hijackers and that has lured Saudis in droves to the Iraq insurgency. The deprogramming, similar to efforts carried out in Egypt and Yemen, is built on reason, enticements and lengthy talks with psychiatrists, Muslim clerics and sociologists.
The kingdom still has a way to go in cracking the jihadist mind-set. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and Saudis make up nearly half of the foreign detainees held in Iraq, according to Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser. They number hundreds, he said this month following a visit to Saudi Arabia. Dozens more are fighting alongside al-Qaida-inspired militants at a Palestinian camp in Lebanon.
Several hundred prisoners, as well as returnees from Guantanamo, are thought to have passed through the rehabilitation program.
Al-Shayea says his change of heart began when he was visited by a cleric at al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh following his repatriation from Iraq.
He says he put two questions to the cleric: Was the jihad for which he traveled to Iraq religiously sanctioned? And were the edicts inciting such action correct in saying the militants should not inform their parents or government of their intentions?
No and no, came the reply.
“I realized that all along I was wrong,” al-Shayea told The Associated Press in a two-hour interview at a Riyadh hotel before returning to an Interior Ministry compound that serves as a sort of halfway house for ex-jihadists rejoining Saudi society.
“There is no jihad. We are just instruments of death,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s campaign against terrorism began in earnest after al-Qaida-linked militants struck three residential expatriate compounds in Riyadh in May 2003, killing 26 people.
The government says it cracked down on charities suspected of using donations to finance terrorism, banned mosques from holding unlicensed religious sessions and warned preachers against inciting youths to jihad. Officials as well as the government-guided media began to clearly and unequivocally refer to suicide bombings as terrorism.
The Interior Ministry sponsored programs on government-run TV stations showing repentant jihadists warning youths against joining al-Qaida and clergymen trying to correct misconceptions about jihad and dealing with non-Muslims. Al-Shayea has appeared on Al-Majd, a Saudi religious TV channel.
Three years ago it set up the prison program.
“The aim is to reform the youths, to listen to them and talk to them,” said Ahmed Jailan, one of the clerics. “We also try to instill a sense of hope in them by telling them they still have the chance to make up for what they lost if they follow true Islam.”
The prisoners later appear before a panel of judges who decide whether they can move from prison to the Interior Ministry compound, where activities include reading, civic and religious courses, sports and family visits. They get help finding jobs and wives, and after release they get free medical care, monthly stipends and sometimes cars.
At the time he was first approached to join the insurgency, al-Shayea was already becoming a devout Muslim in his ultraconservative town of Buraida. He grew a beard, prayed five times a day and stopped listening to Arabic love songs he used to enjoy. He was 19 and jobless.
Then he was contacted by a school friend whom he doesn’t identify.
“My friend started telling me about Iraq, how Muslims are getting killed there and how we should go there for jihad,” said al-Shayea. “He told me there were fatwas (edicts) and DVDs issued by Saudi and Iraqi clergymen that called for jihad.”
“We didn’t think of jihad as something that would lead to our death. It was a fight against occupiers,” said al-Shayea.
Finally the friend told him he was going to Iraq, and invited al-Shayea to join him.
He was told to shave his beard and pack Western clothes to avoid looking like a would-be jihadist. He got a passport and an airline ticket to Syria. And he managed to save $1,600 — travel fees, he was told, that would go to smugglers, weapons training and al-Qaida’s coffers.
On a cool November night toward the end of the holy month of Ramadan, he donned a black T-shirt and jeans and told his parents he was going camping in the desert with his friends.
He and his friend flew to Syria, a favored transit point for Iraq-bound fighters because Syria doesn’t ask visiting Arabs for visas, and its 360-mile border with Iraq is thinly policed. A network of al-Qaida operatives sheltered him in Damascus, Aleppo and the border town of Abu-Kamal, and about two weeks later he and 23 other men were smuggled into Iraq.
Four Iraqi teenagers guided them to the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim. They saw Syrian border guards in the distance who fired in the air. “They didn’t try to stop us. We were already in Iraq,” al-Shayea said.
At al-Qaim, the men were split into two groups. Al-Shayea said his group of 12 met an al-Qaida leader who had direct links with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida chief in Iraq who was later killed by a U.S. airstrike. He took the men’s money and gave each $100.
“Then he asked us a question: ‘Those who want to carry out martyrdom (suicide) attacks, raise your hands,'” said al-Shayea. “No one did.”
Al-Shayea’s group then spent a week at the Sunni fundamentalist stronghold of Rawa before al-Shayea and another Saudi man were taken to Ramadi and finally Baghdad.
Al-Shayea met his new “emir,” or leader, an Iraqi who told him his first assignment was to take a fuel tanker to a Baghdad neighborhood to be collected by others.
“I felt scared. I didn’t know Baghdad at all, and I also didn’t know how to drive heavy vehicles,” he said.
Also, he says, he was never told that the truck would contain 26 tons of butane gas, rigged to explode outside the Jordanian Embassy.
“That evening, we performed the last prayer of the day and had dinner — a dish of chicken and aubergines,” said al-Shayea. “The emir gave me a crude map of my route.”
Two al-Qaida militants drove with al-Shayea, but then jumped out 1,000 yards from where he was supposed to park the truck and fled in a waiting car.
“I felt something bad was about to happen,” he said.
The farther he drove, the more nervous he got until, 60 feet from the embassy, an explosion — believed triggered from afar — turned the back of the tanker into a fireball.
“I saw the fire and I started to scream and pray,” he said.
“I looked around me and I saw everything had melted. My hands had turned black. I jumped from the window and started running without thinking of what I was doing.”
The blast killed nine people.
Thinking he was an innocent victim and a Shiite by his fake ID card, passers-by took al-Shayea to a Shiite-run hospital. There he kept silent for several days until he finally told his doctors the truth.
The world’s first encounter with al-Shayea was on footage of his interrogation which was sent to Arab TV stations. Back in Buraida, his parents saw their son, face charred, head heavily bandaged, but alive. They were stunned. They had been notified he was dead and had held a wake for him.
Al-Shayea said he told his interrogators where to find a senior al-Zarqawi aide in Baghdad, revealed all he knew about al-Qaida, and denounced al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden as killers of innocents.
He says he hasn’t seen nor heard from the friend who accompanied him since they parted soon after entering Iraq.
Today his hair has grown back, he sports a thick black beard and he can move without difficulty. He credits the medical care he received, including 30 operations, at the hospital of U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison.
He says that when he was handed over to the Americans a couple of days after his interrogation at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, he was scared because he had heard about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
“But the care with which the American officers carried me down to the car when they came to take me made me relax,” said al-Shayea. “One spoke Arabic and tried to put me at ease.”
After almost six months of medical care and interrogations during which al-Shayea said he was treated well, he was visited by three Saudi officers.
“They told me they were there for my sake,” said al-Shayea. “They allowed me to write a letter to my parents.”
They also asked him if he would tell his story publicly. He says he replied that he would have volunteered to do so even if they hadn’t asked.
A couple of weeks later, in mid-2005, al-Shayea was flown home. His parents were at the airport. “I took my dad in my arms, crying, and kept asking for forgiveness,” he said.
He spent a couple of months in the hospital and then was moved to al-Ha’ir Jail where he says he was given a TV set, newspapers and plenty of food. He also read a lot of books. One of them — which he says he would never have imagined he would read — is the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights.”