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An Islamic militant's change of heart, mind

A Saudi extremist who survived after driving a bomb into Baghdad is now against jihad. And he wants other young Muslims to know it.

July 29, 2007|Donna Abu-Nasr | Associated Press

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — 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 militant 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 Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor. They number hundreds, he said this month after a visit to Saudi Arabia. Dozens more are fighting alongside Al Qaeda-inspired militants at a Palestinian camp in Lebanon.

Saudi authorities don't say how many have passed through their rehabilitation program, but they are thought to number several hundred, including returnees from Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Shayea says his change of heart began when he was visited by a cleric at Al Ha'ir prison in Riyadh after 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 former militants 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 Qaeda-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 militants warning youths against joining Al Qaeda and clergymen trying to correct misconceptions about jihad.

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 ultra-conservative 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."

The friend told him he was going to Iraq and invited Al-Shayea. He was told to shave his beard and pack Western clothes to avoid looking like a militant. He got a passport and a plane ticket to Syria. And he saved up $1,600 -- travel fees, he was told, that would go to smugglers, weapons training and Al Qaeda's coffers.

On a cool November night, he donned a black T-shirt and jeans and told his parents he was going camping with 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. Al Qaeda operatives sheltered him, and about two weeks later he and 23 other men were smuggled into Iraq.

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