The new face of a terror bomber
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 lorry 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.
At 22, the new Ahmed al-Shayea is the product of a concerted effort by the Saudi government 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.
But the kingdom still has a way to go in cracking the jihadist mindset. 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.
Several hundred prisoners, as well as returnees from Guantanamo, are thought to have passed through the rehabilitation programme. 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 travelled 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 realised that all along, I was wrong," Shayea said in an interview at a Riyadh hotel before returning to an interior ministry compound that serves as a sort of halfway house for former jihadists rejoining Saudi society. "There is no jihad. We are just instruments of death," he added.
Saudi Arabia's campaign against terrorism began in earnest after militants linked to al-Qaeda 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. Three years ago, it set up the prison programme.
"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 instil 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."
At the time he was first approached to join the insurgency, 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 the 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," he said.
He and his friend flew to Syria. A network of al-Qaeda operatives sheltered him and about two weeks later he and 23 other men were smuggled into Iraq.
They were split into two groups. Shayea said his group of 12 met an al-Qaeda leader who asked a question: "Those who want to carry out martyrdom [suicide] attacks, raise your hands." No-one did.
Shayea's group then spent a week at a Sunni fundamentalist stronghold before he was taken to Ramadi and finally Baghdad, where an Iraqi told him his first assignment was to take a fuel tanker to a Baghdad neighbourhood to be collected by others.
He says he was never told that it would contain 26 tonnes of butane gas, rigged to explode outside the Jordanian embassy.
"I felt something bad was about to happen," he said. The further he drove, the more nervous he got, until, 20 metres from the embassy, an explosion - believed to be remotely triggered - turned the back of the tanker into a fireball.
"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." The blast killed nine people. Passers-by took him to hospital.
The world first saw Shayea in TV footage of his interrogation. Today, his hair has grown back, he has a thick black beard and he can move without difficulty. He credits the medical care he received, including 30 operations, at the hospital in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison.
After almost six months of medical care and interrogations during which Shayea said he was treated well, he was visited by three Saudi officers. "They told me they were there for my sake." In mid-2005, Shayea was flown home. "I took my dad in my arms, crying, and kept asking for forgiveness," he said.
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