- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

ABHA, Saudi Arabia On the pavement outside the Al-Nami house in the slow, blanket heat of an afternoon in the desert mountains of Abha, a marmalade cat laps water from a metal bowl.

"It was Ahmed's idea to put this out here for the cats in the area because he saw they had no water," said Abdul Ahmed Abdur-rahman Al-Nami, the head of the household. "Since he's been gone, I fill it every day, and I will do so until he comes back."

The boy Mr. Al-Nami remembers as a loving eldest son was one of 15 Saudis among the 19 men identified as the September 11 hijackers, responsible for killing more than 3,000 people. He was one of at least six from the southwest provinces of Asir and Baha. That number has brought this remote corner of the Saudi kingdom under the scrutiny of investigators.

Ahmed Al-Nami, 21, was on the fourth plane United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers apparently confronted hijackers and brought it down before the jetliner could reach its target, probably somewhere in Washington.

A year after first seeing his son's photograph in newspapers, Mr. Al-Nami still refuses to believe he was involved.

"If he had so much mercy in his heart for animals, how could he have been involved in killing thousands of people?" he asked. "He was the kind of boy who would come home on cold winter nights without his coat because he had given it to a poor person he had seen outside the mosque."

That view is not shared by the sullen youths hanging around the narrow streets of al-Basra district where the Al-Namis live. They are convinced that Ahmed Al-Nami was one of the hijackers, and to them that makes him a martyr bound for paradise one of the so-called six "sons of Asir."

Mr. Al-Nami insists that his son is alive somewhere in Saudi Arabia, and that someone stole his identity to give Saudis a bad name possibly even Osama bin Laden, who vowed to bring down the House of Saud after the ruling family stripped him of his citizenship in 1994. Yet Mr. Al-Nami has not seen his son since December 2000, when he left home saying he was going to Mecca, and has not heard from him since spring last year.

Mr. Al-Nami says his son called him a few months after leaving home, saying he was in Mecca looking for a job.

According to friends, Ahmed Al-Nami had joined with three others from Abha and the adjoining town of Khamis Mushayt and gone to a training camp in Afghanistan. A few months earlier, he, Saeed Al-Ghamdi, and brothers Wail, 25, and Waleed Al-Shehri, 21, had sworn an oath committing themselves to jihad.

It was the start of a journey that would end with him and Al-Ghamdi on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and the Al-Shehri brothers on American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

U.S. investigators are focusing on the hijackers' hometowns in an attempt to form a picture of who was recruiting for the attacks and whether these young men none of whom spoke English, say relatives knew what they were getting into.

Arriving in the provincial capital of Abha after the glitz of Riyadh and Jidda, it is easy to see why Asir might be a fertile ground for discontent.

The last region to be conquered by the ruling al-Saud family, Asir did not come under central control until the 1930s and remains a highly conservative and tribal society, suspicious of the government and closer in character to neighboring Yemen, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden's father.

Asir has seen little of Saudi Arabia's vast oil wealth. The number of young men drifting about testifies to the high unemployment rate. The situation that is likely to worsen with 60 percent of the population younger than 25.

Yet Ahmed Al-Nami and his fellow hijackers all came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. "We Al-Namis are a big, important family of government officials and scientists," said his father, who works in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

The Al-Shehris own a construction firm, which built the highway through Khamis Mushayt in collaboration with the bin Laden construction company.

Mr. Al-Nami said of his son: "He was everything a father could hope for. He wanted to be a university teacher or a judge."

Ahmed Al-Nami's friend Khalid Saeed, who was a year ahead of him in school, said, "He wasn't very religious. He was a popular, good-looking boy with a great sense of humor."

Mr. Saeed traces the change to when Ahmed Al-Nami began studying Islamic law at King Khalid University. "I remember he became very interested in Chechnya. He started hanging out with a different kind of people. We just sort of lost him."

In a society where cinema, theater and dancing are banned, there is little to do, and as bored youths, Ahmed Al-Nami and the others may have easily come under the influence of Islamic militants from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who have long been active in the university.

"I think these boys were victims of propaganda," said Saad Asswailim, professor of literature at King Khalid University. "We allowed people into our universities to preach how every Muslim's duty is to go and fight the infidel, and talk of Islamic jihad in miracle terms of men coming back from the dead, of one man destroying 70 Soviet tanks. Imagine the influence this has on boys between 16 and 25 who are just starting to think about existence. They can easily become extremely religious. Even suicidally religious."

Two more of the hijackers, Mohand Al-Shehri and Fayez Banihammad, who were on United Flight 175 as it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, had spent a year at the same university.

The Al-Shehri brothers, who studied at Abha's teacher training college, seem to have come under similar influence.

"They were ordinary guys, then they changed," said one of their cousins. "It's not unusual here for a man to change overnight from being carefree to being religious. It was a kind of Islamic awakening. They heard sermons from people who came back from jihad in Afghanistan."

The brothers disappeared for two or three months in 1999, traveling to Medina. "When they came back, they were different," said their cousin. "They had grown beards and were deeply religious. They had their own group of people and had become very secretive."

In December 2000 they disappeared again, this time to Afghanistan with Ahmed Al-Nami and Al-Ghamdi. The next the family heard of them was when they read their names among those of the hijackers.

"When we read their names, we were very proud because the black hand of Americans is in everything," said their cousin. "I don't think my cousins were exploited. I think they did it out of their own convictions."

Such convictions seem widely shared at Caffe Net in Abha, a club for males that features billiard tables, PlayStations and the Internet. One desktop program is a flight simulator.

Nasser Ibrahim, a mathematics student busy in an online chat group, said, "We discuss politics and we donate money for families of suicide bombers in Palestine. Now we also chat a lot about Iraq."

With the United States gearing up for an attack on Baghdad, the kingdom's clerics will use resentment to further fuel anti-Western attitudes, some say.

At Al-Watan, an Abha-based newspaper, Sa'ad Mariq, the deputy editor, is worried. "No one can explain why so many young boys from here were on the planes," he said.

"Perhaps because this region is very tribal, and the people are brave. But I have no doubt that what exacerbated the whole issue was the Palestinians Muslim youth hate America because of what the Israelis are doing in Palestine. If America is seen to kill innocent people in Iraq, that will make things worse."

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