- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - A few weeks after his son Ahmed disappeared, Abdullah al-Shayea got a call from an Iraqi official saying the 19-year-old was an intended suicide bomber who barely survived blowing up a fuel tanker in a deadly Christmas Day attack in Baghdad.

Ahmed is one of many Saudi youths — estimates run from the low hundreds to as many as 2,500 — who have slipped into Iraq in the past two years, often traveling through Syria to join other Arab and Muslim recruits eager to translate a fiercely anti-U.S., al Qaeda-inspired ideology into strikes against Americans and their Western and Iraqi allies.

“I was stunned,” Mr. al-Shayea said of his son’s role in the explosion, which killed at least nine persons just hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital. “I had no clue he was even thinking of going there.”

Some go because an aggressive counterterror campaign in the kingdom has made it harder for them to operate in Saudi Arabia, others because they don’t think it’s right to risk killing Saudis and Muslims while attacking Western targets in their own country. But all of them think their mission is a jihad, or holy war, that a true Muslim should not forsake.

“Those who cannot do jihad in Saudi Arabia go to Iraq,” said Mshari al-Thaydi, a London-based Saudi writer and observer of Islamist terror groups. “The goals are the same, the ideology is the same and the modus operandi is the same.”

Ahmed al-Shayea’s journey is typical of how many Saudis end up in Iraq, said Mr. al-Thaydi and other authorities on Islamic extremism.

Ahmed’s father said that toward the end of the fasting month of Ramadan — before Nov. 15 — a time of religious fervor, his son said he was going camping in the desert with friends, a typical pastime. He said nothing indicated that his son had joined al Qaeda.

In December, a man who did not identify himself called Abdullah al-Shayea to tell him that his son “fell as a martyr” in Iraq, Mr. al-Shayea said. But a few days after the family held a wake, an Iraqi official who didn’t give his name called to say Ahmed had survived.

Mr. al-Shayea did not believe the news until Ahmed appeared in January in an interview with Al Arabiya television, his head bandaged, his face charred.

Ahmed said a man smuggled him into Iraq from Syria in late November and introduced him to members of the al Qaeda-linked group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The 19-year-old said he was taken to Baghdad and told to drive a fuel tanker to the upscale Mansour district. He insisted he had no idea the militants intended to detonate the truck with him inside.

“As soon as I parked the tanker truck, it exploded,” Ahmed said, adding that the force of the explosion blew him from the truck’s cab.

Mr. al-Shayea thinks Ahmed remains in Iraqi custody, but has received no response to a telegram asking the Saudi Interior Ministry about his son.

Hundreds of Iraqis, Americans and other Westerners have died in dozens of suicide attacks in Iraq, with many of those strikes blamed on non-Iraqi Arabs.

Saudi Arabia is taking the matter of roving Saudi fighters seriously and working closely with U.S. officials to learn how the militants were recruited and how they entered Iraq, a senior Saudi official said on the condition of anonymity.

Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said that at a terror conference held in Riyadh recently, Saudi officials asked Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib for information on Saudis in Iraq.

“They couldn’t give us accurate and precise data,” Gen. al-Turki said. “They said most of the militants were Sudanese who used to work in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein.”

In January, Iraq’s national security adviser, Kasim Daoud, said most of the infiltrations are from Iraq’s western border, which it shares with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He accused Syrian authorities of conspiring to assist the insurgency — something Damascus has denied.

The Saudi border is inhospitable for militants: Its flat, desert terrain is equipped with image-recognition technology that can detect movement across the frontier.

The Saudis say they are guarding the border stringently because they do not want a post-Afghanistan-style problem with militants streaming back home to wage jihad on the ruling family. Saudis think “Arab-Afghans” set up al Qaeda’s infrastructure in the kingdom upon their return in the 1990s, and that they have been behind terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia during the past few years.

It is easy for Saudis to go to Syria because they are not required to obtain visas; tourists from Persian Gulf countries are especially welcome because of the huge sums of money they spend.

Still, Saudi militants are sent to Syria mostly via a third country because airport officials might be suspicious of a man traveling alone to Damascus, said Faris bin Hizam, a Saudi journalist who has been researching the issue of “Iraqi-Saudis” for two years.

“There, the man would be met by a contact, spirited away to a hiding place and then smuggled into Iraq,” Mr. bin Hizam said.

He said more than 350 Saudis have been killed in Iraq from an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 who have gone there since the war began in March 2003.


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