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Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 3/3/2002

First of three parts

TAIF, Saudi Arabia - The road cuts across southwest Saudi Arabia, its tribal culture, desert wilderness, and bleak patches of development that missed out on the oil-rich kingdom's largesse.

Highway 15 cuts through southwest Saudi Arabia, a region bubbling with economic frustration and Islamic puritanism. (Globe Photo / Charles M. Sennott)

Bin Laden, the US,
and Saudi Arabia

Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers

Before oath to jihad, drifting and boredom for hijackers

Saudi schools fuel anti-US anger
Doubts are cast on the viability of Saudi monarchy for long term
Coverage of the
war on terror

Engineered in the late 1960s by Mohammed bin Laden, patriarch of the family's construction empire, this two-lane highway was his pride in a life of service to a monarchy trying to build a nation out of the Arabian sands.

But to his exiled scion, Osama bin Laden, this road stretched into the Saudi heartland of isolation, boredom, economic frustration, fiery Islamic puritanism, and the mounting rage of its disaffected middle-class youth - fertile soil for recruits to his Al Qaeda terror network.

Along this narrow and treacherous highway, US and Saudi officials say, bin Laden and Al Qaeda saw a way to drive a wedge through the fragile US-Saudi relationship - and steer home the point that the Sept. 11 strikes were as much an attack on the House of Saud and its alliance with the United States as they were an attack on America itself.

Twelve of the 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist strikes came from the leading tribes in the provinces that straddle this highway.

Senior US officials and Saudi Interior Ministry officials involved with the investigation into the involvement of Saudi nationals in the attacks say they now believe bin Laden's Al Qaeda actively sought out young Saudi volunteers from this region for their ''jihad.''

The investigation is beginning to reveal a picture of how bin Laden, a native of the Saudi southwest, exploited the young hijackers by playing off the region's deep tribal affiliations, itseconomic dis-enfranchisement, anditsown burning brand of Wahhabi fundamentalism which the kingdom's religious hierarchy fosters in the schools.

The path to understanding this culture which bore the hijackers - almost none of whom had any deep links to Islamic militant movements much before Sept. 11 - lies somewhere along this road. On maps it is ''Highway 15,'' but to Saudis it is commonly known as ''The Road of Death.'' Stretching south from the lowlands around Mecca into Taif and the woodlands of Al Baha province, and then climbing up to the mountains of Asir, it is considered the most dangerous road in a kingdom which officials say has an extraordinarily high rate of fatal car crashes. Highway 15 alone claims hundreds of lives every year, and thus its name.

It has become known as a strip of asphalt where disaffected, middle-class Saudi youth climb into large American-manufactured Buicks and Chevrolets and race at speeds over 120 miles per hour. They say it is a way to vent their rage against the limited economic opportunities in the kingdom as well as the crushing boredom and confining strictures of life under Saudi puritanism.

Bin Laden, it seems, provided the inspiration for at least 12 of the alienated young men from this area to find a far more apocalyptic way to express that rage.

In selection of hijackers, bin Laden's `fingerprint'

Dr. Said Al Harthi, a senior adviser to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naifbin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, said, ''We believe that bin Laden may well have tried to put a Saudi face on this attack, knowing that it would damage our relations with the United States ... We believe this was his intent.''

Harthi said the use of the Saudis and the selection of the hijackers from leading tribes in the southwest revealed what he called ''a fingerprint that is bin Laden's'' in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Specialists on bin Laden such as Milton Bearden, who headed the CIA's covert operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s when bin Laden was leading Arab volunteers to fight ''jihad'' there, noted that bin Laden's original and still preeminent goal is to rid the US military presence from Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden refuses to recognize the House of Saud, asserting that the monarchy and the religious establishment which supports it, have both lost their legitimacy by permitting 5,000 US troops - ''infidels'' as he calls them - to occupy the land of the sacred Islamic holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Bin Laden's goal in making the terrorist attacks a mission carried out almost exclusively by Saudis, US and Saudi officials say, was to focus attention on the relationship between the two countries and force Washington and Riyadh to reconsider the US troop presence here.

But Al Harthi quickly adds, ''If he thought this would tear the US and Saudi Arabia apart he was wrong. The American media is attacking us, but within Saudi Arabia there is a new cohesiveness and in our dealings with Washington there is knowledge that we are working closely together on this investigation.''

A high-level Western diplomat was more pessimistic in his assessment. ''Bin Laden knew exactly what he was doing. It looks to us like a deliberate effort to pick up Saudis for this operation, some in Afghanistan, some on their way to Chechnya, anywhere he could find them,'' said the diplomat who has had access to the ongoing investigation into how the conspiracy came together, and asked not to be identified.

''There were simple reasons for this. They were the ones who could get visas easily to the United States, and there were a lot of Saudis involved in flight training in America. So there was a pathway laid out for them,'' said the diplomat.

Thirteen of the 15 Saudi hijackers were issued visas to the United States, 10 of them at the US Consulate in Jeddah, according to US officials. Their applications were indistinguishable, officials said, from the thousands of young Saudis permitted to go to the US every year. Only two of the 15 showed up on a security-risk list from Malaysian intelligence that was disclosed to US authorities only after the hijackers had entered the country in July, US officials say.

''Now you can believe we are rethinking our visa policy,'' one diplomat said.

''The hardest thing for us to face is that if bin Laden's goal was to divide the US and Saudi Arabia, then on some level the terrorism worked.... You can't deny that, if you look at how it has driven a wedge, forcing us to ask the wrong questions, to be more wary of each other,'' the diplomat added.

So far, little has been disclosed about the Saudi hijackers. That, many observers suggest, is because both Riyadh and Washington have deliberately downplayed the extent of the Saudi involvement, realizing the potential damage it could cause to the delicate Saudi-US relationship. For a half-century, the two countries have had an awkward marriage - critics say tryst is a better word - of convenience.

The United States gets relatively affordable oil and a troop presence in the Middle East, and the Saudis get US weaponry and forces for protection in one of the world's toughest neighborhoods.

To keep the glaring spotlight of Sept. 11 deflected from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom denied many Western journalists visas until recently. For those few who were able to get in the country during the weeks after Sept. 11, the government restricted access to the region where the hijackers lived. People who spoke to Western reporters have been detained by Saudi officials, and for that reason many of those interviewed for this series spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After months of denying that there were any Saudis involved in the hijacking, the palace only last month officially acknowledged that 15 of the hijackers were indeed Saudi. But the monarchy continues to dismiss any notion that Al Qaeda could have been operating and recruiting inside the kingdom.

Now, through rare interviews with family members of several of the alleged hijackers, as well as friends and local Muslim clerics who knew them and accounts from a southwestern Saudi newspaper, a picture of the suspects is beginning to emerge along Highway 15.

Frustrated dreams end at controls of Flight 77

The road to the southwest begins outside of Mecca, and 30 miles south is Taif, an unexceptional backwater. Here, down a tree-lined side street in the upscale Al Faisaliyah neighborhood is the sprawling two-story villa of the Hanjour family, prominent landowners and merchants.

This was the home of Hani Hanjour, 29, one of the hijackers who US investigators believe was piloting American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. He is believed to have been the only pilot among the Saudis. The rest were accomplices in the hijackings and referred to by investigators as ''the muscle.'' At the gate of the family compound, several Sudanese servants said they had been instructed to tell Western reporters the family would have no comment. Hanjour's friends and former classmates from the neighborhood did offer insights, but as they were doing so a local Muslim cleric from a nearby mosque arrived with several large, bearded men and demanded that a Globe reporter leave.

Later, Hanjour's brother, Yasser, agreed to speak briefly on the phone and offered the outlines of the life of one of the hijackers. Based on these conversations, Hani Hanjour emerges as a frustrated young Saudi who wanted desperately - but never succeeded - to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline.

The Saudi carrier required Saudi pilots to be FAA-certified in the United States. (This, Saudi officials point out, explains why so many Saudis were in US flight schools. Since Sept. 11, the Saudi regulation has been changed.)

So Hanjour went to the United States in 1999 and received his certificate, but came home and still couldn't land a job with the airline.

His frustration at failing to get the job he dreamed of derailed him for nearly a year, his friends said. He spent hours online at a family-owned Internet cafe. He read voraciously about piloting, and increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers.

In December 2000, he obtained a visa from the American consulate in Jeddah and arrived in the United States, according to US officials. He lived in an apartment in Patterson, N.J.. and in June 2001 was practicing on a flight simulator in Phoenix, then took a flight lesson in August at Freeway Airport in Bowie, Md. All of this was leading up to Sept. 11, when US investigators say he commandeered Flight 77 shortly after it took off from Dulles Airport in Virginia.

Further down the road is the Al Baha region where a cluster of three more hijackers came together. Ibrahim, a local Muslim cleric who knows the families and who spoke on condition that only his first name be used, said the young man at the center of a triangle of youths was Ahmed Al Haznawi, 22, one of the hijackers who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. He was from the village of Hezna and his father, Sheikh Ibraham Al Haznawi, was the head of the mosque in the old marketplace of the town. The Haznawi family is a branch of the large and respected Alghamdi tribe, which numbers as many as 200,000.

The Muslim cleric who knew the family said that Al Haznawi had come to his father in late 1999, seeking permission to go to join the jihad in Chechnya. His father refused, and explained to his son that jihad, which translates roughly as ''the struggle,'' has many different meanings, according to the Koran. His father encouraged his son to pursue what he described as ''the higher form of jihad,'' the personal struggle to be a good Muslim and not to follow the ''military calling of jihad.''

Al Haznawi left without his father's blessing in the year 2000, telling friends that he was going to Afghanistan to train at Al Farouk Camp before going to Chechnya, where volunteers fight with Muslim rebels against Russian troops. It is not clear if Ahmed ever went to Chechnya, but he did return to Al Baha in 2000 during the holy month of Ramadan. He met with his family and, his friends say they believe, sought recruits from his own Alghamdi tribe, and played off tribal loyalties to bring two distant cousins from villages near the southern town of Beljurashi - Ahmed and Hamza Alghamdi - into jihad. They were both among the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Al Haznawi provided them with militant pamphlets and the cassette tapes of well-known radical Saudi preachers - such as Eid Al Guerney and Hamoud Al Sheiby - railing against the United States and Israel and calling for young men, as part of the ''ulema,'' or Muslim nation, to defend the faith ''wherever it is under attack,'' as Guerney put it. Hamza, 21, and Ahmed Alghamdi, 26, were both drawn in.

Hamza was easily lured, his friends said, since he was stuck in what was seen by Saudis as a humiliating job working as a stockboy in a housewares shop. He asked his father, a religion teacher in a local school, for permission to go fight in Chechnya and, according to friends, the father reluctantly agreed. Hamza disappeared sometime around February of 2001, his friends said, only calling his parents in July. He refused to say where he was but, the cleric said, he asked his father ''for forgiveness and prayers.''

Ahmed Alghamdi is believed to have used a connection to the Red Crescent Society, an Islamic relief organization, to help pay for his journey into the jihad, a local charity official said. But the official said it was never clear if that would take Ahmed to Chechnya or to Afghanistan - it was all kept secret.

Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counter-terrorism office and deputy station chief in Jeddah from the mid-to late-1970s, said that the southwest was the nexus of recruitment for the Saudi hijackers.

''From everything we can gather, there was a circle of clerics in the southwest connected to bin Laden who served as spotters, and found these young men,'' said Cannistraro, who runs a Washington-based consulting firm on international terrorism and has received briefings on the investigation.

Cannistraro added that although they may have been told in Saudi Arabia they were being recruited for Chechnya, they were actually being selected for Al Qaeda.

Taking various routes, the Saudis were ''directed toward Peshawar and from there into Afghanistan for training,'' he said. Specifically, he added, they appear to have congregated at Al Qaeda's Al Farouk Camp near Khost where they were selected by Al Qaeda leader Mohammed Zein Abu Zubaydah for the Sept. 11 operation and began months of training in weapons, indoctrination, and theological interpretations of sweet rewards in the afterlife for martyrs.

Saudi Interior Ministry officials have detained for questioning an undisclosed number of suspected militants in the southwest, but they insist there is no clear picture of a network of recruitment, or one person who ties all the suspects together. They believe, and US authorities tend to agree, that even if the recruitment did take place in the southwest, that the development of the plot could not have happened inside Saudi Arabia.

FBI investigators feel there are still ''a lot of blind spots,'' as one US intelligence source put it, in developing definitive profiles of the hijackers and how they interconnected prior to their arrival in the United States - in part because the Saudis have not yet thoroughly investigated the network that links the Saudi youths. While Washington has officially said that the Saudis have been cooperative, US investigators on the case continue to be frustrated by Saudi ''foot dragging,'' as one intelligence source described it, and an interpretation of Islamic law that the Saudis say prohibits non-Muslims from interrogating Muslims on Muslim land.

''It doesn't look like they're doing much, and frankly it's nothing new,'' said James Kallstrom, the former assistant director of the FBI in charge of the New York office and now director of New York's Office of Public Security.

Kallstrom - who experienced firsthand the frustration FBI agents had with the Saudis in the first World Trade Center bombing investigation and later with the 1995 bombing of a US-Saudi military facility in Riyadh and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers US military barracks - said: ''It's been common knowledge that we have not gotten much help from the Saudis.''

Adventurers recruited for suicide mission

Al Watan, a new and popular newspaper based in Abha, has pushed the boundaries of government restrictions on the media here by assigning reporters to chase leads on the hijackers, and developing profiles of them. Al Watan's editor, Qenan Al Ghamdi, and several of his reporters said it appears that ''clusters'' of hijackers, like the one in Al Baha, formed a pattern. They came together in small groups to join up for jihad - apparently unaware of where it would take them. The groups were in towns strung along Highway 15 in Taif, and Al Baha, and especially in the province of Asir, where cells formed in Abha and Khamis Mushayt.

Al Ghamdi said Al Watan's reporting revealed the suspected hijackers as ''middle-class adventurers'' more than Islamic fundamentalist ideologues. This made them perfect recruits, Al Ghamdi said, to be later brought into Al Qaeda, most likely when they were in Afghanistan training. And, at least according to bin Laden, they were then unwittingly brought into the Sept. 11 strikes.

On the so-called ''home video'' of bin Laden that was released by the US government in December, he painted a picture of the young Saudis as low-level soldiers, saying, ''The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter. We did not reveal until ... just before they boarded the planes.''

The Egyptian leader of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, left behind a letter in a suitcase found at Logan Airport, which Jerrold Post, a former CIA specialist on profiling terrorists, said indicates the men knew they were on a suicide mission.

The letter, apparently intended for the Saudi hijackers, said, ''Be calm and resolute young man, for soon you will be going to paradise.''

US and Saudi officials say they believe bin Laden exploited the Saudis, paying particular attention to their tribal backgrounds, and convincing them that they would be making their tribes proud in the jihad against America. On the videotape, bin Laden pointedly boasts of the names of the tribes, repeating the name Alshehri seven times, and also the Alghamdi and Alhazmi tribes on several occasions.

Bin Laden knew that selecting these families from the southwest would send a message to the monarchy and the ''Naj'dis'' - elitist families from the center of the country who savor their connections to royalty and tend to look down upon the southwest's tribal culture as primitive. US and Saudi officials suggest that bin Laden was letting that elite know he had deep support in the southwest for his jihad against the United States. But more ominously for the palace, the sources add, bin Laden was letting it know he had support for his oft-stated desire to dethrone the House of Saud, because of what he sees as its corruption and its treasonous ties to the United States.

Mohammed Al Zulfa, a member of the Shura Council, the 120-member body hand-picked by the monarchy to represent the 13 regions of Saudi Arabia, is from Asir province, where at least four of the alleged hijackers came from. Al Zulfa said that the tribal angle is ''very important to understand'' the southwest.

He explained that the tribes here were not historically Wahhabi - a puritanical Islamic school of thought founded 250 years ago by the Muslim cleric from which it takes its name. Wahhabism was foisted upon the tribes and has been interpreted in a particularly harsh and unforgiving way in the southwest.

''It looks as if he [bin Laden] very carefully chose from the leading tribes to say, `This is not only me against the House of Saud and the US, but that it is also the new generation of these tribes of Saudi Arabia that has joined his fight ...' America has very little understanding of the importance of this, and the intention that is behind it,'' Al Zulfa said.

A region linked to other acts of terror

There were other reasons that officials say they believe Al Qaeda focused in on southwest Saudi Arabia for its recruitment for the Sept. 11 operation.

Not least among them was its ''wild West atmosphere,'' as one US official described it. A particularly porous and lawless border with Yemen has allowed Al Qaeda to come in and out of Saudi Arabia without detection for many years, US and Saudi officials say.

In fact, there is mounting evidence, the officials add, that the southwest was a nexus of not only recruitment for the Sept. 11 attack, but also the facilitation of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemen port which killed 17 American sailors, as well as the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 250 people.

US officials confirmed that the rubber skiff with an aluminum frame which was used to transport the bomb that ripped a hole in the Cole was purchased in the Saudi port of Jizan and then smuggled into Yemen. And, the plotters behind the attack are believed to have escaped through Yemen into Saudi Arabia, the officials add. Similarly, US authorities say they believe the Yemen-Saudi border was most likely where aspects of the planning for the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania occurred. It's also the area through which those linked to the plot are thought to have escaped.

The southwest provinces - especially Asir, the last of the formerly autonomous fiefdoms to be brought within the kingdom in the early part of the 20th century - are a pocket of economic neglect compared to cities like Jeddah and Riyadh.

Those cities have been lavished with petrodollars that brought gleaming shopping malls, skyscrapers, pleasant residential areas, and wide, well-kept boulevards that pulsate with neon lights above shop windows. The southwest was largely passed over during the boom years in the kingdom in the 1970s.

Resentment at the shrinking Saudi economy by the young people within a forgotten middle class is felt throughout the country. Because newly discovered reservoirs of oil have reduced oil prices globally, per capita income has plummeted in Saudi Arabia from $28,000 a year in current dollars in the early 1980s to below $8,000 today, according to Saudi government statistics.

As a result, young Saudis with university degrees find there are no jobs, or certainly not the kinds of jobs they want. Some officials estimate unemployment for college graduates under the age of 30 at upwards of 30 percent. The Saudi population is soaring with one of the highest birth rates in the world, which analysts say makes certain that the problems will worsen. Saudis under the age of 25 represent nearly 70 percent of the population. These economic and demographic problems have affected all of Saudi Arabia, but the southwest is by far the hardest hit, economists here say.

Prince Khalid, the falconer, poet, and painter who rules as the local governor for the House of Saud, has tried to develop a tourism industry centered in Asir. He is viewed by some as a despot who has bullied local landowners and often taken their holdings. Others say Khalid is a benevolent local monarch who has done his best to help the region.

But most agree that the prince's vision of the southwest as a center of tourism has created only service-sector jobs which just about all Saudi citizens see as beneath them.

The development of five-star hotels, amusement parks and concert venues, accompanied by a cool breeze in the high elevations of Asir, have drawn the wealthy royal and merchant families from other parts of the kingdom here, and only served to increase the sense of resentment and frustration among the more middle class locals.

US investigators say bin Laden sought to exploit this reservoir of discontent in the southwest in part by playing off his personal family connection to the region. He is known to have often evoked the memory of his late father who loved the area and frequented it since the favorite of his several wives was from there. The patriarch's birthplace was just across the border in Yemen, where tribal affiliations run strong. In fact bin Laden's father died in a 1967 plane crash over Asir province when he was surveying his beloved Highway 15 project.

Saudi officials say the road that winds through the southwest - even with all its history and its culture of disaffected youth and its connections to the hijackers - can never lead to definitive answers as to why 15 young men from Saudi Arabia decided to take part in the worst terrorist attack on US soil.

''You can go to the southwest and drive up and down, and come up with theories on who these 15 young people were,'' said Adel Al Jubeir, a senior adviser on foreign affairs for the palace. ''But in the end they are 15 individuals out of 16 million Saudis. They do not represent a trend in Saudi Arabia, any more than David Koresh represented a trend in Christianity, or Tim McVeigh represented a movement in America.''

Al Zulfa, the Shura Council member from Asir, agreed. ''The road can tell you about the anger that is out there, but why these 15 people were led to do something like this has no answer,'' he said. ''All you can say is that it has nothing to do with Islam.''

Tomorrow: Teaching intolerance

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/3/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.