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Trying to win the hearts of ex-jihadists

Saudi effort uses reason, religion

Ahmed al-Shayea said he was misled into driving a butane-gas delivery truck that was detonated by remote control, leaving him disfigured. 'There is no jihad,' he said. 'We are just instruments of death.' Ahmed al-Shayea said he was misled into driving a butane-gas delivery truck that was detonated by remote control, leaving him disfigured. "There is no jihad," he said. "We are just instruments of death." (DONNA ABU NASR/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The last time Ahmed al-Shayea was in the news, he was in the hospital at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, with severe burns from the truck bomb he drove 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 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 jihadist mind-set. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, and Saudis make up nearly half the foreign detainees held in Iraq, says Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser. 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.

Several hundred prisoners, as well as returnees from Guantanamo, are thought to have passed through the rehabilitation program.

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 tell their parents or government of their intentions?

No and no, came the reply.

"I realized that all along I was wrong," Shayea said in an interview 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."

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.

The Interior Ministry sponsored programs on government-run television stations showing repentant jihadists warning youths against joining Al Qaeda and clergymen trying to correct misconceptions about jihad and dealing with non-Muslims. Shayea has appeared on Al-Majd, a Saudi religious television channel.

Three years ago, the ministry 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. After release, they get free medical care, monthly stipends, and sometimes cars.

When 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 does not identify. The friend told him he was going to Iraq and invited Shayea to join him.

The two flew to Syria, where Al Qaeda operatives sheltered him in Damascus, Aleppo, and the border town of Abu-Kamal. About two weeks later, he and 23 other men were smuggled into Iraq.

At al-Qaim, the men were split into two groups. Shayea said his group of 12 met an Al Qaeda leader who had direct links with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda chief in Iraq who was later killed by a US airstrike.

Shayea was eventually told that his first assignment was to take a fuel tanker to a Baghdad neighborhood to be collected by others. He says he was never told that the truck would contain 26 tons of butane gas, rigged to explode outside the Jordanian Embassy.

Two Al Qaeda militants drove with Shayea, but jumped out 1,000 yards from where he was supposed to park the truck.

The farther Shayea drove, the more nervous he got, until, 60 feet from the embassy, an explosion turned the back of the tanker into a fireball. The blast killed nine people.

Thinking he was an innocent victim, passersby took Shayea to a Shi'ite-run hospital. There he kept silent for several days, until he finally told his doctors the truth.

Shayea said he told his interrogators where to find a senior Zarqawi aide in Baghdad, revealed all he knew about Al Qaeda, and denounced Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden as killers of innocents.