A jihadist�s journey
How a young Saudi transformed into a religious soldier ready for martyrdom on the streets of Fallujah

A middle class Saudi’s evolution into a jihadist determined to fight U.S. forces in Iraq and ultimately die in Fallujah in April.

1. Fahd (not his complete name) lives in the city of Hael in northern Saudi Arabia.

2. He goes to Riyadh in mid-2000 to attend a religious school .

9. In February 2004, he returns to Fallujah, where on April 11 he is killed.


November 29, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The caller roused Abu Khaled from his slumber shortly after dawn prayers one day in mid-April. “Your son has been martyred,” a crackling voice said. “God willing, he is in paradise.”

The caller hung up; there was nothing more to say.

Fahd’s death did not come as a surprise to his family. In October 2003, he had called to tell his parents that he had left his religious school in Riyadh and made his way to Iraq to join the jihad against U.S. forces. “There was resolve in his voice,” his father recalled. “He knew that his fate was already written.”

The 24- year-old son of a Saudi middle-class family, with no history of violence, attained his dream of martyrdom in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on April 11. According to two Islamist Web sites that published accounts of his death, Fahd was killed as he evacuated women and children from Fallujah, and helped repel a U.S. Marine assault on the city.

There is no way to verify the accounts of his death, but that does not really matter to his family. To them and to many other Saudis, he is a martyr.

After the Web sites posted the news, his father received more than 30 calls of condolence. “I told all of them that I was not accepting condolences,” said Abu Khaled, who spoke on the condition neither he nor his son be identified by their full names. “My son died a martyr and I was only accepting congratulations.”

A movement’s symbol

In the grand course of the Iraqi insurgency, Fahd’s personal journey and military exploits are insignificant. But his transformation – from a quiet seminary student to a jihadist willing to die in a country he had never even visited – highlights how Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic militants and the long-term consequences this could have for the entire region.

The Bush administration said it invaded Iraq in March 2003 partly to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, a region ruled by kings and despots. But as the insurgency has grown and the country has descended further into chaos, Iraq has failed to become a beacon for fledgling democracy movements in neighboring countries. Instead, young Muslim men are looking to Iraq as a proving ground for their militant ideology. Like the U.S.-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the chaos in Iraq is nurturing a new generation of Islamic militants.

“We cannot be separated from Iraq. The victory of religious extremism in Iraq would mean the victory of extremism in Saudi Arabia,” said Abdulaziz al-Qasim, a former Saudi religious judge who is now one of the kingdom’s leading moderate Islamic activists. “The victory of democracy in Iraq would mean the victory of democracy in Saudi Arabia.”

The Iraqi insurgency has found special resonance throughout the Persian Gulf, home to the vast majority of the world’s oil supply. “The entrenchment of militant Islamic groups in Iraq is a great danger to all countries in the Gulf,” al-Qasim said. “It is a powder keg that can explode at any moment.”

Numbers unknown

There is no reliable number of how many foreign fighters like Fahd have slipped into Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Estimates by the U.S. military and Iraqi officials have ranged from several hundred to several thousand. Hundreds of Arab militants were believed to be holed up in Fallujah as it became the center of the Iraqi insurgency in April. But after the U.S. military recaptured the city this month, officials acknowledged they had killed and arrested far fewer Arab fighters than expected.

Most young jihadists live in closed, repressive societies where they face severe unemployment and feel adrift. They see a constant stream of images on Arab satellite television of Iraqi civilians dying in U.S. military operations. They also become enthralled by militant clerics who preach about “infidels” – primarily the 135,000 U.S. troops – occupying a storied Islamic land.

Through Islamist Web sites and a propaganda industry, young men like Fahd achieve a rock star’s mythic status. Their photos are posted on the Web; their exploits are embellished; relatives and strangers write poems about their heroics. This creates a cycle of martyrdom in which other restless young men read their stories and find inspiration and purpose. They, too, decide to volunteer to die in Iraq.

“Everyone knows that Saudis are going to fight in Iraq,” said Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer who has negotiated between the Saudi government and Islamic militants. “This is a very fertile area to breed mujahideen and send them all over the world. Saudis go to the areas of jihad.”

The journey begins

Fahd’s journey into jihad began in a dusty neighborhood on the forgotten edges of Riyadh, a recruiting ground for al-Qaida and other militant groups.

He was born in Hael, a conservative, hardscrabble city in northern Saudi Arabia. In high school, he was a good student but not exceptional. He was devout, but not an extremist. He was tall and lanky, and he wore round glasses that made him look more fit to be a scholar than a fighter.

In mid-2000, at the age of 20, Fahd decided to go to Saudi Arabia’s leading religious school: the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, which trains official clerics. He left his hometown for Riyadh, the Saudi capital. It was the beginning of Fahd’s transformation from a soft-spoken religious student into a militant, according to his father and a childhood friend who spent time with him in Riyadh.

Fahd lived with three other students, and his roommates took him to Suweidi, a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of Riyadh that has seen few benefits from the Saudi oil boom. It is a place of cinder-block apartment houses punctuated by drab mosques, the streets are filled with potholes, and a little rain causes flooding. Saudi security forces have fought several gun battles with militants holed up there during the past two years.

In Suweidi, Fahd tapped into the Saudi Islamist underground. He frequented several small mosques known for fiery preachers who urge their followers to take up jihad against those they see as infidels who threaten Muslims everywhere. His friends gave him copies of the recorded sermons and writings of extremist Saudi clerics who provide theological justifications for Osama bin Laden’s actions.

Fahd grew his beard and shortened his thobe – the white robe traditionally worn by Saudi men – in keeping with the dictates of the prophet Muhammad that a Muslim’s robes should not cover his ankles. For Saudi men, that act has become a way of announcing one’s commitment to religion.

By the end of 2000, Fahd had found a political outlet for his anger: Israel and the United States. The Palestinian uprising had begun in October 2000, and Fahd was watching it unfold on Arab satellite channels like Al-Jazeera. He also was listening to preachers who denounced U.S. support for Israel and accused Washington of complicity in the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

“He was deeply affected by the Palestinian uprising and the images he saw on television,” said his friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears attracting the attention of Saudi security services. “He blamed America for the Palestinians’ suffering and he realized that Muslim leaders were powerless to stop Israel.”

Joining the fight

Fahd wanted to fight alongside the Palestinians, but he could not find a way to go to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. For months, his friend recalled, Fahd was depressed and toyed with the notion of going to Afghanistan to train at an al-Qaida military camp.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. “He began to speak openly about waging jihad against America,” the friend said. “He was very proud of what those Saudis had accomplished on September 11.”

After the U.S. attack on Afghanistan started in October 2001, Fahd could no longer go there to train. But soon, he would find another cause.

A call to jihad

In early 2002, the Bush administration began threatening a military attack against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Fahd followed the developments closely. In letters and occasional visits home, he spoke to his father of the powerlessness of Arab and Muslim regimes to help Iraq. He talked of the need for a call to jihad among the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, to defend Iraq.

“He would say that the Muslim leaders were failures. They could not defend Iraq, but it is the duty of all Muslims to defend their fellow Muslims from infidel invaders,” his father said. “He had never been so passionate about anything like this before.”

Fahd was particularly inspired by two clerics, Sheik Salman al-Awdah and Sheik Safar al-Hawali, who were imprisoned for five years beginning in 1994 for criticizing the Saudi royal family’s decision to allow U.S. troops to be stationed in the kingdom. Spanish investigators say al-Awdah – an old friend of Osama bin Laden – was the “spiritual guide” for an Egyptian militant who is believed to have masterminded this year’s Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people.

When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Fahd was determined to go there. But with the quick fall of Baghdad, he became disillusioned. “He could not understand why the Iraqis did not put up a real fight,” his friend said. “Then when the resistance started, he had new hope.”

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Fadh was swept up in a debate that polarized Saudi society between militants and reformers.

In May 2003, Saudi militants launched suicide attacks against three housing compounds for foreigners in Riyadh, killing 34. The Saudi government asked for the public’s help in capturing 19 al-Qaida members suspected of plotting the bombings. In response, three radical clerics issued a statement urging Saudis to disobey their government.

Pious and devout

The statement said the suspects were not terrorists, but “pious and devout” men who were “the flower of the mujahideen.” The clerics contended the Saudi regime was acting on U.S. orders and using the bombings as a pretext for persecuting Islamic fighters. Any help to the Saudi authorities, they said, would constitute assistance to the United States in its war against Islam. “It is absolutely forbidden to betray these mujahideen,” the clerics wrote.

The most prominent of the three clerics was Sheik Ali bin al-Khudayr. Like thousands of young Saudi men who look to al-Khudayr for guidance, Fahd was mesmerized by the cleric’s taped sermons and religious decrees.

Days after al-Khudayr was arrested for his statement, an Islamist Web site posted a message from bin Laden warning the Saudi government not to harm the cleric. Bin Laden described al-Khudayr as “our most prominent supporter” and cautioned that if he was hurt, al-Qaida’s response would be “as great as the sheik’s high standing with us.”

The government’s crackdown on al-Khudayr and other militants angered Fahd, who viewed the ruling family as siding with the United States and against Muslims. “He was very upset by Sheik al-Khudayr’s arrest. He saw it as a betrayal of the mujahideen,” his friend said. “His views were becoming more extreme with each passing day.”

Message in a pamphlet

About the time of al-Khudayr’s arrest, Fahd found another source of inspiration. He began reading the work of Yusuf Ayyiri, an al-Qaida activist who was killed in a firefight with Saudi police in June 2003. Shortly before his death, Ayyiri wrote a pamphlet titled “The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad.” The tract, which was circulated on the Internet and through photocopied booklets in the Saudi underworld, lays out a rationale for fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In the pamphlet, Ayyiri argued that the United States and Israel are leading a global anti-Islamic movement – he labeled it “Zio-Crusaderism” – that seeks to destroy Islam and dominate the Middle East. Ayyiri said this movement’s most dangerous weapon is the promise of democracy, because it seeks to separate religion from the state. In Ayyiri’s view, a political system that rests its sovereignty on the popular will, rather than in God, wipes out true Islam, which integrates religion and the state.

Ayyiri said Zio-Crusaderism has three allies in its plot to destroy Islam: secularists, Shia Muslims and liberal Sunnis who have “strayed” from Islam by tolerating the separation of mosque from state. Like other al-Qaida propagandists, Ayyiri heaped venom on the Shia, accusing them of hatching a plot to control the entire Persian Gulf. “The danger of the Shia heretics to the region,” he wrote, “is not less than the danger of the Jews and the Christians.”

In Ayyiri’s view of the world, the Shia majority in Iraq had already sold out to the American invaders and was looking to dominate the entire region. Ayyiri’s rhetoric resonated with Fahd, who began to rail against Saudi liberals and the kingdom’s Shia minority.

“Fahd said the Shias and the reformers were the enemy within, and they had to be destroyed,” his friend said. “These things he was reading and the people he was listening to made him forget that Islam also teaches tolerance.”

Joining the jihad

In September 2003, Fahd decided it was time to join the jihad in Iraq. He told his friend, but not his parents. At a mosque in Suweidi, a cleric arranged for him to travel by land to Jordan. For Saudi militants, crossing legally into Jordan and then sneaking across the Jordanian border into Iraq is less risky than infiltrating Iraq directly from Saudi Arabia. The 500-mile desert border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is difficult to control, but those caught trying to cross face imprisonment by Saudi authorities.

“The Saudi government is doing its best to control what’s going on,” said al-Awajy, the lawyer. “But how can you really stop people who travel to Jordan or who are smuggled through the Saudi border into Iraq?”

In subsequent phone calls to his parents and a few e-mails to his friend, Fahd described his journey into Iraq. His first stop in Jordan was the southern city of Maan, where there is a strong Islamist movement. After a few days there, he was taken to the border town of Rueishid, where he stayed at a safe house with other Arab fighters waiting to be smuggled into Iraq.

In early October 2003, a bedouin guide took Fahd and a small group of others across the border. Their first stop in Iraq was a desert town called Tullaiha, near the main Amman-Baghdad highway. Fahd later went to the city of Ramadi and then Fallujah, he told his father in one brief call from Iraq. In December, he went to Baghdad, where he stayed at a safe house with other foreign fighters. By early February, he had returned to Fallujah, where he remained until his death.

Fahd did not tell his family exactly what he was doing in Iraq. “He said only that he was doing his religious duty,” his father said. “I did not want to question him … Of course, we were worried about our son, but he was in Iraq for jihad. It was not our place to tell him to come back home.”

Tribal bonds that cross national borders probably helped Fahd in getting smuggled into Iraq and winning the trust of Iraqis. He was from the Shammar, a large confederation of tribes with branches in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other Gulf countries. In Iraq, the Shammar have both Shia and Sunni branches, spread out all over the country. (Iraq’s interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, is a leader of a Shammar branch in northern Iraq.)

Once he got to Fallujah, Fahd told his childhood friend, his tribal connections proved very helpful. Two other Saudis from the Shammar tribe who had been in Iraq for several months vouched for him. That is consistent with the pattern identified by Iraqi security officials.

“There are some Arabs who show up and want to fight, but there’s no one who can vouch for them,” an Iraqi security official said by phone from Baghdad. “Iraqis are always concerned about infiltrators. There has to be someone who vouches for you; otherwise you will be sent on your way.”

A tribal connection

In Fallujah, Fahd was known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhjan al-Shammari, a nod to his tribal roots. “This young man’s exploits became widely known among the mujahideen of Iraq,” said an account posted after his death on an Islamist Web site. “He was renowned for his strength and courage.”

The site recounted one battle in which Fahd supposedly saved the body of another Saudi fighter. “He once held off an American contingent alone for nearly an hour, after his compatriot was killed during an operation near the highway in Fallujah,” the site said. “He kept fighting the Americans until he was able to drag his compatriot’s body away from the desert animals.”

Another Islamist site posted a dramatic account of Fahd’s death. It said he was killed April 11 while helping women and children flee a U.S. attack on the Jolan neighborhood of Fallujah.

“After the women and children were evacuated, and his fellow mujahideen had withdrawn from the area, Fahd was surprised by an Apache helicopter that appeared on the horizon. He took cover from the helicopter and from Marine snipers perched in the distance,” the site said. “He single-handedly held off the helicopter and the snipers for over a half-hour. He killed two American snipers before he was martyred, standing upright.”

On their face, the accounts seem outlandish, and U.S. officials say they are impossible to verify. Postings on Islamist Web sites about other Saudis who died in Iraq contain similar stories of improbable heroics and descriptions of the fighters dying in blazing gun battles that kill many U.S. troops. Such postings are part of the propaganda apparatus that draws new recruits into the jihad.

Abu Khaled does not tolerate any questioning about the circumstances of Fahd’s death. But in one off-guarded moment, he admitted that he missed his son.

“Of course, I’m sad that my son was killed,” he said. “But he died a martyr. He did something that I did not have the courage to do. How could I doubt him?”

A transformed man

A middle class Saudi’s evolution into a jihadist determined to fight U.S. forces in Iraq and ultimately die in Fallujah in April.

1. Fahd (not his complete name) lives in the city of Hael in northern Saudi Arabia.

2. He goes to Riyadh in mid-2000 to attend a religious school .

3. He heads by land to the city of Maan in southern Jordan in September 2003.

4. From Maan, he goes to another Jordanian city, Rueishid, near Iraqi border.

5. In early October 2003, Fahd is smuggled across the Jordanian-Iraqi border. His first stop in Iraq is Tullaiha.

6. In mid-October 2003, he goes to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

7. He arrives in Fallujah.

8. In December 2003, he goes to Baghdad, where he stays at a safe house with other foreign fighters.

9. In February 2004, he returns to Fallujah, where on April 11 he is killed.


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