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Through underground network, Saudi jihadists reach Iraq

US, Riyadh probe recruitment of young fighters

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 Christmas Day attack in Baghdad.

Ahmed is one of many Saudi young people -- 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-US, Al Qaeda-inspired ideology into strikes against Americans and their Western and Iraqi allies.

''I was stunned," Shayea said of his son's role in the explosion, which killed at least nine people 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 counterterrorism campaign in the kingdom has made it harder for them to operate in Saudi Arabia, others because they do not think it is 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 specialist on Islamic 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 Thaydi and other authorities on Islamic extremism.

Ahmed's father said that toward the end of the fasting month of Ramadan -- before Nov. 15 -- his son said he was going camping in the desert with friends, a typical pastime. He said there had been nothing to indicate that his son had joined Al Qaeda.

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

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

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-born militant Abu Musab al-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 that he had no idea the militants intended to detonate the truck with him inside.

His father believes Ahmed remains in Iraqi custody, but said he 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 attributed to non-Iraqi Arabs.

Saudi Arabia is taking the matter of roving Saudi fighters seriously and is working closely with US officials to learn how the militants were recruited and how they got into Iraq.

Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said that at a terrorism conference held in Riyadh recently, Saudi officials asked Iraq's Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib for information on Saudis in Iraq.

''They couldn't give us accurate and precise data," 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.

Daoud also accused Iran of ''clear interference" in Iraq, but Tehran, too, has denied that it allows militants to cross its border.

In the 1980s, Saudis were openly mobilized to go to Afghanistan and were given discounts on plane tickets to neighboring Pakistan. Theirs was a mission blessed by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia because it targeted a common enemy: communism.

Now, Saudi young people who want to go to Iraq are recruited secretly. The government is closely watching preachers and has banned postprayer meetings in mosques, once a recruiting haven.

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