When the suicide skyjackers of September 11 struck, Saudi Arabia denied for months that fifteen of the nineteen Islamic terrorists were Saudis. Abdullah Thabit knew better. He recognized one of the skyjackers in the paper, Ahmed Alnami, as a familiar face from his home town in Saudi Arabia. He had been subject to the same extremist religious indoctrination. He could well have been in Alnami's place had he not escaped.
Says Thabit, "I felt like someone who'd gotten off a boat just in time and then watched it capsize with him and the others onboard. I love Nami, but I hate what he did. And it terrifies me that that could have been me." Thabit hails from Abha, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, where many of the skyjackers came from.
That near escape is the subject of Abdullah Thabit's book, written in Arabic and published in Syria, "The 20th Terrorist," which recounts his years as a religious extremist. Faiza Saleh Ambah writes of his story in the Washington Post article "The Would-Be Terrorist's Explosive Tell-All Tale."
Thabit was a lonely fifteen-year old kid with an unhappy home life who spent his spare time herding goats and hitting the books. His good grades attracted the notice of the extremist Wahhabi teachers who dispatched a classmate with an invitation to play soccer with the "cool" kids. In Saudi Arabia, cool means Wahhabi.
He writes in his book, "There was unconditional love and brotherhood and friendship and sacrifice, and spirituality. All obstacles were melted and we lived a spiritual existential as one. We lived . . . the pleasure of those building a new nation." While satisfying the emotional needs neglected at home, the group also indoctrinated him in the Wahhabi ways. He could not play soccer the way the infidels did. Rather than clap or whistle like infidels, he could only shout "Allah Akbar!" Slowly, the Wahhabis inducted him into their cult of takfiri ideology, where all those who don't share their religious beliefs are infidels to be hated. Says Thabit, "We were taught that our Islam was correct and everyone else, including our families, was going to hell, a hell that resembled a slaughterhouse. And I wanted to be one of the select few who made it into heaven."
Yahya, one of his Wahhabi mentors, would take him to the cemetery every week to lie for hours in open graves after midnight to listen to radicals preach on a cassette player. The fate of infidels was hideous in these sermons, consigned to hell where their skin was peeled off and they were hung on hooks amidst snakes and fire. It scared the hell out of young Abdullah: "When we left from there, I wanted Yahya to tell me anything I could do to be saved from hellfire and from that terror."
The Wahhabis provided what teenaged boys want most: an identity. "If your parents or your community or your country don't provide you with one, and most Arab countries don't, you will look for it elsewhere. And these groups provide you with one. Your identity becomes that of a devout Muslim and that then transcends everything else about you."
The Wahhabis would take hundreds of boys out on overnight camping trips where they would play big war games, mujaheddin versus infidels. When he turned seventeen, the Wahhabis recommended he go to Afghanistan to train for jihad. Fear of fighting in Afghanistan outweighed his fear of being an infidel and going to hell. He told them he wasn't ready yet.
The bickering within the group put him off along with the way they put down people who committed trivial violations of their rules. He started reading moderate literature on the sly and slowly weaned himself away from the extremists by the time he was 20. "I was disillusioned by them, and questions were born in my mind about God, about myself, about everything, and I began looking for answers." He feels sad for the takfiris, "I wish they could live a life full of love and art and music. I wish they could regain their humanity. But their lives have been stolen from them and they don't even know it."
Thabit's book exposing the Wahhabi indoctrination has gotten a mixed reception in Saudi Arabia. Casual reading for enjoyment is not a feature of Arab Muslim culture as it is in Western culture. Thabit was the target of hundreds of nasty emails calling him an infidel and a traitor. Then came death threats. "They are like a mafia, a gang, and I am revealing their secrets. They want to silence me," says Thabit. It was the threatening phone calls that convinced Thabit to pack his wife and two daughters into his Ford Grand Marquis one night and drive four hundred miles to a new life in Jiddah.
Thabit's advice: "Live, love, listen to music, enjoy art. When you go through what I've been through, you realize you were kidnapped, and you have to learn to live and taste and feel, all over again."