By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post 
Monday, July 24, 2006
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — When Abdullah Thabit recently saw a photo of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers for the first time, he felt a jolt of fear, and then a sadness so intense that tears streamed down his cheeks. The hijacker, Ahmed Alnami, was from Thabit’s home town, and he looked familiar.
Thabit is the author of “The 20th Terrorist,” which recounts his years as a religious extremist. He thinks he could easily have been in Alnami’s place.
Abdullah Thabit signs copies of his controversial new book, “The 20th Terrorist,” about his indoctrination into Islamic extremism. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah For The Washington Post)
“I felt like someone who’d gotten off a boat just in time and then watched it capsize with him and the others onboard,” Thabit says. “I love Nami, but I hate what he did. And it terrifies me that that could have been me.”
In “The 20th Terrorist,” published in Syria in January, Thabit, a 33-year-old school administrator, chronicles his life among extremists led by a loosely knit group of public school teachers in the southern Asir region of Saudi Arabia who recruited him when he was in the ninth grade.
That the book went on sale in Saudi bookstores last month is an indication of how far the country has come in the five years since the attacks. It was a bestseller for several months on the Arab online bookstore Neelwalfurat.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, but for months after the attacks officials here denied any Saudis were involved. And until recently, criticism of the country’s religious establishment and educational system has not been tolerated.
Since his book came out, Thabit has gotten favorable fan mail, and in March Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Asir province, where the majority of the Saudi hijackers came from, bought 50 copies of “The 20th Terrorist” in Lebanon. The prince then invited the heads of Asir’s education departments to his weekly salon and distributed it to them as mandatory reading.
But many other Saudis are angry about the book’s revelations. Thabit was bombarded with hundreds of nasty e-mails each day from people calling him a traitor and an infidel. Some threatened to kill him. Then came the menacing phone calls. That’s what finally spooked him. On April 3, in the middle of the night, he packed his bags, got his wife and two daughters into his Ford Grand Marquis and drove the 420 miles from Abha, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, north to Jiddah on the Red Sea, where he now lives.
Thabit continues to receive death threats. “They are like a mafia, a gang, and I am revealing their secrets. They want to silence me,” he says.
“The 20th Terrorist” is one of he first books to describe how extremist teachers in Saudi public schools used apparently innocuous after-school activities such as soccer training, Koran memorization lessons and camping trips to separate teenage boys from their families and slowly indoctrinate them in takfiri ideology — the belief that all those who don’t follow the same puritanical extremist views are infidels.
Thabit recounts in detail the cultlike atmosphere of the extremist group he belonged to, and how it instilled loyalty to the group, and hatred and mistrust of the enemy.
“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,” he says.
People, especially the young, are always looking for an identity — they need a sense of who they are, Thabit says. “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.”
Curiosity about Thabit and his book has grown. Earlier this month he was invited to a book club meeting held by a small group of mainly university students.
Dressed casually in jeans and slippers, his prematurely gray hair falling just below the collar of his long-sleeved shirt, Thabit urged the young men and women to think independently. “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.”
Abdullah al-Najjar, a 25-year-old airplane maintenance engineer sitting cross-legged in an armchair, leafed through the book and then noted: “You say the group stole years from your life, yet you make your time with them sound romantic and fun.”
Seated in a velvet chair in the center of the room, Thabit took his time answering. Initially it was a lot of fun, he said. The soccer games, the attention, the prizes, the feeling of being important, special, of being part of something bigger than himself, the camaraderie. These were things he wasn’t getting at home or at school.
But his experience was terrifying, too. “They use two primal instincts to keep you in their grip, fear and desire.” Desire for heaven, fair maidens and the dream of setting up an Islamic caliphate. And fear of God’s displeasure, hellfire and torture.
In the book, Thabit says one of his mentors, Yahya, took him on weekly trips to the cemetery, after midnight, where they would lie for hours in freshly dug graves and listen in the dark to a sermon about hell played on the car cassette player. The cleric would describe a hell filled with snakes, leaping fire and sinners stripped naked hanging on hooks, their skins peeled off. Life is temporary and the hereafter is forever, the cleric warned. Thabit often wept from fear. “When we left from there, I wanted Yahya to tell me anything I could do to be saved from hellfire and from that terror,” he writes.
When he encountered the group, Thabit was a lonely 15-year-old with a miserable home life who spent his spare time studying and herding goats while his wealthier friends rode around town on their bicycles.
He was quickly noticed by teachers in the network of extremists for his excellent grades, and one of the older students was dispatched to invite him to an after-school soccer tournament organized by the group. He jumped at the chance to join the group, which included the high school’s most remarkable students and was supervised by the most devout and respected teachers.
One of the first things he learned was not to imitate “infidels.” That meant not dressing in training pants or clapping and whistling during soccer games — the way infidels did. He was to show his enthusiasm by shouting “God is great.” He was also taught that music, television and cigarettes were sinful. Cheating in English class, however, was okay; it was the language of the infidels.
He was a fast learner. Several years later he became one of the supervisors on the overnight camping trips the group took. During the trips, which sometimes included as many as 300 students, the camp was divided into teams. In the evenings, without weapons, some of them dressed like Afghan mujaheddin, they would practice stealth attacks against each other, overpowering guards and grabbing hostages and booty.
“There was unconditional love and brotherhood and friendship and sacrifice, and spirituality,” he writes. “All obstacles were melted and we lived a spiritual existential as one. We lived . . . the pleasure of those building a new nation.”
When Thabit turned 17, the group suggested he go to Afghanistan for jihad, or holy war, training. But he was afraid and said he didn’t feel quite ready yet.
At the book club meeting, Najjar, the plane maintenance engineer, asked Thabit how he extricated himself from the group.
He said he was banished briefly by the group for not following orders. He also found he was put off by petty internal rivalries, and the way the leaders trivialized feelings and humiliated people they caught smoking or listening to music had shaken the image he had of them. “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 started devouring moderate literature, which helped him to start thinking for himself, bit by bit. He had left the group by the time he was 20.
As the discussion wound up, the book club host walked around, pouring cardamom-laced coffee for his guests and passing out sticky dates filled with almonds. As people started getting ready to leave, one of the young men asked: “How do you feel about extremists now? How do you feel when you see one of them?”
“I feel very sad,” Thabit said. “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.”