The Would-Be Terrorist's Explosive Tell-All Tale

Abdullah Thabit signs copies of his controversial new book,
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)
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.

"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.

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