Saudi state-run Channel One TV broadcasted the first episode of a new series aimed at dissuading young Saudis from following in the footsteps of many of their contemporaries to join the jihad (holy war) earlier this week. “Jihad Experiences, the Deceit” is a five part series which will tell the stories of several young Saudis who left to Iraq to fight alongside Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Zayd Asfan, Abdullah Khoja and Walid Khan narrated their journey from ordinary Saudi youth to mujahideen and discussed the recruitment and brainwashing techniques used by al Qaeda.
At the end of the program, Channel One also broadcast a talk show on the subject of terrorism and recruitment featuring experts in the studio.
Each former militant discussed the religious, social and psychological motives behind their transformation. The men examined their intellectual, social and psychological condition before embracing extreme ideologies, the impact of irrational emotions, the lack of knowledge of Islamic Shariaa (law) and the consequences of extremist ideologies on the individual, his family and society. They also spoke of the positive role the environment (family, peers and the public) can play in restricting the flow of extremist ideas and thoughts. In addition, the men discussed the role of social institutions in facing-off to militant ideologies and the plans to contain returning fighters as well as the particular personality traits and psychological mechanisms which are used to persuade young men.
Walid Khan spoke first and told the viewers how he was introduced to extremism, emphasizing that young men like him were driven by factors outside of religion such as psychological pressure and the desire to rebel. For example, Walid said he did not believe in the principle of takfir (judging other Muslims as infidel). Instead, he sought answers to the numerous questions that crowded his thoughts. He was told, “Embark on jihad and you will obtain all the answers.” The problem, as he put it was, “You never get any answers through jihad.”
For his part, Koja recounted how a meeting with an Islamist militant from Afghanistan changed his life. “I heard that an Uzbek mujahideen leader in Afghanistan, Taher Jan was in the city of Taif where I was working. I wanted to meet him very much and was lucky to be able to. I shared with him my desire to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan or any other part of the world where true jihad for the sake of Allah was being waged. He replied that I may not be able to tolerate the life of a mujahid in Afghanistan given the comfortable standard of living in Saudi Arabia. I assured him I will be patient.”
Walid also remembered how unfamiliar he was with ideological discussions on takfir before joining the extremists. “Afterwards, when I found myself in direct contact with people who believe in takfir and spoke constantly about it, I began listening to their arguments. When asked why takfir, they would answer with religious evidence we were unable to counter. This is how we complied.” In the beginning, Walid added, “I was motivated primarily by enthusiasm. My brother had told me of a friend who became a mujahid. I wondered how someone could leave everything behind. I thought his motives must have been very strong. I then read religious fatwas (edicts) and texts and rousing poems. My eagerness motivated me.”
The recruitment was not complete until the men received military training and learned how to handle explosives and a range of weapons. Ziad Asfan told the viewers of his return to Afghanistan after an initial visit. This time, “I joined a number of training camps. The first was al Siddiq camp where, for two weeks, I was taught how to use light weapons. As you probably know, the camp resembled other training grounds in that we listened to religious songs and fiery sermons that exposed Christian and Jewish conspiracies against the land of Islam and our biggest grievance, Palestine.”
For his part, Koja described how he crossed the border into Afghanistan on foot. “I was dressed as an Afghan since we were keen to conceal our Arab identity. I asked about the camp and what would happen next. I was told to remain in the camp and follow training. I was also told to be patient and not ask many questions.”
Khan provided additional detail on his illegal journey. “At night, we arrived at a small Iranian village called Sanandaj. We took a taxi to the village of Dezli on the Iran-Iraq border. We had an appointment at midnight with a man who was going to smuggle us into Iraq. Of course, this was a totally new experience to men. I was used to a peaceful and ordinary life that revolved around my family and university. I was afraid. We were received in Iraq by a member of Ansar al Islam. He took us to Khormana where we stayed for a long time in a totally alien environment.”
Discussing relations between new recruits, Khoja revealed, “Young mujahideen were constantly suspicious. I met a young man I felt very comfortable with. I asked which city he came from and who he knew. He was very reluctant to answer. I was always told not to ask too many questions and focus on my own affairs. The explanation given was that militants were afraid of spies.”
Patience, Asfan indicated, was necessary at every undertaking. “We were told to be patient. I heard this when climbing a mountain, walking in valleys and training. They told us your pure intentions will help prepare the men who will form the core of the Islamic state and the army which will march from Kabul to Palestine.”
Not all extremists were absorbed in ideology or focused on military training, according to Khan. “There are many simple people amongst the ranks. They know nothing about [Osama] bin Laden or the Taliban. Their sole task is to keep guard. These laymen have no vision or goal.”
Fighters loyal to al Qaeda came from around the world. Khoja told the viewers how he met “several Arab and non-Arab fighters, from Daghestan, France, Britain, Germany, and the U.S.A… all Muslims. I loved them all. I stayed with Pakistanis, Africans and Indonesians.”
The majority of Arab fighters “were Jordanian followers of [Abu Musab] al Zarqawi. Originally, all of them had sworn allegiance to Sheikh Mohammad al Maqdisi and followers of Bayat al Imam in Jordan. In 1995 they were sentenced for 15 years in prison but were released five years later under a general amnesty. After their release, they traveled to Afghanistan where their ideas took shape. Of course, they believed that all Arab governments, armies and police were infidels.”
Islamist militants however were not a monolithic bloc. “I understood that there were a number of disputes between them and bin Laden’s followers; they agreed on some issues and differed on others. We didn’t realize these intricate details until much later.”
“As soon as al Zarqawi and his followers arrived at the camp, the mood changed. Some mujahideen opposed al Zarqawi but they lacked funds and were willing to do anything for money. At that point, anyone with the required resources could have controlled the camp. Al Zarqawi joined us when the group was considering a truce with the Taliban. He appointed a close follower, Abu Mohammad to supervise us and sent half a million dollars five months later. The group now owed everything to al Zarqawi. He became the dominant figure and was able to impose his perspective. In order to control a group of mujahideen, all you need to do is become its main financier.”
Discussing extremist ideologies and recalling their indoctrination, the three men spoke in turn with Khoja explaining his unease at some of the notions he was being taught.
“One day, a Yemeni told me, “God willing, we will conquer Riyadh”. I asked him why he regarded Riyadh as an enemy city when our brothers and sisters lived there. He said I didn’t know what I was talking about. Another Algerian brother also expressed similar reckless views. I was very saddened by what I heard and shared my concerns with the camp leader who was from Eritrea. This was at [al Qaeda’s] Khalden camp in Afghanistan.”
“Egyptians, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans, Moroccans, Saudis, Yemenis, Chechens all stayed in the same camp along side men from Daghestan and The Netherlands. I remember Abu Khaled who was French of African descent. He spoke in classical Arabic. They all disagreed with the majority of Saudi and Muslim scholars and insulted them”, he added.
Asfan was more analytical in his intervention. “They tried to convince us that the victory of Islam would not happen unless governments collapsed. They believed current regimes protected the Jews and Christians. They would always say that God had revealed a certain state was the most evil and dangerous.” Khan confirmed this religious and intellectual muddling and added, “Almost 90% of the men I met in training camps questioned the authority of the Grand Mufti and other Islamic scholars.”
Khoja concurs. “I used to tell others about Abu Bakr al Jezairi, a prominent sheikh from Medina. They attacked him as a scholar “sitting under the air-conditioning unit” and said he never cared much about the fate of the ummah (Islamic state). I was really shocked when I heard this and similar opinions when I quoted Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz and Sheikh Muhammad ibn Uthaymeen. To my utter dismay, I was told neither scholar had waged jihad and were unaware of the state of the ummah. At the time, my knowledge was weak and I was overwhelmed by their claims.”
Commenting on the military training they received in Afghanistan, Asfan indicated that other militants “always urged us to be patient. They always drew an analogy with how Arab armies prepare before going to war and force their soldiers to be patient. Because our cause was nobler, we had to be even more cautious!”
Khan interjected and revealed how militant groups recruited new gullible men. “You would come to them with many unanswered questions and they would respond to you and attract you to their ways. The problem lies in that their ideology is solely about rebelling against government.”