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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

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The village of Hezna, Saudi Arabia. (Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)

Highway 15: The long road to rehabilitation

Two views from relatives of 9/11 hijackers, one of regret and one of pride.

HEZNA, Saudi Arabia – Turn off Highway 15 near the city of Al Baha and a narrow, winding road brings you up a steep hill to an outcropping of huge boulders and beautiful, rugged terrain where this village lies.

Hezna is a typical tribal enclave for the southwest of Saudi Arabia with its sweeping views and cool breezes.

Osama bin Laden, a native of the Saudi southwest, knew this area well, and his family had through generations woven together relationships with the prominent tribes that hail from here.

It was in the village of Hezna that bin Laden’s Al Qaeda recruited three young men for jihad and sent them to Afghanistan for training and then on to America to carry out the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

A total of twelve of the 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers came from the leading tribes in the provinces that are strung along Highway 15, which runs through here and which was built in the 1960s by bin Laden’s father whose construction company was close to the House of Saud.

“I miss my brother. I miss him the same way Americans miss their loved ones killed on 9/11. It was useless violence.”
~Khaled Alghamdi, brother of hijacker Said Alghamdi

That fact led me to a journey down Highway 15 ten years ago when I was the Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe and we were trying to understand the profile of the young men who carried out the attacks.

On that trip, I spoke to friends and family of the hijackers and to young people many of whom expressed support for bin Laden. I heard the fiery sermons of the imams of the Wahhabi clerical establishment echo from the minarets of mosques. I visited public schools where I saw first hand the boring, rote lessons — and sometimes hateful, anti-Western messages — of teachers steeped in the same puritanical ethos of Wahhabism.

Now on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I returned to this small village to find the family of Ahmed Al Haznawi, one of the hijackers who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Twenty-two years old at the time, he was widely considered the head of the triangle of youths from here who joined bin Laden’s 9/11 plot. I wanted to see if ten years on, I might be able to gain more understanding into the forces that led Haznawi and the other hijackers from here to embrace the Apocalyptic ideology of Al Qaeda and take part in the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

It seemed to me that after ten years we still did not have a clear picture of why the attacks have so many links back to Saudi Arabia. Not just that bin Laden himself hails from a Saudi family closely connected to the palace and that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, but there remained deeper questions about how the Wahhabi religious establishment and the educational system over which it presides had provided fertile soil for fierce anti-Americanism and a youth culture that answered a call to ‘jihad.’

I remembered where the Haznawi family compound was near the top of the hill and went there on an afternoon in late June. Haznawi’s father, Sheikh Ibrahim Al Haznawi, is still the head of the mosque in the old marketplace of the village. The Haznawi family is a branch of the large and respected Alghamdi tribe, which numbers as many as 200,000.

When we went to the Haznawi family home, we were not permitted to enter the gate. I turned back down the road toward he mosque by the old market place and I met up with Amin Hamid Alghamdi, who is a teacher.

He remembered giving Koranic lessons to Haznawi and the other two young hijackers who hailed from a nearby village in the province. He said their understanding of Islamic principles were misguided and it was clear in the years before they left to join Al Qaeda and train in Afghanistan that they were being influenced by radical Islamic clerics whose audio tapes were widely circulated in those days.

Amin, the teacher, knows the families very well and offered to help me speak with them by phone. We called Hamzawi’s father, and Amin put his cell