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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.'

Highway 15: The long road to rehabilitation

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

phone on speaker as my interpreter translated from Arabic to English.

There was fury in the father’s voice. Ibrahim Hamzawi said he refused to meet with anyone who was American. And he berated America for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, he said, for the taking of many more civilian lives than were taken on the morning of September 11th.

“I will not see you or answer your questions. Why should I when I have so many questions for you?” he asked. “America is the first enemy of all Muslims. Why? Why are Americans attacking and killing Arabs and Muslims. All of this is because of Israel. Why can’t you control your Jewish lobby which is directing your foreign policy?”

Amin Hamid Alghamdi.
(Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)

His rant went on crackling with hatred over the speakerphone.

Through the translator, I asked him if what his son did was wrong.

He replied, “I am proud of my son as is all his family.”

Family and friends who I interviewed ten years ago said Haznawi played off tribal loyalties to bring two distant cousins from the village of Beljurashi — Ahmed, 26, and Hamza Alghamdi, 21 — into jihad and ultimately into the 9/11 plot. They were both among the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I came looking for answers, but the kingdom is as opaque today as it was ten years ago. It’s still difficult to get to the bottom of the young lives of the men who did the hijacking. Their lives remain largely undocumented and the details of the forces that pulled them together are still largely unknown.

In the six months following 9/11, Saudi authorities arrested 639 young men suspected of militancy, many of them from this region. They were thoroughly interrogated and many were then released. Some remain in prison. The government refuses to reveal any findings of a top secret, 600-page report it undertook on Islamic militancy in the kingdom, the 15 young Saudi hijackers and how they were recruited.

Dr. Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, General Director of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate, helped to assemble the findings of the report, but said it remains classified.

“It was so important to understand the roots of the problem,” he said in an interview at a private club for security officers in Riyadh.

GlobalPost Correspondent Caryle Murphy and I sat with him drinking tea in the plush environs of the club surrounded by stuffed wild animals and large romantic oil paintings of the desert kingdom and its tribal culture. We peppered him with questions and he provided mostly polite, diplomatic answers which mostly turned the conversation to the hard work that he said Saudi Arabia has done to confront religious extremism and militancy.

Al Hadlaq is at the center of an effort in Saudi Arabia to try to rehabilitate extremists, a program that by some accounts is working. He said there were about 11,000 Islamic militants who they’ve arrested, about half of whom have been released and half of whom pose a threat and need what he calls “rehabilitation.”

“We have the ability to rehabilitate them. We don’t have a 100 percent guarantee it will work for all. But when you compare it to recidivism rates for other crimes, such as drug abuse, which is about 60 percent, we are at around 10 percent,” he said.

He recognized that there have been notable failures in which extremists have gone through rehabilitation only to end up in neighboring Yemen as part of a new permutation of Al Qaeda.

But he quickly added, “The Saudis are doing many things. When we have a problem, we deal with it.”

The immediate families of the hijackers have been instructed to never speak to the media, and ten years ago my ability to reach them for even a few brief comments was only possible through an intermediary by phone or through a crack in a compound gate, just at it was on this trip.

After listening to the father’s angry tirade against America and ultimately his pride in his son’s role in the September 11th attacks, we tried to reach other family members. It’s not easy in a place like Saudi Arabia to do that.

But the teacher, Amin, did help to put me in touch with Khaled Alghamdi, 40, the brother of hijacker Said Alghamdi. And Khaled had a very different answer to the same question I had put to the father. Did he think that what his brother did was wrong?

“Yes,” he replied in Arabic, speaking through the translator. “What my brother did was wrong.”

And he said with great sadness in his voice, “I miss my brother. I miss him the same way Americans miss their loved ones killed on 9/11. It was useless violence.”

After we hung up the phone, I spoke at length with the teacher, Amin, who was educated and gentle in the way he spoke and patient in trying to help me find answers to so many questions.

Amin explained, “There are two sides of remembering September 11th here and you’ve heard both of them from two families. There is sadness which you heard from the brother. And there is emotion and anger. That came from a father who is missing his son. He’s human.”

Then he began carefully drawing for me a diagram on the back of a piece of paper he found in his car. He was trying to sketch a chart with pillars that represented the core of Islam and then crossing lines that illustrated how the beliefs of the three young hijackers contradicted the faith. They were lessons lost on his former students, but Amin is still teaching. 


(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)