The story of Ahmed Abdullah al-Shayea sounds like a fairy tale, and not a very pleasant one. Recruited as a jihadi in the conservative Saudi town of Buraida as a 19-year-old, he volunteered to go to Iraq as a fighter. Once there, he balked when insurgents — including Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab al Zarqawi himself — tried to persuade him to become a suicide bomber. So instead, he claims, they told him his mission was to drive a huge fuel truck—with no truck-driving experience at all—through Baghdad neighborhoods—with which he had no familiarity whatever—and drop it off at the Saddam Towers. It was Christmas Day, 2004.
Two other militants rode with him, but jumped out suddenly, leaving him alone. A less guileless person might have taken that as a sign, but al Shayea carried on driving toward his destination. Then as he approached the residence of the Jordanian ambassador in the Mansour neighborhood, another militant cynically pushed a remote control button and blew up the truck behind him, setting off a fireball that killed eight or nine people and wounded many others. Shayea really had no idea they were doing this, and certainly didn't intend to become a human fireball.
The only thing stranger than that yarn is the verifiable fact that Shayea lived through the bombing. In the confusion at the scene, he was taken for one of the civilian victims and hospitalized but eventually identified as the perpetrator—whether willing or not. A videotape made by Iraqi ministry of interior interrogators was released to NEWSWEEK and other news organizations at the time, showing Shayea in obvious pain, swathed in bandages with a disfigured face and multiple injuries, spinning his sorry yarn.
Now Shayea is back in Saudi Arabia, still in custody but in a rehabilitation program for former jihadis, and making frequent appearances to denounce jihad. It's part of a Saudi government propaganda drive against supporting the insurgency in Iraq. He's still spinning the same yarn, but he's also obligingly denouncing his former handlers. "I realized that all along, I was wrong," Shayea said in an interview with the Associated Press recently at a hotel in Riyadh, where he was taken for a media encounter before being returned to interior ministry custody. "There is no jihad. We are just instruments of death."
Now 22, Shayea may yet have a life. The Saudi program holds out the promise of release, with jobs and help in finding a wife, for jihadis who are judged truly repentant. If Shayea qualifies, as he is on course to do, he will probably be the first suicide (or is it "homicide") bomber to survive his own detonation and win his freedom.