RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A few weeks after his son Ahmed disappeared, Abdullah al-Shayea got a call from an Iraqi official saying the 19-year-old was an intended suicide bomber who barely survived blowing up a fuel tanker in a deadly Christmas Day attack in Baghdad.
Ahmed is one of many Saudi youths — estimates run from the low hundreds to as many as 2,500 — who have slipped into Iraq in the past two years, often traveling through Syria to join other Arab and Muslim recruits eager to translate a fiercely anti-U.S., Al Qaeda-inspired ideology into strikes against Americans and their Western and Iraqi allies.
"I was stunned," said al-Shayea of his son's role in the explosion, which killed at least nine people just hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) made a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital. "I had no clue he was even thinking of going there."
Some go because an aggressive anti-terror campaign in the kingdom has made it harder for them to operate in Saudi Arabia, others because they don't think it's right to risk killing Saudis and Muslims while attacking Western targets in their own country. But all of them believe their mission is a jihad (search), or holy war, that a true Muslim should not forsake.
"Those who cannot do jihad in Saudi Arabia go to Iraq," said Mshari al-Thaydi, a London-based Saudi writer and expert on Islamic groups. "The goals are the same, the ideology is the same and the modus operandi is the same."
Ahmed al-Shayea's journey is typical of how many Saudis end up in Iraq, said al-Thaydi and other authorities on Islamic extremism.
Ahmed's father said that toward the end of the fasting month of Ramadan — before Nov. 15 — a time of religious fervor, his son said he was going camping in the desert with friends, a typical pastime. He said there had been nothing to indicate his son had joined Al Qaeda (search).
In December, a man who did not identify himself called Abdullah al-Shayea to tell him that his son "fell as a martyr" in Iraq, said al-Shayea. But a few days after the family held a wake, an Iraqi official — who didn't give his name — called to say Ahmed had survived.
Al-Shayea did not believe the news until Ahmed appeared in January in an interview with Al-Arabiya television, his head bandaged, his face charred.
Ahmed said a man smuggled him into Iraq from Syria in late November and introduced him to members of the Al Qaeda-linked group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
The 19-year-old said he was taken to Baghdad and told to drive a fuel tanker to the upscale Mansour district. He insisted he had no idea the militants intended to detonate the truck with him inside.
"As soon as I parked the tanker truck, it exploded," Ahmed said, adding that the force of the explosion blew him from the truck's cab.
His father believes Ahmed remains in Iraqi custody, but the elder al-Shayea got no response to a telegram asking the Saudi Interior Ministry about his son.
Hundreds of Iraqis, Americans and other Westerners have died in dozens of suicide attacks in Iraq, with many of those strikes blamed on non-Iraqi Arabs.
Saudi Arabia is taking the matter of roving Saudi fighters seriously and working closely with U.S. officials to learn how the militants were recruited and how they got into Iraq, a senior Saudi official said on condition of anonymity.
Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said that at a terror conference held in Riyadh recently, Saudi officials asked Iraq's Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib for information on Saudis in Iraq.
"They couldn't give us accurate and precise data," said al-Turki. "They said most of the militants were Sudanese who used to work in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein."
In January, Iraq's national security adviser Kasim Daoud said most of the infiltrations are from Iraq's western border, which it shares with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He accused Syrian authorities of conspiring to assist the insurgency — something Damascus has denied.
Daoud also accused Iran of "clear interference" in Iraq. "We are monitoring penetration of many insurgents crossing the border" with Iran, he said, although Tehran, too, has denied that it allows militants to cross.
The Saudi border is inhospitable for militants: Its flat, desert terrain is equipped with image-recognition technology that can detect movement across the frontier.
The Saudis say they are guarding the border stringently because they do not want a post-Afghanistan style problem with militants streaming back home to wage jihad on the ruling family. Saudis believe "Arab-Afghans" set up Al Qaeda's infrastructure in the kingdom upon their return in the 1990s, and they're behind terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia during the past few years.
It's easy for Saudis to go to Syria since they are not required to get visas; tourists from Persian Gulf countries are especially welcome because of the huge sums of money they spend.
Still, Saudi militants are sent to Syria mostly via another country because airport officials might be suspicious of a man traveling alone to Damascus, according to Faris bin Hizam, a Saudi journalist who has been researching the issue of "Iraqi-Saudis" for two years.
"There, the man would be met by a contact, spirited away to a hiding place and then smuggled into Iraq," bin Hizam said.
He said more than 350 Saudis have been killed in Iraq from an estimated total of 2,000 to 2,500 men who have gone there since the war began in March 2003.
He said he arrived at those figures by asking an extensive network of contacts to report when wakes are held for Saudis killed in Iraq and when they hear of men aged 18-35 who have disappeared. Al-Turki called those figures "astronomical" and without a factual basis.
"Saudis are strictly prohibited from taking part in such (military) activities in Iraq or elsewhere," al-Turki told The Associated Press.
In the 1980s, Saudis were openly mobilized to go to Afghanistan and were even given discounts on plane tickets to neighboring Pakistan. Theirs was a mission blessed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia because it targeted a common enemy: communism.
Now, Saudi youths who want to go to Iraq are recruited secretly. The government is closely watching preachers and has banned post-prayer meetings in mosques — once a recruiting haven.
These days, neighbors, friends and relatives meeting at weekly gatherings or on trips to the desert will sit and discuss politics, said al-Thaydi.
"Someone may say, 'Look at what the Americans are doing in Iraq. Shouldn't we be doing something?"' he said. "That would trigger a discussion in which the reaction of youths is carefully monitored."
Those who express the most zeal are surreptitiously observed by recruiters, and the anti-U.S. message is built up "in concentrated doses," said Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer familiar with the thinking of extremists.
"Like vaccines, messages in such doses are effective for a long time," he said.