K H A M I S M U S H A Y T, Saudi Arabia, March 15, 2002 -- When Saudi businessman Mohammed Alshehri opened the local newspaper a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was astonished to see two of his sons listed among the 19 suspected hijackers.
"It was a huge shock for me, for their mother, and for all of their brothers and sisters," he said.
Alshehri read that U.S. authorities believed his sons, Wail, 25, and Waleed, 21, were among the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Although the two boys had disappeared months earlier without a word to their family, Alshehri could not believe they were among the hijackers. He had never heard them talk of Osama bin Laden or fighting a holy jihad against the United States, he told ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters in his first interview since the attacks.
Alshehri also said he has yet to see any hard evidence that his sons were involved. "Even if they were on board that plane, maybe they were just passengers," he said.
Abdullah Alnami, whose son Ahmed has been identified as one of the hijackers on board hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, is also holding out hope. "Perhaps somebody used his passport," he told Walters.
Bred in Remote, Conservative Southwestern Province
The Alshehri and Alnami families both live in the isolated, mountainous province of Asir in the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia. The province's name means "difficult" in Arabic, and underdevelopment has left many of its young men jobless and frustrated. Tribal tradition and religious conservatism run high in the province, and it was home to four of the 15 Saudis among the suspected hijackers.
Alshehri, a prosperous real estate developer who donated a mosque to the local town, Khamis Mushayt, has a total of 14 sons and six daughters, born to four wives.
He said that Wail, an arts teacher, became depressed and went to the holy city of Medina in December 2000 with his brother to consult a religious teacher. When they came back, said another brother, Saleh, Wail and Waleed did not seem to be any more religious than before, though Wail told the family that seeing the religious teacher had lifted his depression.
"They were very normal until the last time I saw them," said their father.
Then the two brothers disappeared again, and the family did not hear from them until early 2001. "They refused to tell their mother where they were," Alshehri said. "All they said to her was, 'We're on our way back home.' "
The phone call was the last the family heard of the two boys until they saw their photographs in the newspaper in September.
U.S. investigators believe the brothers left Saudi Arabia and became involved with Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, al Qaeda, putting in stints at training camps in Afghanistan. Then, U.S. authorities say, they spent last summer in Florida, and came up to Boston, where they boarded Flight 11 on the morning of Sept. 11, Wail in seat 2A, Waleed in 2B. Along with the other suspected hijackers, the two brothers are named as unindicted coconspirators in the first indictment handed down in the case, against Zacarias Moussaoui.
Were the Suspects 'Misled'?
Ahmed Alnami had also disappeared months before Sept. 11. Like the Alshehri brothers, his family had no indication that he had undergone a major change before he disappeared. "He practiced religion the way most of us do," his father said.
Alnami also lived in Asir province, the oldest of 10 children. Last spring, his father said, he left to find a job in Mecca, Saudi Arabia's other holy city. He called the family once, a couple of months later, then disappeared. He never mentioned al Qaeda or jihad, according to his father. "I never noticed any change in Ahmed's behavior," he said,
Abdullah Alnami, a retired policeman, is reluctant to believe his son played a part in the Sept. 11 attacks. "I don't want to believe it. Only God knows that," he said, adding that he has not seen clear evidence of his son's involvement.
Alshehri said he had asked Saudi authorities to show him evidence linking his sons to the attack, but said they told him they did not have the evidence. He admitted, however, that it was conceivable his sons could have been led astray.
"Considering their young age, it is possible that they could be misled by some other people," he said. "If that turns out to be true, then I will never, never accept it from them ... I'll never forgive them for that."