The Saudi man who studied in New Zealand and manufactured a bomb for use in an ISIS attack was inspired by a close friend’s death, a former friend of his says.
Taie bin Salem bin Yaslam al-Saya’ari died alongside another ISIS-linked extremist in a shootout on Saturday with officers in Riyadh, wearing a suicide bomb vest and clutching a machine gun, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said on Sunday (NZT).
The Saudi Interior Ministry said Al-Saya’ari manufactured the suicide bomb used in the July 4 attack outside of the Medina mosque where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, an assault which killed four Saudi security force members and wounded five.
Al-Saya’ari lived and studied in New Zealand between 2008 and 2013, primarily in Auckland at Massey University.
His former friend Homoud Alsalem says he left in 2013 to join ISIS and fight Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, after about a year of expressing increasingly radical beliefs.
“One year before he left he changed – became more isolated, more religious, more enthusiastic about the Syrian revolution.
“He would watch the news all the time about it. He became enthusiastic, sympathetic with the jihadists.”
Alsalem said the death of another student Al-Saya’ari knew in the Syrian conflict was a factor in his radicalisation.
“Another student studying in New Zealand went to Syria and got killed as part of the Islamic State. I think that shocked him, and made him sympathise with the jihadists more.”
Alsalem said he knew Al-Saya’ari for about four years, after meeting him through mutual friends. They weren’t particularly close, but would see each other from time for time.
Before he became radicalised he was a smart and helpful student, Alsalem said.
“He was by far the smartest Saudi student I knew in New Zealand. I would see him in the library teaching other Saudis – he was a leader in his field,” Alsalem said.
“He was a moderate and charming guy. He was smart enough to know that this was quite wrong.”
Alsalem was also a Saudi student at the time, but at a different university. He now works for an organisation that helps foreign students settle into New Zealand.
Massey University have confirmed a student with a very similar name to Al-Saya’ari studied engineering at their Auckland campus between 2010 and 2013, with a focus on mechatronics. The University of Auckland said he took part in an English language preparation course in 2008 and 2009.
After Al-Saya’ari left the country he remained active on Facebook, where he posted photos of himself brandishing weapons.
“I always hoped he would come back to his mind, I guess, repent and come back as a normal human being,” Alsalem said.
“I was shocked when he left New Zealand, then I was shocked to see him on a list that the Saudi government sent out of wanted terrorists. We all thought he went to Syria to fight the Syrian regime – not damage a mosque in Saudi Arabia that all Muslims believe in. It’s been a series of shocks.”
Alsalem said if a student this smart could be radicalised it could happen to almost anyone.
“He’s not just any guy. If this could happen to him it could happen to any Saudi.”