THE NEW YORK TIMES May 4, 2007
In Jihadist Haven, a Goal: To Kill and Die in Iraq
By SOUAD MEKHENNET and MICHAEL MOSS
ZARQA, Jordan — Abu Ibrahim considers his dead friends the lucky ones.
Four died in Iraq in 2005. Three more died this year, one with an
explosives vest and another at the wheel of a bomb-laden truck, according to
relatives and community leaders.
Abu Ibrahim, a lanky 24-year-old, was on the same mission when he left
this bleak city north of Amman for Iraq last October. But he made it only as
far as the border before he was arrested, and is now back home in a world he
thought he had left for good — biding his time, he said, for another chance
to hurl himself into martyrdom.
“I am happy for them but I cry for myself because I couldn’t do it yet,”
said Abu Ibrahim, who uses this name as a nom de guerre. “I want to spread
the roots of God on this earth and free the land of occupiers. I don’t love
anything in this world. What I care about is fighting.”
Zarqa has been known as a cradle of Islamic militancy since the beginning
of the war in Iraq. It was the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of
the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed last summer.
Today it is a breeding ground for would-be jihadists like Abu Ibrahim and
five of his friends who left about the same time last fall, bound for Iraq.
Interviews with Abu Ibrahim and relatives of the other men show that
rather than having been individually recruited by an organization like Mr.
Zarqawi’s, they gradually radicalized one another, the more strident leading
the way. Local imams led them further toward Iraq, citing verses from the
Koran to justify killing civilians. The men watched videos depicting
tortured and slain Muslims that are copied from Internet sites.
“The sheik, he was a hero,” Abu Ibrahim said of Mr. Zarqawi. But, he
added, “I decided to go when my friends went.” For the final step, getting
the phone number of a smuggler and address of a safe house in Iraq, the men
used facilitators who act more like travel agents than militant leaders.
“Most of the young people here in Zarqa are very religious,” an Islamist
community leader said. “And when they see the news and what is going on in
the Islamic countries, they themselves feel that they have to go to fight
jihad. Today, you don’t need anyone to tell the young men that they should
go to jihad. They themselves want to be martyrs.”
The anger is palpable on the streets of Zarqa. “He’s American? Let’s
kidnap and kill him,” one Islamist activist said during an interview with a
reporter before the host of the meeting dissuaded him.
The stories of the men from Zarqa help explain the seemingly endless
supply of suicide bombers in Iraq, most of whom are believed to be
Suicide bombings in Iraq are averaging roughly 42 a month, American
military officials said.
[In April, a pair of truck bombers killed nine American soldiers, another
bomber blew himself up in the Green Zone killing one member of Parliament,
and others killed more than 290 civilians.]
Rising Anger at Shiites
The anger among militants in Zarqa, a mostly Sunni city, is now directed
at Shiites as much as Americans, reflecting the escalation in hostility
between the two branches of Islam since Shiites gained dominance in the new
Iraqi government. “They have traditions that are un-Islamic and they hate
the Sunnis,” said Ahmad Khalil Abdelaziz Salah, an imam whose mosque in
Zarqa was attended by some of Zarqa’s bombers.
Asked to name his targets, Abu Ibrahim said: “First, the Shiites. Second,
the Americans. Third, anywhere in the world where Islam is threatened.”
Among a small circle of young Islamists and relatives here, the fates of
the six young men are well known. Three of the men are said to have died:
two as suicide bombers and one apparently by gunfire. One has been held in
Iraq and the other two, including Abu Ibrahim, were turned back.
Abu Ibrahim, who spoke on the condition that his name and some personal
details be withheld, told his story in interviews over five hours. To back
up his account, he agreed to show reporters his passport, which confirmed he
entered Syria last fall. Relatives of another one of the young men quoted
from a letter he had written saying goodbye and indicating he was going to
Iraq. The family of a third man, who was captured and is being detained by
American troops, provided a copy of his detention records from the
International Committee of the Red Cross.
The six men left Zarqa last fall, all apparently with the same goal, but
driven by their own individual circumstances.
The youngest, 19-year-old Amer Jaradad, left without telling his family
where he was going. But they were not surprised.
One of his six brothers, Jihad — named for the Islamic obligation to
defend the religion — had already died fighting in Falluja in 2005, said his
father, Kasem Mufla Jaradad.
“Amer was very close to Jihad, and when Jihad became a martyr Amer was in
the last year of school. He began spending his time reading Islamic books,”
Mr. Jaradad said.
That same year, 2005, Amer called to say he, too, had gone to Iraq, Mr.
Jaradad said. Mr. Jaradad sent two of his older sons to Baghdad and they
brought Amer home. “As a father I was thinking and hoping that we lost one
son and that was enough,” Mr. Jaradad said. “But I could tell Amer was
thinking, ‘This life doesn’t count anymore and I will follow the way of my
“One time I tried to get him away from these things,” his father said. “I
said, ‘Shall we get you a wife,’ and he said, ‘No, this is not important to
me. Jihad is.’ ”
Amer left again for Iraq on Oct. 19 last year, near the end of Ramadan,
when security at the borders is more relaxed. And once again, he phoned home
three weeks later to say he had made it. That was the last they heard of
Amer until one of his brothers got a call on Jan. 19 on his cellphone — the
number of which Amer had taken with him — saying Amer was blown up in the
truck he was driving with a bomb in it.
News reports cite a truck bombing in Kirkuk on the day he was said to
have died, but his father and brothers say they cannot be sure that Amer was
Praise for Suicide Bombers
At his crowded funeral in Zarqa, one of his brothers praised Amer and
other suicide bombers. “They are the best youths and good persons,” he said.
“He was successful in life, but decided to fight the Americans in Iraq.”
The mother of another of the young men, a 20-year-old engineering
student, still believes that her son went to Iraq looking for a job. At the
family’s home recently, she sank to her knees, weeping and clutching his
He walked out the door of his family’s two-room apartment, telling his
mother he was meeting friends for breakfast. The next his family heard was
notification from the Red Cross that he had been detained by American troops
in Iraq, according to one of his sisters, who asked that her brother not be
identified for fear of jeopardizing his education should he be released.
His family was large and poor, with 17 children. Going to college gave
him a glimpse of opportunities, but he failed to win a scholarship to study
medicine in England, the sister said.
“Rich people go to his university,” she said. “He wanted to be somebody
and he couldn’t.”
At the same time, he adopted a strict adherence to Islam. “I noticed the
change two years ago,” his sister said. “He stopped listening to music. He
isolated himself from us. At family gatherings, he sat by himself,
Unlike his mother, the man’s sister concedes that he probably went to
Iraq to fight. In March 2007, when another of the six friends, a 19-year-old
laundry worker named Abdullah Fasfous, died in Iraq, the sister showed her
mother his picture.
“Oh, this poor guy,” she said her mother told her. “They also told him
they would get him a job.”
Mr. Salah, the imam, said the young man prayed at his mosque and tutored
youngsters in the Koran. Mr. Salah said if he had known his plans, he would
have tried to dissuade him from going to Iraq.
“It’s very difficult at the moment,” Mr. Salah said. “If you do a suicide
operation, the Muslims are mixed up with non-Muslims and maybe you kill
But he is hardly a voice of restraint. Mr. Salah counts Shiites among the
non-Muslims. He joined the recent call for retribution against them, which
gained fervor well beyond Zarqa after Shiite executioners were videotaped
jeering as Saddam Hussein was hanged in December.
In his home he showed visitors a newly released video titled “The True
History and Aims of the Shiites.” It portrays Shiites deriding the first
three caliphs, or leaders of the ancient Islamic world, and saying that the
youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, had been a prostitute.
“You see, they hate our caliphs and they hate the Sunnis,” Mr. Salah
When the video showed scenes of Sunnis tortured and killed by a Shiite
militia in Iraq, he added, “We didn’t see the Shiites like that before, but
now in Iraq they showed their real face.”
Just a few years ago, Abu Ibrahim was hardly concerned with the religious
intensity of people like Mr. Salah.
Abu Ibrahim, the oldest of the six friends who left for Iraq last fall,
said his early days in Zarqa were filled with billiards, pop music and
chasing girls. He wanted to play soccer professionally.
“I was just looking to have fun, but I was not alive,” Abu Ibrahim said.
“I was missing something. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt it inside.”
“They asked me, ‘why are you not praying? Why not follow the rules of
Zarqa was undergoing a shift toward conservative Islam. One of the new
adherents, who wears a niqab, which veils her face, sat in the women’s
prayer room of the mosque recently and said: “Religion was something we just
got from our parents. But after the war started, we decided we have to show
the world we are Muslims. I started wearing the niqab to show the world I am
Giving Up Their Lives for God
Some of Zarqa’s young men began displaying their commitment to Islam by
going to fight in Iraq, and the funerals back home seemed to have had a
profound effect on young men.
“Four of my friends died,” Abu Ibrahim said. “I was happy for them
because they were going to paradise, but I was upset at myself.”
Abu Ibrahim said he was frank with his parents. “I started to tell them
that God wants us to give up our lives for jihad. They didn’t like it. They
told me, ‘You’re still too young, wait.’ You know how mothers and fathers
are. They didn’t want to hear such things.”
He left home in October with only a sports bag full of clothes. His seat
in a group taxi to the Syrian border cost $11. Neither the Jordanian nor
Syrian border guards asked many questions, he said.
He slept in a Damascus hotel, and then took a six-hour bus ride east to
the Iraq border area, where he had the name of a smuggler who took travelers
across the border for about $150 apiece. But the police pulled him off a
bus, questioned him and detained him before he could reach his contact. He
said he had memorized the address of his destination, and gave the police a
false one. But after four days in a Syrian prison — tiny cells with no heat
and no light — he said he confessed.
“Later, they put me in a cell with other prisoners and most of them had
been less religious ones, so we, the religious ones, took one corner and we
prayed and talked about the Koran,” he said.
After three more weeks, he said, the Syrians handed him to Jordanian
authorities, who kept him for several days. “I became much stronger,” he
said of his prison experience. “But most of the days I was very upset I
didn’t arrive and I pray to God that he will get me what I wish to get.”
Back in Zarqa, he said his parents told him: “Enough, Abu Ibrahim. You
tried to go and God doesn’t want you to go. So sit down and get married.”
“It is hard to leave our families,” Abu Ibrahim said. “But it is our
duty, and if we don’t defend our religion who should do it? The old people
or the children?”
He spends his days now in Zarqa at work with his brothers, then evenings
with friends who share his convictions. They visit Islamic Web sites,
discuss the news from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.
“I still have the same aim, fulfilling the rules of God,” he said. “I
wouldn’t do the same mistakes the next time and hope that God would open the