More evidence of what most analysts still prefer to ignore: the power of religious appeals in recruiting and motivating terrorists. From Knight-Ridder, with thanks to Nicolei: “Iraqi teen tells how he joined Ansar al Islam.”
Young, broke and living in a speck of a town where moss grows on the roofs of mud huts, Rebeen Ali decided to look for his way in the world.
After a few nights of arguing, his father, a local schoolteacher, forbade him to leave the house. But the 14-year-old Ali, tired of his hometown of Halabja, where graveyards are filled with the victims of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack, started out for the Iranian border, with plans to get construction work in Tehran.
Ali was stopped in Biyara by a checkpoint set up by members of Ansar al Islam, a radical Islamic group that had taken hold in the high reaches of the mountains of northern Iraq. They told him he was in big trouble. Before long, he had joined the group.
Ali’s story took place between the summer of 2001 and the winter of 2002, but it’s consistent with descriptions of how Ansar recruits, indoctrinates and trains fighters. Indeed, the lack of work and poor living conditions in Iraq, the ready supply of disaffected youth and the seduction of religious fanaticism haven’t changed at all.
The Ansar members accused Ali of being a spy, of being an infidel. They shouted at him. They beat him. They threatened to kill him. For two hours, the threats and screams continued.
Then an older man walked in the room and in a calm, kind voice began to speak about Islam.
Trembling and crying, Ali was so shaken that he could hardly make sense of what the imam, or spiritual leader, was saying.
But slowly, the words began to filter through.
“He told me about paradise, about virgins, about Islam,” Ali said.
The imam told him that, as a Muslim, Ali was part of a brotherhood that stretched back hundreds of years. He had an important role to play in the world, one that would bring prestige and glory. There were 70 virgins waiting for him in a promised land, a paradise just for him.
The conversation lasted for hours. At the end, Ali was taken to a little room and given some food and a blanket. The next morning, an Ansar official came by and said that while Ali wasn’t a prisoner, they wanted to keep him for a few days to make sure he wasn’t a spy. Ali was invited to attend religion classes.
Ali spent 15 days going between his little cell and a bare classroom. For the first time in his life, Ali began praying the prescribed five times a day. He had long considered the restrictions of the Muslim world backward and once planned to move to France to study. But now he realized the imam was right – he was a Muslim and had a duty.
Ansar offered to send Ali to training, where he learned about weapons and tactics for two months. He learned how to break down an AK47 and that he should keep his mouth open when firing a rocket-propelled grenade to avoid eardrum damage. He learned how to unscrew the cap of an artillery shell, pack in plastic explosives with two wires attached and then spool the wire to a simple battery that would serve as a detonator.
Ali spent about 11 months as a grunt soldier for Ansar, shooting off mortars and firing with machine guns at positions of fighters for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Some months he was paid $20, others $100.
After a feud about politics – Ali was tired of the fighting and wanted to join a less radical group – he left Ansar in late 2002, a few months before U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish troops drove Ansar from Iraq.
Ali is 16 years old now. He has shaved his beard and grown out his hair. He lives in Halabja with his parents and has found only occasional work as a handyman.
He says he has no regrets about joining Ansar. Would he join again?
Maybe, he said, shrugging his shoulders.