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Terror tactics turning away former al-Qaida supporters

IRBID, Jordan—Mohammed Hikmet and Talal Badran grew up together among the ancient olive groves and hardy fig trees of their village in northern Jordan. They were like brothers, down to their fuzzy beards and stocky builds. In 2003, the best of friends, at age 25, set off side by side to fight American troops in Iraq.

Only one of them returned, however, and now both of their families are wracked by doubts about the war they once believed in so fervently.

Today's insurgency in neighboring Iraq is unfamiliar to Jordanian villagers who said they simply wanted to defend fellow Muslims from foreign invaders. Now they're trying to figure out how blowing up innocent Arabs at a hotel wedding reception—as suspected Iraqi bombers did in Amman, the Jordanian capital, earlier this month—became an accepted means of resistance. The pride they took in sending two of their own to Iraq is mixed with confusion over whether their holy warriors may have become terrorists.

"I don't believe in al-Qaida anymore. Boom. It's finished," said Adnan Badran, 37, the older brother of the Irbid man who fought in Iraq and hasn't returned. He traced the rim of a cup of Turkish coffee with his finger and gazed at the floor.

"I think maybe there is no jihad anymore," he said sadly.

The change of heart by these once-enthusiastic supporters of jihad—holy war—suggests that Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who claimed responsibility for the hotel bombings, has miscalculated. While Bush administration policies in the Middle East remain deeply unpopular, al Zarqawi's tactics are soiling his image among potential foot soldiers. If Hikmet and Badran are any example, the region may not provide fertile ground for the radical Islam and terrorism that Americans fear most.

Hikmet and Badran came from the outskirts of Irbid, Jordan's second-largest city, where a McDonald's is bustling and thousand of factory workers nearby make clothes for Wal-Mart. Friends of the two included other handsome young men who coveted expensive Nike sneakers, chain-smoked Marlboros and spent hours in Internet cafes chatting with girls.

But Irbid is also one of Jordan's most religiously conservative, anti-American towns. Two members of the local Muslim Brotherhood chapter of conservative Islamists were elected to Parliament. An ornate mosque is named after Saddam Hussein. Nearby is Zarqa, the birthplace of al Zarqawi, one of the world's most notorious terrorist leaders and the leader of the group al-Qaida in Iraq.

In 2003, Talal Badran had just returned to Irbid after six years as an illegal immigrant in Germany, where he sold marijuana and seldom prayed, his brother said. He shocked his friends when he grew a bushy beard, posed in the traditional vest of Chechen rebels and said he was ready to give his life for Islam.

"Talal had committed all these sins and he felt he must do something to repent," said his brother Adnan. "He chose the path."

Hikmet's path was different. He came from a hardscrabble family that worked a modest plot of olive trees just outside Irbid. He visited Baghdad several times before the war and kept in close touch with his Iraqi friends. A cousin's photo of Saddam still hangs in a frame on the family's living-room wall.

As American troops advanced toward Baghdad in 2003, Hikmet and Badran watched the war unfold on Arab satellite television.

"I couldn't accept myself staying here while my friends and their families were there under war," Hikmet said. "Iraq is considered the source of the Arab homeland. If we lost Iraq, it would be a disaster."

After dawn prayers one morning, Adnan Badran heard a knock at the door. His brother urgently asked him for 150 Jordanian dinars, about $200.

"He told me, `I'm going to fight the Americans,'" Adnan Badran said. "I gave him three instructions: Don't give anyone your gun or drop your weapon, don't run away and don't fight for the sake of any government. Fight only for the sake of God."

Badran left his brother's home with the money and joined Hikmet on the road to Syria. Only when the two had left Jordan did Adnan Badran call the rest of the family and tell them that his brother had joined the mujahedeen—the holy warriors—in Iraq.

"After Talal left, I cried over him more than my mother did," Adnan Badran said. "But there is something more important than passion and that is the cause: justice."

In the Iraqi town of Qaim, after crossing the Syrian border, Hikmet and Talal Badran started to organize into cells. After moving from safe house to safe house in Iraq's western desert, the two men were sent to help beleaguered Iraqi troops in Baghdad, still under Saddam's control. Day and night, Hikmet said, they hid in deserted government buildings with borrowed machine guns and aimed for the chests of American soldiers.

Morale sank when Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003. On the day of their last battle together, Hikmet and Badran slept side by side in a Baghdad neighborhood where support for Saddam remained strong. Just before dawn, a massive American contingent ambushed their cell. They were stunned to discover that their Iraqi comrades had deserted them.

Hikmet and Badran were exhausted and hungry, their hair and beards grown long and shaggy. With other foreign volunteers, they fired back at the Americans for nearly 13 hours, Hikmet said, knowing they were doomed. When Hikmet's weapon jammed, his best friend urged him to run for the safety of a school. The others would follow, he promised.

"Those last minutes with him were madness," Hikmet said. "He was huge, and he grabbed me under the arms and said, `Run. Just go.' I kept running and running. I never saw him again."

Heartbroken, Hikmet searched in vain for his friend for several days before deciding to accompany a wounded Syrian friend back across the border.

For two years since, Hikmet has pondered his brief role in the resistance. Safe in his family's home, he cheered on mujahedeen attacks until the targets started to include Shiite mosques, Baghdad markets, even schools. He dreams of returning to fight in Iraq, but isn't certain that the same brotherly spirit remains. Proof came in the Amman hotel bombings, which killed 59 people and injured dozens.

"I'm still in shock," Hikmet said. "Resistance shouldn't be on Jordanian land; this is not where the occupation is. Resistance is firing on American bases. Resistance is political organizing and demonstrations. Blowing up Shiites in Iraq? Bombing a hotel in Jordan? This is not resistance."

The same relatives who gave Hikmet a hero's welcome when he returned from Iraq now say they wouldn't support him if he decided to fight again.

"Now, no way," said 45-year-old Hawazen Shabar, Hikmet's aunt. "This is a lost war. He'll just go and kill himself and other innocent people there. It's so difficult to make sense of it now. I'm proud that he would go sacrifice himself as a martyr, but if he goes to blow up Iraqis, how can I support this?"

Adnan Badran spends his days repairing computers at a small shop in downtown Irbid. He's a pious man whose customers call him "sheik," in respect of his status as a martyr's brother. His wife's cousins died in the Amman bombings. He watched with grief as an Iraqi woman confessed on television to helping in the attack.

He read every passage in the Quran about resistance and found nothing that could support the hotel blasts. He believes that his brother is dead; that's easier than imagining him alive in a movement that's cast aside Islam's strict rules of war.

"My brother would never think to do that," Adnan Badran said. "But if I find out that he was bombing civilians in Baghdad or Amman or America, I will no longer accept him as a martyr. I would only consider him a criminal."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JORDAN-ALQAIDA

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