Book review

Ken Ballen, Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, Free Press, 2011.

This is a strange book—a racy title, documenting the way six jihadis turned to al-Qaeda and its spin-offs in desperation to find some kind of fulfilment in life. There are several Romeo and Juliette stories, though the author seems oblivious to the fact that the 'love' in the title is mostly about devotion to God, however mistaken.

Ballen is president and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, “a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that investigates the causes of extremism”. Ballen's CV suggests “nonpartisan” can be taken with a grain of salt, as he spent two decades in law enforcement and intelligence, and was given grudging accommodation by the Pakistani ISI intelligence, and free access to the Saudi Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) Care Center, where captured jihadis are sent for rehabilitation.

As well as his extended interviews in Saudi Arabia, he gained access to several jihadis still on the run, and relates a truly remarkable story—if he is to be believed—of a Saudi royal son who discovers he is gay and has a passionate affair with his cousin before joining the jihad.

The six jihadis—Saudi, Pakistani, Afghanil—include:

*Ahmad al-Shayea, the Saudi suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2004, who killed eight and wounded 20, but miraculously survived and was given a new face by his American occupiers. He convinced his captors and the Saudi MOI that he was reformed while in the Care Center and was eventually released, supposedly a success story in defeating terrorism humanely. (See the conclusion for an update.)

*The Saudi Abby, whose marriage proposal to Maryam was rejected for lack of sufficient dowry, and she was married off as a fourth wife to a rich old man. Abby wanted to immortalize their love in martyrdom, posting his love poem on a jihadi website, and went to Syria, were some Algerians took his money and sent him off to Iraq.

His jihadi experience as an inexperienced young poet was a disaster, moving from safe house to safe house, beaten and ridiculed by his controllers, till he was helped by an Iraqi youth to escape. He crossed into Syria where he was beaten again until the US found him—a precious live jihad in captivity, and he ended up in the Saudi Care Center and was eventually released, contrite and eager to preach the anti-al-Qaeda gospel.

His beloved Maryam escaped her own captivity and took a plane to Dubai in search of Abby and martyrdom, joining the ranks of the “women disappeared”.

*The Pashtoun Malik, the only genuine insurgent of the group. He grew up in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and joined the Taliban in the 1996, quickly proving himself in battle, helping liberate his home province. What sent him on his jihad was a precognitive dream in 1996 where he saw Mullah Omar in the white robe of the Propheti accompanied by Malik's classmates, turned into girls. In fact, Mullah Omar the next day put on the white robe, which has been in Afghanistan for centuries,^ and was hailed as the Leader of the Faithful.

This inspired Malik and his 400 classmates to go immediately to Afghanistan under the guidance of the local Taliban leader. Malik's fame spread and he met the Afghan Leader of the Faithful and worked directly with him, becoming chief of the Virtue and Vice police in Kabul. He proved to be incorruptible, and administered harsh sharia sentences, lashing or stoning adulterers and chopping off hands of thieves.

He resented the al-Qaeda interlopers, just as he resented Pakistanis who belittled Afghanis as primitive and naive. He was not impressed by 9/11, like many, concluding it was most likely a plot by the imperialists to justify invading Afghanistan. When the US invaded Afghanistan, he escaped to Pakistan and eventually rejoined the Taliban resistance, inspired by another dream of Mullah Omar appearing in a blinding flash “like a Stinger missile”.

He became a courier transporting arms from Pakistan to insurgents, and opium back to the Pakistani military. He loathed this work, seeing the Pakistanis, openly involved in the drug trade, as being as bad as the Americans, and he abandoned the insurgency. Ballen was hopeful that Malik was reformed, having experienced the corruption of the insurgency first-hand , but Malik instead hoped to see a renewed Taliban. “It is time to attack Pakistan and free the Taliban of the near enemy ... Then we will go after the far enemy of America, free Afghanistan and Pakistan from the infidels.”

He chose to speak to the Jewish American Ballen because he knew Ballen's 'ngo' was respected, and trusted him not to turn him in. “I want the world now to know the real faces of those who are truly fighting for Islam. We are alive, and we are marching forward. We are the new Taliban.”

Ballen was terrified by Malik's fervor and open call to kill all Jews and Americans. “Americans are the second arrogance who will be punished, for the Americans and Jews are one.” “The tears flowed down his cheeks, writes Ballen. “He still held my had in a vise. By that point—interview be damned—I just wanted to get away from him.” Two months later, Malik's jihadi group the Fedayeen-e-Islam took responsibility for the bombing of the Marriott, killing 53 and injuring 266.

*Zeddy, “the Captain of Terror”. He was close to Osama bin Laden, for three decades a “career terrorist for Islam”. Ballen met Zeddy (Zahid) in 2008 in Islamabad. He was a member of the Islamic Society, the Pakistani equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Maulana Maududi, but then moved on to the terrorist schemes of ISI and al-Qaeda, and bragged to Ballen that he had once been eager to get hold of nuclear weapons. He described how ISI was actively supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even as ISI took funds from the US to fight them.

He admitted to being responsible for the recruiting and deaths of thousands of mujahideen, not to mention the victims of the bombings he facilitated. Not surprisingly, he lost his faith, and was now sad and broken. “I have no peace.” He welcomed 9/11 because it shut down his terrorist camp and allowed him to retire. He supposedly was working in Pakistani jails as a medical assistant, “to make all those young boys who want to go to jihad get a job.” He feared that ISI would read this account and murder him.

*Pakistani Shaheed, also a dreamer, though he was focused on jinn in his dreams, learned from his grandmother. Like Malik, he had had a precognitive dream, this time prophesying the fall of the World Trade Center, which bin Laden mentioned in a subsequent video. He was a member of Malik's group that claimed responsibility for the Marriott hotel bombing. Like Abby, Shaheed suffered from an unhappy love life, exacerbated by a cruel father who was an army officer, steeped in British tradition and disdainful of Shaheed's increasing devoutness.

Shaheed met Ballen in 2009 at the urging of Malik, and became Ballen's greatest victory. Just before their meetting he had another precognitive dream of Ibrahim and his almost sacrifice of his son Isaac, though Isaac was an American. Though he was a comrade in jihad with anti-Jewish Malik, he did not quote a hadith about killing all Jews. When he revealed to Ballen the meaning of his dream, he politely quote the Quran: “Sometimes you love a thing, and it may be the worst for you, and sometimes you hate a thing, and it may be the best for you.”

Before leaving Ballen, “he took my right foot in his hand and, as with his grandmother, kissed my foot. 'No more Daniel Pearls.'” The next day he went to the Tablighi (Islamic missionary) headquarters in Lahore and began his “greater jihad, the struggle to change our human souls, submit fully to Islam, and love God in peace—that's what will change the world.”

*The star of Terrorists in Love is handsome, brilliant (gay) Kamal, a high-level member of the Saudi religious elite, being a direct descendant of the 19th century founder of the Saudi branch of Islam, Wahhab. Kamal's tale is very hard to believe, though Ballen swears all but the names and most of the facts are real. “Kamal's identity as a member of the royal family—in particular, its clerical branch—has been corroborated by two high-level sources at the Saudi Ministry of Interior, as well as my personal visits, along with interviews of his relatives and colleagues.” Ballen even went to Indonesia to meet with Kamal's nanny.

Ballen's account of his meetings with Kamal provide a fascinating glimpse of what life as a Saudi royal is like. Kamal adores American TV, and has bootlegged collections of I Love Lucy and Seinfeld. Despite his Americanization and sexuality, he remained a loyal follower of Wahhabism, even arguing with Ballen that there is no prohibition of male-male sex in either the Quran or Wahhab's writings. According to Kamal, Wahhab argued that “the true test of love in God's eyes is always whether love is equal.” Kamal interpreted this to mean no anal intercourse, but otherwise not to prohibit male-male love. Kamal confirmed what many believe about Saudi Arabia—that homosexual relations are widespread but kept quiet.

After his affair with his cousin was exposed and his cousin banished to the US, Kamal toyed wih the idea of martyrdom, and found a gay terrorist site on the internet. He wrote and was propositioned (and entrapped) by Al Akbot, “the love jihadi”. He was sentenced to three years and a 100 lashes, but neither sentence was carried out. Instead, he spent a few months in the Care Center with other young jihadis, some of them gay as well. Like Shaheed, Kamal turned to “the greater jihad” of propagating the faith.

Ballen genuinely admired and even liked his motley collection of Islamists, and sympathized with their frustrations in life. “American policies, of course, play a large role in fomenting radicalism. Without US troops in Iraq, would Ahmad ever have gone off to fight?” But Ballen can hardly be expected to denounce US policies, given his own career, and he doesn't.

Instead, he argues that jihadis are motivated more by dysfunctional families, sexual repression or forbidden love than anti-imperialist zeal. Even without the US invasion of Iraq, these jihadis would have found other reasons to fight. At the same time, he was impressed by their willingness to give their lives “for a holy cause”. He concludes that the story is “as much about love as hate. A missed love, a love you cannot have, a love you can find only in God and not your fellow man, ... a love that turns violent and cruel, that is never allowed to grow.”

But he downplays the fact that their overriding love, which is spiritual, love of God above material concerns. None of the jihadis were after money. Their actions were a spiritual quest, however misguided. None of them are evil or mad or rationally pursuing genocide. They are truly 'love children'.

Ballen concludes that, “While we must defend ourselves against attack ... Muslims must find their own answers to extremism.” Bravo.

Then without any support, he dismisses the jihadis are “a small group that can be isolated and defeated.” As US policies have yet to moderate, both the external and domestic forces feeding violent jihad continue to generate recruits. To dismiss them as a tiny group easily defeated hardly makes sense given two failed decades pursuing this disastrous American dream. As long as the invaders are killing and occupying, defiling Islam, these voices will continue to arise, sometimes in isolation, sometimes gathering force and sweeping large areas, as ISIS is doing now.

However, flag-waving Ballen is nonetheless on the right track. “It is time we let the American Dream speak for itself. It is time we let the US be the leader by example.” Given who he is writing for, his concern for understanding the jihadis more sympathetically is to be lauded. His conclusion is: less bombs and more compassion. Intelligent intelligence (and massive reconstruction aid) should this rule of thumb. They can more cynically also hope that US mass culture will continue to erode Muslim culture.

As for Care Center poster child Ahmad, like 100 other supposedly reformed jihadis, he disappeared from Saudi Arabia last year and announced from Syria, that he had rejoined the resistance.

Reviewed by Eric Walberg

i^According to legend, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who founded Afghanistan a quarter of a millennium ago, brought the cloak to Kandahar from a great conquest. It is displayed only when there is great danger in the country.

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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