The making of martyrs, the training of terrorists
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 he 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 Iraq war. It was the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of 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 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 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 Islamic 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 foreigners. (Suicide bombings in Iraq are averaging about 42 a month, American military officials said. In April, a pair of truck bombers killed 9 American soldiers, another bomber blew himself up in the Green Zone, killing one member of Parliament, and others killed more than 290 civilians.)
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 future 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 them 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 wrote saying goodbye and indicating he was going to Iraq. The family of a third man, who was captured and is being held 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. Salah, the imam, said one of the young men prayed at his mosque and tutored youngsters in the Koran. Salah said that if he had known his plans, he would have tried to dissuade him from going to Iraq.
"It's very difficult at the moment," Salah said. "If you do a suicide operation, the Muslims are mixed up with non-Muslims and maybe you kill Muslims."
But he is hardly a voice of restraint. 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," Salah said.
When the video showed scenes of Sunnis tortured and killed by the 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 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 God?' "
Zarqa was undergoing a shift toward conservative Islam. One of the new adherents, who wears a niqab that 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 Muslim."
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 says he had memorized two addresses in Syria, and gave them the false one as his intended destination. But he said that after four days in a Syrian prison - tiny cells with no heat and no light - 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," Abu Ibrahim said.
After three more weeks, he said, the Syrians handed him to the 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, discussing 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 way."