A Jihadist's Tale
How a young Jordanian left his American life and died an insurgent in Iraq
By SCOTT MACLEOD/AMMAN
Ra'ed al-Banna loved America. آ During his nearly two years in the U.S., al-Banna, a lawyer by training, made a living as a factory worker, a shuttle-bus driver and a pizza tosser. He went to the World Trade Center and the Golden Gate Bridge, grew his hair long and listened to Nirvana. He told his family back in Jordan about the honesty and kindness of Americans. "They respect anybody who is sincere," he told his father. He said he had planned to marry an American woman until her parents demanded that the wedding take place in a Christian church. After a visit home in 2003, he set off again for the U.S., hoping to find a wife, have a family, settle down. "He was hoping for a job that earns a lot of money," says Talal Naser, 25, who is engaged to one of Ra'ed's sisters. "He loved life in America, compared to Arab countries. He wanted to stay there."
He never got the chance. After he was denied entry at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for apparently falsifying details on his visa application, al-Banna's life took a turn that led him down the path of radical Islam and ultimately to join the insurgency against the U.S. in Iraq. His odyssey ended on March 3 when al-Banna's brother Ahmed received a call on his cell phone from a man identifying himself as "one of your brothers from the Arab peninsula"--the term radical Islamists use to signify the core of the Muslim world, centered on the holy city of Mecca. Al-Banna's family says that as far as they knew, Ra'ed was in Saudi Arabia working at a new job. But the voice on the other end sounded Iraqi, Ahmed says. "Congratulations," the caller told him. "Your brother has fallen a martyr."
In the two years since the invasion of Iraq, thousands of young Arabs have poured into the country to take up arms against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies--and, in some cases, to seek martyrdom through suicide bombings, of which there have been at least 136 since May 2003. The lethality of the jihadists was highlighted on Feb. 28 when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside a health clinic in the city of Hilla, killing at least 125 people, the worst single massacre since the U.S. invasion. On March 11 the Amman daily newspaper Al-Ghad identified Ra'ed al-Banna as the attacker, in an article purporting to describe the family's wedding-like celebration of his martyrdom. The story was picked up by Arab satellite channels, provoking outrage among Iraqi Shi'ites, who have held demonstrations ever since outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. The report also ignited a diplomatic feud between Jordan, which has denied that al-Banna was involved in the Hilla attack, and the interim Iraqi government, which is furious at the failure of its neighbors to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. The war of words has become so heated that both countries briefly recalled their ambassadors. "The people are fed up," says Labid Abawi, an Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister. "They don't see the Arabs as helpful. The [Hilla] incident has really exploded a lot of bad feelings."
For all the emotion it has stirred, the attack remains shrouded in mystery. The accounts of the Bannas' reported exuberance at Ra'ed's funeral have been refuted by other accounts of the event, which depict the family as distraught. In interviews with TIME at their home in Amman, al-Banna's family members denied that Ra'ed was the Hilla bomber; instead, they say, he died in an insurgent operation in Mosul. They point out that Al-Ghad later retracted its report citing Ra'ed as the culprit. In some respects, the Bannas resemble the many other families around the Arab world whose sons have gone to fight and die in Iraq. But the Bannas also express astonishment that Ra'ed joined the insurgency, insisting that he had never shown signs of Islamic extremism or hatred for the West. On the basis of accounts given by his family, friends and neighbors, Ra'ed apparently led a double life, professing affection for America while secretly preparing to join the holy war against the U.S. in Iraq. "Something went wrong with Ra'ed, and it is a deep mystery," says his father Mansour, 56. "What happened to my son?"
Born in 1973, Ra'ed grew up in a comfortable merchant family that was religious but not rigidly so. After his son graduated from Jordan's Mu'tah University, Ra'ed's father set him up with a law office in Amman, but in three years the practice failed to prosper. In 1999, his family says, Ra'ed spent six months as an unpaid intern at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman, working with a legal-protection unit to help Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime. When his father questioned the lack of salary, Ra'ed replied that he envisioned a future career as a U.N. official. "Ra'ed always wanted to be a leader," Mansour explains.
Sometime before Sept. 11, 2001, Ra'ed scored a visa to the U.S., in the hope of enrolling at an American law school. "If you are not successful," his father told him, "just don't get a job as a dishwasher." As it happens, Ra'ed appears to have bounced among odd jobs while in the U.S. But if he was disappointed by his fortunes, Ra'ed didn't tell his family. The photo albums his family keeps show him in various all-American settings: enjoying a crab dinner, walking on a California beach and sitting on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In one picture, apparently taken at a weekend fair, he is standing in front of a military helicopter, holding up a tiny U.S. flag.
His family can provide few other details about his life in the U.S. To this day, family members know he lived in California for nearly two years, but they have no idea where. After being denied entry to the U.S. in 2003, Ra'ed returned to Jordan and became withdrawn. Although outwardly charming, he coveted his privacy. Throughout 2004 he holed up in a makeshift studio apartment in the family's backyard, often sleeping until noon. The room features a television with satellite channels, a stereo with huge speakers and a motorcycle helmet, a prized souvenir from the U.S. A poster hanging over the sofa depicts an F-117 Stealth fighter in flight over a city that looks like Los Angeles.
Ra'ed began to show a deepening interest in religion. He took to praying five times a day and listening to Koranic verses on the radio. His family says he rarely discussed politics, but a friend told TIME Ra'ed became radically opposed to U.S. policies toward the Muslim world while still in the U.S. and later talked about going to Iraq. A neighbor, Nassib Jazzar, 32, recalls that a few months ago, Ra'ed criticized the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "He felt that the Arabs didn't have honor and freedom," says Jazzar. "Then he said, 'We the Arabs are no good. We allow others to come and occupy us.'" Mansour believes that Ra'ed also felt guilt over his father's financial problems, which came to a head in late 2004 when a bank threatened to seize the family's possessions.
Last November, Ra'ed made an Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia but claimed that it was also a job search. A month later, he returned to Amman showing no outward signs of transformation. In January he abruptly informed his father that he was departing again for Saudi Arabia. Jordanian authorities have told Mansour that after leaving Jordan on Jan. 27, his son crossed into Syria, the favorite route for Iraq-bound jihadists. Throughout February, Ra'ed called home several times but seemed careful to avoid his father. He told his brother he had found a good job and that his living quarters were uncomfortable but he planned to change them. He vowed to make enough money so he and his brother could afford to get married.
Ra'ed phoned home for the last time, catching Ahmed on his cell phone, around the time of the Hilla bombing on Feb. 28--though the family's accounts of the precise date are unclear. Besides being particularly affectionate, Ra'ed said nothing to indicate his life was about to end. On March 3, Ahmed received the call telling him Ra'ed was a martyr. The caller read Ra'ed's last will and testament. Four days later, there was another call, to Mansour, who says he was invited, "Allah willing," to visit Ra'ed's tomb near the Iraqi city of Mosul. The Banna clan ran an obituary in the newspaper Ad Dustour announcing that Ra'ed had "won martyrdom in the land of Iraq" and "died in the name of God."
Today Ra'ed's father denies that the family favors jihadist attacks in Iraq, insisting that in line with Muslim custom he calls his son a martyr simply because he was killed in a foreign land. Had he known what Ra'ed was up to, he says, he would have blocked his son's plans to leave the country and informed the police to keep an eye on him. Mansour says he would not be surprised if Ra'ed showed up at the door someday, as if his disappearance were some mistake or just a bad dream. But like so many others, the Bannas may never know exactly how they lost Ra'ed to the jihad. "The calls stopped," says Ahmed. "Ra'ed doesn't phone us anymore." --With reporting by Christopher Allbritton/Baghdad and Saad Hattar/Amman