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Getting an Education in Jihad

Infuriated by the U.S.-led 'crusade' in Iraq, a Lebanese teacher left his country and steady job intending to die for the insurgency.

December 29, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — The handsome, 35-year-old teacher had many things to live for -- a PhD, a steady job, a healthy salary -- but still he decided to leave home, make his way to Syria and then sneak over the border into Iraq, intent on fighting Americans, even if it meant dying in a suicide attack.

In the beginning, the schoolteacher had struggled to decide how he felt about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It spelled humiliation and sorrow to Arabs. But as an Arab who had tasted the despair of despotism, he had a small spot of hope.

"At first, I thought, 'OK, the Americans want to bring democracy to the region,' " he said.

That was before he turned on the television to the grainy images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "The human triangle. The woman dragging the man by the leash," said the teacher, a broad man with a clipped beard and intense gaze. "These images affected me deeply. The shame the Americans brought. I was fervently monitoring the TV images, not so much the words as the pictures."

He remembered that President Bush called the war on terrorism a "crusade." He thought about American helicopters being used by the Israeli army to attack Palestinians. And he decided that sitting impotently in Lebanon wasn't enough.

Over dates and sweet coffee in a middle-class living room here, he recently spoke in measured tones about his fervor to fight in behalf of Muslims against U.S. troops -- and his decision to leave the battle in Iraq to make his way home again.

The story of the teacher, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his hometown be named, reflects the oft-stated notion that the war in Iraq has opened a regional Pandora's box of jihad. In a region where so many people feel helpless before repressive governments and U.S. policy, the road to Iraq has become a trail of independence in the minds of some men, a way for young Muslims to come of age and to join the battles they see on television.

His journey began here, in a high valley that is so flat it looks like it was ironed, stretching like a gritty carpet between the mountains of southern Lebanon, hard against the Syrian border. Unemployment is rife and religious zeal intense.

It is a hardscrabble place where international worries and local woes are intimately intertwined. A recent Friday sermon called for martyr's blood to avenge the Iraqi insurgent shot dead on the floor of a mosque by a U.S. Marine. "Every day we are seeing these things and hearing the same word: Fallouja," the preacher cried. "What are we supposed to tell our men? To put down their weapons? To surrender? If we do, who's going to avenge their blood and tears?"

Then the sermon shifted seamlessly; the preacher tried to drum up donations to heat the schools. "We worry about Iraq and about Palestine," he said, "but it's getting cold here."

This ancient strip of farms has a history of defiance, and it has sent its share of men to join the insurgency in Iraq. Some made their way back home. Others have been commemorated at funerals without corpses after friends called from Iraq to report their deaths.

Martyrdom doesn't come cheap. Foreign fighters are expected to pay their own way, from smugglers' fees to meals. Many of the would-be mujahedin, or holy warriors, simply can't afford to go, said Shaaban Ajani, the mayor of a town in the Bekaa called Majdal Anjar.

Within Iraq, there is broad consensus that foreign fighters form only a small band of the insurgency roiling the country. Nevertheless, in neighboring countries the psychological resonance of the struggle, and the adulation and envy of the foreign jihadis, has been profound.

"If a man stands just an hour with a weapon in his hand to fight jihad, it's better than being a preacher in Mecca for 100 years," the teacher said. "It's not about preaching. It's about actions."

Ajani, the mayor, doesn't disguise the pride in his voice when he tells a visitor that two men from his town were killed fighting in Iraq. "It is noble, and it's a religious duty," he said.

In his town, tensions between a frustrated people and their national government exploded this fall. Lebanese agents swept through the Bekaa, carrying out a sting operation on what was described as an Al Qaeda cell.

Ten people were arrested. One, a Majdal Anjar resident named Ismail Mohammed Khalil, 32, died in custody shortly after his arrest. The government said he'd suffered a heart attack. Witnesses said his body came home covered with cigarette burns, bruises and scorch marks left by electrical shocks.

In the Bekaa, Khalil is remembered as a mild-mannered man who sold used cellphones to support his five children. After his body was returned, hundreds of men took to the streets and rioted. The suspect's real crime, his neighbors and family say, was sympathy for the mujahedin who trekked to Iraq -- and his fervent hope that he could someday afford to join their ranks.

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