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The Conflict in Iraq

War Blazed Imam's Path to Extremism

Abu Anas Shami lived in Jordan, teaching Islam and known as a moderate. He may have died in Iraq as spiritual aide to Zarqawi's band.

September 27, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

SWEILEH, Jordan — In the quiet, hillside streets of this middle-class suburb north of Amman, a soft-spoken Palestinian known as Abu Anas Shami settled a decade ago with his wife. He preached at the nearby mosque and taught local children -- including three of his own -- about the ideals of Islam.

Though he was educated at a strict Islamic college in Saudi Arabia and had befriended Islamists known for their radical views, Shami condemned violence in the name of religion and insisted to friends and family that he was a moderate.

But the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year transformed the 35-year-old imam -- whose given name was Omar Yousef Jouma -- from an introspective ideologue into a militant espousing violence.

He abandoned his family and joined the deadly Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad network last summer, quickly rising to become spiritual advisor to another Jordanian, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the notorious Al Qaeda associate who is the most wanted man in Iraq. Shami used his Islamic teachings to justify the group's attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces and foreign workers.

Some of those who knew Zarqawi in Jordan say he had a reputation as a troublemaker, and even his mother told an interviewer that he wasn't smart enough to master logistics or ideology. Shami was very different.

"He was the thinker. He provided their ideology," said Mohammed abu Rumman, an Islamic scholar and writer in Jordan who knew Shami for more than a decade.

Ten days ago, Shami's journey appears to have come to a bloody end. He was killed Sept. 17 by a U.S. rocket while traveling down a farm road near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, according to family members and several Islamist websites.

U.S. officials, who had targeted Shami as a top Zarqawi lieutenant, said Saturday that they were still trying to confirm whether the Kuwaiti-born sheik had been killed. They said they had killed nearly 100 Zarqawi supporters over the last month.

"If true, this will be a big blow to [Zarqawi's] leadership structure," said a senior U.S. official in Iraq. "He was a key supporter." In Jordan, Shami's family and friends can only struggle to understand what drove the sensitive, well-mannered son of a Western-leaning businessman to emerge as a militant who provided spiritual justification for car bombings and suicide attacks, and took up arms against U.S. forces during the siege of Fallouja in April.

"I don't know what was in my son's mind," said Shami's father, Yousef Jouma, sitting outside the family home last week during a three-day wake for his son. "Nobody knows what happened. He changed. He believed Islam was about love and peace. He taught his children to respect everyone. But he also believed that Americans came to Iraq to kill Muslims, and they had a right to defend themselves."

Family friends say they were shocked to hear that Shami had joined the Iraq insurgency. "He was a good kid," said neighbor Issa Mustafa. "He was against killing people. He never even carried a knife."

Rumman, who has tracked the Islamic fundamentalist movement for years and frequently debated issues with Shami, said the U.S. invasion of Iraq appears to have been the final straw that motivated Shami to take radical action.

"Before, he opposed using violence for political change," Rumman said, noting that Shami often became so emotional during his sermons that he would choke up with tears. "But after the war, there was a change in his thinking. He became angry. To him, it became a question of honor."

There are few clues in Shami's upbringing to explain his extremist turn. His father and mother were forced to flee their homes in the West Bank in the 1960s and 1970s, instilling in their children a sense of political anger against Israel and its key backer, the United States.

But at the same time Shami's father embraced a modern lifestyle, working as a government accountant in Kuwait and favoring silk ties and dress shirts over traditional Arab garb. Shami's brothers pursued practical careers as an engineer, taxi driver and merchant. Shami, by contrast, turned to religion at an early age.

"He was always at the mosque," Jouma recalled.

As a teen Shami began memorizing the Koran and later attended Al Medina Munawara Islamic college in Saudi Arabia.

According to an Islamic website, Shami spent three months in Afghanistan in 1990, learning to use weapons and work with explosives.

His family says they know nothing of such events. They say that in 1991 he married and returned to Jordan, settling in Sweileh, where he was imam at the Murad Mosque.

The family kept a low profile, although Shami began to make contacts in radical Islamist circles, including Abu Mohammed Muqdesy, who has been in and out of Jordanian prisons because of his attacks against Middle Eastern governments, political parties and even public schools, all of which he views as illegitimate.

In 2002, Rumman said, he confronted Shami about his contacts with Muqdesy, but Shami insisted he did not support Muqdesy's extremist ideas.

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