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The Nation

Unlikely Candidate for Car Bomber

The airport worker enjoyed Hollywood's club scene. His hand was found chained to the steering wheel in Iraq's deadliest attack.

April 15, 2006|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

There was nothing like it in Jordan, Raed Mansour Albanna told his American friend. They were in a Hollywood club and -- fueled with beer and shots of Jagermeister -- Albanna was dancing with abandon. The pounding music was liberating and the young Muslim was on his game.

It was a few months before 9/11, and Albanna had left the constraints of his Islamic country far behind. In America, friends said, he had found what he was looking for -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

"He was into partying. We hit some pretty wild clubs in Hollywood," said Steve Gray, who worked with Albanna at Ontario International Airport and considered him a close friend.

Albanna, 32, had a fondness for American women, the grunge sound of Nirvana and Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the bad-boy image they conveyed. He told friends he loved the freedom he felt in America.

All the more reason his friends were dumbfounded when they were told that the funloving Jordanian had become a suicide car bomber, pulling off the deadliest single attack in Iraq. U.S. authorities said he killed 132 Iraqis outside a Hillah medical clinic Feb. 28, 2005.

A hand chained to a steering wheel revealed fingerprints that identified him as the bomber. It was the only body part that remained.

While the unlikely background of the bomber was made public in media accounts, recent interviews offer a clearer view of how Albanna's initial anguish over the 2001 terrorist attacks seemed to degenerate to a deep anger and frustration.

At the time of the bombing, Albanna's friends in Southern California found it unthinkable that a man who had embraced the United States with such gusto would trigger such carnage in the name of Al Qaeda.

Albanna was "the last person I thought would become a terrorist," said Lee Khalaf, a friend.

Barely 5 foot 5, dark-haired and blessed with a disarming smile, Albanna had grown up in a middle-class family in Jordan. His parents did not emphasize religion. He became a lawyer, but soured on the profession after failing to attract clients and felt he had disappointed his father, who continued to support him financially.

When he came to the United States on a tourist visa in early 2001, Albanna was searching for a fresh start, his family said. He settled in Rancho Cucamonga, where his friend William Khalaf lived. The two had known each other since the seventh grade in Jordan.

Friends and family say he quickly plunged into a fast-paced, hedonistic lifestyle. Gray and others said he smoked pot, was a fan of nihilistic rock groups such as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and reveled in the Hollywood club scene.

Albanna's family knew of his fun-loving ways in the United States, said his mother, Hiyat Nareman.

In an interview in the family's apartment in Salt, outside Amman, she said that Albanna called home as often as three times a week with reports of friends and good times. "He partied a lot," she said. "I don't think he did anything bad, but he liked to have fun with his friends."

Albanna was not easily defined. Friends recalled him as both a party animal and a thoughtful, generous soul. And they saw sides of him that were as different as the names he used.

Gray and other co-workers knew him as Raed.

He told others that his name was Ryan, and his English, which he learned in Jordanian schools, was good enough to help him succeed with women.

Christine Gonzalez, a Riverside salon owner, said the stylists "who cut Ryan's hair thought he was incredibly good looking."

"The girls liked taking care of him. He was a really nice guy, always telling jokes and making us laugh. I was really shocked by what he did," she said.

William Khalaf said Albanna's good looks attracted American women, and his charm helped him make friends easily.

"He could sit next to you in a bus and before you'd get off, he was your friend," said Khalaf.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Gray and Albanna were working as pedicab drivers at the airport.

When word of the terrorist attacks ricocheted through the terminal, the two friends crowded into an airport bar with dozens of horrified passengers and employees and watched on television as the World Trade Center towers and walls of the Pentagon crumbled.

"People were crying, but nobody was talking," said Gray, a pony-tailed ex-roadie for a rock band. "Nobody knew what to say. Everyone's eyes were glued to the TV."

After Islamic extremists were linked to the attacks, Gray said an anguished Albanna turned to him and said: "Not all Muslims are like that. Not all of us hate America."

Like Gray, William and Lee Khalaf said Albanna appeared genuinely horrified by the terrorist attacks. William Khalaf, a nonpracticing Muslim, said his friend openly expressed his hatred for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

"At the time, he hated the terrorists," said Lee Khalaf. "That's why I don't understand why he joined them."

How to explain Albanna's transition from a secular Muslim to an Islamic terrorist?

His family was at a loss.

His friends said they saw no such evidence.

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