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Review: Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals

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Ken Ballen, Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, Free Press, 2011.

This is a strange book--a racy title, documenting the way six jihadis turned to al-Qaeda and its spin-offs in desperation to find some kind of fulfillment in life. There are several Romeo and Juliette stories, though the author seems oblivious to the fact that the 'love' in the title is mostly about devotion to God, however mistaken.

Ballen is president and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, "a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that investigates the causes of extremism". Ballen's CV suggests "nonpartisan" can be taken with a grain of salt, as he spent two decades in law enforcement and intelligence, and was given grudging accommodation by the Pakistani ISI intelligence, and free access to the Saudi Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) Care Center, where captured jihadis are sent for rehabilitation.

As well as his extended interviews in Saudi Arabia, he gained access to several jihadis still on the run, and relates a truly remarkable story--if he is to be believed--of a Saudi royal son who discovers he is gay and has a passionate affair with his cousin before joining the jihad.

The six jihadis--Saudi, Pakistani, Afghanil--include:

*Ahmad al-Shayea, the Saudi suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2004,
After bombing by Donna Abu Nasr/AP
who killed eight and wounded 20, but miraculously survived and was given a new face by his American occupiers.
After facial reconstruction by Donna Abu Nasr/AP
He convinced his captors and the Saudi MOI that he was reformed while in the Care Center and was eventually released, supposedly a success story in defeating terrorism humanely. (See the conclusion for an update.)

*The Saudi Abby, whose marriage proposal to Maryam was rejected for lack of sufficient dowry, and she was married off as a fourth wife to a rich old man. Abby wanted to immortalize their love in martyrdom, posting his love poem on a jihadi website, and went to Syria, were some Algerians took his money and sent him off to Iraq.

His jihadi experience as an inexperienced young poet was a disaster, moving from safe house to safe house, beaten and ridiculed by his controllers, till he was helped by an Iraqi youth to escape. He crossed into Syria where he was beaten again until the US found him--a precious live jihad in captivity, and he ended up in the Saudi Care Center and was eventually released, contrite and eager to preach the anti-al-Qaeda gospel.

His beloved Maryam escaped her own captivity and took a plane to Dubai in search of Abby and martyrdom, joining the ranks of the "women disappeared".

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*The Pashtoun Malik, the only genuine insurgent of the group. He grew up in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and joined the Taliban in the 1996, quickly proving himself in battle, helping liberate his home province. What sent him on his jihad was a precognitive dream in 1996 where he saw Mullah Omar in the white robe of the Prophet i accompanied by Malik's classmates, turned into girls. In fact, Mullah Omar the next day put on the white robe, which has been in Afghanistan for centuries, and was hailed as the Leader of the Faithful.

This inspired Malik and his 400 classmates to go immediately to Afghanistan under the guidance of the local Taliban leader. Malik's fame spread and he met the Afghan Leader of the Faithful and worked directly with him, becoming chief of the Virtue and Vice police in Kabul. He proved to be incorruptible, and administered harsh sharia sentences, lashing or stoning adulterers and chopping off hands of thieves.

He resented the al-Qaeda interlopers, just as he resented Pakistanis who belittled Afghanis as primitive and naive. He was not impressed by 9/11, like many, concluding it was most likely a plot by the imperialists to justify invading Afghanistan. When the US invaded Afghanistan, he escaped to Pakistan and eventually rejoined the Taliban resistance, inspired by another dream of Mullah Omar appearing in a blinding flash "like a Stinger missile".

He became a courier transporting arms from Pakistan to insurgents, and opium back to the Pakistani military. He loathed this work, seeing the Pakistanis, openly involved in the drug trade, as being as bad as the Americans, and he abandoned the insurgency. Ballen was hopeful that Malik was reformed, having experienced the corruption of the insurgency first-hand , but Malik instead hoped to see a renewed Taliban. "It is time to attack Pakistan and free the Taliban of the near enemy ... Then we will go after the far enemy of America, free Afghanistan and Pakistan from the infidels."

He chose to speak to the Jewish American Ballen because he knew Ballen's 'ngo' was respected, and trusted him not to turn him in. "I want the world now to know the real faces of those who are truly fighting for Islam. We are alive, and we are marching forward. We are the new Taliban."

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Ballen was terrified by Malik's fervor and open call to kill all Jews and Americans. "Americans are the second arrogance who will be punished, for the Americans and Jews are one." "The tears flowed down his cheeks, writes Ballen. "He still held my had in a vise. By that point--interview be damned--I just wanted to get away from him." Two months later, Malik's jihadi group the Fedayeen-e-Islam took responsibility for the bombing of the Marriott, killing 53 and injuring 266.

*Zeddy, "the Captain of Terror". He was close to Osama bin Laden, for three decades a "career terrorist for Islam". Ballen met Zeddy (Zahid) in 2008 in Islamabad. He was a member of the Islamic Society, the Pakistani equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Maulana Maududi, but then moved on to the terrorist schemes of ISI and al-Qaeda, and bragged to Ballen that he had once been eager to get hold of nuclear weapons. He described how ISI was actively supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even as ISI took funds from the US to fight them.

He admitted to being responsible for the recruiting and deaths of thousands of mujahideen, not to mention the victims of the bombings he facilitated. Not surprisingly, he lost his faith, and was now sad and broken. "I have no peace." He welcomed 9/11 because it shut down his terrorist camp and allowed him to retire. He supposedly was working in Pakistani jails as a medical assistant, "to make all those young boys who want to go to jihad get a job." He feared that ISI would read this account and murder him.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games" and "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" are available at (more...)

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