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“Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals,” by Ken Ballen


By Dina Temple-Raston;
In early November, I was among a small group of journalists who traveled to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the arraignment of a terrorism suspect named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He is the accused mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen in 2000. After his capture in 2002, al-Nashiri spent four years in a CIA black site, where he was waterboarded and subjected to mock executions. From there, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay. For more than nine years, the only people who saw him were his guards, intelligence officers and his lawyers. So when we arrived for his arraignment, many of us simply wanted to lay eyes on a man who had survived that history.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, suspected terrorists have become like characters in a novel — larger than life. And that’s part of the reason why, when al-Nashiri strode into the GITMO courtroom, many of us were surprised to see him take human shape. Speaking to his lawyers and the judge, he seemed so unexceptional. At one point he even turned and waved to the gallery. (One of his lawyers told me later that al-Nashiri was told, in no uncertain terms, never do to that again.) The al-Nashiri arraignment was a reminder that most terrorism suspects are ordinary men who swerve violently from expectation.
’Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals’ by Ken Ballen

That’s the message in a new book, “Terrorists in Love.” Written by former federal prosecutor Ken Ballen, it tracks the quotidian events that can lead sensitive young men to violent jihad. Ballen is now president of a Washington-based nonprofit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, which tries to understand why extremists embrace terrorism. He interviewed more than a hundred Islamic radicals over several years to pin down what turned them from pious young men to religious warriors. About half the interviews took place at a rehabilitation center for violent fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia; the other half were in Pakistan and Indonesia. The result is an unusual atlas of extremism — a riveting, behind-the-scenes look at the events that turned six young Muslims into terrorists.

The book opens with the heart-wrenching story of Ahmad al-Shayea, a suicide bomber who, in many ways, has been to heaven and back. On Christmas Day 2004, he became the first suicide bomber in Iraq to survive an attack. Ballen’s description of what was left of Ahmad after a suicide bombing is haunting. “His nose curved to a straight hooked point, like a ski jump. The fingers on his right hand ended in a stump that resembled melted candle wax, while his left-hand fingers were twisted like the roots of the miswak stick jihadis regularly chew in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. . . . His fingernails were little more than yellowed brown stumps, the color of toes infected with athlete’s foot.”

Ahmad joined the fight because he was having difficulty with an abusive father. Looking for a place where he would be appreciated, Ahmad decided to join fellow Muslims fighting American forces in Iraq. But that, too, proved to be a negative experience. He waited months for a mission. Shuffled from one safe house to another, he was never trained for anything. He was allowed to hold a Kalashnikov, but not to fire one. Finally, he was asked to take a tanker truck into a wealthy neighborhood in Baghdad with two other men. He was told that he simply needed to drive the truck to a designated place and park it. On the way to Baghdad, the men teased Ahmad good-naturedly and talked to him like a brother. Ahmad said that for the first time, he began to feel he was part of something. Then, just a thousand yards from where they were supposed to park the truck, the two other men jumped out and shouted at Ahmad to pull the tanker up to the concrete blocks.

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