According to a remarkable article by Scott Macleod in the April 4 issue of Time Magazine, the suicide bomber who carried off the worst atrocity in Iraq since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime was a 32-year-old Jordanian who had lived for two years in California.
Ra'ed Mansour al-Banna was born in Jordan in 1973 and grew up in a religious, economically prosperous merchant family. He studied law at the university, graduating in 1996, and then started his own law practice in the Jordanian capital of Amman. After three years, he gave it up and in 1999 he worked a half year without pay for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman, helping Iraqis who fled Saddam Hussein's tyranny.
In 2001, sometime before 9/11, Banna received a visa and moved to the United States, where he apparently lived in California for nearly two years, moving from one unskilled job to another – factory worker, bus driver, and pizza maker. According to his father, Ra'ed even worked "in one of the Californian airports." If Ra'ed did not make it economically, he seemed to fit in well, traveling to such destinations as the Golden Gate Bridge and the World Trade Center, growing his hair long, and taking up American popular music. Photographs sent to his family in Jordan show Banna eating a crab dinner, walking on a beach in California, mounted on a motorcycle, and standing in front of a military helicopter while holding an American flag. He even planned to marry a Christian woman until her parents demanded that the wedding take place in a church.
Banna apparently loved America, reporting back to his family about the people's honesty and kindness; "They respect anybody who is sincere." Talal Naser, a young man engaged to one of Ra'ed's sisters, explained how Ra'ed "loved life in America, compared to Arab countries. He wanted to stay there." His father, Mansour, recounted that, despite the September 11 attacks, Ra'ed "faced no problems with his American workmates, who liked him."
Banna visited home in 2003 but on his return to the United States he was denied entry, accused of falsifying details on a visa application. He returned to Jordan and became withdrawn, holing up in a makeshift studio apartment, sleeping late, and displaying a new interest in religion. He began praying five times a day and listening to the Koran. In November 2004, he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, returning to Saudi Arabia in January 2005.
On Jan. 27, Banna crossed into Syria, presumably on the way to Iraq. He apparently spent February with Sunni jihadis in Iraq, during which time he called home several times, with the last call on about Feb. 28.
Feb. 28 also happens to be the date when Banna suited up as a suicide bomber and blew himself up at a health clinic in Al-Hilla, killing 132 people and injuring 120, the worst such attack of the 136 suicide bombings that have taken place since May 2003. On March 3, the family received a call informing them of Ra'ed's fate. "Congratulations, your brother has fallen a martyr."
A friend revealed that Banna became politically radicalized against American policies in the Muslim world while living in the United States. He was especially distraught about developments in Iraq. A neighbor, Nassib Jazzar, recalled Banna upset with the coalition occupation. "He felt that the Arabs didn't have honor and freedom.'"
The father notes that Ra'ed wore Western-style clothing, rarely went to mosque, and was ignorant of the names of local sheikhs. "I am shocked by all of this because my son was a very quiet man, not very religious and more interested in pursuing his law profession and building a future for himself."
As Time cautiously concludes from this tale,
On the basis of accounts given by his family, friends and neighbors, Ra'ed apparently led a double life, professing affection for America while secretly preparing to join the holy war against the U.S. in Iraq. "Something went wrong with Ra'ed, and it is a deep mystery," says his father Mansour, 56. "What happened to my son?"
Ra'ed al-Banna's biography inspires several observations:
(1) When it comes to Islamist terrorists, appearances often deceive. That Banna was said to "love life in America," be "not very religious," and be interested in "building a future for himself" obviously indicated nothing about his real thinking and purposes. The same pattern recurs in the biographies of many other jihadis.
(2) Moving to the West often spurs Muslims to despise the West more than they did before they got there. This appears to be what happened with Banna.
(3) Taking up the Islamist cause, even to the point of sacrificing one's life for it, usually happens in a discreet manner, quite unobservable even to a person's closest relatives.
In brief, Banna's evolution confirms the point I have made repeatedly about the regrettable but urgent need to keep an eye on all potential Islamists and jihadis, which is to say Muslims.
Aug. 24, 2005 update: According to a Aug. 22 memo (from Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff), U.S. customs agents blocked Ra'ed Mansour al-Banna from entering the United States when he arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on June 14, 2003, because he seemed suspicious.
While it is not clear that al-Banna was a suicidal jihadist, the basis for denying him entry was that CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officers that interviewed him believed his intent for entering ... was inconsistent with the purpose of his visa.
The memo indicates al-Banna carried a valid Jordanian passport and U.S. work visa but Customs agents suspected the passport was falsified and, after questioning him, did not permit him to enter the country.
Apr. 15, 2006 update: The Los Angeles Times ran a long story on al-Banna, "Unlikely Candidate for Car Bomber," by H.G. Reza, from which I excerpt key portions. It starts with al-Banna
in a Hollywood[, California] club and — fueled with beer and shots of Jagermeister — … 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. …
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. …
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. …
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. Yet, there were small signs of change toward the end. A month or so before returning to Jordan in late 2002, Albanna began attending mosque and praying five times a day, like a devout Muslim. Albanna's mother said she was puzzled by his sudden devotion. "He didn't used to pray or fast before," Nareman said. "He only started that after he came from America." …
William Khalaf said Albanna's conversion caused a rift in their friendship: "All of a sudden he was telling me I was a bad Muslim because I don't go to mosque. We stopped talking." Lee Khalaf said the change was abrupt. "One day he simply said he was tired of living like he was — drinking, womanizing and the like. He said God had a purpose for him, but never said what it was."
May 23, 2010 update: Al-Banna is hardly a unique case. Here is another, that of the PakistanI Salman Ashraf Khan, alleged to be an associate of the Times Square would-be bomber, as reported by the Associated Press, "Pakistan detainee was happy in US, father says":
The co-owner of the upscale Hanif Rajput Catering Service, Salman Ashraf Khan, was recruited because two other suspects "wanted him to help bomb a big gathering of foreigners" whose event his company was catering, the intelligence officer said.
Khan's father said Saturday he was baffled by the accusations because his son is a successful businessman who lived happily as a student in the U.S. for four years. The younger Khan studied hotel management in Florida and computer science in Houston, returning to Pakistan in 2001 to take over the family business.
"How can a man who is so much involved in this business be accused of such an activity, which only a wild animal can think about?" Rana Ashraf Khan said in a telephone interview. "He might have differences about whatever has been going on in our region for the last 10 or 11 years. We all have differences," Khan said. "(But he had) no feelings against the United States at all. He lived there happily, he studied there."