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ghaith abdul-ahad

photo of abdul-ahad

An Iraqi photojournalist from Baghdad, he has sought out Islamic militants across the Middle East, and his articles and photos have appeared in several Western newspapers. Here, he talks about his conversations with the foreign fighters who have come to Iraq. Just before the second battle of Fallujah, he slipped into the city, met some of these jihadis and listened to what they talked about as they awaited their fate. And later, a few days before the October 2005 Iraqi vote on a draft constitution, Abdul-Ahad spent time with nationalist Iraqi insurgents northwest of Baghdad, learning about how this element of the insurgency sees its goals, why they decided to vote in the election, and the growing tensions they saw between themselves and the foreign jihadis.This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in the fall of 2005.

You spent four or five days with an insurgent unit northwest of Baghdad. What was that like?

It's north of Baghdad in an area that's really dangerous, where people get kidnapped, killed just by passing through, and I wanted to see how those people will react towards this referendum, the political events [Iraq's October 2005 vote on a draft constitution].

[I] established contact through some other people, went there first, ... just introducing myself to the people, and then went back. It was amazing, because the whole village was a Salafist, hard-core Islamist [community].

Driving into that village is like driving into a military camp. The only access to the village is one checkpoint manned by Shi'a Iraqi soldiers and American soldiers. So you have to drive through 100, 150 meters of barricades and barbed wires and checking IDs. Once you're inside, it's a community of people who hate the Americans. They're almost all insurgents, been fighting the Americans for the last two or three years. ...

[What] did it feel like for you to go into a place where, if it went badly, it could result in your death?

... Two feelings actually. One is if it goes badly, you'll be killed; you'll be kidnapped. …But then the other feeling is, you suddenly feel safe, because one of the main risks you take is being kidnapped. So once you're inside the lines, it's like you're almost safe for the next three, four days, because you're with them, until they decide to do something to you. ...

[What did they talk about?]

It was Ramadan time, so most of the mornings were quiet, and it was around two or three days before the [constitutional] referendum. After breaking the fast early evening, ... they go to the mosque where we have to pray, and then they go back to the mosque and they do their Ramadan prayers, and then after that everyone would sit in a garden.

So here I am, sitting in the garden in the middle of this bunch of people, and as if I'm one of the family, they're just talking, chatting about the dilemmas of the insurgency -- about what they're doing, what's happening, would they go into politics, would [they] not go into politics. ... They don't believe in elections; they don't believe in democracy and don't believe in [the] constitution.

... I wasn't interviewing people. I didn't ask people questions. They were just talking amongst themselves, and I was sitting there taking notes. That was really amazing for me. ...

Tell me about the parameters of their debate.

Basically the argument is as an Islamist, as a Salafist, you don't believe in democracy. You don't believe in elections because it's [not] God's law. ... But at the same time, those people had been fighting the Americans for two years and suffering a lot at the hands of the Shi'a militias and paramilitary. Certainly they felt that their country has been taken over by, as they described it, by Iranian Shi'a paramilitaries. They suffered a lot at the hands of those people, and there was an argument now [that] all was happening because we boycotted the elections first time, so we handed everything to the Shi'a. So if we go to the elections, if we participate in the parliament, at least we'll not give these ministries back into the Shi'a hands. ...

Their goal is to liberate their country from the Americans, to drive the Americans out and establish an Iraqi rule. So they don't have ... nihilistic aims of just kill everything, just destroy everything. ...

In a sense, you can describe those people as your standard resistance movement that is fighting for something and have a political aim, and trying to achieve that in different ways, militarily or politically.

[Were these insurgents collaborating with Al Qaeda]?

... In the beginning, the main figure I was talking to most of the time who was leading me through [these] stories and the whole community was an Iraqi guy. His name is Abu Theeb; i.e., the "Father of the Wolf." ... He is a religious person; he is a cleric. He was previously in the Iraqi security service, and they started fighting the Americans almost a week or two weeks after the Americans invaded Baghdad. As Abu Theeb explains it to me, the Iraqi resistance was scattered small cells fighting the Americans, focusing on the Americans. They didn't have this strategic perspective. They didn't know how to run the whole thing. They only focused on American units around them.

When the Al Qaeda came to Iraq, according to Abu Theeb, he said that Al Qaeda did something good for the insurgents in Iraq: It started attacking the establishments and the units of the new Iraqi state that the Americans were trying to create, and that was a welcome step forward for the insurgency in Iraq.

[But there was a split between the groups?]

...[T]he split happened when [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda decided to attack all the Shi'a. There is an ideological difference between [the two groups] ... The Iraqis and Abu Theeb are Salafists. They believe in fighting; they believe in jihad; but they do not believe, as Al Qaeda people believe, in the concept of Takfir, which is calling anyone who doesn't believe in someone's ideas an infidel. ... So then a split started to happen [between] let's call it the Sunni insurgents of Iraq, between the Iraqi people who are trying to fight Americans, Shi'a, whatever, and the foreigners and the Al Qaeda people. ...

But they had no sense that if there wasn't a resistance or an insurgency, if they stopped fighting, that the Americans will in fact go away and the occupation will disappear?

It's sort of a pride thing. They lost the war, and Baghdad was invaded in, like, three weeks. So for them it's to retrieve, in their words, that lost honor.

They say "we're fighting for religious reasons," and they're Islamists and they are extremists and they're Salafists. But of course they have a nationalistic thing going on, too. They [are] always try to dismiss the nationalistic thing because it shouldn't go with the religion, but it is there. There is a difference between the goals of those people and [the foreign fighters].

You were in Fallujah and spent some time talking to foreign fighters. ...

... When I went to Fallujah, where I spent three days, I left six hours before the Americans did their big push in November 2004. ... I was interviewing this Yemeni fighter who did this whole trip from Yemen through Syria and then came to Iraq. A couple of other people were talking about [a] specific individual who's been helping and sending those people into Iraq.

... It's a very interesting story, because he's a guy who had been in Saudi Arabia. He'd been establishing his presence long before the Iraq war, and when the war happened, it was just an amazing thing happening to those Islamic extremists, because suddenly they have their deadliest enemy just next door. All they had to do is just cross the road and go there and fight and die for the sake of God. ...

One of the issues is the question of whether or not this war has created what the Americans call terrorists from the mountains -- mujahideen, jihadists, whatever -- or is it simply drawing the ones that exist into a battle from which they could not retreat?

... The Iraq war gave [this Syrian man] the opportunity to recruit and send more people. It is a sort of catalyst for all these jihadi movements, the new Afghanistan basically. The guys I talked to in Iraq, a Yemeni, a Syrian, they were normal people, Islamists. They dreamt of being part of the jihadi movement, of being mujahideen, and Iraq provided them with the opportunity to fulfill this dream, ... to send people, send money, create the ideological cause.

All those people are young -- 16, 17, 20, 25, 30 maximum. But those young men are Islamists. They believe in the whole concept and ideology of jihad, and the Iraq war is providing them with the perfect place on Earth for them.

They all hate their governments. They all believe their governments are not following the true Islam, the true path of Islam, so they go to Iraq. ...

Who are these new recruits?

Saudis, Yemenis, Tunisians, Jordanians; poor, middle classes. I talked to a teacher from Saudi Arabia who had a wife, and I've talked to a Yemeni theology student who had a wife and five kids and his wife was pregnant. So ... young Arabs [are] the new generation of mujahideen.

What about this Yemenite? He was going to go and kill himself?

He tried to come to Iraq ... immediately after the war, [and] the Yemeni authorities discovered him and sent him back from the airport. He tried another time, urged by his wife to go back to Iraq. His wife told him after the Abu Ghraib prison scandals, "Look what's happening to your sisters in Iraq; you have to go to Iraq and fight in Iraq." ... People in his village collected money and bought him a Western pair of trousers and a shirt, and he dressed like a Westerner. ... So he took the plane from [Yemeni capital] Sana'a to [Syrian capital] Damascus, and then in Damascus he stayed in different places for a month until he was picked up at the Iraqi border. When I met him he was in Fallujah fighting, and almost for sure he was killed by the American invasion.

And what was the mood amongst the insurgents? What was their motivation? What was it like to be with them?

... It's not like a death cult, but the only thing they were talking ... about was death. They were chatting about death and what happens when you die and how many virgins you get.

In a way I realized later that they were talking about death because they were trying to comfort themselves, knowing that this was what's going to happen. Most of them were in their early 20s, and most of them were -- it's like people who have never fought before. There was a Yemeni taxi driver who was a religious man, and he'd used an AK-[47] before, but he'd never fought. They were just motivated young men who came from different places in the Arab world, and all that they wanted was to fight the Americans and die.

That's, again, the difference between them and ... their Iraqi commander. The emir, the commander of that cell, was an Iraqi. For him he had a specific thing: He wanted to fight the Americans because he wanted to fight an occupation. But for those young men, ... they have this romantic dream of Osama bin Laden, of mujahideen, of Afghanistan, and they wanted to fulfill these dreams in Fallujah and Iraq. ...

[You've said that you feel the insurgents don't live in the same world as we do.]

When all that you want to do is die, you come from different places. There was a teacher who was very well paid; there was a taxi driver. And they leave everything. They come to a country, and all they want to do is die ... and become martyrs. I mean, yes, they want to help a cause, work for something, but the mentality of those foot soldiers is beyond imagination.

[Can you talk about how going into this world has affected you?]

Let's put it this way: When you come back out of this thing, you're so thrilled that you can't actually write your story or look at your pictures. You're so thrilled by just coming back, you know? I went there, and I came back alive. Seriously, it doesn't really matter in the end if you have a story or you don't have a story. ...

And you've cheated death.

You've cheated death, like, 500 times. ... You have, like, these two little gates on the two sides of your brain, and one of them is saying: "It's not worth it. It's a story, and so what? We all know that there are insurgents, and they're fighting the Americans and the Iraqis." ... But then you tell yourself, "but you really want to go inside that group of people, that community, and see why they are doing these things, how they are thinking and what's their life like." ...

And that is what's driving you then?

... I'm really curious about those people. Why are they doing these things? ... As a journalist, you are sitting there in your hotel room, and you're always talking about those people who are insurgents. You see the destruction; you see the car bombing; you see the assassinations; you see the fighting. You see all these things, and you don't know those people.

Who are the Sunni insurgents of Iraq? Are they nationalist? Are they religious? Why are they doing these things? What [is] their justification? And you really want to out of curiosity go, and you see those people and talk to those people. ...

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posted feb. 21, 2006

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