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The Insurgent's Tale: Rolling Stone's 2005 Profile of a Soldier Reconsidering Jihad

He took up arms with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Abu Musabal-Zarqawi in Iraq. The extraordinary saga of a veteran foot soldier in the jihad — and why he had second thoughts about a holy war that seems to have no end

January 31, 2011 2:16 PM ET
Khalid, wearing a ceremonial dagger, has spent the past fifteen years fighting as a mujahideen in the name of Islam. But the insurgency in Iraq, he has come to believe, is "overkilling" civilians.
Khalid, wearing a ceremonial dagger, has spent the past fifteen years fighting as a mujahideen in the name of Islam. But the insurgency in Iraq, he has come to believe, is "overkilling" civilians.
Photograph by Q. Sakamaki

Khalid had been in Iraq for only a few weeks, but he was already sick of the place. It wasn't the missions that bothered him. He was fighting alongside a small group of Saudis, and they were consummate professionals when it came to jihad, completely focused on the lightning-fast attacks they staged each day on the foreign invaders. The ambushes usually lasted no more than five or ten minutes, but Khalid reveled in the chance to hit the streets and fire off his AK-47 at the American soldiers and their allies, four grenades strapped to his waist so he could kill himself if captured.

Osama's Prodigal Son

After the attacks, however, Khalid and the other fighters were confined to safe houses in Mosul and Haditha — dark, dank places with no hot water or electricity. The biggest problem was the Iraqis, the very people he was there to help. Sometimes it seemed as though there were double agents everywhere, checking him out on the street, trying to overhear him speaking the Yemeni dialect that would betray him as a foreigner, all so they could pick up their cell phones and call in the Americans, maybe even collect a reward. That made this jihad more dangerous and unpredictable than the other wars Khalid had fought in — Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, places where they were often treated like heroes. When they weren't out on missions in Iraq, he and the Saudis were forced to stay in the safe house, the shades pulled down, with only a well-thumbed copy of the Koran and five prayer sessions a day to break the monotony.

This article appeared in the December 15, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a pillar of strength to the insurgents. Khalid knew him from a decade and a half ago, when they were fighting the Soviets and their proxies in Afghanistan. But now, meeting al-Zarqawi in Mosul, he was amazed at the changes in his old comrade. Back then al-Zarqawi was an ordinary foot soldier like Khalid. Now, flanked by two bodyguards and barking orders with fiery determination, he was the most wanted man in Iraq, an Islamic militant with a $25 million price on his head. He had been hailed by Sheik Osama bin Laden himself as "the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq," but al-Zarqawi still had time for a word with someone from the old days. He and Khalid chatted for a few minutes, recalling their time together in Afghanistan, before al-Zarqawi rushed off to make arrangements with an ally in Kurdistan to try to send some insurgents off to Iraq's northern mountains to fight.

The Kill Team: How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them. Plus: an exclusive look at the war crime photos censored by the Pentagon

That was more than two years ago, when the insurgency had been looking for fighters like Khalid, veteran soldiers who could be relied on to attack foreign troops with skill and precision. Now, back in Yemen, Khalid heard that they were looking for suicide bombers only. He would watch kids he knew signing up to go to Iraq, unaware that they were being recruited to kill themselves. It made Khalid glad he wasn't in Iraq anymore. Not that he had anything against that kind of mission — it was a noble calling — but he thought that a person willing to fight and die should know what he was meant to do before he left home.

Revenge of the Puppet

At thirty-two, Khalid was beginning to have serious reservations about the course of the insurgency in Iraq. They are over-killing there. Fighting foreign soldiers was one thing — he had been doing it all of his adult life. But did his faith really sanction killing civilians in their own country? The blood of people is too cheap. Fifteen years in the jihad, fighting in five foreign wars, imprisoned in England and Yemen, enduring the death of a close friend on a mission in Iraq — enough. The cost was just too high. Although he was proud of all the fighting he had done in the past, Khalid wanted to settle down to an ordinary life as a father, husband and son. He was a soldier fighting a war. But what if the war had no end?

Commentary on politics and the economy by Matt Taibbi

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