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

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Khalid's jihad began with a videotape he viewed at a mosque in Sanaa in 1989. He can still remember the anger he felt when, at the age of sixteen, he watched that footage of Muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered in Afghanistan. A friend of his had died fighting there — a martyr promised the rewards of paradise. Khalid didn't think much about his own decision to follow his friend into battle; it was the natural, instinctive thing to do. He had seen what the Russians were doing to the brothers, as Khalid calls his fellow soldiers in the holy war. His best friend had stood up to them and died. Now it was his turn.

Yemen is pious and militant, and it has supplied many thousands of the young men who have filled the front lines of jihad, fighting for their faith from Afghanistan to Iraq. The country is the ancestral home of bin Laden, whose father was a one-eyed Yemeni dockworker, and among the few people successfully prosecuted by the Bush administration on terrorism charges were the "Lackawanna Six," Yemeni Americans from Buffalo, New York, convicted of attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and Sheik al-Moayad, a cleric from Sanaa convicted of conspiring to support terrorism.

There was nothing in Khalid's childhood to suggest that he would wind up joining the jihad. His father was a moderate Muslim with a steady job as a civil servant in the Yemeni government. Khalid worried that he wouldn't be able to get a passport or leave the country without his father's permission. But the recruiters for the Afghan war were acting with the support of the Yemeni government, and within a few weeks, whether or not his father liked it, Khalid had a brand-new passport stamped with a visa for Pakistan.

The final hitch was that a close relative of Khalid's worked at the Sanaa Airport. Khalid feared that an airport clerk might recognize him and alert his family. The recruiters got around that by driving him directly onto the tarmac. Khalid climbed aboard the plane to Pakistan without even passing through immigration.

The reality of jihad, Khalid quickly discovered, was very different from the images presented on the videotape. When he finally made it into Afghanistan, he spent his first night near the front. That evening, a soldier who had been killed was brought back for burial by the mujahideen. Khalid didn't know the man, but seeing his body terrified him. "I'm scared," he told a friend. "I just want to go home."

"Everybody feels like that at first," his friend said. "But soon you won't be scared."

Khalid fought in Afghanistan for two years. He learned to use his weapon, to fight, and to pray with the precision and punctuality of the Salafis, the Islamic purists who were driving the holy war. It was a harder, less forgiving kind of Islam than he had known in Yemen, but its rigidity gave him the strength and discipline he needed to survive as a homesick kid at war in a foreign land. He had arrived in Afghanistan at a pivotal moment. The war against the Soviets was giving birth to a new breed of Arab fighters known as "Afghan Arabs." It was there that the seed of allegiance was planted for the thousands of young men who had flocked to the mountains of the Hindukush to help fight the communists. Afghanistan represented the birth of the global struggle. By helping defeat a superpower, the jihadists showed the world the power of Islam. And in the decade that followed, they would spread that war to the rest of the world.

In 1993, after Khalid had returned home from Afghanistan, he began to hear about a war in Europe where Christians were slaughtering Muslims. Stirred by the stories, he went to join the fighting in Bosnia. Again, as in Afghanistan, he was on the side the world viewed as the good guys — the Bosnian Muslims who were the victims of relentless "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Serbian nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic. The combat was much more intense than the action he had seen in Afghanistan, where the Soviets used superior firepower to bomb them from a distance. In Bosnia, the enemy was right in front of you, and you had to kill or be killed each day. Khalid fought alongside a group called the Green Berets, named not after the American Special Forces but after the color of Islam.

One day, after a year at war in Bosnia, Khalid was on the front line between Tuzla and Zenica, battling Serbian snipers who were shooting into Muslim villages from a nearby mountain. Suddenly, he came face to face with a Serb. The Serb got the jump, firing seven bullets into Khalid's stomach. Bundled up in heavy winter clothing, Khalid at first couldn't even tell how badly he was hit. When he started to peel off the layers around his stomach, part of his guts leaked out into his hands. He stuffed whatever he could back in and lay down on the ground. When a Saudi brother managed to drag Khalid beyond the reach of the Serb snipers, it took three injections of morphine to quiet his screaming. "You must be a heavy drinker," said the medic from Bahrain who administered the shots.

"No," Khalid said. "I chew qat." The medic, who had never heard of the plant, thought Khalid was hallucinating.

It took hours to carry Khalid down the mine-covered trail. When he finally arrived at a triage area at the base of the mountain, he was put with a group of those too far gone to save and left to die.

Soon after, the medic who had given Khalid the morphine arrived and began searching for his patient. He found Khalid lying among the rows of the dead and ordered a Bosnian army helicopter to speed Khalid to a hospital, where he woke up in pre-op. For six months he lived off an IV tube, his intestines hanging outside his body in a sterilized bag. He shrank to skin and bones — under seventy-five pounds — until he looked like "an African famine victim." The hunger was so intense, he would claw at his own stomach.

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