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

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On his way to Saudi Arabia for further surgery, Khalid stopped home in Yemen. When he arrived at the airport in a wheelchair, his father slapped him across the face. "This is all your doing — tell Sheik Zindani to help you now," he said, referring to a firebrand cleric who had urged Khalid to go to Bosnia. But Khalid received a warmer welcome in Saudi Arabia, where people from all over the country visited him in the hospital, leaving gifts of flowers, perfume and money for a man they considered a hero.

It took Khalid several years to recover from his wounds. In 1996, he joined a group of Arab fighters going to Kosovo, where Christian Serbs were once again menacing a Muslim minority. By the time he arrived, however, the Serbs had already sealed off the country, making it impossible for him to enter. Unable to join the jihad, Khalid decided to move to England, where many of the brothers had settled.

England is the home of one of the largest concentrations of Yemenis in the world; parts of Yemen were long ruled by the British, and thousands of Khalid's countrymen have settled there. When Khalid arrived, he went to see a Palestinian cleric he knew, who helped connect him to the Yemeni community. Khalid settled down to work at a corner store, chewing qat all day while manning the register. The leaf is legal in England, and Khalid's store stocked and sold qat to Yemenis in the neighborhood.

Khalid was twenty-three. For the past seven years, he had been fighting in battles all over the world. He had never been on a date, never kissed a girl, never really talked to a female who wasn't a close relation. So he did what many a lonely guy does when he's stuck in a city he doesn't know very well: He fell for the waitress at the coffee shop.

She was of Irish descent, and she smiled every time she brought him his coffee. Khalid went to a Yemeni friend and explained his quandary: He was in love, but he didn't know what to say.

"No problem," the friend told him. "I'll ask her out for you."

The waitress was receptive but confused. "I like him," she told the friend. "But why doesn't he just talk to me himself?"

Things were rocky from the start. On the first date, she wanted to go to a disco, but Khalid refused. Outside a restaurant, he grew angry when a passing man looked at her. "What are you going to do if I walk on the street with you?" she asked. "Fight everybody in the city?"

A couple of dates later came the gifts: three bottles of pricey perfume and a ring — the ring. He could barely get the words out in English: "I want to marry you."

"Marry me?" She was surprised, amused even. "What's my name?"

"It's hard for me to remember it," he stuttered.

He gave her a week to decide. His gallantry must have won her over, because they were married within a month.

Right after that, the misery began. Khalid tried to control her and force her to wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by devout Muslim women. Their arguments were so loud that neighbors knocked on the door and banged on the walls. He realized the way he treated her was wrong, but he didn't know any other way. They separated, and Khalid got a British passport out of the marriage.

Khalid returned to the only life he knew. This time, his destination was Somalia, where a radical Muslim faction was attempting to impose strict Islamic law, known as sharia, on the entire country. Posing as a Red Crescent worker, Khalid bribed a pilot to fly him from Nairobi to the Somali town of Luuq, where he delivered $40,000 in cash to a Somali warlord allied with the Islamic faction. The money was from Arab backers, mostly Saudis, who were using their disposable income to influence the many conflicts that plagued Africa and the Middle East. Their cash not only advanced the cause of Islam — it also bought allies who might help the struggle in the future.

There were forty Arab fighters in Luuq helping to fight the Ethiopian army, which regularly attacked from across the border. The longer Khalid stayed, the more dire conditions grew. At times the insurgents survived only by eating pure sugar. The brothers eventually organized a counter-attack and retook the city. Khalid fought for two days straight, until he and his men ran out of ammunition. Reduced to throwing stones, most of the Arab and Somali fighters were killed. At one point the few remaining survivors were so desperate, they started to dig their own graves.

Khalid escaped, badly shaken but alive, with neither the money nor the means to get home. What do you do when you're on jihad, all the money's run out and you just want to leave? For Khalid and his remaining men, their only chance was to try and get a piece of the forty grand that Khalid had already delivered to the warlord.

"I can't help you," the Somali leader told him. "We need all that money for our fight."

Khalid wasn't a high-school debater; he was a holy warrior, so he did what came naturally: He put a loaded gun to the man's head. "I'll kill you or you'll help us get out of here," he said. "We brought you $40,000. Now you need to help us." The warlord was convinced. Khalid and his fellow insurgents eventually escaped to Yemen by crossing the Gulf of Aden on a dhow packed with goats.

When Khalid finally arrived home, his father was furious. "What the hell happened to you?" he demanded. "Where did you come from?" To calm him down, Khalid promised to stop fighting and start a normal life. But whenever the call came, he answered. In 1999, Khalid traveled to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and tried to get into Chechnya, where the Russian army was slaughtering Muslims. But many mujahideen, he learned, had died trying to walk across the mountains to Chechnya. Khalid was willing to die fighting for his cause, a gun in his hand, but freezing to death on a mountain-top was no way for a soldier to give up his life. He headed back to England, returning to his job as a clerk at the corner store, chewing qat to keep himself alert, always on the lookout for the next opportunity.

In 2001, he got a call from Afghanistan. The brothers wanted him there.

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