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

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The agents interrogated Khalid about his past. They knew he'd been in Syria. Business, he explained. They knew he'd been detained in 2002 after returning to England from Iran. Shiite pilgrimage. I've never been in Afghanistan. I don't want to go. They knew there were Yemeni fighters being held in Guantanamo who said Khalid had recruited them to train in Afghanistan. Liars. They knew he had spoken on his cell phone to Wa'il, shortly before his friend had died in Iraq. Just a chat.

After Khalid spent a week in prison they let him out, just like they always did. They didn't have enough evidence to keep him. When he was released, his next-door neighbors, mostly white Britons, were there to welcome him home. "I might doubt my own son," one old man said, "but I'll always believe Khalid." Most of the Yemenis and other Muslims who had been Khalid's friends had deserted him when he was arrested, fearing for their own safety. When he saw his British neighbors standing by him, Khalid couldn't help bawling.

After the arrest, Khalid returned to Iraq for two more months in 2004, in part to honor the memory of Wa'il. Living in safe houses, he once again went out on raids against the Americans. The heaviest fighting he saw was in Al Qa'im, where thirty Arabs and more than a hundred Iraqis fought for a week against the Americans. Khalid saw seven brothers killed, mostly from Syria and Saudi Arabia. He believed the insurgents killed about ten soldiers from the other side.

By this time, however, the nature of the insurgency had changed. Al-Zarqawi had succeeded, for the moment, in taking over the homegrown resistance. Many of Saddam's former secret police and Republican Guard were now integrated into cells with jihadists like Khalid. The leadership of Al Qaeda had financial resources and strategic expertise that the Iraqis lacked, and the foreign fighters were more willing to die than the local Sunnis — and more willing to kill civilians.

Disturbed by the killings, Khalid began to rethink the role of jihad in his life. Would his faith really justify killing his British neighbors in their own country? Would he ever be able to live a normal life? Hearing about Yemenis he knew who had disappeared into the gulag at Guantanamo, he feared he could end up in prison for life, a fate he considered worse than death.

The doubts intensified after he returned home to Yemen and was arrested earlier this year. "Enough is enough," his father implored. "It's time to settle down and stop this stuff." After Khalid was released from prison, he and a group of other Afghan Arabs — the blanket term for those who fought or trained in Afghanistan — were summoned to a meeting with Ali Abdullah Salih, the president of Yemen, who was trying to contain the jihadists. In private, Salih called them "my sons" and said he had been pressured by the Bush administration to crack down on them. He also did something seldom acknowledged in the war on terror: He offered to pay them off to stop fighting.

"We will help you get jobs, get married," Salih told the men. "Write down your name and what you want."

Khalid didn't take the money, but he was tempted by the offer. He wanted out of jihad. On a trip back to England in late 2004, he had proposed to a Muslim woman he met through friends. In August, his fiancée and her family visited him in Yemen. He was visibly excited about the prospect of settling down and starting a family. He and his betrothed would go on heavily chaperoned picnics to a park outside Sanaa with their extended families, or visit the home of a close relative. They have never been alone together, and he has never seen her face.

But Khalid can see no way to escape from his past. Like many veterans, he looks back on his years of fighting with nostalgia — the thrill of battle, the feeling of brotherhood, the steadfast devotion to a cause. But on some days, it feels as if he has no place in the world. He lives in Sanaa, but it no longer seems like home. Every few days he walks down to a storefront calling center and phones his brother in England. He doubts he can ever go back to the life he knew there. He often visited the mosques frequented by the London bombers, and he fears police will arrest him if he tries to return. But if he stays in Yemen, the brothers will keep trying to draw him back into the struggle.

These days, when they come over to his house and try to rally him for a mission to Iraq or Sudan, Khalid looks bored and says that he can't go anywhere now, that it would put his family in Yemen at risk. Even his fiancée's younger brother tried to enlist his aid to join the insurgency in Iraq. Khalid told him he couldn't help. He doesn't want any part of the fighting, but uncertainty might be seen as betrayal. So he keeps silent, and waits, and imagines the day when the war, and all that comes with it, will finally end.

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