According to a remarkable article by Scott Macleod in the April 4 issue of Time Magazine, the suicide bomber who carried off the worst atrocity in Iraq since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime was a 32-year-old Jordanian who had lived for two years in California.
Ra’ed Mansour al-Banna was born in Jordan in 1973 and grew up in a religious, economically prosperous merchant family. He studied law at the university, graduating in 1996, and then started his own law practice in the Jordanian capital of Amman. After three years, he gave it up and in 1999 he worked a half year without pay for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman, helping Iraqis who fled Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
In 2001, sometime before 9/11, Banna received a visa and moved to the United States, where he apparently lived in California for nearly two years, moving from one unskilled job to another – factory worker, bus driver, and pizza maker. According to his father, Ra’ed even worked “in one of the Californian airports.” If Ra’ed did not make it economically, he seemed to fit in well, traveling to such destinations as the Golden Gate Bridge and the World Trade Center, growing his hair long, and taking up American popular music. Photographs sent to his family in Jordan show Banna eating a crab dinner, walking on a beach in California, mounted on a motorcycle, and standing in front of a military helicopter while holding an American flag. He even planned to marry a Christian woman until her parents demanded that the wedding take place in a church.
Banna apparently loved America, reporting back to his family about the people’s honesty and kindness; “They respect anybody who is sincere.” Talal Naser, a young man engaged to one of Ra’ed’s sisters, explained how Ra’ed “loved life in America, compared to Arab countries. He wanted to stay there.” His father, Mansour, recounted that, despite the September 11 attacks, Ra’ed “faced no problems with his American workmates, who liked him.”
Banna visited home in 2003 but on his return to the United States he was denied entry, accused of falsifying details on a visa application. He returned to Jordan and became withdrawn, holing up in a makeshift studio apartment, sleeping late, and displaying a new interest in religion. He began praying five times a day and listening to the Koran. In November 2004, he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, returning to Saudi Arabia in January 2005.
On Jan. 27, Banna crossed into Syria, presumably on the way to Iraq. He apparently spent February with Sunni jihadis in Iraq, during which time he called home several times, with the last call on about Feb. 28.
Feb. 28 also happens to be the date when Banna suited up as a suicide bomber and blew himself up at a health clinic in Al-Hilla, killing 132 people and injuring 120, the worst such attack of the 136 suicide bombings that have taken place since May 2003. On March 3, the family received a call informing them of Ra’ed’s fate. “Congratulations, your brother has fallen a martyr.”
A friend revealed that Banna became politically radicalized against American policies in the Muslim world while living in the United States. He was especially distraught about developments in Iraq. A neighbor, Nassib Jazzar, recalled Banna upset with the coalition occupation. “He felt that the Arabs didn’t have honor and freedom.'”
The father notes that Ra’ed wore Western-style clothing, rarely went to mosque, and was ignorant of the names of local sheikhs. “I am shocked by all of this because my son was a very quiet man, not very religious and more interested in pursuing his law profession and building a future for himself.”
As Time cautiously concludes from this tale,
On the basis of accounts given by his family, friends and neighbors, Ra’ed apparently led a double life, professing affection for America while secretly preparing to join the holy war against the U.S. in Iraq. “Something went wrong with Ra’ed, and it is a deep mystery,” says his father Mansour, 56. “What happened to my son?”
Ra’ed al-Banna’s biography inspires several observations:
(1) When it comes to Islamist terrorists, appearances often deceive. That Banna was said to “love life in America,” be “not very religious,” and be interested in “building a future for himself” obviously indicated nothing about his real thinking and purposes. The same pattern recurs in the biographies of many other jihadis.
(2) Moving to the West often spurs Muslims to despise the West more than they did before they got there. This appears to be what happened with Banna.
(3) Taking up the Islamist cause, even to the point of sacrificing one’s life for it, usually happens in a discreet manner, quite unobservable even to a person’s closest relatives.
In brief, Banna’s evolution confirms the point I have made repeatedly about the regrettable but urgent need to keep an eye on all potential Islamists and jihadis, which is to say Muslims.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, author of several books on the Middle East, and a columnist for the New York Sun and other publications.