Inside the Mind of an Iraqi Suicide Bomber

In a rare interview, a "terrorist" in training reveals chilling secrets about the insurgency's deadliest weapon


06/28/05 "Time"
- - One day soon, this somber young man plans to offer up a final prayer and then blow himself up along with as many U.S. or Iraqi soldiers as he can reach. Marwan Abu Ubeida says he has been training for months to carry out a suicide mission. He doesn't know when or where he will be ordered to climb into a bomb-laden vehicle or strap on an explosives-filled vest but says he is eager for the moment to come. While he waits, he spends much of his time rehearsing that last prayer. "First I will ask Allah to bless my mission with a high rate of casualties among the Americans," he says, speaking softly in a matter-of-fact monotone, as if dictating a shopping list. "Then I will ask him to purify my soul so I am fit to see him, and I will ask to see my mujahedin brothers who are already with him." He pauses to run the list through his mind again, then resumes: "The most important thing is that he should let me kill many Americans."

At 20, Marwan is already a battle-hardened insurgent, a jihadi foot soldier in Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Like the bulk of insurgents, he is a Sunni Muslim from the former ruling minority community. In his hometown, Fallujah, he is known for his ferociousness in battle and deep religiosity. Marwan asked his commander to consider him for a suicide mission last fall but had to wait until the beginning of April for his name to be put on the list of volunteers. "When he finally agreed," Marwan recalls, "it was the happiest day of my life." There are, he says, scores of names on that list, and it can be months before a volunteer is assigned an operation. But at the current high rate of attacks, Marwan hopes he will be called up soon. "I can't wait," he says, rubbing his thumbs with his fingers in nervous energy. "I am ready to die now."

Among the embittered population of Iraq, it's not hard to find young men who talk the terrorist talk, boasting of their willingness to serve as human bombs. It's hard to judge the speakers' sincerity. But the latest surge of suicide operations proves there is no scarcity of volunteers to become the most lethal weapon Iraq's insurgents have. Since May 1, Iraq has witnessed at least 129 suicide attacks, accounting for several of the estimated 150 U.S. fatalities during this period, including as many as six soldiers killed in an attack of their convoy near Fallujah last week. Most of the 1,200 Iraqis killed by insurgents since May 1 have died in suicide bombings. And yet, despite the frequency and deadliness of their attacks, almost nothing is known about individual bombers. Their identities have rarely been revealed and then only posthumously, on jihadist websites or carefully edited videotapes aimed at promoting the insurgent cause and attracting fresh recruits. Among the few who have been named, most are foreigners, many from Saudi Arabia.

While some suicide bombers in Iraq have left behind videotaped testimony, Marwan is the first to tell his story before carrying out such a mission. He spoke to TIME in Baghdad on orders from his commander. The interview was the result of weeks of reporting on such insurgents in the hope of learning more about the identities and motivations of those behind the scourge of terrorism in Iraq. A jihadist group passed word that it would send one of its recruits to meet with us. Marwan was unaccompanied; we were not provided with any information about where he lives, works or trains. And out of concern for the safety of TIME's staff, no attempt was made to track his whereabouts after he left. During a three-hour interview, he talked freely of his motivations but did not divulge any specifics about a prospective strike. He seemed articulate and candid, though he insisted on being photographed wearing a mask over his face to conceal his identity and chose a pseudonym, using the common Iraqi name Marwan and a historical one, that of Abu Ubeida al-Jarrah, a 7th century general who conquered Syria for Islam. The sincerity of his desire to make himself a "martyr" was attested to by several figures-- a member of his organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq; a Baghdad-area commander of an insurgent unit that provides logistical support for al-Qaeda bombers; and a Sunni imam who is sometimes brought in to counsel bombers during their premission spiritual "purification"--whom TIME consulted through Iraqis with contacts inside the insurgency. His account provides a rare glimpse into the mind-set and preparation of one aspiring suicide bomber.

Short, scrawny, his chin covered with wispy facial hair that makes him look younger than his age, Marwan doesn't stand out in the streets of Iraq. Few would notice his one distinguishing feature: outsize hands, heavily callused from use of his favorite weapon, the Russian-made PKC machine gun. Even his distinctive Fallujah accent is not uncommon amid the din of the Iraqi capital, where suicide bombings are most frequent. According to an informant close to several insurgent groups and a U.S. official familiar with rebel operations, small and nondescript fighters like Marwan are considered ideal bombers, since they can slip into crowds without attracting attention. He came to the meeting with TIME wearing a black short-sleeved shirt hanging over black trousers--a style favored by many Shi'ite Muslims--to blend in with the majority of Iraq's population.

Homegrown bombers remain rare, but U.S. and Iraqi military officials are backing away from previous claims that suicide operations are the exclusive preserve of foreign jihadis. "I won't be surprised if there are Iraqis out there who are following the example of foreigners," says Colonel Adnan al-Juboori, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Marwan claims he knows of 15 Iraqis who have blown themselves up this year, and he believes there are "hundreds of others" like him who are waiting for the opportunity. Last week al-Zarqawi's group announced that it had set up a separate brigade for Iraqi suicide bombers.

BIRTH OF A JIHADI Marwan's journey toward suicide murderer began just a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Before the war, he had been one of Fallujah's privileged young men: his father's successful business earned enough--even during the difficult years when the West imposed economic sanctions on Iraq--to provide a good life for Marwan and his six brothers and four sisters. In high school, he was an average student but excelled in Koranic studies at the local mosque.

Unlike many other Sunnis in Fallujah, Marwan had little love for Saddam's Sunni-led regime. Yet once the dictator fell, he turned against the Americans. "We expected them to bring Saddam down and then leave," he says. "But they stayed and stayed." Insurgents approached disaffected Fallujis like Marwan and urged them to join the resistance against the Americans. Many signed up, including one of Marwan's older brothers. Marwan joined the insurgency in April 2003 when U.S. soldiers fired on a crowd of demonstrators at a school, killing 12 and wounding many more. Marwan, who took part in the protest, escaped unharmed, but the event proved decisive. He says that a few days later, he and a few friends collected grenades and small arms from a military site abandoned by the Iraqi army and mounted an attack on a building occupied by U.S. soldiers. "They shot back but couldn't hit any of us," he recalls. "It was my first taste of victory against the Americans."

Over the next year, Marwan says, he participated in dozens of assaults on U.S. troops who were struggling to subdue the city. Marwan says he became expert with machine guns, a skill that brought him to the attention of al-Zarqawi's group, then called Attawhid wal Jihad. Marwan's piety apparently impressed the foreign-led jihadis as well: in April 2004 he was approached by Attawhid's spiritual guide, Palestinian-born Abu Anas al-Shami. Marwan says al-Shami, reputed to be a powerful orator and motivator, had a deep impact on him. (Al-Shami was killed in a rocket attack by U.S. forces near Fallujah in late 2004.)

Like other Iraqis who have joined extremist religious groups during the insurgency, Marwan severed connections with his family when he joined up. He says he will call them once before his suicide mission to say goodbye. Even though one of his brothers fights for another insurgent group and other siblings help the rebels with money and shelter, he says they all believe he has gone too far. "My family are not happy with my choice," he says. "But they know they can't change my path."

For the deeply pious Marwan, his colleagues in Attawhid are now closer to his heart than his family or former friends. "The jihadis are more religious people," he says. "You ask them anything--anything--and they can instantly quote a relevant section from the Koran." Like them, Marwan works Koranic allusions into his speech. He has also embraced the jihadist worldview of one global Islamic state where there is, in Marwan's words, "no alcohol, no music and no Western influences." He concedes that he has not thought deeply about what life might be like in such a state; after all, he doesn't expect to live long enough to experience it. Besides, he says, he fights first for Islam, second to become a "martyr" and win acceptance into heaven, and only third for control of his country. "The first step is to remove the Americans from Iraq," he says. "After we have achieved that, we can work out the other details."

FROM WARRIOR TO "MARTYR" Marwan says waiting is the hardest aspect of a jihadi's transformation into a suicide bomber. Volunteers have to undergo a program to discipline the mind and cleanse the soul. The training, supervised by field commanders and Sunni clerics sympathetic to the insurgency, is mainly psychological and spiritual. Besides the Koran, he says, "I read about the history of jihad, about great martyrs who have gone before me. These things strengthen my will." One popular source of inspiration for suicide bombers is The Lover of Angels, by Abdullah Azzam, one of Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentors, which tells stories of jihadis who died fighting Soviet occupying troops in Afghanistan. And Marwan is listening to taped speeches that address subjects like the rewards that await warriors in heaven. In recent months, jihadist groups have also begun showing recruits lurid videos of successful suicide hits. A U.S. official in Baghdad who studies suicide terrorism says some volunteers even visit the sites of previous bombings for inspiration.

Marwan says would-be "martyrs" may use their waiting time to take care of business--paying off debts, resolving family matters, saying farewells. Some destroy any photographs of themselves; extremist Islamists regard pictures as a sign of vanity and therefore taboo. Others compile lists of the 70 people Islamic tradition says a "martyr" can guarantee a place in paradise. "I haven't got my 70 names yet--I don't think I know that many people," Marwan says, allowing himself a rare smile. Some dig graves for themselves and leave instructions on the way they should be buried--generally with simple headstones. Marwan says he won't need a grave: "If I am lucky, my body will be vaporized. There won't be anything left of me to bury."

When Marwan gets the call-up, he expects the final stage of his training to be far more rigorous. He anticipates spending his last days in near seclusion, probably holed up in a safe house with a few other bombers-to-be. For non-Iraqis, the isolation can serve a practical purpose, ensuring that they keep a low profile and avoid arousing suspicion with their foreign accents. But all the suicide candidates, he says, are expected to immerse themselves in spiritual contemplation and prayer, to free their minds of negative thoughts toward their fellow men--except Americans and their Iraqi "infidel" supporters. There will be no TV or music, says Marwan, who will have to give up his one addiction, cigarettes. In many ways, these steps mirror the self-purification that devout Muslims undergo before embarking on the pilgrimage to Mecca. "You give up your previous life," he says, "and start a new one."

According to TIME's contacts close to insurgent groups, the bombers have little or no say in planning their operations. The logistics--choosing targets, checking out the site, preparing the bomb-laden vehicles or vests--are left to field commanders and explosives specialists. It is not unusual for a bomber to be told about the details of a mission mere minutes before launching the attack. Marwan says he thought he was going on his operation when his commander sent him to meet TIME. Iraqi Interior Ministry officials claim they have evidence showing that many of the bombers are drafted involuntarily. They say their investigations of car bombings have discovered that some of the vehicles were rigged to be detonated by remote control, indicating that the drivers may not have been aware that they were about to be blown up. "In a majority of cases, you find hands chained to the steering column, so these were not volunteers," says al-Juboori, the Interior Ministry spokesman. But U.S. investigators who have looked into scores of cases believe coercion is rare. Navy Commander Fred Gaghan, head of the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell, which has investigated more than 60 bombings in the past five months, has not found any evidence of fetters. "They don't need them, because they have plenty of volunteers who will do it willingly," he says.

Marwan says the occasional bomber may ask to be chained to the wheel to make sure he doesn't flinch at the last moment. "If you have any little doubt in your mind about your own ability to carry out the mission, you do that to make sure you don't lose your courage," he says. He scoffs at reports that some suicide bombers are intoxicated. "Those who go on these missions know that they are about to see their Creator," he says. "Do you think we would meet Allah in a state of drunkenness or drugged? It is unthinkable."

Toward the end of the cleansing period, a bomber may ask a fellow jihadi, one better versed in religious doctrine, to help with the final spiritual preparation. Marwan says he was asked to mentor a friend intent on martyrdom earlier this year. He expects his final weeks to be a period of euphoria rather than penance. "My friend was happier than I had ever seen him," Marwan says. "He felt he was close to the end of his journey to heaven." (The friend, he says, blew himself up two months ago at a checkpoint manned by Iraqi soldiers near Ramadi, capital of the turbulent Anbar province, and six were killed. "We made a pact that we would meet in heaven," Marwan says.)

"I AM A TERRORIST" Marwan seems certain he is on a "pure" path. Unlike many other insurgents, who reject the terrorist label and call themselves freedom fighters or holy warriors, Marwan embraces it. "Yes, I am a terrorist," he says. "Write that down: I admit I am a terrorist. [The Koran] says it is the duty of Muslims to bring terror to the enemy, so being a terrorist makes me a good Muslim." He quotes lines from the surah known as Al-Anfal, or the Spoils of War: "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the enemy of Allah and your enemy."

Then, as if embarrassed by his emotional outburst, he slumps back in his chair. He would like to understand Americans better, he says. He was arrested by U.S. patrols twice and detained for short spells, but because he speaks no English, he was unable to communicate with his captors. But this is a small regret, he says, of the kind he is determined to put out of his mind. "When you get ready for the final mission," he says almost to himself, "you can't think about the past. You only think about your future in heaven." But there is at least one aspect of the immediate future that Marwan does not want to contemplate: the collateral damage he may cause to fellow Iraqis. In the recent spate of bombings, many of the victims have been harmless bystanders. "I pray no innocent people are killed in my mission," he says. "But if some are, I know when they arrive in heaven, Allah will ask them to forgive me."

If he could choose, Marwan would like his operation to be a car bombing targeting U.S. soldiers or Iraqi security forces far from any civilians. But if he is ordered to strap on explosives and walk to his target on a downtown street, he will do so. "We don't get to choose the mission," he says. "That is up to Allah." In fact, the decision will be made by a field commander of al-Zarqawi's group. Marwan hopes he will be chosen for a high-profile hit, the dramatic, headline-grabbing kind that al-Zarqawi is said to direct personally. Although Marwan has never met the terrorist mastermind, he reveres him as a great Islamic hero.

Marwan says he doesn't think about his legacy or how others might regard him when he is gone. Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, Iraq's self-immolating terrorists are not celebrated and memorialized by family and friends. At best, Marwan might be profiled on one of the jihadist websites, but even there, his identity would be concealed to spare his family harassment by Iraqi authorities. "It doesn't matter whether people know what I did," he says. "The only person who matters is Allah--and the only question he will ask me is 'How many infidels did you kill?'"

From the Jul. 04, 2005 issue of TIME magazine 

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