July 29, 2005

In Jordanian Case, Hints of Iraq Jihad Networks

By JAMES GLANZ

New York Times

AMMAN, Jordan - Zaid Horani, a young Jordanian, did not have much to show for the trip he made to fight the American troops as they were closing in on Baghdad in April 2003, except a few light chest wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade that exploded during a training session.

But it was on that trip that he began making a fateful series of acquaintances with others interested in waging jihad, or holy war, and who eventually helped him set up a ring to recruit and train Jordanians to kill Americans and their allies in Iraq, according to papers filed in a state security court here in July.

Today, Mr. Horani, 27, and six of his friends are in jail awaiting trial, indicted under an obscure Jordanian statute that prohibits damaging relations with another country, in this case, Iraq. How he is alleged to have set up his ring provides a rare look at the networks of foreign fighters who continue to cross borders and bedevil American and Iraqi security forces, and are believed to carry out most suicide bombings in Iraq.

Estimates of how many foreign fighters are in Iraq have been hazy, but a Western diplomat said a variety of analysts had concluded that hundreds of Jordanians had gone to Iraq to fight since the beginning of the war. A common route, they say, is over land through Syria and across Iraq's porous and still violent western frontier, the same route Mr. Horani and his friends are said to have used.

Mr. Horani, arrested in March, and his cohort are accused of recruiting at least six Jordanians for jihad missions through a mysterious Syrian known as Abu al-Janna, or "the Father of Heaven," a reference to the postmortem bliss promised by the Koran to Muslims who die in jihad.

Because so little is known of their origins and motivations, these young jihadis, as they are known, have taken on a rare mystique, like shapes half-seen in a fog. Among those said to have been recruited was Raad Mansour al-Banna, suspected of carrying out the single deadliest attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein by driving a car bomb into a crowd of police recruits and shoppers in Hilla in February, killing at least 125 people.

The court papers show that Mr. Horani and four others on trial came from the same neighborhood in Amman, Jabal al Taj, or Crown Hill, an ordinary patchwork of middle-class homes and well-kept office buildings alongside shabbier stretches of small shops and grimy apartment blocks. A modest mosque sits in the middle of the neighborhood.

Mr. Horani's mother and three of his friends indicated in interviews that he and his ring were motivated by little more than the deep opposition to the American occupation of Iraq that pervades society here. Two of the friends interviewed were arrested as part of the same investigation and later released.

Mr. Horani's mother, Hesmat Abdul Rahman, recalled that her son had become angrier and angrier as he watched television images of the American invasion. Under such circumstances, "it is almost a must to do jihad," his mother said, defending her son. "This is our religion."

Those images showed the toppling of a Sunni Arab-led government, ultimately in favor of the majority Shiites. Like nearly all Jordanian Arabs, Mr. Horani and his family are Sunni. "He hates the Shiites," Mrs. Rahman said.

But unlike so many other young men who may also be angered by such television images, Mr. Horani and his friends chose to join the fight in April 2003. It was a decision that appears to have been quickly made.

"We were in the mosque and we all said, 'Lets go do jihad,' " recalled Abdul Kareem Saraqoush, 39, who was part of the group along with his younger brother Khalid, who remains in jail among those accused.

The group drove to Damascus, where they boarded buses that were lined up and ready to take them to Baghdad, which American forces were racing toward from the south. The buses bore Iraqi markings and were parked in a central square of Damascus, said Raad Mahmood, 32, who also took the trip.

The journey was both festive and tense, said another of the friends, Raad Fouad, 24. Some of the passengers chanted Koranic verses and talked about jihad, while others reflected on what they had gotten themselves into.

"We were scared," Mr. Fouad said. "On the road to Baghdad in a time of war," he said, "you feel fear."

Mr. Horani, who is unmarried and still lived with his mother at the time, lied to her about where he was going. The group passed through Bukamal, on the Euphrates River, in Syria across the border from the Iraqi town of Qaim, an area where American marines still battle insurgents today.

The buses continued along the Euphrates, and when they reached Baghdad, some of the Jordanians stayed at a hotel, the Sadeer, which members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party still controlled despite the American advance.

The Sadeer was filled with hundreds of would-be jihadis from all over the Middle East, "an Arab cocktail," Mr. Fouad said. But little of consequence happened at the hotel. "We stayed at the pool," he said. "We went out to the cafeteria."

At the same time, Mr. Horani, however, was undergoing his military training at a local mosque, he later told his mother, and received his wounds in an accident.

Although the group ended up doing little fighting, it was in Baghdad, the court papers assert, that one member, Khalid Saraqoush, happened upon a man who put him and Mr. Horani in touch with their Syrian operative, Abu al-Janna.

An Arab intelligence official said that in addition to being wanted in the recruiting case, Abu al-Janna was being sought in at least one terrorism case, in which he is believed to have supplied explosives and the trigger for a bomb. The intelligence official said that Abu al-Janna was considered a central figure in the regional terror network.

The subject of Jordanian foreign fighters in Iraq is a delicate one for the government. A Western diplomat cautioned that, while he had no specific knowledge of Mr. Horani's case, in general Jordan had sought to blame outside agitators to explain why Jordanians enlisted in the jihad in Iraq.

The court papers in Mr. Horani's case described Abu al-Janna as a person who was "able to facilitate the entrance of elements into Iraq to fight Americans and the Iraqi police."

From that contact, it is alleged, the recruitment ring was born.

After Baghdad fell and the Jordanians returned home, Khalid Saraqoush told Mr. Horani about Abu al-Janna, the court papers say. Mr. Horani and Khalid Saraqoush then set up a full-fledged recruiting organization that solicited donations and even created a secret Web site, largely to keep in touch with Abu al-Janna, coordinate travel to Syria and keep track of the donations.

The donation work, the court papers say, was directed by Yaldar Abdulla, who is studying marketing and has also been jailed.

The papers say the ring then recruited six Jordanians who made three trips to Syria to train with Abu al-Janna. Exactly how the recruitment took place is not described in the court papers, although they make clear it included numerous face-to-face meetings inside Jordan.

Interviewed in a local barber shop in the neighborhood where Mr. Horani and the others come from, Mr. Fouad said Jordanian security forces investigating the case arrested him this past May but released him two weeks later because "they realized I had nothing to give them."

While he, too, had made the trip to Baghdad, he said that he had no knowledge of any recruitment group.

Abdul Kareem Saraqoush, interviewed in a store just up the street, said he was also arrested and released, but his brother Khalid is still in custody and is thought by Jordanian authorities to be a leader of the recruiting ring, along with Mr. Horani.

Abdul Kareem Saraqoush said the charges against his brother were ridiculous. "He doesn't even know how to shoot a bullet," he said.

Mr. Horani's mother said she visits her son in prison once a week as the case proceeds. She asks him if the family can retain a lawyer for him, but he always says that he does not need one because he has done nothing wrong.

"He has a heart of milk, a baby's heart," she said, adding proudly that she once asked a guard at the prison how her son was behaving and was told that he was very polite. "That's all I want to know; he's a well-brought-up boy."