This is Belal Mahmoud Al-Shofuk, an Islamic extremist recruited by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in 2005. This is Belal after he was captured and detained by my Platoon following a desert skirmish. This is the face of an extremist.
Belal was part of a cell from an Al Qaeda in Iraq umbrella group know as “The Al-Hamza Troop.” He participated in attacks on coalition (U.S.) forces, as well as against Iraqi Army and Iraqi National Police. He claimed that he believed he had killed at least one American that he was aware of. He readily admitted this to us. He also admitted that part of his cell’s mission was to attack Iraqi women and children, to drive a wedge between the populous and the U.S. / Iraqi coalition. Very much like the tactics we see employed by Deash (ISIS/ISIL) today, all over the world – such as has happened today in Brussels.
This is the face of an extremist. Let’s look a little at Bilal, and learn a little about him: Bilal is a Jordanian; he was recruited in Saudi Arabia by a Saudi man who was a member of Al Qaeda and the Al-Hamza Troop network. He went to Saudi Arabia for work. He joined the movement for Jihad.
Bilal was not paid. He did not mention to us if he had a family. But he did not accept, nor did he (or his fellows) receive payment for being jihadists / martyrs. Their reward for volunteering to fight Jihad was material support, food, shelter, and logistics. Bilal had been operating with this group for two months when we captured him. He admitted that he had also participated in meetings with mid-level Al Qaeda leaders in the region to plan attacks; he participated in the transportation and caching of weapons, mostly rockets and RPG warheads; he was at least involved in the preparation of propane cylinders that had been emptied and stuffed with explosive in order to avoid detection – these were used in suicide car bombings.
So, what motivated Bilal? Though we have no idea of his original intentions, we do have his reaction, and how he interacted with us after being captured. Below is an excerpt from this operation, an exchange between Bilal and me, through my interpreter:
The hatred and emptiness in his dark eyes was expected, yet unsettling. My interpreter spoke up. “Sir, this guy says it’s unfair what you are doing.”
‘Unfair? What? The invasion?’ I wasn’t confused because a lot of Iraqi’s felt that the invasion and current state of the provisional government wasn’t very fair, but I wanted to know exactly what he didn’t like about it. This was rare for us – we rarely every captured prisoners like this. They either died in place, died and were carried off by their pals, or they broke contact and blended back into the populous.
“He says, that this treatment is unfair. He says that he is Al Qaeda – he has come from Jordan to fight Jihad. He is proud and has already carried out attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces.” The man stared at me, and his voice, still quiet, intensified. “He says that he had already confessed – he has told the us everything he knows, and he has cleansed his soul and is prepared to meet Allah. He wants to know why we are delaying him from his death?”
Delay him from his death? I was confused. ‘Ish, what does he mean, I don’t understand.’ Ish spoke to the guy again, the little dude looking over at Ish as he talked, then back at me to respond. Ish translated.
“He say he know that we will behead him. He knows he will be raped, ashamed, then beheaded, and he believes that not doing this is cruel. He is waiting for this because he knows it to be true, and he has already made himself right with Allah. This is why he is asking why you are not killing him yet. I think he is scared, not just angry. He is not sounding right.”
I was bamboozled. I got down on a knee so I could be closer to the guy. I wanted him to see me. I took off my Kevlar helmet and set it on the ground. ‘Tell him this’ which my interpreter did as I spoke. ‘You are a prisoner of the United States Army. We do not rape; we do not execute our prisoners, or behead them. No, you sir are detained – arrested, where you will be sent to Abu Ghraib prison, to await trial, where you will then be judged by your peers. This is your fate. Not death. Your chance to die was back there.’ I pointed to the ruined house, the scene of the fire fight. ‘You lived, and now you pay the price of justice.’
The guy looked confused – almost as if he had been let down. He had not eaten or two days and they ran out of water the night before. We fed him, we gave him water to drink, and I sat him in what little shade we had. His wounds were treated, and he was cared for. That is how we treat our prisoners.
“Shukran. Tank you.” he said. He looked deflated. He was a sad creature right then and there. I could hear the medivac helicopter coming in for his friend. Holy Christ, I thought – this was what the enemy was. This was Al Qaeda – uninformed, uneducated, and average guys who only believed what they were told, and had a grudge against America. They probably had a grudge because they believed whatever they were told. How do you combat against that?
How do we combat that, indeed. When you have individuals who are so dedicated to a cause that they become blind to the reality that is – we are humans, too. Sure all of us worship a different way (if at all) and we have different beliefs and values. But we are all humans – motivated by generally the same things. Among those, the desire to care for our families and to do better for ourselves.
So, how does an extremist justify to themselves when they knowingly target and attack innocents? In Bilal’s case, they were fellow Arab Muslims. But they were innocents! This does not matter. In fact, this is the desired end-state. To strike at the heart of your own fears and worries; to see harm done to as many of those innocent people as possible, in order to instill fear. Fear is how Daesh governs. Fear is what binds their followers together – fear of a lack of acceptance; fear of death or punishment for not being a ‘good enough Muslim’; fear of being swallowed by ‘the system’ they are in, or become something they didn’t want to be (for those who left the first world to go join Daesh in Syria and Iraq). Perhaps also fear that the ideals and preaching’s are wrong. Fear that they somehow are themselves, wrong. Those that tout something the loudest may be trying to convince themselves above all others.
So, back to our original question: How do you combat an idea?
I wrote about this immediately after the Paris attacks as well, and shared my insight in that post. I wrote a little about Bilal there as well, but given that Daesh has struck at Europe again (several times in the past several months really, if you count ‘inspired attacks’). My feelings haven’t changed. We are no closer now to figuring something out than we were four months ago.
We are in a new age, now. A new paradigm. This is life now. I wish had something profound to say, but I don’t. All I have is the time I spent in the desert chasing people like this, and the insights that I gleaned from my time with Balal and his buddies.
What do you think? I’d like to know. How should we as humans combat these extremist beliefs?
My sympathies to the victims in Brussels, and to the people of Belgium. I stand with you.