It’s a 21st century war story for a 21st century war, touching and tragic in its own way.
The long strange odyssey of Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi reportedly came to an end two weeks ago, when along with two fellow jihadis, he finally achieved his goal of martyrdom in Mosul, Iraq. As is commonly said in cases of death so young, he died doing what he loved.
It’s a tale that undoubtedly starts with some degree of youthful idealism or disaffection in his native, oil-rich Kuwait, with a social network for native sons unrivaled in the world … no heavy lifting jobs, subsidized education and hefty housing, marriage and child-rearing incentives. But al-Ajmi, seeking something more in life, wended his way eastward to the mountains of Afghanistan. Here the trail becomes indistinct, maybe a little obscured. Al-Ajmi variously claimed to have experienced high adventure on the Taliban frontlines, and to be nothing more than a devout lad, in Afghanistan to study the Koran among the semi-literate hill dwellers. But where’s the romance with no mystery?
What is indisputable is that in 2002, during a period of great upheaval in Afghanistan, al-Ajmi’s life trajectory took an abrupt westward turn to what must have seemed, when they finally took the sack off his head, a most unlikely destination for an adventurous yet pious Kuwaiti. A cyclone-fenced dog run amid palm trees on a Caribbean isle. In 2005, after three years in custody at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he was sent home to face trial in Kuwait, where he was acquitted and allowed to resume his normal life.
And then he blew himself up in Mosul a few weeks ago taking seven Iraqi soldiers with him.
“We don’t know what motivated him. His family apparently was shocked to hear that he had conducted the bombing,” said Major Bradford Leighton, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, quoted by AFP.
Here’s the Arabic equivalent of what readers may recognize from other violent tragedies as the “He was just turning his life around” quote.
“We were shocked by the news,” Salem al-Ajmi told the APin Kuwait. “After his return from detention, his life was normal.”
His cousin tells the AP al-Ajmi had married, had one child and another on the way, but a few weeks ago, he began disappearing for days at a time. Then came the call. The article reports that the caller told his family al-Ajmi had “died in Iraq.” The more likely rhetoric would be “shahid,” a more poignant, stirring term. Martyred for the love of Allah, even as he gave seven people the opportunity to join his jihad, bestowing smaller martyrdoms on 28 others.
To the extent this may be viewed as a negative, al-Ajmi’s lawyer Tom Wilner explains to the AP that the downward spiral of al-Ajmi’s life is our fault.
Guards broke his arm when he was praying, Wilner said. Sounds like a heck of a spirited prayer session. Al-Ajmi, in line with the thinking of many of his advocates in the United Sattes, Europe and the Middle East, was unable to reconcile himself with his status as a prisoner of war, held without charge.
“I don’t know whether the experience of being kept down there in isolation radicalized him,” Wilner said. Radicalized him more, Wilner may have intended to say, seeing as carrying a gun for the Taliban arguably suggests some degree of radicalization had already taken place.
Wilner explained to the AP that al-Ajmi’s decision to abandon his family and seek martyrdom as a suicide bomber in Iraq was a “tragedy” that could have been avoided if activist lawyers’ demands for civilian trials, rather than military tribunals, were granted. It is an odd thing for a lawyer to say, given that a court of law freed al-Ajmi, but matters of law can be complex. Given that al-Ajmi told his interrogators in Guantanamo “he now is a jihadist, an enemy combatant, and that he will kill as many Americans as he possibly can,” it seems charmingly naive and trusting of the Americans to send him home.
U.S. officials say up to 36 former detainees have resumed violent jihad since being allowed to go home. Of more than 500 released, that doesn’t sound so bad. It sounds a little worse when you learn that of those more than 500, only 38 were stripped of combatant status and freed outright, no longer considered threats. The rest, under a policy of placating ambivalent allies, were simply transferred to the custody of their home countries or moved to third countries, to be dealt with as local authorities saw fit. It was not immediately clear how the 36 recidivist jihadis are divided among those categories of ex-detainees.
C’est la guerre. That’s how the war goes for 21st century America, where the constitutional rights of prisoners of war is an issue that is seriously debated not only by fringe activists but by federal judges and members of Congress.
Now this regrettable business of re-jihadis rears its head, as they seek to kill innocent Iraqis, Afghans and Americans, whoever comes within range of their explosives and their guns.
Not much of a price to pay, perhaps, a mass murder incident here, a mass murder incident there, when the alternative is holding battlefield prisoners indefinitely. Much as Americans were once held by their German and Japanese captors — only without the starvation, forced labor, savage beatings, etc. Much as Germans and Japanese prisoners were once held by the United States … for two years after the end of hostilities in many cases … except of course for those war criminals who were tried and executed.
This more relaxed attitude toward people who have made poor choices in life could be seen as a sign of a more enlightened age, of a more advanced humanity. This is not the Good War of our fathers and grandfathers, where liberation is only a human meat grinder of total war away. The point has been made that this is no war at all, but a police matter. Confining human beings indefinitely without charge is wrong, and understandably makes them hate us. It hardly seems fair, upon presuming the capacity of a few dozens of angry men to kill no more than maybe another dozen, maybe a hundred, maybe on a good day a few thousand, to diminish ourselves by depriving them of their liberty. It may be better, and considerably more efficient, to no longer seize them at all absent proper police investigations and charges.
But we can be proud at least, having freed so many, that we are setting a good example for al Qaeda, and perhaps will encourage them to do likewise, rather than releasing their captives into roadside ditches — in pieces.
Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald editor, blogs at Forward Movement.