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Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight
In the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo where Abu Ibrahim grew up and married, his fundamentalist impulses took their present shape when he met "a group of young men through my wife's family who spoke to me the true words of Islam. They told me Sufism was forbidden and the Shiites are infidels."
A year later, he went to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom founded on Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam in the Salafi wing.
For seven years he worked in Riyadh, the capital, trading textiles. In his spare time, he studied the Koran and gathered at people's homes with young men so militant in their beliefs they were barred from preaching in public.
At a private Saudi production company that specialized in radical Islamic propaganda, he said, he learned video editing and digital photography. The work channeled the rage of young Arab men incensed by the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, angered by U.S. foreign policy and chafing under the repression of secular Arab rulers.
Their goal, he said, is restoration of the Islamic caliphate, the system that governed Muslims before the rise of nation states. Abu Ibrahim said he regarded Afghanistan during the Taliban rule as one of the few true Islamic governments since the time of Muhammad.
"The Koran is a constitution, a law to govern the world," he said.
Such views were unwelcome back in Syria, governed by the Baathist Party as a secular nation. But in 1999, after Abu Ibrahim returned to Aleppo, he heard a sermon delivered by a Syrian cleric who was widely known in the region. Abu Qaqaa, a lanky, charismatic sheik born Mahmoud Quul Aghassi, preached the same radical message that Abu Ibrahim had taken to heart in Riyadh.
"Abu Qaqaa was preaching what we believed in. He was saying these things: 'People with beards come together.' I was so impressed."
Abu Ibrahim said he became Abu Qaqaa's right-hand man. He helped tape his sermons, transfer them to CDs and distribute them clandestinely. They traveled together to Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Saudi Arabia. By 2001, Abu Qaqaa had attracted a determined following of about 1,000 young men.
"No one knew about us," Abu Ibrahim said. "But September 11 gave us the media coverage. It was a great day. America was defeated. We knew they would target either Syria or Iraq, and we took a vow that if something happened to either country, we would fight."
Two weeks after the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, the group felt bold enough to celebrate in public in Aleppo with a "festival," as it was called, featuring video of hand-to-hand combat and training montages of guerrillas leaping from high walls.
Afterward, Abu Qaqaa was arrested by the Syrian authorities, but he was released within hours. By 2002 the anti-American festivals were running twice weekly, often wrapped around weddings or other social gatherings. Organizers called themselves The Strangers of Sham, using the ancient name for the eastern Mediterranean region known as the Levant, and began freely distributing the CDs of the cleric's sermons.