He survived gang wars in D.C., went through an apocalyptic religious conversion and -- incredibly -- fought with the Shiite militias of Lebanon. Now he's picking up trash at Howard, waiting once again for his Creator to show him the way.

Isa Abdullah Ali was absorbed in the excitement of his new mission as he walked down West Beirut's fashionable Hamra Street on a hot spring day in 1986. He had just concluded an arrangement to train dozens of Shiite guerrillas for a large-scale military operation against Israeli troops in south Lebanon. Eager to get on with the business of fighting, he wasn't paying close attention to his surroundings.

Still, as he neared the intersection of Hamra and Jeanne d'Arc streets, he sensed that he was being watched. He looked up to find a man in a green car staring at him. As a black man, Isa was accustomed to drawing attention in Lebanon. But this man was glaring.

"Is there something you want from me?" Isa yelled in Arabic.

The man swung his car toward Isa, jumped out, gripped a Beretta automatic pistol with both hands and began shooting. The first bullet lodged in Isa's right foot. Each succeeding slug hit higher, tearing a pathway along his lower leg, thigh, hip, stomach and upper torso. The force of the bullets twisted Isa's body, so when the gunman fired at Isa's face, the bullet grazed his nose instead. He staggered back and pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his belt. As he fell, he was able to get off two shots, hitting his attacker in the midsection.

A man who had witnessed the shootout ran over to Isa warily, as if stalking wounded but still-dangerous game. Blood was forming pools on Isa's combat fatigues and spurting from an artery in his right thigh. He had been hit 12 times.

"Khudnee al mustashfa," Isa whispered to the man. Take me to the hospital.

Ever so cautiously, the man stepped on Isa's wrist, knelt down and pried the gun from his hand. Then he ran away.

Amazingly, Isa survived the attack. But it was a clear warning that after six years of involvement with Shiite militants and warring militias in the shadow world of Beirut, it was time for him to leave. Getting out of Lebanon would not be easy, however. For one thing, a large section of his intestines had been ripped apart, and doctors would be unable to remove two of the bullets lodged close to nerves in his leg. For another, he was flat broke and had no passport.

To the U.S. government, Isa was nothing but trouble. Regarded by officials at the U.S. Embassy as a lunatic mercenary, he had on two occasions approached embassy guards in a hostile manner, once armed with an assault rifle. He was known to associate with prominent members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia suspected in kidnappings and killings of several American citizens.

But now Isa's mother was on the phone, pleading with the State Department to assist in his evacuation. In the end, the embassy had no choice but to help. Isa Abdullah Ali -- a k a "Pancho," a k a Cleven Raphael Holt, born and raised in Washington, D.C. -- was, after all, an American citizen. TODAY, AT THE AGE OF 34, ISA (PRONOUNCED A-EE-SAH, the Arabic name for Jesus) is convinced God had some reason to keep him alive that day in Beirut. The Creator, as Isa calls Him, isn't finished with him yet, although Isa is not sure why. The Creator has decided that Isa's mission, at least for now, is to pick up trash and maintain the grounds at Howard University in Washington.

The job on the Howard campus is boring and monotonous. Instead of carrying an assault rifle, Isa wields a rake; instead of pulling pins out of hand grenades, he yanks weeds from flower beds. The work is made all the more difficult by the two bullets still lodged in his foot and upper thigh, which can shift occasionally and cause excruciating pain.

With his shaved head and 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame, he presents an intimidating figure, especially dressed in the combat fatigues he still wears regularly. He has a booming baritone voice, which he uses deliberately to frighten as well as to command respect. But in conversation, Isa's voice can be as disarming as it is intimidating. He bellows laughter and clearly enjoys the attention he can get from telling a joke or an old war story. He employs a vocabulary that belies his 10th-grade education, although he is prone to the occasional mal- apropism.

Most of the people he works with are idiots, Isa says. He lives in an apartment building on Park Road NW full of whores and crack dealers and kids with guns. As he thinks about his life, he can't believe the Creator would send him on such wild adventures only to have him end up raking leaves and picking up garbage.

Isa's journey has taken him from a Southwest Washington housing project on a circuitous and often-violent path -- through juvenile gang wars, an ill-fated tour in the U.S. Army and an apoc- alyptic religious con- version -- to the Middle East, where he became the only American known to have fought alongside Palestinian guerrillas and Moslem militiamen. This account is based on interviews with dozens of Isa's friends, family members and colleagues here and in Lebanon, documents relating to Isa's sojourn in Beirut and many hours of conversations with Isa. During his early years in Lebanon, Isa admits, he embellished or lied about some of his exploits, but most of his story is confirmed by others. There are some aspects of his activities that he will not discuss; these are known only to his former comrades in the Shiite militias.

His journey is unfinished, Isa believes, and Howard is just a station along his way. PEOLA DEWS SAYS SHE WAS VISITED BY SPIRITS ON SEP- tember 13, 1956, the day Cleven Holt came into this world by way of Columbia Hospital for Women. "They said, 'This is a special child' and he did not belong to me. I was just an instrument to bring him into this world," Dews says.

Growing up, Cleven was unlike any of her eight other children. He was exceptionally bright and witty, but there was always a darker side to him. When he was 3, she remembers, he apologized solemnly to her and said, "Mommy, I have to go off to the war." He was dead serious, so she suppressed a smile, kissed him goodbye and opened the door. Then she watched as he walked out to the sidewalk, stopped a man on the street and asked for directions to get to the Army.

While his sisters were dreaming of princesses and ballerinas, Cleven had dreams of the world ending in fire, including an especially vivid vision in which he watched the Washington Monument crumbling. "He was not upset by these dreams. He treated them as facts of life, and he was excited about it," Dews says.

Turmoil and violence shadowed the boy from the start. His mother, by her own description, had a succession of boyfriends and husbands in those days who tended to be "very, very sick people, and I didn't understand why I was choosing these men." Two of her male companions spent time in psychiatric wards. One of them sodomized one of her daughters when she was 5, Dews says, while another made repeated sexual advances to a teenage daughter.

One of Isa's earliest memories is of his father, Alfonso, climbing through a bedroom window one night and attacking his wife with a pair of scissors. Dews confirms that the attack took place and that it was not the only time one of her husbands abused her in front of her children.

Dews is now certain that her choice of men back then was a result of being sexually abused by an older relative when she was 5, and she says she was determined to bring up her own children in an entirely different atmosphere. She worked nights for the U.S. Postal Service so she could be home during the day. The family lived in relative poverty in a Southwest D.C. housing project, but Dews tried to make sure her daughters wore pretty dresses every day, and she sent young Cleven and his half-brother, Derrick, to school wearing suits, ties, white shirts and shined shoes.

Cleven's older sister, Lisa Teresse Long, says family activities were important to her mother, and the children listened to classical music, dined by candlelight, read books and watched television together. One of the shows they watched was "The Cisco Kid," from which Cleven obtained a childhood nickname, "Pancho." He all but dropped his awkward given name.

Pancho was exceptionally bright, his mother says, scoring high on an IQ test when he entered kindergarten in 1961. He had begun reading at age 3, but his development was interrupted by a severe eye impairment that caused double vision, which was not diagnosed until after Pancho was humiliated in front of his whole first-grade class:

Pancho seemed to compensate for poor vision by peppering his teachers with difficult questions, and he evolved into a class clown. His behavior finally drove one teacher to desperation. She hauled him in front of the class one day, taped his mouth shut and encouraged the other students to mock him. Pancho's sister and mother recall him running home that day, crying that his classmates had laughed and called him "Blindy." His mother says this humiliation devastated him. He told her he didn't want to go to school anymore. SITTING BACK IN HIS CHAIR AT LORTON REFORMATORY, Robert Holley recalls the first time Pancho Holt showed up in seventh grade at Paul Junior High in Northwest. "That dude was a genuine jerk," Holley says angrily, still seeming to resent the boy who came to school with his thick glasses, suit and bow tie, his hair pasted flat against his head, and carrying a book satchel.

It wasn't that Pancho wanted to go to school looking like that. His mother insisted. Her kids were going to look smart, dress smart, be smart. Dews says she had no idea that forcing a seventh grader to dress the way Pancho did was tantamount to hanging a sign on him saying "PLEASE BEAT ME UP."

Holley was the leader of a sometimes-violent street gang called the Imperials. His nick- name was Yogi, as in the bear, because he was huge and intimidating. Pancho also was big, but as Yogi recalls, it didn't matter how big Pancho was; one big nerd could never hope to stand up to the Imperials. There were 20 to 40 of them, and from the moment they laid eyes on Pancho, they dedicated themselves to making his life miserable.

"We used to stand at the door {to the school} and make him pay dues to come in," Holley recalls. "He had to give up all his lunch money, everything he had in his pockets." They'd insult him, kick him, throw rocks at him, chase him through the halls.

Pancho, realizing he needed allies to survive, befriended two of the toughest neighborhood kids, Donald Carr and his brother Tony. As long as Pancho was with Donny Carr, he was safe. Yogi says he and the other guys respected Donny "because he was a gangster like us."

But Pancho couldn't expect to hide behind Donny forever. The gang members continued to harass him at school whenever they caught him alone, and one day, four or five of them cornered Pancho in a bathroom, telling him they were going to "do it" to him. One moved toward Pancho, ready to make him pull down his pants.

If there was a turning point in the childhood of the man who became Isa Abdullah Ali, he believes it was that moment in the junior high bathroom. As he recalls it, he exploded, lunging at the boy coming toward him, grabbing him by the hair and slamming his head into a bathroom sink. He kicked another boy and punched him in the face. He bit another on the ear. The others ran away, he says.

Retired D.C. police officer Larry C. Webster, who at the time was assigned to patrol Paul Junior High, recalls hearing of the incident, which he says prompted a series of retaliatory attacks by both sides. Pancho plotted revenge over the next several days. He got a baseball bat, drove several nails into it and ambushed a member of the Imperials, beating him in the back and buttocks.

Pancho repeated his forays against the Imperials until, one day, rumors of his impending doom swept the school. Frightened, he ran home early and grabbed a loaded pistol out of his mother's bedroom. He brought the gun to school, but a friend snatched it from him, fearing he might actually use it. Webster ended up taking the gun away, but no charges were filed.

This experience and others convinced Pancho that he needed more allies. He soon began hanging out with an older teenage motorcycle gang called Pure Hell, whose members taught him how to fight. Pancho began carrying a thick chain to school, and he and some other boys formed their own gang: the Disciples of Pure Hell.

The Disciples were into motorcycles, beer, blue jeans, karate, weaponry and hard living; vicious brawls with Yogi's Imperials and other groups punctuated their hours of boredom. "The street gangs were serious," Donald Carr recalls. "You couldn't go from one neighborhood to the next without getting your head bashed in."

By late spring of 1972, the gang scene -- and Pancho's behavior -- had become so uncontrollable that Pancho's mother kicked him out of the house several times and stopped speaking to him. Finally, she sent him to live with his half-brother, Derrick, at Derrick's father's house in Virginia. She hoped that Derrick, a disciplined A student, would serve as the role model Pancho so desperately needed. Instead, Pancho became involved with a group of hippies and continued his slide into the world of drugs, alcohol and delinquency. Arrested on suspicion of burglarizing a Virginia house that summer, he was sent home and enrolled in Woodson Junior High in Northeast.

He attended Woodson for one day. The next morning, his mother recalls, he left behind a note saying, "Mom: I can't go through with this. I've got to go find myself."

Searching for something to anchor his life, Pancho hit upon the idea of enlisting in the Army. He was underage, but he got Donald Carr to doctor his birth certificate and joined up. THE NEW RECRUIT ARRIVED AT FORT DIX, N.J., IN JUNE 1972 wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a Disciples of Pure Hell jacket and a bandanna around his thick, bushy Afro. In his back pocket, there was a switchblade; in his right boot, a straight razor. He was 15, and he looked it.

He was assigned to Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Basic Combat Training Brigade. He thrived on the discipline imposed by his drill sergeant, Roland Lynch, who rode him hard but seemed to take a liking to him. "He used to tell me, 'Boy, I'm gonna make a man out of you,' " Pancho recalls. "I loved that guy like a father. He was really good to me." For the first time in his life, he says, he felt he belonged.

Pancho was particularly in his element during combat training. The men went on maneuvers with M-16 rifles, simulating attacks on Vietnamese villages, learning hand-to-hand combat, setting ambushes, throwing hand grenades and planting and dismantling mines and booby traps. Pancho held on to every training manual he could get.

He hoped to be assigned to the infantry, because his ultimate goal was combat, preferably in Vietnam. Instead, the Army sent him to cooking school, and then, in October 1972, to South Korea.

In Korea he soon found himself embroiled in the deep racial tensions that existed between white and black troops. After several unhappy months that involved drinking and heavy drug use -- and a beating he suffered in a racially motivated barroom fight -- Pancho and some other blacks were investigated in connection with the killing of a fellow black soldier whose throat had been slit in a racial brawl.

Pancho insisted he was innocent, arguing that it made no sense for blacks to kill a fellow black during a fight against whites. But, he says, Army investigators threatened him, implying they had enough evidence to charge him, though they never told him what it was. Desperate for a way out, he told his commanding officer that he was only 16 years old. The officer told him he would be discharged immediately, without prosecution, if he could prove it, and Pancho sent an urgent letter to his mother pleading for his real birth certificate.

His mother refused. She says now that she believed he needed to be taught a lesson, frightened into putting his life in order. Eventually, he got his birth certificate from another family member, and once the Army verified it, he was given an honorable discharge.

Back in Washington, without Army discipline, he quickly regressed. He spent several months wandering around the country smoking dope and getting into trouble, then came home and spent more than a year working odd jobs. In September 1974, he decided to return to school and was admitted into the 10th grade at Coolidge High School in Northwest. Meanwhile, many of his old junior high friends had already become drug dealers, forgers, pimps and, ultimately, prison inmates. Nobody had much time for Pancho, especially given his military bent. His mother was fed up with him and refused to let him live in her house despite his decision to return to school.

"I thought he needed psychological help back then," recalls Jonnie Baucum, a neighborhood friend. Pancho says he hated everything about himself and his world. The experience in South Korea had left him full of hate for whites, but he also felt let down by his own race. Most of the blacks he knew were criminals. There seemed to be no one he could turn to, no way out of his own unhappiness. He became suicidal and was consumed by violent fantasies.

One day in 1974, with his depression and anger at its height, he went back to his old neighborhood and sat in a field across the street from Paul Junior High. He remembers that he broke down crying and began yelling up to the sky, "God, help me!"

"After three days, the answer came," he says. He came upon a group of people outside Coolidge High, where a student named Musa Abdul Rahim, a black Moslem, was giving a soapbox speech about the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Abdul Rahim, who now works as a laborer in the Rayburn House Office Building, recalls that he was talking about "the sufferings and adversities that our Palestinian brothers and sisters were going through" when Pancho blurted out, "If someone would give me a plane ticket, I'd go over and fight with the Arabs against Israel."

Over several more days of conversation with Abdul Rahim, Pancho remembers being wary; previously, he had had an encounter with the Nation of Islam, whose members had struck him as being racists and disingenuous fad-followers. "I remember people {in the Nation of Islam} preaching that I was God, and that God was a black man. And I couldn't believe that God was a black man, or a white man or any kind of man," he says.

But Abdul Rahim's message and demeanor seemed much more to Pancho's liking. He spoke of God not in terms of black vs. white, but as an all-seeing, all-knowing Creator. Abdul Rahim offered Pancho answers to the questions he had long been asking about man's relationship to God, and his purpose on Earth. Both men recall the precise moment Pancho decided to convert: It was during a lecture Abdul Rahim was giving him about "the hellfire" of Judgment Day, Pancho says, when he suddenly "had a vivid vision of people covered in soot and falling into Hell."

Islam, for Pancho, was a living religion with a rich history of struggle, discipline and self-sacrifice. Abdul Rahim showed him how to perform the ritual ablutions each time he prepared for his five-times-a-day prayers and readings of the Koran. "The book was speaking to me," Pancho recalls, "telling me my strengths and weaknesses . . . All I was seeing was truth." WITH CHARACTERISTIC INTENSITY, Pancho made his entire being a vessel for his new religion. He adopted the name Isa Abdullah Ali and later made it his legal name.

His mother recalls this as the period in which Isa grew a goatee and walked the streets in an Arab headdress and djellaba, a long, shirt-like garment. Isa regarded himself then as an orthodox Moslem, following the Sunni doctrine adhered to by the vast majority of the world's Moslems. In the late '70s, he moved into a group-house "barracks" with other black Moslems on Park Road NW and visited Washington-area mosques regularly, talking with Arab men who came to worship there, borrowing books and reading voraciously about Islam. He eliminated pork and alcohol from his diet and began observing prayer schedules and other strictures of the faith.

Life at the barracks was difficult, however, and Isa found himself embroiled frequently in arguments with other group members about various issues -- the management of the mosque and barracks, philosophies of Islam, tensions in the Middle East. At the same time, Isa began taking a critical look at the people he was associating with at local mosques. "I heard all these glorious, beautiful things about Islam from these fat-bellied men, but nothing that spoke to me as an oppressed individual," he explains.

His disenchantment was exacerbated y an increasing exposure to Iranian Shiite dissidents in Washington, who encouraged black Moslems -- as an oppressed group whose status was similar to that of the Shiite minority in Islam -- to join their campaign for the ouster of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Iranians, Isa recalls, liked to say that the gateway to Heaven is unlocked with the key of a warrior's martyrdom in the name of God. Isa saw himself as both devout Moslem and oppressed black man, and he knew he was born to be a warrior. So it felt logical for him to eschew his Sunni indoctrination and declare allegiance to Shiism, and ultimately to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Having made this ideological shift, Isa moved into "the Muslim House," a 16th Street NW building owned by an Iranian businessman who allowed him to live there free of charge. The house became a cauldron of discontent where mili- tant Iranians and young black Moslems congregated and planned various activities aimed, in part, at disrupting the sedate lifestyle of Washington's Moslem community.

Isa struck up friendships with other blacks there, including Daoud Salahuddin, an older man who was an expert in kung fu and who trained Isa in martial arts. Salahuddin seemed fascinated with Isa's military skills, Isa says, and was eager for Isa to train the other black Moslems in hand-to-hand combat with guns and knives.

Isa says he began training a few men and eventually took on nearly two dozen trainees. The group never had a name, former members say, but fliers were distributed by unknown persons within the Moslem community calling it the Islamic Guerrillas of America (IGA).

"We used to meet after dark in Rock Creek Park -- always around the Park Police station {on Beach Drive}," recalls Saifuddin Ghavi, who participated in the training sessions. He says he quit because "it was too wild" -- group members usually carried sticks to simulate rifles, and they would bound through the woods, climbing trees, running through water and practicing stealth and assault maneuvers near the police station. "They just called it training exercises for war," he says. "They didn't say where the war was going to be."

Ghavi, who now runs a natural foods store on 14th Street NW, describes Isa's military training as an obsession. Isa began appearing in public in full military gear -- combat boots, fatigues, a web belt and a camouflage backpack, Ghavi says.

At the same time, Isa began seeing a Guatemalan woman, Justine Garcia-Grenados, whom he approached on the street one day in Adams-Morgan because he wanted to know where she had purchased the tiger-striped, green camouflage pants she was wearing. During their courtship, she converted to Islam and changed her name to Rimaah. They were married in an Islamic ceremony in 1979, and in a civil ceremony in 1980. Today they have two daughters, Alma, 10, and Fatima, 7.

Meanwhile, Isa and Daoud Salahuddin became active in an effort by Washington Shiites to wrest control from the Sunnis of the Islamic Center mosque on Massachusetts Avenue NW. After a series of fistfights, they overcame a group of Sunnis and installed a Shiite cleric as the imam.

Encouraged by the Iranians to use his military skills in the name of Islam, Isa took a $1,100-a-month job as a security guard at the Iranian Embassy. But this wasn't enough: He felt a calling to help his Moslem brothers overseas. Using the money he earned at the embassy, along with contributions from Rimaah and others, he bought a round-trip ticket to Pakistan, where he planned to join the Afghan mujaheddin in their armed struggle against the Soviets. In late June 1980, he departed Washington with a duffel bag full of military gear.

Only a few weeks later, Washington's Moslem community erupted in chaos. Ali Akbar Tabatabai, the former Iranian press attache here and a leading critic of the ayatollah, was assassinated by a gunman who had posed as a mailman delivering a package to a Bethesda house. A witness said the gunman was black, and police later identified him as Salahuddin. FBI agents swarmed through the city, questioning black Moslems thought to be connected with Salahuddin and the IGA.

Isa initially was regarded as a suspect, Dews and Ghavi say. Friends and family were questioned by the FBI, but since Isa was in Afghanistan at the time, he had an alibi. Salahuddin fled the country and remains at large; he is believed by the State Department to be living in Iran.

The Afghanistan adventure was a disaster for Isa. While traveling with the mujaheddin, he injured his knee in a fall and took ill. He returned to Washington discouraged by this debacle, but more determined than ever to prove his worth as a soldier of God.

It wasn't long before he started to focus on the war in Lebanon -- the classic example, in his view, of an impoverished Moslem populace struggling against its oppressors, in this case a Christian elite backed by Israel. All the ingredients were there. This, he decided, was really where the Creator wanted him to be. ISA ARRIVED IN BEIRUT IN DECEMBER 1980 looking like the Angel of Death. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, flak jacket, web belt and combat boots, he carried a big steel helmet. He had no idea what to expect, where to go or who to talk to. He didn't know how to speak Arabic, and he didn't know one militia from another.

After being detained by police at Beirut International Airport, Isa eventually managed to link up with operatives of the mainstream Shiite militia, Amal. He says he was taken to Amal headquarters, where he was introduced to several of its top commanders, including Nabih Berri, who is now the leader of Amal.

The Amal leaders appeared a bit dumbfounded by the incredible novelty standing before them. Who was this mean-looking American warrior? Was he a CIA spy? Meanwhile, Isa was trying to figure out who they were. He hadn't heard of Amal, but he volunteered his services.

Berri and the others apparently decided that Isa needed to be screened before he would be given any kind of training or combat assignment. He was taken to the main mosque in Beirut's southern suburbs, where he became a bodyguard for a relatively obscure cleric of little repute beyond the neighborhood. As it happened, this cleric -- Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah -- was to become known throughout the world as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, the umbrella group suspected of the kidnappings of virtually all the Americans currently held hostage in Lebanon.

Isa says he stayed with Fadlallah for only a few weeks. It was a nice place to be, but he hadn't come all this way to sit in a mosque. He had come to be a warrior. And as Amal found itself fighting frequent skirmishes with the militia of Iraq's Baath Arab Socialist Party, the leaders of the fledgling, pro-Iranian militia decided to grant Isa his wish.

Isa remembers with absolute clarity the first time he saw a man killed in Lebanon. It was a fellow fighter he had befriended, Hassan Bushr, who was hit directly in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade. The first few deaths he saw really got to him, Isa says, but after a while, they didn't seem to matter. He was gaining recognition for his fighting skills. "As insane as it sounds, I actually started enjoying it," he says. "I started to feel as if I was in my element."

He was clearly a novelty to the Lebanese, who could not quite fathom why someone would want to leave the peace- ful climes of Washington for the chaos of West Beirut. The Iranians took an interest in this strange American as well.

The Iranian Embassy charge' d'affaires in Beirut, Mohsen Musawi, frequently invited Isa to dinner there, Isa recalls. Once, he says, after he'd helped defend the embassy during a particularly heavy attack by pro-Iraqi militia, Musawi extended an invitation for Isa to visit Iran. Isa accepted, and Musawi arranged for his accommodations and transportation via Syria. Isa says he received something of a hero's welcome when he arrived in Iran in October 1981; he stayed on for months, only observing the Iran-Iraq War because his Iranian hosts, fearing for his safety, forbade his active participation.

Returning to Tehran from one trip to the front, he says, he was summoned to meet Mehdi Hashemi, director of the World Islamic Movement, which helped foment Islamic revolutions in other countries. Arriving at Hashemi's office, he was confronted by Revolutionary Guards who placed guns to his head and forced him into a jeep. Apparently the victim of a power struggle among Islamic factions, he was accused of being a spy and thrown in jail, where he languished for three months until his release in May 1982.

On June 3, 1982, Isa returned to Beirut eager to get back into combat. He got his wish: Three days later, the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon. THE INVASION WAS THE FIGHT OF ISA'S life. It also made him a minor celebrity.

Hundreds of journalists swarmed into Lebanon to cover Israel's arrival. When the Americans discovered one of their own countrymen fighting on the other side, well, who could ask for a more sensational story? After some initial reticence, Isa began to enjoy his status as a media oddity. He paid daily visits to the Hotel Commodore, where the war correspondents congregated. He gave interviews to virtually all comers: ABC, CBS, NBC, the British Broadcasting Corp., The Washington Post.

According to those who interviewed him, there were a couple of unfortunate drawbacks to the attention Isa received. First, it appeared to give him an inflated sense of his own importance in the fighting. The fact is, neither he nor any other Lebanese fighter was more than a minor nuisance to the vastly superior Israeli military machine. Second, the media attention brought out one of Isa's worst traits, one he now says he's brought under control: a tendency occasionally to lie. Not just little white lies, but bright, shining whoppers.

For example, Isa told The Washington Post in a July 28, 1982, interview that he was a former U.S. Army Ranger who had spent four months in Vietnam. He went so far as to sew Ranger and Airborne patches on his fatigues. Isa assumed correctly that busy journalists would not have time to verify his claims, and he began to tell Lebanese colleagues the same lies. His rationale, he says, was that he needed to instill confidence in his trainees; no one would have submitted to training by a man whose claim to fame was hash-slinging in South Korea.

American journalists who encountered Isa say they began to wonder: If he was spending so much time at the Commodore, how could he possibly be doing all of the things he claimed -- sniping, leading Lebanese guerrillas, conducting training exercises? "He really loved the publicity," says one American journalist who asked not to be identified. "We all thought he was a little nutty. Well, maybe not nutty, but full of bravado."

It is impossible to confirm or disprove some of the stories Isa tells of his exploits during and after the invasion. But despite the skepticism of journalists, who admittedly knew little of Isa's life beyond the comfortable confines of the Commodore, there is merit and consistency to his claims.

He has a keen memory for specific battles and the guerrillas who fought them. There was the June 16, 1982, fight against the Israelis for control of a Lebanese University building outside Beirut, and the 1985 Israeli air-ground assault on Kaufara, a Shiite stronghold. Isa rattles off the names of fellow fighters -- Zouhair Shehady, Mohammed Dirani, Mohammed Hamiyyeh, Hassan Bushr, Nimr Harb -- with crisply detailed stories of their battlefield exploits.

Many of the dates, places, events and people Isa recalls match up with events cited independently by Lebanese who were there. All the dates and stamps in Isa's passport conform to dates he gives for being in Lebanon, Iran and Syria.

A Lebanese Shiite man in Washington, who declines to be identified because of his close affiliation with Amal and Hezbollah, says Isa had a strong reputation as a skilled and competent fighter. "Everyone in Amal talked about him," he says. "He really was respected." Shakeeb Ha- maidan, the ABC News operations manager in Beirut, says that despite what other journalists say, Isa actually did not stay more than a few days at a time at the Commodore, after which he would disappear for weeks or months, presumably having gone off to fight.

By late summer of 1982, as the Israelis tightened their noose around West Beirut, Isa says, he found it increasingly difficult to move outside the southern suburbs. One day, as he was walking on a dirt road toward a mosque near the Beirut airport, he was spotted by an informant for the Lebanese Army.

"Haida Isa al Americaani!" the man yelled. There's Isa the American!

Isa was captured and imprisoned, he says, in an underground facility at the Lebanese Defense Ministry in Yarze, in the foothills above Beirut. He says he witnessed gruesome tortures and eventually suffered a debilitating internal infection. The State Department confirms that he was held for violating his visa status. In December 1982 -- following pressure on the U.S. Embassy by his mother, who by then was working as deputy director of university relations at Howard -- Isa was released and placed on a flight to London, where he was hospitalized at South Middlesex Hospital. After a brief recuperation, he came home to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. WITHIN A YEAR, ISA WAS PLANNING another Lebanese excursion. The Israelis were still there, the PLO was gone, the Shiites were gaining power, and there was much work yet to be done. Besides, Washington was boring. His mother objected violently, but his wife says she was happy Isa was "fulfilling his intentions." Her husband "marches to a different drummer," Rimaah says, "and I hear the same beat."

Returning to Beirut in March 1984, Isa took up residence in an abandoned, burned-out hotel in an area of West Beirut once renowned as the Riviera of the Middle East. Only a few blocks away was the heavily guarded compound shared by the U.S. and British embassies. According to senior U.S. Embassy staff members who regarded him as extremely dangerous, Isa made repeated visits to the perimeter of the compound, insulting and harassing U.S. Marine guards. Isa says that after two confrontations with the guards, who leveled their rifles and threatened to shoot him, embassy officials telephoned Amal leader Nabih Berri and asked him to order Isa to stay away from the embassy. Berri, contacted recently, declined comment.

Isa says he left the area and moved into the Amal barracks in Ouzai, a coastal district just south of Beirut. There, according to Amal members who lived at the barracks, he helped train guerrillas for fighting on two fronts, against the Lebanese Christians in East Beirut and against the Israelis and their Christian allies in southern Lebanon. During this time, he also played a role in a commando raid that led to the rescue of two Western hostages, American professor Frank Regier and French engineer Christian Joubert, according to militiamen and neighbors who witnessed the assault on a house near the Amal barracks.

He did not, however, wish his role in the somewhat mysterious raid to be known, and retreated from the scene before Regier and Joubert could see him. The thrill of notoriety behind him, he was becoming obsessed with the need for secrecy, refusing interviews and, at times, deliberately threatening or frightening American journalists who tried to investigate his activities. (See box, Page 30.)

Toward late 1984, he began focusing his attention on south Lebanon and organizing operations against the Israelis there. He says his duty was to train small guerrilla groups for forays into the south, planting mines, setting booby traps and staging small-scale attacks.

But there was another reason he decided to move south: He seemed to be developing a sizable list of enemies in Beirut, especially within Amal. The militia, he says, was becoming increasingly fractious and unruly. Another militia, Hezbollah, was rapidly gaining favor among Lebanese Shiites, and armed confrontations between the two groups were becoming frequent.

The crowning blow in the feud came in late summer of 1985, when Syria donated more than 50 Soviet tanks to Amal, and Amal began the systematic murder of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra, Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camps just south of Beirut.

Isa admits that he participated in the initial assault on the camps because he thought Amal was justified in preventing the return of PLO fighters there. But after one particularly devastating attack, he entered an area where he expected to find dead Palestinian guerrillas and found instead the mutilated bodies of several dozen Palestinian women and children. He returned with a camera and began taking pictures, he says, but when other Amal fighters saw him, they seized the camera and took him to an Amal headquarters for questioning.

Several Amal fighters expressed suspicions that he was working for the CIA, and there was an open debate about killing him or forcing him to leave Lebanon. One of his closest friends, Zouhair Shehady, who defended Isa against the spy charges, warned him that "there are more people behind you who want you dead than the people in front of you who you are fighting."

Shehady, a graduate of an American university and a former Kuwait Airways pilot, was killed by the Israelis in 1986. His death had a profound effect on Isa. Shehady was a true friend, he says, one of the few he's had in his life, someone who seemed to trust him fully and take a genuine interest in his happiness and welfare. "He really took time to talk to me and get to know me. Here's a guy who could have lived comfortably and made good money as a pilot, and yet he gave all that up to go fight for his people in Lebanon. That really meant a lot to me," Isa says. When he died, "I cried. I felt like all the life went out of me."

By now, Isa had lost his money, his passport and his sense of mission, and he was sinking into a deep depression. He had become, in effect, a prisoner in the country he was seeking to liberate.

In May 1986, Peola Dews was on a weekend getaway at Cape May, N.J., when she had a vivid premonition that her son had been shot. When she got back to Washington, she found a message from her husband, who had heard of a news report that Isa Abdullah Ali had been shot in West Beirut. Dews's memories of that moment are strong enough that she cries when discussing it. She remembers calling American University Hospital in Beirut and speaking to Isa after he awoke from 11 hours of surgery. "He sounded as if he was a half-inch away from death. I didn't think he would make it," she says. "I just started crying and telling him how much I loved him."

Isa's adventures in Lebanon ended a few weeks later after U.S. Vice Consul Christopher P. English, responding to Dews's pleas, helped arrange with the Lebanese Red Cross to have Isa transferred by ambulance to the U.S. Embassy in Christian East Beirut. According to Isa, English arranged for him to have a guarded room because he remained a wanted man. Isa stayed several days at the embassy until officials arranged his evacuation to Cyprus by U.S. Army helicopter and his flight home. OUTSIDE HIS APARTMENT ON PARK Road NW, Isa draws a crowd of neighborhood children. They gather around him, hang from his arms and legs, practice mock karate kicks and, occasionally, show him their guns. The spectacle of children carrying guns was commonplace in Beirut, but in Washington, Isa says, it disgusts him.

In the aftermath of his violent time in the Middle East, Isa has not given up on the idea of armed struggle -- though he takes no side in the current Persian Gulf crisis, holding both Iraq and Kuwait in contempt for their role in the war against Iran. His wounds would prevent him from returning to combat except as an adviser, but he's a regular reader of Soldier of Fortune, Vietnam and Military History magazines. He is an avid fan of war movies, especially those about Vietnam. He is not happy with his weight and is trying to lose 20 pounds. He lifts weights daily, runs and works out on a punching bag, and says he is "creeping back into the martial arts." When his daughters misbehave, he says, he never hits them. He makes them do push-ups.

There are times when, if you gave him the Button and told him the fate of the world was in his hands, he might very well push it, he says. He can't stand humans and the mess they're making out of this planet. But he has every intention of pressing ahead, at least until the Creator finds him a new mission. He is studying for his high-school equivalency exami- nation and intends to go to college to study photography, Arabic and physical education.

The experience of the past decade has given his family and friends a new perspective on this man. Peola, Rimaah, Robert Holley, Donald Carr, Saifuddin Ghavi and Musa Abdul Rahim, to name a few, speak of him with respect. ("The dude was a survivor," says Holley, his childhood tormentor. "He was cool.") Yet most, with the exception of his wife and children, seem to keep their distance from him -- if not out of fear, then out of consideration for his privacy.

Isa prefers it that way. He's not exactly in the market for friends, he says, and he doesn't seem terribly attached to his mother, sisters or brother. His sisters say he berates them for the non-Islamic way they raise their children. One sister, Lisa, says the family can always rely on Isa to spoil a good time because "he's so angry . . . All he wants to do is talk about negative {things} and dwell on the past."

Isa and Peola Dews, who's living in Florida now, tend to argue whenever they talk. Still, his mother says, "It takes guts to be the kind of person he is. It's far easier to go along, to get along, than it is to stand up for what you believe."

Dews is convinced that Isa eventually will be killed. But she's not sure which is worse: having him constantly at the brink of death in a weird place like Lebanon, or having him bored, restless and unhappy in a mind-numbing job in Washington. "I'd rather see him die doing what he believes in than to live unfulfilled in some mundane life," she says, "A slow death of unfulfilled dreams is more violent than dying in a flare of bullets."

It's a chilling vision for a mother to have of her son. But then, no one who's ever known Isa Abdullah Ali believes that he's here to stay.

Tod Robberson, an assistant foreign editor of The Post, was a correspondent for the Reuter news service in the Middle East from 1984 to 1986.