Tale of a teenage terrorist

Some insurgents building bombs and carrying out attacks in Iraq are hate-filled youths. Diya Muhammad Hussein, 16, is one of them.

By Ulrike Putz

Published December 21, 2007 11:24AM (EST)

It was on a Wednesday a few weeks ago when Diya Muhammad Hussein went out to kill Americans. It was shortly after one o'clock in the morning, and the curfew had just begun in the western Iraqi town of Rawah. Diya crept out of his brother's house and walked to the tree where he had hidden an explosive device three days before.

He carried the handmade mine to a gravel road nearby and buried it. Then he put the batteries for the remote-controlled detonator into a charger he had attached to a car battery, hid, and waited.

It was a cold night, the 16-year-old recalls as he sits on a sofa in the custody of the police chief of his hometown. After several hours a patrol of U.S. Marines approached, but Diya couldn't get the batteries back in the remote control unit fast enough. The Marines drove past unharmed.

It's men and youths like Diya Muhammad Hussein who are waging the insurgent war in Iraq It is they who lay the mines and arrange the ambushes that kill soldiers and civilians. Diya calls himself a mujahedeen, a freedom fighter. The Iraqi government, the coalition troops and the population exhausted by years of violence call him a terrorist. Diya's bomb could have killed several people, the Marines say.

Diya tried to detonate his mine again, the day after his first attempt -- but when he saw that Iraqi police had joined the Marines on their patrol, he decided not to push the button. He didn't want to kill his countrymen, he said.

A few hours later he was sitting in an Internet cafe with his friend Ahmed, and was angry. The man who had incited him to commit the attack called him a coward in an Internet chat room conversation. Diya was unaware that the police had started monitoring such Internet contacts by local youths. He was arrested as he left the Internet cafe with Ahmed to go play football. He still had the remote control detonator in his coat pocket.

The young man has been held for the last 18 days in a police cell in Rawah, a small town in the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar. He was alone in the cell at first, but it gradually filled up as Diya came clean and led the Iraqi police and U.S. Marines to his accomplices and to their secret weapons stashes.

Six of them are now awaiting trial, to take place in their hometown for the first time; until recently, terrorism suspects have gone on trial in courts run by the U.S.-led coalition. That task has now been handed over to local Iraqi judges as part of the handover of power to Iraqi authorities.

There are a number of possible reasons the police chief of Rawah allowed an interview with Diya. For one, the U.S. Marines requested it. They support the Iraqi police with a special training program as well as equipment and supplies, paying for an air conditioning unit here or a flashlight there. When the American friends of the Iraqi police make a request, it's hard to turn them down.

But the police chief is also proud of the arrest his officers made. Diya may look like just an ordinary teenager as he answers questions with his hands stuffed under his armpits, but his capture has averted a lot of harm. Diya led the police to an unusually large arsenal of weapons stored in plastic barrels that were buried in gardens. They contained explosive devices, Kalashnikovs, more than a dozen detonators, two precision rifles for snipers, three grenades, 10 rockets, rocket launchers, TNT and a hundred hand grenades.

Diya went through what one could describe as the classic career of an Iraqi insurgent. About a year ago his father decided to take his wife and 11 children away from the increasing violence in Rawah, moving his family to a rural part of the country. There, in the small village of Hassah, Diya met Maad, an experienced fighter. The older man gained Diya's confidence and kept telling him how the Americans were godless occupiers. Fighting them was the duty of every Iraqi, he said.

Diya was thrilled, wanted to join the fight. As an initiation test into the group of local mujahedeen, he was told to detonate a homemade mine. He recalls being told that he could one day attack the Marines as a suicide bomber, but didn't take that offer particularly seriously. "I found the notion strange, even funny," he says.

When Diya started preparing for his first mission, he had a big network of helpers at his disposal. Rawah is a town like almost every other in Iraq -- everyone knows each other, and everyone knows who has been involved in the fight against the "occupiers" in the last few years. There's scarcely a family that doesn't have at least one son or cousin who worked as a henchman or leader of the local branch of "al-Qaida in Iraq" or other terror groups.

It was Ahmed's brother who told the boys about the weapons stashes, shortly before he was arrested as an insurgent. Diya learned how to use a detonator from Anas Fa'iq, another former fighter. His name is on a long list of wanted Iraqi terrorists that is hanging in the U.S. Marines' command headquarters.

Diya has been lucky in one respect. The building in which he is incarcerated also houses the company of Marines stationed in Rawah. They all live on the same floor: U.S. Marines, Iraqi police and the prisoners. The Americans guarantee the prisoners at least a minimum of good treatment.

But no one can shield Diya from what goes on in his cell. Day and night Diya's friends and accomplices tell him he's ruined everything. "They blame me for being caught," he says. "They say I'm just a stupid teenager, not a fighter."

If he's lucky, they will stop their tirades at him and focus their ire back on the U.S. troops. "We still hate the Americans," says Diya. "In truth no one likes them. Iraq isn't free, that's why we have to keep on fighting."

But what might he do if he got a visa tomorrow to travel to the United States? He would definitely take it, says Diya. Asked if he is aware of how contradictory that sounds, he smiles bashfully and buries his hands deeper into his armpits.

In a fateful twist, Diya's brother became a policeman a few days after Diya's arrest. They've rarely been in closer proximity than they are now. Diya squats in his cell behind a barred door while his brother stands guard outside.

"He spat on me when he saw me here," says Diya. His brother told him that his father is waiting for him to be released. "My father is beside himself with rage and will punish me severely, my brother said."

Asked what he wants to do with his life when he is released, Diya says: "I want to work for the Iraqi police." Asked if he thinks the Iraqi police will take him, he looks up at his interpreter and says, "Perhaps?"

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

Ulrike Putz

Ulrike Putz is a correspondent for Spiegel Online.

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Iraq Middle East Terrorism