Unlikely Candidate for Car Bomber
There was nothing like it in Jordan, Raed Mansour Albanna told his American friend. They were in a Hollywood club and -- fueled with beer and shots of Jagermeister -- Albanna was dancing with abandon. The pounding music was liberating and the young Muslim was on his game.
It was a few months before 9/11, and Albanna had left the constraints of his Islamic country far behind. In America, friends said, he had found what he was looking for -- sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
“He was into partying. We hit some pretty wild clubs in Hollywood,” said Steve Gray, who worked with Albanna at Ontario International Airport and considered him a close friend.
Albanna, 32, had a fondness for American women, the grunge sound of Nirvana and Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the bad-boy image they conveyed. He told friends he loved the freedom he felt in America.
All the more reason his friends were dumbfounded when they were told that the funloving Jordanian had become a suicide car bomber, pulling off the deadliest single attack in Iraq. U.S. authorities said he killed 132 Iraqis outside a Hillah medical clinic Feb. 28, 2005.
A hand chained to a steering wheel revealed fingerprints that identified him as the bomber. It was the only body part that remained.
While the unlikely background of the bomber was made public in media accounts, recent interviews offer a clearer view of how Albanna’s initial anguish over the 2001 terrorist attacks seemed to degenerate to a deep anger and frustration.
At the time of the bombing, Albanna’s friends in Southern California found it unthinkable that a man who had embraced the United States with such gusto would trigger such carnage in the name of Al Qaeda.
Albanna was “the last person I thought would become a terrorist,” said Lee Khalaf, a friend.
Barely 5 foot 5, dark-haired and blessed with a disarming smile, Albanna had grown up in a middle-class family in Jordan. His parents did not emphasize religion. He became a lawyer, but soured on the profession after failing to attract clients and felt he had disappointed his father, who continued to support him financially.
When he came to the United States on a tourist visa in early 2001, Albanna was searching for a fresh start, his family said. He settled in Rancho Cucamonga, where his friend William Khalaf lived. The two had known each other since the seventh grade in Jordan.
Friends and family say he quickly plunged into a fast-paced, hedonistic lifestyle. Gray and others said he smoked pot, was a fan of nihilistic rock groups such as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and reveled in the Hollywood club scene.
Albanna’s family knew of his fun-loving ways in the United States, said his mother, Hiyat Nareman.
In an interview in the family’s apartment in Salt, outside Amman, she said that Albanna called home as often as three times a week with reports of friends and good times. “He partied a lot,” she said. “I don’t think he did anything bad, but he liked to have fun with his friends.”
Albanna was not easily defined. Friends recalled him as both a party animal and a thoughtful, generous soul. And they saw sides of him that were as different as the names he used.
Gray and other co-workers knew him as Raed.
He told others that his name was Ryan, and his English, which he learned in Jordanian schools, was good enough to help him succeed with women.
Christine Gonzalez, a Riverside salon owner, said the stylists “who cut Ryan’s hair thought he was incredibly good looking.”
“The girls liked taking care of him. He was a really nice guy, always telling jokes and making us laugh. I was really shocked by what he did,” she said.
William Khalaf said Albanna’s good looks attracted American women, and his charm helped him make friends easily.
“He could sit next to you in a bus and before you’d get off, he was your friend,” said Khalaf.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Gray and Albanna were working as pedicab drivers at the airport.
When word of the terrorist attacks ricocheted through the terminal, the two friends crowded into an airport bar with dozens of horrified passengers and employees and watched on television as the World Trade Center towers and walls of the Pentagon crumbled.
“People were crying, but nobody was talking,” said Gray, a pony-tailed ex-roadie for a rock band. “Nobody knew what to say. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the TV.”
After Islamic extremists were linked to the attacks, Gray said an anguished Albanna turned to him and said: “Not all Muslims are like that. Not all of us hate America.”
Like Gray, William and Lee Khalaf said Albanna appeared genuinely horrified by the terrorist attacks. William Khalaf, a nonpracticing Muslim, said his friend openly expressed his hatred for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
“At the time, he hated the terrorists,” said Lee Khalaf. “That’s why I don’t understand why he joined them.”
How to explain Albanna’s transition from a secular Muslim to an Islamic terrorist?
His family was at a loss.
His friends said they saw no such evidence.
Yet, there were small signs of change toward the end.
A month or so before returning to Jordan in late 2002, Albanna began attending mosque and praying five times a day, like a devout Muslim.
Albanna’s mother said she was puzzled by his sudden devotion.
“He didn’t used to pray or fast before,” Nareman said. “He only started that after he came from America.”
Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition, cautioned against connecting Albanna’s sudden devotion to Islam to “his terrible deed.”
The Washington-based group was formed to promote secular democracy in the Middle East.
“Being a devout Muslim doesn’t necessarily lead you to become a suicide bomber. If that was the case, the world would be in a disastrous situation,” said Nawash, who calls himself a conservative Muslim. “Assuming that he was mentally sound, it sounds like he had a political grievance or fell into a crowd of fanatical Muslims.”
William Khalaf said Albanna’s conversion caused a rift in their friendship: “All of a sudden he was telling me I was a bad Muslim because I don’t go to mosque. We stopped talking.”
Lee Khalaf said the change was abrupt. “One day he simply said he was tired of living like he was -- drinking, womanizing and the like. He said God had a purpose for him, but never said what it was.”
Albanna’s religious conversion may have occurred after 9/11, when other pedicab drivers began bringing up his Arabic background and the fact that he was Muslim, Gray suggested. None of that seemed to matter before the terrorist attacks, he said.
He recalled one morning when an angry Albanna yelled at a co-worker he thought was defaming Islam and threatened to kill him.
He quit later in the day, Gray said.
After Albanna returned to Jordan in 2002, he stayed in touch with Lee Khalaf and complained about being unemployed and missing the United States, she said.
Mansour Albanna said his son resented Jordan.
“He was desperate to find a job,” he said. “I used to support him financially, thinking that eventually he would change and get some money and find work. Jordan became like a prison to him.”
Albanna obtained another U.S. visa and arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in July 2003. Former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said a customs officer questioned Albanna and denied him entry, even though his name was not on a terrorist watch list.
"[The officer] didn’t conclude this guy was a jihadist. She concluded his reason for entering the country was not consistent with his visa,” said Bonner.
Albanna was detained, photographed, fingerprinted and put on an outbound flight the next day.
While Homeland Security officials had no reason to suspect that Albanna had become a terrorist, Mansour Albanna acknowledged that his son was associated with a cell of extremists arrested in Jordan last year. Jordanian authorities said the cell recruited educated and middle-class men such as Albanna for insurgent attacks in Iraq.
Salt, where Albanna lived, is also the home of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq who has a $25-million bounty on his head.
Knowing Albanna’s personality, friends said, he may have been an easy recruit for jihad.
“He was somebody trying to fit in and please, but he was easily influenced and manipulated,” said Lee Khalaf.
Forensic psychologist John Horgan, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Britain, offered another possible explanation: “In some cases, [a suicide bomber] believes he’s serving a cause greater than himself. He’s achieving something in death that he couldn’t achieve in life. But it’s hard to explain why, because we don’t have access to what’s going on in his head.”
The fact that one of his hands was chained to the steering wheel suggests to some that Albanna may not have gone to his doom completely convinced of the cause he died for.
“Evidently, even jihad terrorists need to make sure they don’t change their minds,” said Bonner.
A couple of weeks before the bombing, Albanna told his family he had landed a job driving trucks between the Jordanian port city of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia. The family was puzzled that Albanna, with his education, would decide to drive a truck for a living.
There were other riddles. Albanna asked his parents to send $100 to a friend in the United States as payment for a nearly 3-year-old debt.
And Lee Khalaf said Albanna sent her a photo of himself in the weeks before his death.
“He said it was so I could have something to remember him by, which I thought was strange,” she said. “I believe that Ryan was reaching out and saying goodbye.”
A few days after the Hillah bombing, Mansour Albanna, a portly man with a balding head of gray hair, said he received a call from Iraq.
“We congratulate you on the martyrdom of Raed,” he said the caller told him. “Hopefully you will be able to visit his grave when things calm down.”
For months, Albanna’s parents refused to believe what their son had done. Gradually, though, they relented.
“It’s possible Raed wanted to be in the insurgency, but I don’t believe he wanted to be a martyr,” the father said.
“I would be surprised if such an educated person wanted to be a suicide bomber. Maybe he wanted to get out of the car. Maybe he tried to get out.”
Times staff writer Solomon Moore reported from Jordan.