When I started my internship at a local NGO in Jordan, the unexpected happened. One of my colleagues, a young empathetic man working in the humanitarian field, unveiled to me his dark past.
To protect his identity, I shall call him Abdallah.
But I can reveal to you 3 things about Abdallah.
He is somewhat too tall for his build, and sported a goatee, considered a fashionable beard among young men of his age. Each time he spoke, he lit a cigarette that preserved his calm demeanor, masking a crippling trauma.
I would like you to imagine the situation of a young boy who had to assume family responsibilities after his father’s death. Abdallah was only 14 years old back then, but as the eldest male in his family, he became in charge of taking care of his three siblings, mother, and his father’s second wife. (Around 7.6% of marriages in Jordan are polygamous)
I share with you another secret about Abdallah…
His hunt for providing security dedicated to his family was set at a time where a certain group of extremists was gaining momentum, they were powerful and driven by a certain set of beliefs.
Need another hint?
All of this took place in the Middle East.
“When we moved from Kuwait to Jordan, we lived in a small city- north of the capital. The neighborhood was unpleasant, but at least we had each other,” Abdallah spoke as he lit his cigarette.
“Although, I do wish I had done myself a favor and closed the door that the wind came from.” This is a literal proverb in Arabic meaning that we should immediately shut out the bad that is approaching us.
الباب اللي يجيك منه ريح سده واستريح
In the small city where there was little to no governmental regulation, Abdallah described to me how he ‘belonged to the streets’ as he befriended the wrong people, mimicked their bad habits, and committed their same crimes.
Abdallah later revealed to me how his father’s death was the trigger to it all.
He found himself falling so deep into the rabbit hole where his principles, emotions, and judgments collided. And before he knew it, he ended up crossing paths with an all too known group of men.
In his eyes, he saw that they offered him security and stability, all that he longed for. But there was something else Abdallah hadn’t realized: the lack of a male figure in his life acted as the main motive for the grave decision he was about to take. These men who claimed to be the most righteous extended their hands to him and Abdallah relentlessly threw himself to them.
“My mother would repeat how she no longer recognized the person I was becoming.”
It was as if the longer his beard grew, the more holy phrases he chanted to himself, the higher the count of the worry beads (masbaha) he glided between his fingers… the further he was moving away from his true self.
This went on for a couple of more years until the day Abdallah would be hit with the shock of his life that will scar him till this very day.
Our conversation that I am about to share with you took place at a very public coffee shop. For that reason, Abdallah was not able to be generous with the details of his experience.
“We were planning to plant a bomb inside a building, we wanted to project an image of power and respect for ourselves. I was the one with access to that building, I knew the structure and the workers, but best of all, I was able to get ahold of the keys.”
As he was speaking I refused to even bat an eyelash, afraid that I might miss on something mind-blowing (No pun intended).
“The plan was set, everything was right to schedule until it dawned on me that I missed out on one slightly important detail.”
He went quiet for a bit. I noticed him take in a long puff of his cigarette as he raised his posture as if it was a way of pulling himself together.
“This building was one of the many buildings where my mother worked, for she was part of the cleaning service.” He exhaled, filling the air with a grey stench.
“The day we wanted to plan our attack was the day she had her shift there. My realization felt like a stab in the chest, how could I have forgotten about this? How could I have been planning her death? I-I..” He stammered.
As for me, I was in awe. My attitude towards this internship which started as ‘150 hours of work I dreaded’ shifted to ‘ uh what the f****, am I actually having a coffee with a former member of a jihadi group?’
“This was karma warning me, I felt it. I immediately called off the plan, I refused to be a part of that group any longer. But of course, they did not make it easy on me to get away for I still receive death threats till this very day.”
His trembling fingers lit him another cigarette.
“I have asked for forgiveness from the people I have harmed in the past and I have made my debt to society, I no longer identify as the person I once was”.
It was apparent that he had not only ‘deradicalized’ himself, but he had set himself on the path of repentance.
I found myself wondering: ‘how the hell did this organization hire him?’ but I didn’t want to test my limits so instead I asked him: “Why are you working here?”
“I want to reach out to young people who are in search of stability, to be able to guide them before they fall into what I fell into in the past” He spoke with overwhelming emotion.
He then lit what felt like his 100th cigarette and added:
“I found an escape, but what if they won’t?”