The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals

By Ken Ballen

The Free Press. 336 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Liz Gormisky

They could be any teenagers in an all-American coming-of-age story.

Experimenting with drugs, racing cars their parents gave them, and spying on girls, they have the same inclinations as characters in American Graffiti, eager to rebel and to find their independence.

Except that these kids are all boys, and their female counterparts are separate and veiled. Instead of a quaint California town, their story unfolds in the harsh Arabian Desert. Instead of meeting for shakes and fries at the local diner, they enjoy eating sweet dates, making a game of spitting the pits into bowls.

The illusion of sympathy with these teenagers' growing-up struggles breaks apart with the gory details of one's recovery after his failed suicide-bombing attempt. Ahmad lies in a hospital bed, burned and wrapped in bandages, his eyes the only reminder of how he once looked. With his hands and feet mangled, he depends on the gentle care of an American nurse.

This is the opening story of Ken Ballen's Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, a view of the personal lives of six jihadis. During interviews over three years, Ballen gathers in intimate detail the experiences that led the six men to radicalize their fervent religious beliefs and resort to a vision of death as ultimate salvation. Their complex stories reveal many paths to violent jihad, uncovering not a mass conspiracy, but individual shortcomings.

Ballen's first subject, Ahmad, drops out of school and wants to be freed of his father's brutal verbal and physical abuse. An only child, the gangly teenager feels safe with his grandfather and loving mother, but his father's actions impel him to leave home and move in with his cousin - a decision that would ultimately make him even more unsure of his future. After several weeks of cavorting in his hometown, an unsatisfied Ahmad leaves his "posse," finding solace in a mosque. A final shock provokes him to join al-Qaeda: the pictures of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq being abused and humiliated by American soldiers.

Ahmad gets his cousin, and the two move to Iraq, believing they will serve a higher purpose. When he's called for his first jihad, Ahmad thinks he is just driving a truck to rendezvous with another vehicle. When the other jihadis jump out of the truck, telling Ahmad to continue driving toward a wall, flames and shock engulf the young Saudi as he realizes he's driving a truck of remote-controlled explosives. Ahmad thought he would help; he never thought he would have to kill and die. Remarkably, he survives - with severe burns. The damage to his body is such that he will never be able to care for himself.

Ballen encounters the jihadis through the most unlikely and surprising of places: a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation center, jokingly nicknamed the "Betty Ford Jihadi Clinic," which attempts to restore extremists to productive citizenship in the kingdom. At the center and through people he meets there, Ballen engages with a range of jihadis - from one with direct knowledge of Osama bin Laden, to a protégé of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to the everyday middle-class son. When possible, Ballen weaves into their stories Western media accounts, bringing readers from the way they remember the event depicted in the news years ago to the way it actually happened.

Despite his proximity to the jihadis, Ballen is not an apologist and achieves the difficult balance of telling their stories without asking the reader to feel a certain way. Inevitably, Ballen's interactions with the jihadis lead to personal relationships, but the author keeps his distance, and only on the last pages of the book does he become prescriptive. Even then, Ballen's message is subtle, but effective: Don't view their world from a solely American perspective, don't be complacent, remember that their stories are as much about love lost as about hate.

One wonders throughout the book how Ballen managed his experiences in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar, and elsewhere. He was often at the whim of his subjects, meeting them where they requested, without a guard or other intermediary. Ballen's presence propels the narrative, and his occasional personal interjections provide light humor. But the author also has an unobtrusive style of moving from his present experience with the jihadi to stories in the jihadi's past, sometimes beginning at birth.

Ballen's book is not a memoir of the author's Middle East experiences. Terrorists in Love reveals the jihadis' stories as they told them.