TRIPOLI, Lebanon: In early August, about two months after Khaled Mahmoud al-Hajj left his hometown of Tripoli to join ISIS, he called his brother from Iraq. It was the last time they ever spoke.
“I tried to stop him,” said Mohammad, 25, the eldest of the Hajj brothers.
But it didn’t work, and on Aug. 7, Khaled blew himself up in a suicide attack in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad. He was just 18 years old.
Khaled is one of around 890 Lebanese who are thought to have traveled to Syria, according to statistics compiled by British magazine The Economist, some of whom have continued on into Iraq. The majority are believed to be Sunnis seeking to enlist in militant groups like the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the notorious ISIS. The figure excludes Lebanese fighting on the Syrian regime’s side.
But although religion appears to be the driving factor behind this phenomenon, it often comes down to a complex set of social concerns instead – and Khaled is a case in point. Interviews with those who knew him paint a picture of an emotionally immature teenager with problems at home and immense anger over the situation of Sunnis in Iraq.
Khaled’s father, who works late hours at a bakery, hails from Akkar, while his mother is originally from Idlib in Syria. Khaled had four brothers and a sister, including Mohammad, who is unemployed, but little other family. The father’s side of the family has mostly emigrated to Mexico, while the mother’s side is in Australia. He was the only one from his family to travel to Syria or Iraq.
While he read the Quran as a child, Khaled was far from a religious zealot. People who knew him said he was a good student in school, describing him as cultured and educated. He enjoyed trips to the beach, buying things, and had a penchant for poetry.
But a mentor figure who knew him well pointed to a lack of attention at home.
“His parents weren’t there for the children, and the situation at home wasn’t good,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
So Khaled spent his spare time in one of Tripoli’s markets, hanging out with Hajj Ali, the local owner of a bookstore. Hajj Ali is a pious man with pale skin, a shaved head and a long beard that is gray at the root but fades to white at the tip. He agreed to talk to The Daily Star in his shop.
Sitting behind the desk, he removed his glasses and pressed firmly against his temples, letting his fingers slide across his closed eyelids and rest on the bridge of his nose.
“He used to be a part of a group of kids I would read the Quran to when he was 8 years old,” he said, his words punctuated with deep sighs. But even at 18, Ali said, Khaled was still just a child.
Other employees in the bookstore agreed, saying Khaled was always hyper and joking.
“If he sat down he wouldn’t shut up,” said one employee. “He played with this or that object and greeted everyone that passed by.”
They also suggested that he was around so much because he didn’t have many friends.
Mohammad also talked to The Daily Star about his brother, in a vacant store a few blocks away. He took strong drags on a cigarette and sipped pineapple juice as he reminisced about his brother Khaled.
“He was a normal kid and very smart. He shouldn’t have left his school but he finished his official exams and he quit school at 16,” Mohammad said.
“He also wasn’t very religious,” Mohammad said, adding that the same went for the whole family.
So what was it that pushed Khaled to leave his life behind and go to Iraq? Mohammad said that he thought it might have something to do with his own strong reaction to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he believes may have rubbed off on his younger brother.
Like many Arab youths at the time – particularly Sunnis – Mohammad was incensed by the American occupation of Iraq and accompanying fighting, and he ranted at length about the suffering of Iraqis. He recalled getting Facebook messages from Iraqi girls in 2007, four years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying things like: “Help me, the American army is raping us.”
He said his anger was likely to have filtered down to Khaled, who at just 11 would have been highly impressionable. Although Mohammad said he had abandoned such ideas five years ago – “I like life and I want to get a visa and start a normal life in Europe” – it seems the groundwork for Khaled’s future choices had already been laid.
“He was a kid, a child,” Mohammad said. “He saw Sunni oppression in Iraq and he told me: ‘The American army is killing us. [Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani and Shiite groups are killing us. The Iraqi government is killing us, oppressing us and raping women and killing kids. I want to kill them all.’”
Motivated by his perception of injustice, he saw ISIS’s horrific violence as justified.
Mohammad said he didn’t feel any responsibility for the path his brother had ended up taking, a path that began in early June, two months before he blew himself up.
Khaled’s mentor, Hajj Ali, admitted he had had to retrieve his own son from the border on two previous occasions to stop him from going to Syria, but was adamant he didn’t have anything to do with Khaled’s decision to perform jihad or take on a suicide operation.
“He loved me and I loved him,” Ali said, adding softly under his breath: “May he rest in peace.
“He would usually bring me food in the evening, but one day he didn’t show up. I called him and he said he was by the port getting ready to leave,” Ali said.
Ali tried to convince him to come back, offering to help him buy a house and get married, but Khaled refused.
Upon turning 18, the first thing Khaled did was get a passport. According to Mohammad, who kept in contact via instant messaging service WhatsApp, he arranged to travel by boat from Tripoli to Turkey, and from there crossed into Syria and made his way to Raqqa, ISIS’s self-declared capital. Fifteen days later, he crossed the border again, this time to Iraq, where he stayed for around a month and a half.
Three days before his suicide mission, Khaled, now going by the nom-de-guerre Abu Hajer al-Lubnani, phoned his brother for the last time.
Mohammad and his mother both said they had urged him to come home. “I want to come back for mother but I can’t because I have been in Syria,” Khaled replied. He was afraid that the Lebanese state would label him a terrorist and throw him in jail to rot for years without a trial, as has been the case with hundreds of Islamists suspected of involvement with extremist groups.
Just days later Abu Hajer al-Lubnani blew himself up, leaving those who knew him to try to figure out what drove him to take his life in such a violent way.
“Nobody thought he would go [to Syria and then Iraq],” said one of Ali’s colleagues. “No one thought it was possible.”
The answer may not be a religious text, but a feeling of being lost paired with the fiery naiveté of youth.
“When someone feels empty and insecure or that his dreams or hopes have gone unfulfilled, he might take such an opportunity,” said Aya Mhanna, a psychologist who regularly travels to Turkey to counsel former members of ISIS and other Islamist factions fighting in Syria.
“Sometimes religion contributes, but I’m not convinced that is all, because religion doesn’t brainwash people,” she said.
“People convince them that they will feel better if they come [to Syria or Iraq].” – With additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid