Soft-spoken and composed, but unmistakably angry, the wife of the suicide bomber who killed himself and seven employees of the CIA in Afghanistan on Dec. 30 says flatly, "My husband was anti-American; so am I." About that, there are no regrets. In an exclusive interview Thursday, Defne Bayrak, 31, spent more than an hour at the offices of NEWSWEEK Türkiye in Istanbul talking about her husband, Dr. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi; his beliefs; what he may have been offered by the CIA to work as a double agent on the trail of Al Qaeda's top leadership; and what she heard from those apostles of jihad who ultimately inspired him to kill and die.
Al-Balawi's case is a study in the radicalization of someone who is well-educated, economically well-off, devout, and disciplined. Such people may not fit into the public's stereotypical idea of a terrorist, but the profile is increasingly familiar to police and intelligence officers involved with counterterrorism. Many of Al Qaeda's most successful attacks, from 9/11 to the London transit-system bombings in 2005, were directed and executed by such intelligent, articulate, religious, and suicidally violent men.
The story of al-Balawi and Bayrak also cuts across boundaries of language and culture. Bayrak is Turkish and a journalist, and while she wears a headscarf to show she is an observant Muslim, others in her family do not. Among books she has translated is one called Bin Laden: Che Guevara of the East. Al-Balawi, 32 when he died, was a Palestinian born and raised in Kuwait, then Jordan, who trained as a doctor in Istanbul. "He was always conservative, but not an extremist," says Bayrak. They met in an internet chat room and married when he was in his last year of medical school in 2001. Then they moved back to Jordan, where he worked in local hospitals, and where their two little girls were born.
Al-Balawi "started to change," says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands, but he was not part of any organization or group. "He followed all of them, but from a distance," she says. "He was constantly reading and writing. He was crazy about online forums. He would go onto them and write severe, extremely hardline comments. He would cite verses from the Quran that talked about the need for jihad, and then write very tough comments based on those verses or on the sayings of the Prophet."
It may have been during this time that al-Balawi first attracted the attention of Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate (GID), where Ali bin Zaid, a young cousin of King Abdullah's, was among the analysts who kept a close watch on jihadist chat rooms and bulletin boards.
Bayrak says her husband had some contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, which operates mostly in the realm of nonviolent politics, and he came away disillusioned. She asked him why he bothered to go to their dinners when he was invited. "I go to eat their mansaf [meat and rice]," he said, "but nothing will come of these men or their organizations." Increasingly, al-Balawi and Bayrak talked about his desire to go to some of the battlefields where jihads were being fought. Iraq was just next door. The struggle continued in Afghanistan.
Then a year ago, the Israelis launched their devastating assault on Hamas and its infrastructure in Gaza after repeated random rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Al-Balawi signed up with a group of doctors who wanted to offer aid to the besieged Palestinians, more than 1,000 of whom were killed in the offensive. In January, al-Balawi was arrested by the GID.
"We thought he would not be released for a long time," says Bayrak. "But they let him go after only three days." Asked if she could confirm what other sources have told NEWSWEEK Türkiye, that al-Balawi was offered as much as $500,000 by the CIA and $100,000 by the Jordanians to track down Al Qaeda's leadership, Bayrak said only, "It might be true."
Soon afterward, although al-Balawi told his parents in Amman that he was going back to Turkey for further studies, he went instead to Pakistan. Bayrak says he told her the trip was for "a special examination," and she should go back to Turkey. They talked and e-mailed occasionally after that, but Bayrak says she did not know exactly what he was doing or who he was working with, and she had not seen him for months. Then on Dec. 30, she heard about the explosion at the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan. (Among the dead: the Jordanian case officer Ali bin Zaid.)
Two days later, Bayrak got a call from a number she believes was in Pakistan. Her husband had left a last will and testament, said the caller, and it would be delivered to her. She would also be able to see the father of her children once again. "Your husband did this for Allah," said the voice on the phone. "We will broadcast a video of his celebrated martyrdom on the Web and you will watch him."