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Dallas terror plot: Troubled Jordanian teen or jihadist?

Hosam Smadi liked his American teachers, rarely visited the mosque, and came from prominent families that reject terrorism. Why was he talking about jihad on extremist websites?

By Taylor LuckContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2009

In the Smadi family home in Ajloun, Jordan, 4-year-old Rasha holds a picture of her brother Hosam, along with siblings Reem and Razzad (r.).

Taylor Luck

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Amman and Ajloun, Jordan

Known to wear a cross around his neck and spend more time in churches than the local mosque, US terror suspect Hosam Smadi has many Jordanians rethinking what makes a "terrorist."

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Few in Jordan could have predicted that the 19-year-old Jordanian, who reportedly memorized Christian hymns and had close friendships with his American teachers, would end up in a US federal prison after being arrested on Sept. 24 and charged with attempting to bomb a Dallas skyscraper. As Jordanians struggle with how the life of a young man from the heartland of the Hashemite Kingdom went so wrong, their government hopes its Islamic education initiative will deter not just hardened militants but other troubled teens from getting caught up in terrorist activities.

"He was a very young man playing on the Internet and was placed in a very dangerous situation," says terrorism expert Mohamed Abu Rumman, adding that there have been five cases in Jordan this year similar to Mr. Smadi's – university students trolling extremist jihadi websites, posting messages inquiring "how to best carry out jihad."

Smadi was charged in a Dallas federal court last week after FBI agents, who discovered him on an extremist website earlier this year, lured him into a fake bomb plot. They reportedly tried to discourage him from following through with it, but according to the FBI affidavit, he told them he came to the US specifically to commit "jihad for the sake of God."

Smadi's background doesn't fit militant mold

Contrary to Western media reports that Smadi was a strict practicing Muslim, his father and friends here say Smadi rarely prayed and never fasted during the holy month of Ramadan – central tenets required of adult Muslims – and he showed little interest in regional politics.

His background also doesn't fit the militant stereotype. Smadi grew up not in a crowded refugee camp, but in the lush green hills of Ajloun, a town in northern Jordan known for its olive orchards and sizable Christian minority. Even more shocking to Jordanians, the accused is the son of a government employee and belongs to the Smadi and Momani tribes, two of the largest in northern Jordan, which are both ardent supporters of the royal family.

The soft-spoken teenager had many Christian friends and would sometimes attend chapel at the nearby Baptist School, recalls Essar Mazahreh, Smadi's former teacher and principal at the English-speaking Ajloun Baptist School.

Following his parents' divorce and the subsequent death of his ill mother in 2005, Smadi spent years battling depression, mood swings, and low self-esteem.

"The boys were so sweet. But after losing his mother, Hosam became very sick," says his former neighbor Reem Elrabodi.

After he and his brother Hussein dropped out of school, their father, Maher Smadi, thought a change of scenery would do some good for the boys. In 2007, he sent them to San Jose, Calif.

"Hosam went to the States in pursuit of the American dream. Now we are all living in a nightmare," he says.

Teenage angst or terrorist tendencies?

According to family friend Hana Elrabodi, teenage angst, not radical Islamist ideology, led the troubled teen to go along with the bomb plot.

Hosting the younger Smadi during his first few weeks in America, Mr. ElRabodi said he observed several warning signs: Smadi often became irritable, cut himself, exhibited reckless behavior, and even contemplated converting to Christianity.

"I kept telling him, America is a different country. Don't mess up," says ElRabodi, who was visiting Jordan for Ramadan.

However, like many friends, ElRabodi lost contact with Hosam after the latter moved to Dallas in 2008.

Many in Jordan who knew him conclude that a personality disorder, identity crisis, lack of maturity, and sudden arrival in the US without a support network – not home-grown fundamentalism – led to his arrest.