Nothing in Qais Ibrahim Khadir's childhood hinted that he would one day be ready to kill in the name of Allah.
Nothing in this young man with large brown eyes and long lashes indicated that he would embrace the most uncompromising interpretation of Islam, yearn for martyrdom, and today recoil from the handshake of any visiting "infidel."
Sure, Khadir was a bit obsessive - as teenage boys often are when it comes to girls. "He would always wander around the girls' school," his mother recalls, laughing. "He loved a girl called Dahlia, and there is a special brand of soap called 'Dahlia,' that he would buy and bring home."
Today, the 26-year-old Khadir spends his days alone in a cell in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. He offers a unique window into the mind of an Islamic firebrand, and the evolution of a self-taught true believer. He's a follower of Osama bin Laden, the kind of quiet young man who emerges from an apparently normal upbringing, and is unknown to any Western intelligence agency until he strikes.
Khadir says he's proud to be dubbed a "terrorist." And he has a warning for Americans.
"If something happens to Osama bin Laden, nobody will care, because so many people behind the curtain are doing the job," Khadir says, scratching the long stringy beard he has grown since his arrest last April. "Not enough people believe like me, but this jihad is pushing more people to us. It will never finish."
Last spring, he wielded an AK-47 as part of a three-man hit squad that failed in an attempt to assassinate Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq controlled by the secular Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The other two attackers, Khadir boasts, became "martyrs" by killing five of Mr. Salih's bodyguards.
Khadir was shot twice in the leg but managed to escape from the scene by foot and by taxi to a safe house. He was arrested 14 hours later. Officially, Khadir did not survive the assassination attempt. A fiction, perhaps, for Khadir's own safety; or so that fellow terrorists would be unaware of his capture.
Held in solitary confinement in a PUK detention facility here, he wears a towel over his head to hide his identity from other prisoners when crossing the prison courtyard. During a 4 1/2-hour interview, Khadir talked about his transformation to a terrorist.
"Even if bin Laden calls for an end to jihad, we will continue," says Khadir, who says he "found this myself, through reading. It grew in my mind."
He has memorized the 604 pages of the Koran, and says the Islamic holy book teaches that infidels must be exorcised from the earth; that sending apostates to heaven "early" is doing them a favor before God.
His strict views mirror those of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who note that the word "Islam" means "peace." But in Khadir's world, duty and loyalty to what is perceived to be God's will propels "jihadists" from Bali to Algiers.
The Iraqi Kurd says he began to dabble in radical thinking in 1996,after hearing people in a barbershop in his home city of Arbil talk about Islamic issues that made sense to him.
He drew further inspiration from the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, attributed to Al Qaeda: "I thought: I want to work with that group," Khadir says. After Sept. 11, 2001, he heard bin Laden speak on television. "I was worked up by that speech. I thought I was a real mujahid [holy warrior]."
Explaining the assassination attempt against the PUK prime minister, Khadir says that he sought "revenge" against the US for striking the Taliban and killing Muslims in Afghanistan. Prime Minster Salih, he notes, had lived in Washington for many years as a PUK representative.
"The Koran says: 'It is God who throws the arrow and the spear,' " Khadir says, growing animated. "If I killed [Salih], I would be grateful. The result is not important to us. We did the jihad. I did my duty. If God is happy, it is all I want. I am his."
The narrow-faced and thin-boned Khadir pauses, pleased with his speech. He's been talking for several hours. He asks his guards to retrieve some cake from his cell to share with his visitors. When the cream-filled sponge cake arrives, half of it is swarming with tiny ants.
"The most important things for the most powerful country to remember are to never ignore your enemy," Khadir says, slicing into the yellow cake, before offering it around. "And the more you improve your weapons, we are doing the same."
SUCH statements are a shock to Khadir's family members, who can't fathom their boy's transformation from fun-loving lad to fundamentalist. They didn't know that Khadir was still alive until informed by this correspondent.
The family lives on a lane with no name in the middle-class Brayati section of Arbil, capital of the Kurdish territory ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Their living room is Spartan: no furniture, a few carpets and pillows, a TV and satellite decoder in one corner - tuned to Turkish soap operas - and two vines, climbing toward the ceiling.
Hanging from one wall is the Koranic verse: "God is head of all the universe. May God protect me from all evil things."
But the Khadir family has disowned their son and tearfully refuse an offer to see a digital portrait of him.
"He was a very normal boy, who excelled at school," says Khadir's mother, Hadiya Hassan Ibrahim, swathed in purple robes and a headscarf, which reveals a strip of gray hair. She says the family always prayed and fasted during the holy month of Ramadan, but were not radicals.
Khadir used to spend money on a taxi to take him to the girls' school in time to see his Dahlia get out of class. "She knew nothing about it," Mrs. Ibrahim says. "But he came back and told his sister: 'I love Dahlia. She is so beautiful!' "
That obsessive trait later found another focus: politics. "He was very strict with whatever he did," recalls Khadir's younger brother, Imad Ibrahim Khadir, a KDP policeman. "When he joined the KDP student union, he did that from morning to night."
But the family didn't become concerned until 1996, when Khadir turned 20. He left Arbil, with many other members of the KDP when it was taken over by rival PUK forces. When Khadir returned, he was different.
Not long after, he left the KDP and his family noticed that he prayed with a new vigor. He tried to convince his sister to wear a veil, and tried to persuade Imad to leave the police academy. "He was not telling us his secrets," the brother says. "He pretended he was superior to us." Family members say they used to make fun of Khadir's newfound devotion, taunting him: "You were running after girls - now look at you!"
Gone were the days when Khadir used to have pictures of girls slipped inside his books. One day the young militant insisted that his mother bring the family photo albums to the Islamic institute where he was studying, so he could tear out every single image of himself. The Taliban, too, declared images of people un-Islamic.
"The Koran says: 'Start jihad from wherever you are,' " Khadir says. He never traveled to Afghanistan to train with Al Qaeda there. But he was in contact with Al Qaeda recruiters in Jordan and later in Kurdistan. He moved to Jordan to work and save money to go to study in Yemen under the radical Islamic scholars there. But when he got to Al-Iman University, he was told he didn't have a high school diploma and couldn't attend. Dejected, less than a week later, he returned to Jordan.
But the Jordanians didn't want him, either. He was deported back to Iraq after Jordanian police found radical Islamist tracts in his room and accused him of being an extremist operative. Back in Iraq, he joined Al Towhid, one of the most hard-line Islamist groups in the area. In February 2000, Al Towhid murdered François Hariri, the most prominent Christian politician in northern Iraq. Last year, Al Towhid joined the Al Qaeda-backed Ansar al Islam coalition.
While Khadir says he is "happy" that Sept. 11 was a "wake-up call for America, and for us," the US should not be the first target. "Jihad against Arab leaders should be done first, before the Americans," he says. Ties with Christians or Jews are easier for him, he says, than with "hypocrite" Muslims who profess faith, but don't believe.
"If the Americans came to attack Iraq, I would be happier to have an 'infidel' government, than the apostate government [of Saddam Hussein]," Khadir says. "In Palestine, I would rather give all to the Jews - let them come! - than that apostate Yassir Arafat."
These views are incomprehensible to members of Khadir's family, who have just one photograph left of their son - a sepia print of a four-year-old boy with big brown eyes. Family friends long ago drew a moustache on the photo, not as a joke, but to add age and wisdom to the last remaining image. But Khadir's mother is disgusted with her son, and offers the photo to a visitor. "I wish he had died" in the assassination attempt, she says, her eyes tearing up.
Though he remains behind bars, Khadir confidently predicts the assassination was only a prelude. "No matter who the US gets rid of [in the terror war], there will always be jihad - even if the group is small, and does small operations.
"Already, America is killing or arresting Al Qaeda's main leaders," he says. "But if they want to get rid of it, they must get rid of the factories that are creating them. And they can't do it, because that factory is the Koran."