By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
They arrived in Stockholm on Christmas Eve of 2005 with $2 — and were miraculously granted political asylum. Al-Baghdadi, who now speaks passable Swedish and is working toward Swedish citizenship by next year, is forever grateful. But the rejection hasn’t rested well with Marines like Vose, who believes that the U.S. clearly abandoned a top ally. In an interview for Swedish radio, Vose issued a rare complaint, saying, “I am very upset with my country as a whole for making it so difficult for Al-Baghdadi.”
The Marine visited his Iraqi ally in Sweden — and they’d hatched a plan. “He was happy to be safe in Sweden but felt useless in helping his country — and America,” Vose says. “He begged me to do something.” The idea was to use Al-Baghdadi as a “nonofficial” — meaning volunteer — language/cultural trainer for U.S. Marines heading to Iraq, so Al-Baghdadi could prove his value to stateside military, who were using private trainers lacking Al-Baghdadi’s language and battlefield expertise.
But Al-Baghdadi, arriving here in 2007 on a business visa, was told he could not bring his family. This time, even the Swedes created bureaucratic barriers — the family is unable to acquire Swedish travel documents until its Swedish immigrant status is finalized in 2010.
In June 2007, Al-Baghdadi was given a room in Vose’s San Diego home and treated like family. Vose’s father, Douglas, also a veteran Marine, “adopted” him, and Al-Baghdadi launched eagerly into work at Camp Pendleton — without pay. He was in a new, gray area. The Marines could not hire him directly, and the private contractor could not hire him under a mere business visa. Until early last year, Al-Baghdadi and his family in Sweden lived on the generosity of Vose and his Marine family.
Soon, the bosses at Camp Pendleton understood they had nobody like Al-Baghdadi, and so found a way to get him hired via a private contractor when an I-94 permit was granted on his passport, with the designation “Public Interest Parole” — essentially meaning that a foreign national is supplying a valuable service.
Today, Al-Baghdadi tries to fit in as a Marine instructor. He dresses neatly in a suit and tie — or in California casual. His expletive-laden speech emulates the military tradition, and so does his drinking of alcohol and consumption of “forbidden” foods. He instructs classes of 70 to 200 Marines on the basics of Arabic, an introduction to Islam, including the differences between Shia and Sunni, the tribal structure of Iraq, and assorted cultural no-no’s.
He tells his classes, “If you are not Muslim, never touch the Qur’an — unless operational security is at issue. If you violate this rule, apologize. You will be forgiven, and respect will grow from this.”
He conducts role-playing between young Marines and Arabic speakers, and with an eagle eye he analyzes, criticizes and corrects the raw recruits. His aim is to dispel misconceptions and, hopefully, safeguard the lives of trainees.
According to Lieutenant Colonel J.J. Kenney, the Marine officer in charge of the Camp Pendleton program when Al-Baghdadi began, “Al-Baghdadi is a dual-purpose weapon,” not just a top language and culture instructor but also “an experienced warrior whose counterinsurgency credentials are impeccable.”
Kenney, now stationed in Okinawa, adds with militaristic flourish in an e-mail to the Weekly: “His combat experience, dedication to his Marine comrades and his determination to contribute to the future free nation of Iraq shine through in his resourceful application of counterinsurgency techniques, skillfully blended with the remarkable language training he administers. Al-Baghdadi serves the Marine Corps in the finest traditions of Lafayette and Von Steuben, and I am very grateful to him.”
Al-Baghdadi’s emotional edginess, street knowledge and swashbuckling persona have a spellbinding effect on young Camp Pendleton troops who go on to join military and police transition teams, border patrols, liaison units and other teams in Iraq. His “Instructional Rating Forms,” reviewed by the Weekly, are filled with praise. He tells his classes: “I live in a room at the [local motel]. Swing by any time. But remember, beer is forbidden in Islam. Bring tequila.”
Marine Captain Anthony Canarelli, now in Baghdad training Iraqi police, writes to the Weekly: “I make a living working and training with U.S. Marines, who I believe to be America’s finest young men — they are heroes to me. I count Al-Baghdadi among my heroes as well. I consider his instruction and insight to be of enormous benefit to my work.”
Jeffery Payne, who supervises Al-Baghdadi, is the private-contractor program manager for language and culture training at Camp Pendleton, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He says simply, “He is one of us.”
Today, in his motel room, Al-Baghdadi looks more worn than his 44 years. A large man, he resembles an over-the-hill boxer. He identifies with both Rambo and Raskolnikov — an odd combination of archetypes that seems apt. He very likely suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, but when his friends encourage him to see a psychotherapist, he says, “It is a sign of weakness in my culture.”