After the 9/11 attacks, Iraqi immigrant Khuder Al-Emeri’s life was falling apart.
Business plummeted that fall at his restaurant, Rosemary Mediterranean, on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle. He had opened it after years of working in a dry-cleaning business and as a cook.
He was never sure why customers stopped coming: Was it the economy, or backlash against a Muslim-owned business? He abandoned the venture — and looked for work.
In the winter of 2003 came new opportunity: He was hired as an interpreter for U.S. Marines invading his homeland.
This conflict marked a dramatic turn in what President George W. Bush called a war on terror, targeting Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” that included Iran and North Korea. These nations sought weapons of mass destruction, and thus — Bush argued in a 2002 State of the Union speech — posed a “grave and growing danger.”
I spent time with Al-Emeri as he resettled in his hometown of Qal’at Sukkar less than a year after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was overthrown by U.S. forces. The visit was part of a series of reporting assignments for The Seattle Times that stretched over more than a decade. My reporting took me from Algeria to Southern Oregon to Iraq and finally — twice — to Afghanistan, tracing some of the Pacific Northwest’s connections to the U.S. response to 9/11.
Al-Qaida organized the hijacking of planes that killed 2,996 people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The 20th anniversary of the nation’s worst terror attack comes just weeks after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in the haunting aftermath of nation’s longest war. It has been a summer of extremes, from heat waves and runaway wildfires to a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us want to hunker down in our homes — and get this day over with.
I can share in these sentiments. Still, I find this is a time for reflection, on what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and how our nation’s response changed so many lives here and around the world.
The following dispatches are stitched together from my own post-9/11 journey and help track the arc of U.S. history as our government launched two overseas wars and turned inward to investigate Muslims in America.
Through the years, these wars went awry, some of our soldiers’ most grievous wounds were those unseen and families were torn apart not only by acts of terror but also the quest for retribution.
ALGIERS, Algeria — The breakfast buffet was lavish. Honeyed pastries, melons and other offerings spread out amid the mosaic-clad pillars of a cavernous dining room in the El-Djazair hotel.
It was a December morning in 2001. I sat at a nearby table with Kamel Ressam, a bluejean-clad young man with short, neatly coiffed hair.
Kamel did not want anything to eat. He would not even imbibe a strong cup of coffee.
Instead, he hungered for news about his imprisoned older brother, Ahmed Ressam.
Two years earlier, Ahmed had been arrested in Port Angeles on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, as he tried to enter the U.S. from Canada with bomb-making material stowed in a rented green Chrysler sedan.
By the time I arrived in Algeria, Ahmed was convicted of participating in a plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport at the dawn of the new millennium. Al-Qaida had already struck America overseas, including the 1998 twin bombings at U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people. Ahmed Ressam’s attempt to set off a suitcase bomb was an unmistakable early signal of al-Qaida’s interest in hitting the home front.
I was part of a team writing a narrative series about Ahmed, who had once waited tables at his family’s cafe in the small beachside town of Bou Ismail — and loved to go out dancing. After emigrating to Montreal his life underwent a huge change. He became a Islamic recruit for an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.
Understanding such transformations had gained new urgency after in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, carried out by 19 young Muslim men who were willing to die in their zeal to strike America.
I was fortunate Kamel had agreed to meet with me. Ever since I had arrived in Algeria, I was being watched. My first attempt to talk to Kamel had been a disaster as my government security officials escorted me in a caravan of security cars right to the family’s front door.
Kamel had quickly shut the door in my face, but not before he told me the safest place to talk would be the dining room of the hotel.
At the table, finally away from the minders, Kamel was wary but intrigued I would travel so far to learn more about his brother.
I tried to fill him in on Ahmed’s trial earlier that year. In March 2001, at the age of 33, he had been sentenced to 57 to 130 years in prison. Later that spring, he would accept an offer for his sentence to be reduced in exchange for helping law enforcement learn more about al-Qaida plots and training and for his testimony in another trial. He would eventually be sentenced to a 37-year term.
Kamel said his brother had not been very religious in Algeria and his arrest came as a shock.
“He would usually call us every 15 to 20 days,” Kamel said. “He would always say that he had no problems. Even now, when he is in prison, he says not to worry. Everything goes well.”
The Justice Department prosecution of Ressam was a forerunner of a wave of post-9/11 investigations, some of which reached into the nation’s Muslim community. This came at a difficult time when Mosques were being targeted for hate crimes and xenophobia was on the rise.
The FBI was under pressure to disrupt plots before they unfolded, and tactics included controversial sting operations, such as providing a fake car bomb to a Somali-American student in Oregon, who would be sentenced in 2014 to 30 years in prison after trying to detonate it at Portland’s annual Christmas tree lighting.
The FBI’s prosecution of Seattle’s James Ujaama opened a window into how militant Islamic ideology could draw Americans angry and frustrated by the injustices of a racially divided society.
Ujaama was known in the Black community for his work in the Central District in the early 1990s to help young people who were being pushed out of the community by gentrification and often faced incarceration.
In 1996, Ujaama — born James Earnest Thompson — converted to Islam.
In the late 1990s, Ujaama spent much of his time in England, where he attended the London mosque of Abu Hamza al-Masri, who had spoken in support of Osama Bin Laden. On the eve of 9/11, Ujaama was in Pakistan on another attempted trip to Afghanistan.
In August 2002, I made a road trip to the remote Southern Oregon community of Bly, where Ujaama had scouted a ranch property as a potential site for a training camp for Islamic recruits who wanted to head to Afghanistan to support the Taliban.
I found the sheep-grazed property lacked even running water for the rundown trailers that could serve as guest quarters.
But Ujaama saw opportunity, touting it to Abu Hamza as a potential moneymaking scheme to attract some of the faithful from the London mosque.
Ujaama, charged with crimes related to trying to set up the camp and his travel to Afghanistan, would eventually serve nearly six years in prison after cooperating as a witness in the cases of Abu Hamza and Oussama Kassir, a Lebanese-born Swedish citizen who once bragged he had been a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden.
In a recent interview with me, Ujaama says his past convictions have so far prevented him from a finding a white-collar job, and he has survived as a trucker.
Ujaama remains angry about his marathon, post-9/11 journey through the U.S. justice system, and called the case “a farce.”
Ujaama accuses the Justice Department of misrepresenting, in an initial indictment, the purpose of the would-be Bly camp by linking it to al-Qaida training. He says the camp would have supported the Taliban government as it faced an insurgency from the Northern Alliance. He notes a final Justice Department sentencing memorandum dropped the reference to al-Qaida training.
“I don’t feel like I didn’t do anything immoral or wrong … I believed in what I was doing … All these things get turned around and twisted around.” Ujaama said.
Ujaama said he loves America but feels great stress when he resides here. Violence in America has taken a toll on his family. His brother is imprisoned for murder in a Colorado killing he claimed was in self-defense, and his brother’s son earlier this year was fatally shot in Seattle.
So, Ujaama travels overseas.
He told me he would be spending the month of September in Saudi Arabia, where his wife now resides and his daughter plans to attend university.
A new front
QAL’AT SUKKAR, Iraq — In April 2003, former Seattleite Khuder Al-Emeri had been given a hero’s welcome, mobbed by well-wishers, when he joined the Marines in liberating his hometown from the rule of Saddam Hussein.
U.S. journalists witnessed this jubilant return, and stories about him were published across America.
Less than a year later, Seattle Times staff photographer Thomas Hurst and I visited him in the southern Iraq city of more than 100,000. We were reporting from Iraq when the post-invasion insurgency was still young, and it still seemed possible to envision a peaceful transition to a new Iraqi government. But in retrospect, our visit with Khuder — and his fate — offered early insights to the things that would go wrong for America in Iraq.
In Al-Emeri’s hometown, the warm feelings of the spring were rapidly fading. Things were tense as we drove with him to a roadside livestock auction of scruffy sheep.
His deep-set eyes, hinting of sorrow and stubbornness, were hidden behind gold-rimmed sunglasses as he stepped out of his dust-streaked BMW. He was quickly surrounded by farmers who peppered him with questions.
They wanted to know why there were so few jobs, why was security so bad, and why wasn’t compensation offered to a 9-year-old boy whose father was shot by Marines?
“You have got your freedom, but you must be patient,” Al-Emeri responded. His words failed to calm them.
Al-Emeri was a passionate believer in the American intervention in Iraq, which he hoped would led to a democratic government to improve the life of his people. So after leaving the service of Marines, and a brief return to Seattle, he had decided to rejoin his children here.
Al-Emeri had been a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein. In 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, he had joined in a Shiite Muslim uprising against Hussein that ended in failure and the death of a brother.
Now, Hussein was gone. But Iraq’s strongman had helped to keep militant strains of Islam in check. Removing him from power would unleash new extremist forces, including ISIS.
Al-Emeri told us some already were willing to fight to for their vision of a new Iraq. At night he would hear grenade explosions from a religious Shiite paramilitary group training in the courtyard of a school. He told of bandits who roamed freely along the roads, killing people and stealing automobiles.
“The only thing that is cheap right now is human life,” Al-Emeri said.
We stayed with Al-Emeri in his brother’s house. As we gathered in a front room, we heard several loud bursts of gunfire just outside the courtyard entrance. My legs trembled as I crouched against a wall and imagined what might come next.
Al-Emeri and a teenage nephew grabbed AK-47s and rushed into the street to defend us.
It turned out the gunman was a young man on a joy ride who had fired all his rounds into the air. We all went back inside to finish a meal of lamb kebabs, then had tea with the gunman’s father to make sure we were at peace.
All was right, at least for that night.
After I returned to the U.S., I lost touch with Al-Emeri. Years passed. The insurgency in Iraq grew stronger, and ISIS took hold. U.S. casualties mounted and so did those of Iraqi civilians. By one tally compiled by Brown University’s Cost of War project, the Iraq War would eventually kill more than 267,000 people, including more than 4,500 American service members.
Last month, I reached out to Yahya Al-Garib, executive director of the Iraqi Community Center of Washington, to see if he knew what happened to Al-Emeri.
The news was grim.
A year or so after our visit, he was slain at his home. Nobody was sure who was behind the killing.
“He opened the door and they just shot him,” Al Garib said.
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — In October of 2009, I slowly made my way on foot through lush, green, irrigated acres in arid southern Afghanistan.
I was embedded with a company of soldiers from the Fort Lewis-based 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry division as they ventured out on patrols in this conservative Pashtun province, long a Taliban stronghold.
This was treacherous terrain. Concerned about ambush and buried bombs, we frequently hit the ground in the pomegranate orchards and fields of eggplants, tomatoes and marijuana.
The soldiers’ brigade had left Washington state’s Fort Lewis in the summer of that year, and many soldiers showed great courage as they trudged about on foot, with heavy gear in searing temperatures, to fight an often unseen enemy. Their tour of duty also showed the limits of U.S. military might in what would eventually be a lost war.
The brigade was part of a much broader mobilization of Washington-based military forces set onto war footing in the aftermath of 9/11. It involved more than 200,00 service men and women from the Army and Washington National Guard who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Air Force crews that assisted in the gargantuan tasks of ferrying supplies overseas and transporting the wounded.
The soldiers were initially scheduled to head to Iraq but had been switched late in their training to a mission in Afghanistan. This was a sign of the troubles facing the U.S. military in a nearly decade-old war that had long since morphed from a mission of rooting out al-Qaida fighters to trying to remake the political and social fabric of this Asian nation.
Their turbulent tour of duty, which included heavy casualties and a high-profile war crimes case, embodied so much of what would go wrong for America.
The brigade was commanded by Col. Harry Tunnell, a military historian and veteran of the Iraq War whose combat experiences had reinforced his conviction that soldiers should always keep their focus on fighting, picked the brigade’s motto — Strike and Destroy.
Tunnell’s approach to the war put him at odds with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. and NATO forces. He wanted to put the focus not on body counts but gaining the confidence of the civilian population.
“Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy,” McChrystal wrote in a counterinsurgency directive.
The Fort Lewis brigade was the first to deploy to Afghanistan with Stryker eight-wheeled vehicles, which could transport up to 11 soldiers at speeds of 60 mph and boasted high-tech communications and mapping systems.
But these early Stryker models had a vulnerability; a flat bottom, rather than a V-shaped one to deflect explosions. The Taliban were quick to exploit this weak spot with powerful buried bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that caused great carnage.
One of the brigade’s battalions with some 750 soldiers, by the end of deployment in 2010, had lost 22 soldiers and suffered more than 65 wounded. That was one of the highest casualty counts for any similar-sized Army unit during the war.
As the deaths mounted, many of these soldiers embraced Tunnell’s hard-line approach. They believed the Taliban had to be subdued before civilians would be brave enough to reopen schools or accept American aid.
Others questioned why Tunnell appeared to be bucking McCrystal’s doctrine, and at times, putting them all in danger in the quest to clash with the the enemy.
“It was a pointless [expletive] war,” Dan Berschinski, a wiry Georgian and West Point graduate who served in the brigade as a 1st lieutenant, told me in a recent interview.
“I thought that we would eventually leave, and the Taliban would still be there,” Berschinski said. “But I knew that American soldiers needed good, effective and ethical leadership, and I thought I could provide some of that, and was happy to serve.”
His tour of duty did not last long. On Aug. 18, a month after his arrival, he was directed to lead his platoon on a foot patrol to scout for potential spots where they could ambush the Taliban. The day quickly turned deadly. A bomb exploded, killing a radio operator from another platoon.
A second blast detonated as one of Berschinski’s men — Pfc. Jonathan Yanney — was crossing a bridge. Only scattered body parts were left.
Berschinski was shaken by anger and grief at the loss. That evening, he walked a trail to a hut where he planned to stay for the night. He never made it.
A huge force hit his body. He realized he was lying upside-down in a bomb-blast crater. He reached to touch his legs. They both were gone. He recalls hearing the cries of other soldiers as they pulled him out of the hole, and the rotor wash of a medevac helicopter. Then, he lost consciousness.
Other soldiers never struck by enemy fire still suffered grievous wounds.
Staff Sgt. Michael Blanchette, a Southern California soldier with an encyclopedic knowledge of Stryker vehicles, had survived a hellish year of urban combat in Mosul, Iraq, where he was left anguished over firing at a car with shots that killed a pregnant woman, he later told family members.
Several months before the brigade’s 2009 departure, Blanchette was acting erratically at home and reluctant to deploy, according to his wife.
In Afghanistan, he was a quiet, reliable soldier who would curl up in a Stryker rather than sleep in a tent. Back in Western Washington on leave to visit his wife and 2-year-old daughter, he drank too much, talked about the rigors and risks of Afghanistan duty, then on the evening of April 11, 2009, reached for his pistol.
“I got one bullet; goodbye,” he told his wife Elizabeth Blanchette before he shot himself.
I met Elizabeth Blanchette as the soldiers came home from their deployment in July of that year. She was there to support the other soldiers and their families as they joyfully reunited in a base gymnasium celebration featuring prayers and a country-music singer.
“This is about them, right now,” Blanchette said. “This is about them coming home.”
By the time the brigade returned to what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an Army war crimes investigation was underway into allegations that soldiers murdered three Afghan civilians.
Four soldiers were eventually convicted of charges related to their involvement in these killings. The court-martials dragged on for weeks, putting a grim spotlight on the actions of a few among the many who served honorably not only in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division but many other brigades that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan through the years.
In the spring of 2012, the joint base would be shaken again by a war crimes case. This one involved a soldier from a different unit who had been through three tours of duty in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan. His name was Staff. Sgt. Robert Bales, and he eventually would plead guilty to charges of murdering 16 Afghan civilians.
KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — I watched, with a sense of dread, the big video screen erected in the plywood-walled Tactical Operations Center of Combat Outpost Mushan.
It displayed a helicopter swooping low over an Afghan man who had been spotted acting suspiciously in the nearby fields.
The soldiers who surrounded me were convinced the man was checking on five IEDs placed there to kill them. While sipping their morning cups of coffee, they could serve as judge and jury — and after checking with an officer — call in helicopter crews to carry out the execution.
The video feed streamed from an observation balloon equipped with powerful cameras operated by civilian contractors.
The helicopter crew opened fire in a scene blurred by the dust kicked up by their rotors. The aircraft flew away, and I could now make out the man on his back, bleeding from his chest, with his knees up.
But he was still alive. A woman went to him and knelt by his side.
For the operations center soldiers who had sought kill him, this Afghan was now an injured combatant in need of rescue.
An Army medic on a morning patrol reached his side and administered first aid.
Another helicopter was called in, this one a medevac, to fly the man to a hospital at Kandahar Airfield.
The camera-equipped balloons, called Aerostats, were one of the new wrinkles as I returned in the fall of 2012 to Kandahar province. This time, I went to the Panjwai District that had emerged as a Taliban smuggling corridor for weapons and explosives.
Backed by more than a $100 billion in annual Afghanistan taxpayer spending, the Army — along a 20-mile stretch of fields and villages — had erected seven Army installations bristling with Stryker vehicles and mine-clearing and surveillance equipment. The Army even shipped Alaska snow crab and Maine lobsters for morale-boosting dinners at these outposts.
“It’s a very small piece of Afghanistan,” said then Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Volk, the senior enlisted officer for the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “But it’s a very large part of the fight.”
Volk told me the battalion had put serious pressure on the Taliban, citing a significant drop in insurgent attacks in Kandahar City and other areas of southern Afghanistan as signs of success.
But this had been a tough campaign, turning villages into battle zones as U.S. troops repeatedly cycle through them trying to clear out insurgents.
And the Taliban forces were able to fashion IEDs from the scantiest of materials, packing explosives into recycled plastic containers as small as pint water bottles and drawing currents from strings of used batteries.
Out on foot patrols, soldiers now used metal detectors resembling oversized hockey sticks and other equipment to find and dismantle most of these bombs. In one memorable foray in the village of Babinek, then-Staff. Sgt. Kelly Rogne, a man some called the “IED Whisperer,” had found 29 bombs during a painstaking eight-hour survey across less than a kilometer of road.
Not all the IEDS were discovered.
By the time I had arrived, the battalion had suffered five deaths. Some 100 troops were evacuated with serious injuries, including 23 lost limbs. Dozens more suffered mild traumatic brain injuries, fractures or other wounds.
Since my earlier embeds, there also had been a new piece of gear crafted for foot patrols. The grievous injuries to genitals had made a kind of Kevlar diaper mandatory protection. I gratefully accepted a loaner.
As I returned home to the Pacific Northwest, it was clear all this sacrifice, and all the spending, could yield some temporary gains against the Taliban. But it was not sustainable. A big unanswered question loomed, and in the years that followed, I returned to it again and again.
What would happen when we leave?