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As he painted, Hector Santiago reflected on his long journey to this point. His real
name was not Hector Santiago, of course. That was just the name given to him on his
fake ID. A lifetime ago, he had been known as Shabaz Ma‘ak Lom. His name ―Shabaz‖
meant ―hawk,‖ a name his father decided upon after first seeing his infant‘s hazel eyes.
He had two brothers, Suhaim (―arrow‖) and Saif al Din (―sword of faith‖). He lived in
the Shaab residential district in northern Baghdad and his father sold produce in the local
outdoor bazaar. His father kept his head down and stayed out of politics. The father told
all of his children to do the same. If you were asked, you did not know anything, you did
not see anything, you did not hear anything. By taking this approach, the family had
largely avoided the crazy edicts of Saddam Hussein. They had a simple life and a happy
life. Shabaz went to school in northern Baghdad and learned Arabic, math, and
astrology. The family loved to eat their father‘s fruit, and many a family meal was spent
telling stories and devouring ripe melons and delicious figs.
When the President of the United States announced that he would be invading Iraq in
March 2003, Shabaz‘s family couldn‘t believe it. They had seen saber-rattling before,
and they assumed that if the United States attacked, they would be going into downtown
Bagdhad, where Saddam was, not here in the Shaab district. So for Shabaz and his
family, life went on.
On March 26, 2003, a few weeks after the invasion began, Shabaz‘s entire family
was working with their father at the produce stand. Shabaz had been sent on an errand by
his father to pay another merchant for a delivery of grapes. He was about a half mile
away from the fruit stand on his bicycle when he saw the two silver American warplanes
with the red, white, and blue stars fly over his head at an altitude which was extremely
low. ―What are they doing?‖ He wondered to himself. ―There are no Republican Guard
troops here. This is a shopping area filled with women and children.‖ And then he saw
the big cylindrical objects fall out of the bomb bay doors of the aircraft. In a moment of
dread and disbelief, he looked towards the area where his family‘s fruit stand was, and
there was a gigantic explosion of orange flame, followed by a tumultuous cloud of pitch
black smoke and soot. ―No!‖ he shouted, dropping the bags of grapes and pedaling as
fast as he could back to the bazaar. He could not get more than a few hundred feet before
he was knocked off the bike by a panicked and hysterical mob. People were running
everywhere in the smoke, screaming. When Shabaz finally fought through the crowd,
there was a crater as big as a football field where the bazaar used to be. That was the last
day he saw his father, mother, and two brothers. The subsequent news reports confirmed
it: fourteen civilians dead and thirty wounded. There was not one military target here.
And yet the Americans did not seem the slightest bit apologetic. Their Secretary of
Defense brushed off the reports, calling it necessary ―collateral damage.‖ These people
were monsters and needed to be stopped. That was the day Shabaz answered the call for
Over the next five years, Shabaz trained in camps in Afghanistan. The leaders there
were most impressed with his ability to build things, so he was immediately trained in the
art of demolition and explosives. One day, he was informed by his spiritual leader that
Osama Bin Laden, an engineer himself, was impressed with his work and had ordained a
special task for him to complete. He was given the ceremonial name ―Ammar‖ (―the
Builder‖). He was told that he was one of a handful of chosen ones, called the ―Abisali,‖