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A Syrian American risked everything to help rebuild the country of her birth

Bint Fatma at the al-Hol camp in Syria in July.

ALICE MARTINS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 30, 2019

Sometimes, Ghadir Taher comes to her mother at night — in the darkness in the family’s small, tidy home, surrounded by trees off an Atlanta freeway.

“Mama, I miss you so much,” she says, her voice taking hold of Amina Shaheen, suddenly awake, remembering the mornings that her daughter knocked on her door so they could drink Arabic coffee and watch their favorite Syrian TV show online.

In another dream, Ghadir seemed to be preparing for a journey. “Mama, why aren’t you folding my clothes?” she asked.

Amina looked back at her in surprise. “I said, ‘Why? I don’t want you to go away.’ ”

The previous year, Ghadir had returned to Syria.

For Ghadir, serving her adopted country, the U.S., as an interpreter with U.S. special operations troops while also helping her war-torn homeland, a place she had left in 2001 as a 10-year-old girl, was a double honor.

She had built a successful life in Georgia — a high school standout who juggled part-time jobs to assist her immigrant family and studied business at Georgia State University. But her family said she was searching for a calling, something more.

She asked her stepfather, who years earlier began working as a contractor interpreting for the U.S. military overseas, whether she could obtain a similar assignment. She spoke flawless English and Arabic. Why not put that to use?

Ghadir liked to say that a person’s home country was their mother, while an adopted country was like a girlfriend. “As much as you love your girlfriend, your mother will always be first,” she said.

Anas Abooun, a family friend from Daraa, site of bloody Syrian government crackdowns, warned her against going. “I’ve seen massacres,” he told her. “You don’t want to be there.”

But Ghadir insisted it was safe, and Syria had a strong pull. She remembered the mountains, eating fresh-picked apples on the family farm, and the long summer evenings playing outside with her brother, Ali.

Her mission began in the early summer of 2018 at small base in Manbij, a bombed-out town in northern Syria where Islamic State once held sway. Working largely in support of a civil affairs mission led by Jon Turnbull, an Army captain assigned to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Ghadir spent her days in talks with local government leaders, discussing plans to refurbish hospitals or to turn militant prisons back into schools. It was an unglamorous-but-critical component of the counterterrorism campaign, military officials believed.

The cloistered world of the small base, which housed several dozen Americans, fostered a sense of family, Ghadir told friends at home. She regularly cooked Syrian food for her comrades — special operators, intelligence officers and aid specialists.

At night, they would drink coffee and smoke hookah, often staying up into the early-morning hours talking about reconstruction work, colleagues said.

On Jan. 16, Ghadir, Turnbull and Jonathan Farmer, a Green Beret who worked closely with them, were wrapping up a visit to Manbij’s central market area. They were accompanied by several other Americans, including two who periodically visited the town: Shannon Kent, a Navy cryptologist assigned to an intelligence mission, and Scott Wirtz, a former Navy SEAL working for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

On a busy sidewalk, no one noticed the man pushing toward the clutch of Americans. Turnbull believes that Ghadir called out his name in a warning as she stepped toward the man. It was then that a fireball consumed the group.

“I believe that Ghadir was an angel,” Turnbull said. “Who steps between me and a suicide bomber?”

 

'I promise you, it's safe'

In the Syria of Ghadir’s childhood, few could have imagined a future in which cities like Manbij would be dominated by a succession of bearded jihadis, burly American special operators and Russian soldiers.

Ghadir, who was born in February 1991, was the indulged first grandchild of her mother’s large, tightly knit clan in Damascus.

Although Syria in the 1990s remained a police state largely closed off from the world, where the ruling Baath Party dealt with dissent with swift brutality, it was secure and, for a child unaffected by those crackdowns, in many ways an idyllic place.

After Amina divorced the children’s father in 1997, they moved in with her parents. The following year, Amina met Kawa, a Kurdish man who had fled ethnic persecution in his native Iraq. Starting over in Damascus, Kawa one day encountered a young woman with big, dark eyes. He started coming by more often, then proposed marriage. “Wait a second. I have two kids,” Amina countered. “I need your kids, too,” he said.

“That’s when I knew he was a good man,” Amina said.

About the time of the engagement, Kawa received news that the U.S. government had granted his asylum request. But because Kawa didn’t have legal custody of Amina’s children, only she would be able to join him, at first.

Amina and Kawa left one night in 1999. The children remained behind with Amina’s parents. Amina said her ex-husband largely had bowed out of the children’s lives after the divorce, but she needed his consent to take them. Ghadir, 7, was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe. Ali was only 5. It would be three years before they saw their mother again.

The absence fused a tight bond between the young siblings. “It was always just me and her,” Ali recalled. “We had this understanding.

“If something was wrong, we’d always know.”

In 2001, Ghadir and Ali were able to join their mother, Kawa and a new little brother in Clarkeston, Ga. The area was full of recent immigrants — from Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq. Ghadir and Ali learned English watching TV and playing with neighborhood kids.

The children adapted quickly to life in America. Ghadir was motivated and watched out for people, said Anne Davis, a school counselor. When Ali entered high school, Ghadir tried to help arrange the right schedule and teachers for him, Davis said.

She was also entrepreneurial, getting her first retail job and selling hair extensions on the side. After graduation, she started an international business program at Georgia State.

Even after she and Ali rented an apartment together, they stayed in nearly daily contact with their mother and visited her multiple times per week. Ghadir often dropped by before work, sitting with Amina and drinking Arabic coffee while they watched their favorite comedy or listened to Fairouz, the Lebanese diva whose songs are broadcast each morning across the Arab world.

When protests erupted against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011, the family was hopeful that Syrians might finally attain new freedom, but fearful the Assad regime would put down the challenge with brutal force, as it had in the past.

“It’s going to spin out of control,” Ali thought.

When Ghadir told her mother she had been accepted for a job as an interpreter in Syria, Amina was worried. She trusted her daughter but pleaded for her to be careful.

“Mama, I promise you, it’s safe,” Ghadir said.

 

'Interpreter of choice'

By the time Ghadir arrived at Patrol Base-Manbij Military Council, a tiny outpost pitched amid bombed grain silos, the battle against ISIS had shifted to other parts of Syria. Manbij, freed from militant rule two years earlier, was controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated militia that received U.S. training, weapons and air support.

Manbij was stable, but tension simmered beneath the surface. Around the city, American and SDF forces maintained an uneasy detente with troops from Turkey, which viewed the SDF as a terrorist group. And Manbij lay west of the Euphrates River, closer to extremist strongholds than most places where U.S. forces operated.

Military colleagues described Ghadir as a center of gravity, someone who could finesse roadblocks with local bureaucrats and quickly size up how to use American resources. She was also a canny operator, a procurer of spices and Thanksgiving turkey, and someone who insisted on cleanliness. Colleagues called her their “base mom.” Bossy, in a good way, colleagues said.

Often, Ghadir and Turnbull, the civil affairs officer, would meet with local contacts in or near the city’s bazaar, a more neutral location than the U.S. base. The Americans would buy manakish, a regional flatbread, and haggle with local merchants over the price of reconstruction supplies.

Like other linguists in Syria, Ghadir adopted a pseudonym. She chose Jasmine, the native flower of Damascus. On the door of her barracks room she posted a picture of Jasmine, the Disney princess from Aladdin. “She was just Princess Jasmine to us,” Turnbull said.

Ghadir was able to tell her family and friends back home little about her time in Syria. She asked Amina and Ali not to alert their few relatives remaining there, for fear it would create problems with the government. Those concerns were compounded by the secrecy inherent to JSOC. When she sent home photos, they were carefully edited selfies.

Some of Ghadir’s relatives figured out she was in Manbij after local TV broadcasts showed her walking through the market in June with Gen. Joseph Votel, then head of U.S. Central Command. Ghadir, one of the few Syrian American interpreters working with U.S. forces there and usually the only female, quickly had become “interpreter of choice,” said one official who worked with her.

Ghadir was energized with a sense of purpose, but it was a shock to see what the war had done to Syria. Her brother worried about the emotional toll from hearing people recount their stories of loss. “It’s just too heavy for one human being to carry,” he said.

Ghadir also appears to have been beset by what one military colleague said were “moral reservations” about America’s about-face in Syria.

In December 2018, the mission was thrust into crisis when President Donald Trump announced that U.S. forces would withdraw abruptly from northern Syria. The SDF was furious. After suffering thousands of casualties against ISIS, the Kurdish-led forces were being left to be massacred by Turkey, SDF officials alleged. Many American troops were appalled. In Washington, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.

A military official, who, like several others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Ghadir’s ability to identify with both the Syrians and the Americans was especially valuable at that moment, with emotions running high.

“We were out there having, for some of them, the most difficult conversations of their lives,” he said.

But Ghadir’s dual identity also might have heightened the consternation that she and many of her colleagues felt about leaving.

“She didn’t like the fact that there was a good chance these people that we’re talking to every day … are going to get killed by the Turks once we pull out,” said another official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In January, without telling her closest colleagues why, Ghadir traveled to Kuwait, a way station for U.S. personnel traveling into and out of Syria. She informed her family back home she would be coming to see them. Some colleagues and friends said they believed she was seeking a transfer, or wanted to go home for good.

Hoping she would change her mind and return to Syria, Ghadir’s colleagues put together a short video for her, showing the impact of their reconstruction work and featuring testimonials from teammates about their appreciation for her.

Whatever the reason, she got on a plane and headed back to Manbij.

 

Minimizing risk vs. accomplishing mission

A day or two later, on Jan. 16, the team of Americans huddled on the sidewalk outside the Palace of Princes, a restaurant near the Manbij market that American dignitaries had visited in the past. The troops were friendly with the owner, who would make space for them to park out front.

Turnbull gathered the group to go over the route back to base. As he turned to get into his vehicle, the attacker detonated his suicide vest.

The massive explosion killed Ghadir, Kent, Farmer, Wirtz, two members of the SDF and, according to Manbij officials, at least nine civilians. Turnbull was wounded so badly that survivors assumed he soon would be dead. His wounds required the removal of one of his eyes and ongoing reconstructive surgery. He is now blind.

The attack was the largest single loss of American life in Washington’s campaign against ISIS. It also marked a high point for a U.S. influence in northern Syria. While Trump backed away from his December 2018 withdrawal announcement, officials tightened security for troops across Syria after the attack, making it more difficult for American personnel to interact with their Syrian counterparts. In October 2019, the remaining U.S. forces made a dramatic, rushed evacuation from the Manbij area after Trump, responding to a Turkish threat to attack the SDF, ordered an abrupt departure for a second time.

Following the bombing, some U.S. officials privately questioned whether the Americans had been lax about their security.

Officials said that the group was having lunch at the Palace of Princes, which they characterized as a risky move, given that Americans had been seen there before.

One military official with knowledge of the attack said the group did not go for lunch but had driven into the bazaar area to accompany Kent and Wirtz on a mission related to their intelligence work.

In Manbij, like elsewhere in Syria, U.S. forces sought to strike a balance between minimizing risk and getting out to do their mission. “We have a saying that today is not yesterday and this afternoon is not this morning,” one military official who worked with Ghadir said. “You are constantly assessing.”

Turnbull, who has struggled with selective amnesia since the blast, said he believes that he came to before being helicoptered out of Manbij, before he lost his sight, and turned his head to see Ghadir on a gurney next to him. She was already dead.

Turnbull is unsure: Was his recollection correct, or was his mind constructing a scene that never occurred?

The image haunts him.

 

Coping with loss

Amina was having lunch with her younger daughter when her phone lit up with a call from an unknown number. As an official from Ghadir’s employer told her what had happened, Amina began to wail.

Three days later, Amina, Ali and Kawa, feeling numb, stood among VIPs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., waiting to receive the coffins of the slain Americans. They shook hands with Trump.

Ghadir’s death didn’t sink in until her clothes arrived in a box.

For Amina, the attack not only took her eldest child, whom she considered a friend as much as a daughter, but it also severed the bond she had felt for her home country.

“I know there are a lot of people over there and they are going through a lot,” she said, tears running down her face. “But it doesn’t mean anything to me, not anymore.”

In the small, orderly house that Ghadir once called home, she remains a constant presence. Framed photos and commendations form a makeshift shrine in the living room. Nearby is the spot where she and Amina had breakfast together. Behind the house, a metal swing set sits unused, waiting for the grandchildren Amina hoped Ghadir someday would have.

For some time after the attack, Amina talked to Ghadir’s photo. But she knew her daughter wouldn’t like to see her cry, so she stopped.

Sometimes, it seems like she might appear at any moment, walking up the steps for a morning visit.

“I miss her so much,” Amina said. “I expect her to knock on the door.”

The Washington Post’s Julie Tate in Washington, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Ghadir Taher, a Syrian-American interpreter working with the U.S. military, interacts with children in Syria.
FAMILY PHOTO

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