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Radical preachers exploit Muslims’ ignorance of their faith – ex-Al-Qaeda member

A man who swore an oath of allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and met with the architects of the 9/11 attacks, Aimen Dean joined Sophie in studio to talk about his journey from Al-Qaeda operative to top MI6 spy.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Aimen Dean, former al-Qaeda operative turned one of UK’s top intelligence assets within the terrorist group, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us today. 

Aimen Dean: Thank you for having me. 

SS: We’re very excited to do this interview. Now, you were described as Al-Qaeda’s master bomb-maker and WMD specialist, but also a religious scholar… What was your occupation with the organisation exactly?

AD: Well, I mean, when I joined the organization in 1997, I was more or less already a trainee imam, and the idea, basically, was that I wanted to give religious lessons, and I was giving religious lessons to some of the recruits. But also, they noticed that I had an aptitude for maths and chemistry, and so that’s why they assigned me to a small lab somewhere in the west of Jalalabad in Afghanistan, which was working on explosives, chemical weapons, poisons and biological weapons. And so that’s why, you know, they sent me there, basically. 

SS: But did you actually have to fight, like, take part in any field operations? 

AD: Well, at that time, basically, in Afghanistan, the fight was against the Northern Alliance, which was composed of Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhānuddīn Rabbānī, and also Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek fighters… So, they were congregating mostly in the north of Kabul, so I would take some rotations, and I was sent to the frontline, I don’t know, basically once every 3 months, but I wouldn’t call that fighting, it was mostly, you know, exchanging mortars with the enemy.

SS: So how hard was it for you to cross that border, from a normal life into a life which is pretty much about killing?

AD: Well, you know, it was really at the age of 16, when I wanted to go to Bosnia and fight the jihad there. So when I was leaving Saudi Arabia and the comfort of my life there, I wasn’t thinking that I was going to join a terror organisation. It was more like the International Brigade of the Spanish civil war, so we were going to volunteer fighting on one side of the civil war in Bosnia, which is the side of the Bosnian Muslims, against the Serbs. It wasn’t, you know, the intention to go and join a terror organisation, it’s just… I didn’t know that the jihad in Bosnia was run by, or managed by members or veterans of the Egyptian Jama'a Islamiyya, you know, the group that was responsible in the early 1980s for the assassination of President Sadat in Egypt.

SS: You once said that the brutality of the Bosnian war made you question your commitment to the mujahideen cause, but after Bosnia, you went to Afghanistan and couldn’t resist the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda. What was it about them that was so irresistible, so to say? How do you go from a moment of critical doubt to plunging into all this, what pulled you back?

AD: It was a toxic mix of ideology, theology, politics and eschatology, or, basically, you know, the prophecies of ancient Islam that al-Qaeda preached to us at the time, telling us that we are, you know, the soldiers of destiny, that somehow our jihad is to bring about the Fifth Era, or the fifth stage of Islamic history, it’s basically to recreate the Caliphate. That’s what they were telling us at the time. And that was enough for me to be fascinated and to join, because remember, when you are in the camps, we are not exposed to other forms of opinion. There isn’t the opinion and the counter-opinion, there is only this opinion, and the supporting opinion, and the even more supporting opinion.   

SS: So you point to the deadly terror attacks on US embassies in 1998 as the events that made you reconsider your decision to join al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda’s pre-98 attacks also included collateral damage. Why did you still decide to join it? 

AD: In 1998, the attacks against the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania were a massive departure from what al-Qaeda was planning to do. You see, the first attack for al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliate, was in Riyadh, in 1995, against American military contractors. And then, of course, there were the Khobar bombings, although al-Qaeda didn’t do it. But it was also targeting, in Saudi Arabia, it was targeting US Air Force pilots. So the targets were military, in a sense. And I thought, when I joined the organisation, that the fight will be against the Americans and the American military in Saudi Arabia. That’s what Bin Laden was preaching to us at the time, that the fight will be to expel the American forces out of the Middle East altogether. So when the attacks happened in Africa, it was a complete departure, because, first of all, we are killing US diplomats, not military, and killing them in countries that had nothing to do whatsoever with the fight between us and the Americans. So 220 African civilians were killed that day, 5000 were wounded, 150 of them were blinded for life because of the shrapnels embedded within the device. So of course,that was a shocking event for me. It was a departure from what al-Qaeda was doing before. 

SS: So you worked with new recruits for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Were they aware of the violence they were getting into? 

AD: They were aware it was going to be violent, they were aware, it is jihad, after all, and it’s not going to be a picnic. And therefore, they are going to commit their lives to the cause in order to, and that’s what al-Qaeda wanted at the time, in order to expel the Americans out of the Middle East, bring about a change in the Arab governance and recreate the Caliphate. That was what brought them into the fold of jihad and the fold of al-Qaeda. And, you know, that was the common theme among them all. 

SS: So, as you’ve said, radicalisation happens in different ways, for some it’s a matter of days, for others, years. But have you ever noticed common features in these individual journeys to extremism, anything that unites them, except the purpose? 

AD: There are 5 common themes. The first one is the need for redemption. Many people understand that Islam is a guilt-based religion, you know, I am still a devout Muslim and I feel guilty about many things, but that’s what Islam is about, and therefore, basically, there is a need for redemption, a natural urge within every Muslim. Now, out of the 1.8 billion Muslims, only very few people seek redemption in jihad, the rest seek redemption in good actions, and charity, and being good to others. But there are few people who seek redemption in jihad, because jihad, you know, as al-Qaeda and ISIS would preach, is the shortest path to Heaven, jihad and martyrdom. So, redemption. The second is empowerment, people who basically feel marginalized, people who feel they are powerless in front of what they perceive to be injustice, either the injustice of their governments or the injustice of the global system as a whole. So, you know, empowerment is the second theme. The third theme is revenge, you know, people feel that since they identify with Islam as their only identity, if that identity is under attack, or has been violated, therefore they need to do something in order to avenge the dishonour that happened against their identity. So revenge is another theme. Also, the fourth theme you will see is that liberation of the inner sadist. I mean, there are segments of the jihadist mindset, some within the jihadist community who really are sadists. They came from prisons, they came from violent homes, they had violent upbringing, and so, therefore, they find that in jihad they can liberate that inner saidst to commit acts of violence that are defined against the enemy. And the fifth common theme is destiny, prophesies, eschatology, the fact that they are fulfilling the divine blueprint for this war that is taking place right now. They think that they are fulfilling a certain set of prophecies. 

SS: So you, because you are very well-learned in Islamic studies, were the person who’d explain the lore of the religion to recruits. I heard that ISIS fighters have a really shallow understanding of Islam - is this true, do extremists need a better religious education, do they all really understand the faith they are fighting for? 

AD: Of course, because the problem is, we have a theological crisis right now within Islam. And that is because many Muslims around the world have a superficial understanding of their faith. And also, that is exploited by many preachers who have ulterior motives. You know, for 14 hundred years, the theology of jihad, always stated that the jihad, the deployment of violence, is the prerogative of the state. Now, suddenly, for the past 50 years we see that it has become the prerogative of individuals and small groups of individuals. That wasn’t the case at all. We were told for 14 hundred years that suicide is forbidden, no exception, now we see that suicide in a battlefield or in a war situation or in terrorism is allowed, and not only allowed, but you can take others with you on suicide missions. And so that is a testament that we have a problem within Islamic theology that needs to be fixed. And we need to educate young people about it, that anyone who tells them to come and join the jihad, and they would say, well, I thought the jihad was the prerogative of the state, how could I basically go against my own nation-state? That is why the problem we see right now is not a battle between the Islam and the West, it is actually a battle within Islam, a civil war within Islam.        

SS: Aimen, how does a base, a camp of a terror group like that operate? Who decides who is in charge of what, what is the chain of command? What is the standard of training? Are there former officers doing, like, Marine-type drills for everyone? 

AD: Well, if I tell, for example, what a camp belonging to al-Qaeda looked like, like al-Farouk, for example, which operated in the mid-1990s until it was bombed in 1998 by the Americans after the East Africa bombings. Every day, we would wake up, for example, before dawn prayers for the prayers, of course, and then, there is the morning parade, and then, there is the military training. There would be military training, whether it’s weapons, urban warfare, mountain warfare, explosives and other military tactics. And then, there will be the religious training, the ideological training. And then, there will be recreational activities, sports, hiking, and even volleyball or football, something like that. And of course, there will be the meals and the prayers in between. Who’s in charge? Well, of course the chain of command goes all the way to Bin Laden at that time but of course, someone like Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who was the military commander of al-Qaeda, would decide who would be the leaders of these camps, who are the trainers and the instructors. Most of them are veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the past, but there are some who came from Arab military. I remember, we used to have people who used to be former Egyptian military officers, former Syrian military officers, or from Kuwait, even at that time, who used to be even in the bodyguards of the Emir of Kuwait. So they would bring in their military experience and enrich the training experience of the operatives. 

SS: So are al-Qaeda people, recruits, foot grunts, commanders, getting paid, like people in ISIS? Who handles the money, and where does it come from? 

AD: Well, the money at that time used to come from donations, also from the remnants of Bin Laden’s investments in Sudan. So, generally speaking, if you are looking at al-Qaeda operatives who were married and had families, most of them were getting stipends from al-Qaeda’s general command. But, you know, some engaged in trade. And that was one of the things that enabled me later to infiltrate them properly, because many of al-Qaeda’s commanders have their own families and they wanted to expand their own trade, so they would trade in luxury food items, in, like, honey or pink himalayan salt or Afghan nuts and spices, and we would export them to the Middle East and Europe. So I was one of those who at some point helped them set up some of the business apparatus, and that enabled me to come and go out of Afghanistan more frequently, and that was, really, my cover story at that time. 

SS: So, logistics-wise, are these terror groups efficient at providing supplies, information, aid, etc., or are they chaotic and undisciplined? 

AD: It’s… Yes and no. You know, you really hit the nail here, when you say they are both disciplined and chaotic. You know, jihadism is… And life within jihadist groups, you know, gives you the impression that they are really disciplined and organised, but at the same time, there is an element of chaos and disorganisation, and you see it walking in parallel with each other. You see that contradiction coexisting. So yes, sometimes, you think that it’s all going smooth, and sometimes no, you know, totally chaotic. It depends on who is in charge at a particular place in a particular time. 

SS: So have you seen how the operations are planned? Who picks the target, who distributes the roles, and how? Is there a group that scouts out a target, and another that conducts the attacks? 

AD: Well, it depends on each country and each cell within a country. So, for example, in Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the places where I monitor the working of al-Qaeda in that country, they will have a group that would do the reconnaissance, and then, there is a group that would actually put together the plan. A group will secure the weapons, a group will be the one who will build the devices for the suicide vehicles. And then, you have the footsoldiers on the ground, who would basically execute the attack. There was another situation, like, for example, in Iraq. You’ll have most of these people actually merge together, so you will have the group that will pick the target and decide what operations they will carry out, and then you have a group that will build the bombs, and then you will have the group that will execute it. So it all depends basically on the dynamics of the theatre that they are operating in. 

SS: Tell me this. You left al-Qaeda and then you agreed to spy on them for the MI-6. Are terror groups like al-Qaeda fairly well-penetrated by the governments, or were you a rare big hit for the UK spy service? 

AD: Well, you know, in the… In the 33 months between 1999 and 2001, when I was infiltrating them in Afghanistan, during these times, 5 spies were apprehended by al-Qaeda, 2 were working for the Jordanian intelligence services, and 3 were working for the Egyptian intelligence service. And they were executed. I don’t know if they were truly spies or not, but it shows that there were concerted efforts by many governments to try to infiltrate them, and for a good reason. There were many Jordanians there, there were many Egyptians there, there were many Algerians, there were many Saudis. So many countries had stakes in trying to infiltrate them, but the al-Qaeda was a paranoid organisation, and they were conducting random checks, even I was a subjected to a random check at some point. I was able to… I was lucky, actually, to be able to withstand that. So in a sense, that paranoia netted them some successes in terms of counter-intelligence, but because they were a threat to many-many stakeholders, they were an organisation that is a target for infiltration by many different players. So was I a rarity? Maybe I was a rarity in the sense that I wasn’t caught, and that, I think, where the rarity comes here. 

SS: So I wonder how you pulled that off. What made you believe you can fool them? 

AD: Well, first of all, as a spy, you have to really split your own personality into 2. There is a committed jihadist that was still alive there, within me, and then there is the person who wanted to counter everything they were doing and try to dismantle everything that they were doing. So, you have to really become a good actor in order to fool them. You have to fool your own family in order to fool them, that’s the first thing. The second thing is, you have to be useful. And by that, I mean, basically, I’ve have learned certain skills, one of them was bomb-making, the other was to do business on behalf of some of their commanders who had families to feed. So, they can’t afford to suspect you, and any paranoia they have about you, they basically brush it aside, because they are dependent on you. So dependence is important. Also, at the same time, I’ve learned the skill of interpreting dreams using the Quran, as someone who actually memorized the Quran by heart. And as people who are reading the Quran every day, the jihadist dreams are always influenced by the Quran, so if I know the Quran by heart, I could basically, if I learned some, understand some psychology of dream interpretation, then, I’ll be able to even gain more intelligence. They will come to me and tell me about their own dreams, because it matters to them so much as superstitious people, and they will tell me more about themselves, about where they come from, their families, their mothers, their parents, their siblings. So that was important. I never asked questions. So I just become useful, skillful, and people will come to me and volunteer information as a result. 

SS: I just wonder, what was it like, to meet your former brothers in arms again when you went back, but this time, as someone who’s there to help bring them down? I mean, you trusted these guys, you were ready to commit your life to them, and now you are here working against them, looking them in the eye. You must have had pretty strong feelings about them to be able to do it? 

AD: It’s one of the conundrums of spying, especially on large groups like these, and especially with the sense of camaraderie and the sense of great affection that they show to each other, and, of course, they were showing to me. And I have to show back to them. The reality is, you have to differentiate between the individual and the cause, you have to separate completely between the individual you are targeting, even for information, and to understand, and the cause they are pursuing. Just because you love your brother or sister, it doesn’t mean that you tolerate them if they become serial killers. The love for the person is there, but the hatred for what they stand for is also there, and you can actually combine both at the same time. If you learn how to do it, then you will be able to continue spying on them without raising suspicion, without being seen to be hostile to them personally rather than to the cause they are pursuing. 

SS: Were you ever tempted to maybe, because you say the love is there as well, were you ever tempted to, maybe, save them and bring them on the bright side? 

AD: Well, that would be a suicide for me! I mean, basically, this is where survival instincts kick in and say: “No, don’t do it!” You know, trying to bring them to the bright side, I would end up 5 inches shorter, if that were to happen. So no, survival instinct will kick in and prevent me from trying to explain to them that what they were doing was wrong. If you look at the big picture, for the greater good, maybe these people need saving, there are… The priority for meis saving those who will be their future victims. 

SS: And then, there is this infiltration op, which was ended by a leak from the American side, which could have ended your life, basically, with a full-on publication in the press about a spy in al-Qaeda, out there for everyone to read it. And as far as I understood, before that, you managed to make it work quite well. Was it a pity to have to end it like that, through no fault of yours, or was it relief that you don’t have to do it anymore? 

AD: Well, it’s interesting that you mention the word “relief”. Yes, it was a relief in a sense, but of course, at the beginning, it was a sense of anger and a sense of frustration that this should happen. I was actually… Luckily, I was on a holiday in Paris, and it was the first holiday I’ve ever taken, and you know, trust the Americans to ruin it. So I was in Paris, and then I received a text from a comrade of mine, from a former associate, telling me: ”Go and read the Time magazine’s website! There is a spy among us!” So when I went to read, of course, my heart sank all the way to my stomach, and I realised they were talking about me. There were so many operations I was involved in, you know, in 2005 and 2004, 2003, and prior to that… And I can see, you know, that many pieces of intelligence came from me, and I was the only common denominator between all of these operations and intel coups, let’s put it this way. So of course I knew that al-Qaeda will put 2 and 2 together once they read the article and the book that was promoted in that article. And, you know, they will issue a fatwa and, 2 years later, actually they did finally read it and worked it out, and issue a fatwa giving the permission for my killing. 

SS: But what about now, now that you’re super-public about it, are you not afraid of al-Qaeda being after you?

AD: Well, I mean, there were already 2 attempts on my life before there was a book or a publication, or anything! You know, so, somehow, coming out publicly in a way lessened and decreased the amount of death threats that I am getting. So I was getting more death threats, actually, before the publication. Since then, it’s been quieter. And for a good reason, because being public is better for security than being in hiding, as far as these groups are concerned. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s the reality. 

SS: Oh wow. Thank you so much for this wonderful insight and for this interview, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you, very interesting. 

AD: Thank you. 

SS: We were talking to Aimen Dean, former al-Qaeda member who defected and worked for UK spy services, talking about his path from jihad to intelligence work.

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