- - Monday, June 25, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NINE LIVES: MY TIME AS THE WEST’S TOP SPY INSIDE AL-QAEDA

By Aimen Dean with Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister

Oneworld, $27.99, 432 pages

This is a dramatic account by a young Muslim from Saudi Arabia who had become so radicalized into Islamist extremism that he decided in 1994 (at the age 16) to travel to Bosnia and join a group of al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters who were fighting on behalf of Bosnia’s Muslims against their adversary Croatian and Serbian Christian militias.

What makes this account so interesting and important (and how it became a CNN documentary) is that Bosnia was the first of many jihadi battlegrounds in Asia and the Middle East that Aimen Dean (a pseudonym) was involved as a fighter and a member of an elite bomb-making team (including attempting to build a chemical weapon) during al Qaeda’s formative pre-9/11 period in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.



It was there where he interacted with a “Who’s Who” of its top operatives, including Osama bin Laden (to whom he pledged personal allegiance), Khaled Sheikh Muhammad (9/11’s mastermind), Abu Zubaydah (the group’s logistical manager) and Abu Khabab (the group’s top bomb-maker).

Even more compelling, eventually, in 1998, Mr. Dean became so disillusioned with al Qaeda’s mass killings of innocent victims in the August 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and elsewhere, which were part of what he considered its hypocritical ideology and self-destructive warfare and political strategy, that he defected and became a double agent on behalf of MI6, the British intelligence service.

Under MI6’s direction, he continued his involvement with al Qaeda, surreptitiously reporting on its leading personalities, bomb-making advances and warfare plots, until his cover was exposed by a leak from the George W. Bush administration in 2006, which was accompanied by an al Qaeda-issued death fatwa against him, forcing him to return to England and hide in an MI6-provided “safe house” in London.

This book is not only a fascinating memoir by a former al Qaeda operative, but an account of how individuals become radicalized into violent extremism in their youth and how they think and operate within the worldwide jihad, which they regard, at least initially, as a “grand” adventure on behalf of their jihadi cause. Imbued with such ideological fervor, the young Dean arrived in Bosnia, where he participated in several battles and, as he writes, was “inspired by fraternity with hundreds of others who had turned Sayyid Qutb’s words into action.”

With Bosnia “an episode in a much larger struggle that pitted the defense of our faith against powerful enemies,” some 14 months later he made his way to join fellow foreign jihadists in Chechnya, finally arriving in early 1996 in Peshawar, Pakistan, with much of the book’s narrative taking place in the Pakistan-Afghanistan arena, with a brief interlude that winter in the Philippines, where he fought with a jihadi Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) cell.

Mr. Dean became an MI6 agent in late 1998 when he decided to escape from Afghanistan and made his way to Qatar, where he was arrested by the authorities and succeeded in persuading them that he was ready to turn against al Qaeda, using two floppy disks with documentation about al Qaeda’s chemical bomb-making program as evidence of his usefulness. The Qataris then put him in touch with MI6, which had arranged for him to fly to London, ostensibly for medical treatment.

The book’s narrative then shifts to an account of his success in returning to Afghanistan, where he penetrated al Qaeda and its various cells, including in other countries such as Bahrain, and proceeded to reveal to his MI6 handlers how the group was organized, the identity of its operational leaders, the locations of its training camps, including its safe houses, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Among Mr. Dean’s most spectacular revelations to MI6 included the attempts by Abu Khabab, with whom he worked closely, to produce a chemical weapon, known as mubtakkar, which was also intended to be used in an attack against the New York City subway system (which, fortunately, never advanced to the deployable stage), as well as a plot to use a lethal poison on luxury vehicles in London, and, most significantly, informing his handlers several weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks that al Qaeda was planning “something big.”

Also important was Mr. Dean’s work on behalf of MI6 (and MI5, the British domestic intelligence service) in identifying al Qaeda’s operatives in England, which led to their arrest or expulsion from the country.

Mr. Dean’s story benefited from his collaboration with his co-authors, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, who are top investigative journalists and experts on al Qaeda, who corroborated his account and further fleshed out his narrative with a wider context to explain the nature of global jihadism.

“Nine Lives,” with each “life” depicting an era in Mr. Dean’s activities, is a compelling account that sheds light on the inner workings of al Qaeda during its formative periods and the measures required to defeat such destructive groups.

• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH) in Alexandria, Va.

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