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A Spy Talks About His Time In Al-Qaida


Aimen Dean was considered a loyal member of al-Qaida. He trained with the organization's chief bomb-maker. But unbeknownst to those around him, Aimen Dean became disillusioned by calls for the deaths of innocents. He became a double agent, worked for British intelligence from 1998 until his cover was inadvertently revealed in 2006 by a U.S. journalist. In 2008, al-Qaida issued a fatwa against Aimen Dean.

He shares what he saw, heard, feared and even was a part of in a memoir written with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank, "Nine Lives: My Time As The West's Top Spy Inside Al-Qaeda." Aimen Dean joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

AIMEN DEAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And I have to ask, "Nine Lives" - that's a nickname from British intelligence because that's how many lives a cat has, right?

DEAN: Indeed. I think I have used them all by now.


SIMON: What made you a conservative - from a conservative Sunni Arab family in Saudi Arabia become a jihadi?

DEAN: It all happened because my math teacher when I was 14 decided to go to Bosnia. He was from an affluent family, and he went to Bosnia to fight the jihad there. And he died there. So a conflict that was raging thousands of kilometers away became a reality for us in our own classroom. And that, more or less, made me curious and, at the same time, interested in the idea of jihad in - to defend civilians in a war that was genocidal.

And it only took two years for me to be subjected to a lot of footage of the war and, you know, the brutality of it to be convinced, somehow, that I did not want to be on the sideline of history but rather to be part of it.

SIMON: And you wound up going to Bosnia. What did you - what, among so many other things you might have learned - of course, you were with Arab units fighting there. How did this affect your view of the state of Muslims in the world?

DEAN: Of course, when you - you know, when you are engaged in a conflict like Bosnia, you start to see the world in so much in black and white. And a war does that to you. People die, and you see, you know, the worst of humanity exhibited.

And for me, it became a place where my worldview was shaped to be, really, either black or white. And it took a while for it to, basically - to - you know, to become more nuanced and pragmatic. But the war really shaped my view that the West was more or less engaged in a war against Islam.

SIMON: How did you become a bomb-maker?

DEAN: Near the end of the war in Bosnia, I found myself by chance sitting next to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who would later become the architect of 9/11. And he was coming to Bosnia in order to scout for talent. He realized that the war in Bosnia turned many people into - let's put it this way - enemies of the West. So he encouraged us at the time that the war in - or the nature of the conflict and the nature of jihad will change from localized jihad on the fringes of the Muslim world into a global jihad against the Americans to expel them out of the Muslim world altogether.

In order to do that, we have to go back to Afghanistan and receive better training so we are better prepared for that new kind of conflict. So somehow, I ended up listening to him and going to Afghanistan. And a year after I arrived to Afghanistan, I ended up giving my allegiance to Osama bin Laden and to al-Qaida.

SIMON: To him personally?

DEAN: Absolutely. And, you know, al-Qaida decided to assign me to their explosives and the WMD program. You know, being a bookish boy and a nerdy boy, I mean, they realized that I can't cut it as a commando, but nonetheless, I would be more useful in the research and development, as far as explosives and chemical weapons and poisons were concerned.

SIMON: When did you begin to think you - this was not the life you wanted?

DEAN: Well, the first nagging concerns were during my training on the chemical weapons in particular because they were not talking about deploying them against military targets. They were talking about deploying them against any purely civilian targets. We're talking about movie theaters, nightclubs, public transport.

Then came the - came August 1998, when the - when al-Qaida attacked the American embassies in Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Twelve American diplomats were killed, but in reality, also, 220 innocent Kenyans were killed, 5,000 were wounded. It just - you know, if you have any sense of decency, it will weigh on your conscience so much that you would start to ask what was the justification for it?

And I saw where we're going, that this will take us into a clash of civilization between Islam and the West that we are going to end up hijacking the decision of war and peace on behalf of 1.5 billion Muslims, subjecting them to being seen as violent, as, you know, suspects, you know, for many years to come. I just felt that I don't want to be part of this.

SIMON: I have to ask you this bluntly, Mr. Dean. Do you have human blood on your hands?

DEAN: No. One of the, you know, greatest mercies of God that I was never involved, in any way, shape or form, in taking the life of any civilian.

SIMON: How do you inform on al-Qaida without helping?

DEAN: Well, how do you inform of them? By being part of them. I mean, you cannot - this is the conundrum of spying and the dilemma. You cannot, you know, catch rats without going into the sewer. The most important thing, basically, is that I was always conscious. I was always making sure that I do not end up helping them in any way that would have a huge effect on global security. But you want to inform on them, you have to be part of them. There is no other way.

SIMON: How do you get word back to London? Can you tell us?

DEAN: It depends on which jurisdiction, you know, I am operating in. So for example, Afghanistan was a black hole of information.

SIMON: Yeah.

DEAN: You can't communicate from there. There were no cellphones. There were no, even, landlines, you know, in terms of communication. So you have to leave Afghanistan physically into Pakistan in order to, you know, convey messages or to be able to meet with your handlers there.

This is the problem of spying. You are always in one particular silo within that particular organization in a black hole of information like Afghanistan. So you are really focusing on one area, but you are blind some time, basically, to other activities happening around. If you wanted to prevent 9/11, for example, you needed at least 12 spies inside al-Qaida, one in each silo within that organization, to be able to spot a big conspiracy as 9/11.

SIMON: It must have occurred to you, if you had somehow belled that cat, whatever the term of art would be, you might have been discovered and killed, too?

DEAN: It was always ever-present that my first mistake will be my last mistake. Eight years undercover builds considerable stress on your mental health and your physical health. And during my time when I was inside Afghanistan, five spies were discovered by al-Qaida, and they were executed. They were working for either the Jordanian or Egyptian intelligence services. Tribunals were held for them, and then they were executed. So I was thinking to myself, this could be me.

SIMON: In a John le Carre novel, you would be resettled by British intelligence on the Isle of Man or something and, you know, live your life without notice. What makes you write a book, get out on the interview circuit?

DEAN: Well, I think the fact that many of my ex-comrades - let's put it this way - who are now, you know, enemies - dead, imprisoned in Guantanamo - all basically have bigger worries than me. So that's one of the comforting thoughts I have.

The other reason for writing the book is because of the narrative that has taken over the entire Muslim discourse. The terrorists, and the image of the terrorist, is the prevalent one - not those who are fighting against them. We never hear about the heroes of the Iraqi forces who fought against ISIS and eliminated them in Iraq. Yet, they have suffered thousands and thousands of casualties. What about the Egyptian forces who are fighting against ISIS in Sinai? This book, also, is a dedication for them.

SIMON: Aimen Dean, now a security consultant. His book, "Nine Lives." Thanks so much for being with us.

DEAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.