Nov 17, 2006

Spying on the Terrorists

Spying on the Terrorists By Peter L. Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know" Friday, November 17, 2006; C07 INSIDE THE JIHAD My Life With Al Qaeda, A Spy's Story By Omar Nasiri Basic. 337 pp. $26.95 "Inside the Jihad" is the astonishing, well-told story of Omar Nasiri (a pseudonym), who penetrated al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s as a spy for France's intelligence services. Nasiri never met Osama bin Laden, nor did he hear anything about specific plots against the United States, but he was able to gather a wealth of knowledge about the terrorist training going on in Afghanistan. Nasiri's feat was never replicated by a U.S. spy, despite the fact that before Sept. 11, 2001, American John Walker Lindh attended camps in Afghanistan and met with bin Laden, demonstrating that such a mission was possible. Nasiri grew up in the 1970s in Belgium and Morocco but never felt fully at home in either country -- the type of bifurcated biography that is often typical of European Muslims who turn to Islamist militancy for a sense of belonging and certitude. But Nasiri's journey into the world of militant Islam was motivated less by religious belief than by a search for excitement and the profits that came from his purchases of guns for a Brussels-based cell of the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, an Algerian terrorist group. At a certain point, Nasiri stole money from the GIA cell -- a potentially suicidal decision. He then did the only thing he thought might save his skin: offer his services to French intelligence. The French had a strong interest in the GIA, which would launch a campaign of terrorism in France during the 1990s that in many ways prefigured al-Qaeda's campaign against the United States. For instance, the GIA hijacked an Air France plane in Algeria in 1994 and planned to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. (A commando unit stormed the jet and rescued its passengers.) Once on the French payroll, Nasiri paid back the stolen money to the GIA cell and, in a series of double-dealings and plot twists that makes John le Carre look tame, insinuated himself back into the terrorists' good graces by undertaking dangerous missions such as smuggling a car filled with high explosives into Morocco. The GIA cell that Nasiri spied on in Brussels was subsequently busted, and he narrowly escaped arrest himself. The double agent fled to Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, where he bluffed his way into an al-Qaeda training camp. Al-Qaeda defectors such as Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who testified at a terrorism trial in New York in 2001, have provided accounts of the Afghan camps, but nothing available publicly approaches the level of detail that Nasiri gives here. Despite the poor diet and harsh conditions, Nasiri loved his time in the camps and proved an adept student of insurgent and terrorist tactics. To his surprise, training patrols at night sometimes involved being shot at with live ammunition. He learned to fire every conceivable weapon, from German pistols to Russian artillery pieces, and he worked with explosives from Semtex to blast mines. He also learned how to arrange kidnappings and assassinations. Nasiri went on to bomb school, where he was taught how to make high explosives from common household products. He even learned how to make a bomb from his own urine, as well as how to manufacture "liquid explosives" of the kind linked to the recent alleged terrorist plot to blow up as many as 10 airplanes flying from Britain to the United States. One of the leaders at the Afghan camp was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whom Nasiri describes as "brilliant in every way." Al-Libi tells the trainees that al-Qaeda's next jihad should be directed against Iraq's secular dictatorship. In one of the book's most interesting passages, Nasiri explains that learning how to withstand interrogations and supply false information once captured was a key part of the training in the camps. After Sept. 11, al-Libi was captured by the United States, and he subsequently told his interrogators that Saddam Hussein had given al-Qaeda information about how to build chemical and biological weapons. That information was then used in then-secretary of state Colin Powell's case for war against Iraq at the United Nations in the weeks before the 2003 invasion. The U.S. government now says that al-Libi's information was false. Nasiri claims that al-Libi did not crack under harsh interrogation, as authors such as the investigative journalist Stephen Grey have charged; rather, al-Libi "knew what his interrogators wanted, and he was happy to give it to them. He wanted to see Saddam toppled even more than the Americans did." After his Afghan training, Nasiri moved to London, an increasingly important destination for Islamists. There he spied on worshipers at the Finsbury Park mosque, then dominated by the notorious one-eyed cleric Abu Hamza Masri, who urged impressionable young men to wage jihad against the enemies of Islam. In May 2004, British authorities finally arrested the radical imam; he was convicted in February of inciting his followers to kill non-Muslims, particularly Jews, and stirring up racial hatred and is now in prison serving a seven-year sentence. As is often the case with informers, Nasiri eventually fell out with his handlers. He moved to Germany, where he now lives in anonymity with his wife. Nasiri concludes his book by observing that his jihad -- his holy struggle -- today is to explain that the terrorists he spied on have hijacked Islam itself. "Killing soldiers is war; killing civilians is murder," he writes. "This is not merely my opinion. It is an article of my faith."