This is an IPT translation of Oren Nahari's Hebrew language story originally published by Walla. Oren Nahari is Walla's chief foreign editor.
June 2001. Three months later, the largest terror attack in history in the world will take place, and the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan are marked by a noticeable feature. Ammunition, weapons, generators and other equipment are transferred to hiding places. Computers are shattered, secret paperwork burned. It is clear to all that something big is about to happen. Abu el-Abbas, a veteran fighter of the organization and a bomb expert specializing in chemical ordinances, was called to Kandahar to meet with Abu Hafs al-Masri -deputy of Osama bin Laden- who was looking for a reliable courier into whose hands he could safely entrust with a secret message.
"Abu Hafs asked me if I was going to London," Ayman Dean recounted to walla! news this week, in a much calmer conversation: Dean -who is Al Abbas- went to Britain every few months as the logistics man of the organization, answered in the affirmative. "He told me, 'I have a mission for you.' You will meet four people in Britain, our guys. These are the names. And to each of them relay the following message: "Organize your affairs, get what you need, but you must come with your families to Afghanistan by the end of August." You understand? "By the end of August." After a brief hesitation, Dean described, the deputy added: "something big is about to happen, and when that happens the Americans will come here. Do not come back, do not come and fight the jihad war in Afghanistan. Stay where you are, we'll know how to reach you, we'll contact you when the time comes."
The Al-Qaeda leadership knows that the American response to the planned terrorist attack will be severe. They are already thinking about the day after - and how not to "waste" those with unique knowledge, bomb experts, planners of chemical attacks. Abu al-Abbas, for example, or "Ramzi" - as his MI6 - the legendary British intelligence service operatives called him.
Yes, Dean is Al Abbas, is "Ramzi," a double agent in the most lethal terrorist organization in history, just at the time when it managed - at least for a while- to bring the entire world to its knees.
He met the first operative (Dean refused to give names, but hinted that he was a 14-year- detainee in Guantánamo), then passed on the message to the other three, and met his handlers already at Heathrow Airport when he landed. He told them the message, and understood from them that additional clues, fragmented and scattered, had come in about the great plan of Al-Qaeda. Now they know that the Americans are the target, but where? Are terrorist attacks planned again against the embassies? Is the Fifth Fleet the target? The barracks in Saudi Arabia? No one imagines that the goal is the World Trade Center in New York. Al-Qaeda's compartmentalization worked very well - even on the spy who managed to infiltrate the organization's inner circle.
Dean was born in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a Hafiz at a young age, meaning he knew the Koran by heart. He joined a study group at a time when jihad was a worthy goal- not only in the Muslim or Arab world - the United States supported the Mujahidin groups that fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The enemy of my enemies is my friend, and the young men of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who had always supported the export of radical ideology far from the borders of the kingdom -so as not to be directed against the regime- are eager to defend their brothers on the battlefield, wherever it might be. "I was 16 years old," he explained, "and I did not go out to kill innocents or to murder women and children, I went out to defend them - to defend my brothers- in Bosnia."
Dean's parents were no longer alive when he went on a "weekend trip," as he described it to his five brothers and uncles in Saudi Arabia. He then called them from the border with Bosnia, and when his brother answered the phone he asked him in astonishment: "Are you going to fight?" Dean replied: "No, I'm going to grow onions ... of course to fight." The next time his family hears from him is a year and a half later.
Civil war in the crumbling Yugoslavia Balkans drew fighters from all over the world, among them Muslims who came to defend their Bosnian brethren massacred by the Serbs in a series of ethnic cleansing operations, the most famous of which was the terrible murder in Srebrenica. There, in October 1995, the enthusiastic and pious young man will meet Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda operations officer known in the CIA file as KSM, the English initials of his name.
"When you think about him you envision the photo of him from prison. But when I first met him in Bosnia, he was relaxed, well dressed, he spoke elegantly and impressively, and he recruited talent-- talented young people for jihad. He told them that this was the right confrontation. No longer a struggle on the periphery of the world or in Arab countries but in the heart of Europe. Here, it is clear that the Muslims are the victims, and the enemy is also clear - the United States."
"But one moment- I protest- the United States of Bill Clinton is sending NATO planes -despite the opposition of Europe and others- to bomb the Serbs, to end the war."
"But that's not what the fighters saw," explained Dean. "Muhammad saw the opposite - that the United States had saved Europe, and in the end Bosnia was divided, and the Serbs received a share they were not entitled to."
From there Dean continued on to the Caucasus. He was not able to enter Chechnya, where he planned to continue his war against the Soviet infidels, and so he went to where all the fighters of Allah went – to Afghanistan. And yes, here he did meet everyone - including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.
"When bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, he was not the leader of a terror organization, inspiring fear", he said, adding that "Arriving in Kandahar are ragged refugees who have found refuge after traveling and wandering. No one can imagine that within a few years this bunch of bearded fanatics will change the world." Bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia, asks if there are other Saudis in the area. "I was in the camp only 45 minutes away, and that's how I met him for the first time, in a conversation between two people from Saudi Arabia," he said, and described how he personally swore the oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda members, both kneeling, and their knees touching each other.
In Saudi Arabia itself, change is happening - too slowly, too late- after many years of exporting Jihad and turning a blind eye as long as the attacks are not aimed at a home, things change. The impetus: The attack on the US military compound in Khobar in 1996 which led to the death of 19 American soldiers and injury of about 500 others.
Bin Laden's citizenship was revoked, arrests and purges of jihadists from educational, charitable and financial institutions began. Dean himself was also warned not to return to Saudi Arabia. Not that he wanted to- he was where he wanted to be. Where the people engaged in theological discussions, merged the ideology of jihad with the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood's ideologue, and where they prepared for holy war.
And then came the attack that changed everything from the point of view of the young Abu Abbas - the double attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which in 1998 killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. "Yes," admitted Dean, in response to my question, "If the dead were Americans I would have reacted differently. Unfortunately, I saw them as an enemy then, but they were not ... Most of the victims were Africans. And when I asked questions, al-Qaeda leaders justified the mass murder of these attacks on religious grounds that I knew were incorrect. They dismissively dismissed the mass murder. That was my breaking point."
He debated for a few months. It was not from one day to the next he decided that he would be betraying his friends and partners. "What tipped the scale was the terrible contempt of the heads of al-Qaeda for human life ... I understood that they were leading the entire Muslim world to disaster, that the whole world would turn against Islam - and that is what is happening now. We are all suspected terrorists. And this is the legacy of Al-Qaeda."
He decided to entrust his fate to Allah. He returned to the Gulf, to Qatar. At first he hoped to put behind him the days of terror and become a history teacher, but the Qatari intelligence service approached him, and because he was wanted in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, he was transferred to the British. Doha, which was populated by only a quarter of a million residents at the time, was too small for a complex intelligence operation, and the MI6 received the unexpected gift with open arms.
His "conversion" included conversations with Arabists from the Foreign Service. On ideology, on Islam. He remembers fondly intellectual discussions with a person who spoke to him in a Bedouin-Saudi dialect (no, he insisted, he does not know his name, and even if he knew he would not say it). After the training he returned to Afghanistan, this time as a British intelligence agent.
He had been away from Afghanistan for seven months, and luckily he had a justified medical reason that did not arouse suspicion. When he returned, he began trading for al-Qaeda - a perfect cover for traveling to the West. Between 1999 and 2001 he was in Afghanistan five times, each time for a few months.
He had no transmitter, only memory. He had memorized everything, and when he got to the West he met his operators and told them what he knew. His secondary role as a courier exposed him -like the mysterious message before the attack on the twin towers- to additional messages he was asked to convey to al-Qaeda members and supporters in the West. Its proximity to the money-transfer method gradually led the British to understand the extent of the network in the country, and not only in Britain.
"Do you understand the insane risk? Knowing all the time that if you get caught, the best thing that can happen to you, it's a relatively fast death?"
"Yes," says Dean, "but I would be a very hypocritical person if I were willing to die for Jihad and then, when I changed my mind and realized that we had to stop Al-Qaeda, I would not risk my life for the opposite goal."
He is starting to work for the agency, the same people he had wanted to kill only a few months earlier, who he trained to make bombs against. He still hated them, but hated al-Qaeda more. And the more information he gave, for example like Abu Zubeida, the more he felt relieved.
Of course, a traitor is perhaps the most loaded word. "Imam Ali (the fourth caliph, after Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman, sacred to Shi'a, but also to the Sunna) said that loyalty to traitors is treachery in the eyes of God, betrayal of traitors is loyalty to God," said Dean. "For those who believe that Al-Qaeda are Muslim patriots, I am a traitor. To those who believe in conspiracy theories - that the US and Israel fabricated the 9.11 attacks, or committed them themselves to blacken Islam, I am an even worse traitor, but there are many academics, statesmen, thinkers, broad circles that support me."
After the attack on the Twin Towers, he returned to the Persian Gulf and remained there, still ostensibly loyal to Al-Qaeda, but in reality reporting on the organization's cells in the Gulf and in Iran. One more integral feat will remain for him to execute - the exposure of the mysterious al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, a man known as Saif al-Batar, the "sword that breaks" (one of Muhammad's swords) who no one had set eyes on, nor was there any dossier on him....
And exposure occurs by breaking "simple" compartmentalization. An al-Qaeda man came to court to ask for help in preparing chemical weapons, and as an aside, gave him regards from his veteran Islam teacher Yusuf al-Irie. When Dean wondered about the connection between the teacher of spirituality and the messenger, he realized that al-Irie was in fact the "sword", the mysterious leader of al-Qaeda. He asked the security forces to make sure he was not killed but trapped, but Irie fought for a whole night and refused to surrender, and was finally killed in a shootout with the security forces.
After eight years of a double identity, Dean was exposed in 2006. "For the first time in my life, I took a vacation, and I went to Paris. And when I was in the tourist thing of all - sailing on the Seine River - I received a text message from a friend in Bahrain, a member of Al-Qaeda. 'Have you read' Time '? There is an article about us, and it turns out that there is a traitor among us. You have to go underground." The comrade wrote to him without knowing of course that he was warning the traitor.
"I got off the boat in Notre Dame, ran to an internet cafe and read the article. My heart sank. This was just prior to the publication of the book "One Percent Doctrine" by the American journalist Ron Susskind, in which he defends the policy of the American administration. Both the article and the book describe a spy operating within Al-Qaeda, a CIA agent who warned the Americans about the chemical attack planned against the New York subway system and other actions. They stole the glory from the British-- and exposed me. Four terrorist plots leaked to the West thanks to the agent were published in the article, and I was the common denominator, the only person in Al-Qaeda who was active in planning all of them. "
According to him, coincidence also intervened. "In the article they gave the agent the nickname 'Ali,' and out of 4,000 Arab names, they happened to give my real name - Ali Dorani." Dean immediately called the emergency number and was ordered to go directly to London. "My career was over," he said. He received British citizenship - Bahrain revoked his citizenship, Saudi Arabia refused to recognize him, and compensation of £ 150,000 so he would not sue the United States for revealing his identity and risking his life.
He then set out on a new road. British Intelligence arranged for him to engage in banking, and today he is a specialist in financing terror - how to recruit, invest and transfer money, from charitable associations to straw dummy companies, and more.
Islam is not a religion of peace. It has never been, but it is also not a religion of war. As in any religion, you can choose to reach out with the sword, or to extend it to the person in front of you and shake his hand "
His life is still in danger. "At least twice they tried to murder me," he said. Once in London he was spotted by two al-Qaeda members who identified him and pursued him. He managed to shake them on the subway. A second time they planned to kill him at his nephew's wedding in Bahrain, a wedding they knew he would attend. Local security forces got wind of the plot and warned him. The irony is that he feels safe in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Herzliya or Tel Aviv. Dean came to Israel as a guest of the Interdisciplinary Center's Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and lectured at the 18th International Conference on Terrorism this week. But he does not feel safe in the West. "There are neighborhoods in London and British cities that I will not go into - Birmingham or Oldham, for example. When my wife heard that I had an intermission in Birmingham, she was horrified and begged me not to let her down. I would not go into Mollenbeek in Brussels, San Denis in Paris, Malmo in Sweden. It is sad and horrible, But, these are not safe places for me. "
His wife is Pakistani, and before he was married he sat her in a Turkish restaurant in London to have the "where is our relationship going" conversation, which in this case included a somewhat more complex story, and which lasted four hours. If she wanted to leave, he would understand, he told her. She is with him, and her family as well. Two months ago, the story was published all over the world in his autobiography, aptly named "Nine Lives."
He is a devout Muslim. No drinking, no smoking, prays to Allah to protect his family, especially his little daughter. He is spiritual in his belief, and strongly opposes jihad. "I have abandoned only the violent, distorted part of the religion," he explained.
"European leaders, presidents of the United States like Bush and Obama, have repeatedly said that Islam is a religion of peace," I begin to formulate a question, but Dean interrupts me in the middle. "No, it's not. Islam is not a religion of peace, it never was. "You will do Islam an injustice if you say that, but," he stresses, "it is not a religion of war, as in any religion you can choose to reach out to the sword or reach out to the person in front of you and shake his hand."
The internal war that now splits Islam is a war between modernity and conservatism, of course, but in Dean's opinion, the struggle is between the nation states representing the modern world and the three groups that attack them - Sunni political Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni militant Islam such as Al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and Da'ash, and Shiite militant Islam. The future of the entire Muslim world, he analyzed, is the gradual transition from monarchies and dictatorships to constitutional democratic monarchies. "Anyone who dreams of establishing changes on the ruins ignores the fact that the change took place only a hundred years ago," he concluded.
Da'ash, the terror organization that grew out of Al-Qaeda, succeeded, at least for a while, and it seems that the jihadist idea has not disappeared and will not disappear. Dean, of course, is frustrated that young Muslims around the world are making the same journey he did, but without his insights. Including members of his own family - his cousin from Saudi Arabia was killed at the age of 20 in Syria. His nephew from Bahrain was also killed there when he was a year younger. They both joined with Jibhat a-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in the country. It was because of them that he wrote the book.
Whose failure is it?
"Ours," he replied. "We have not understood the reason: Islam is trying to succeed in finding its place in the modern world, it is ill and distorted, and young people, certainly those who do not find their place, are enthusiastic about violence and murder. Al-Qaeda was the Jihad of the bourgeoisie, Of the proletariat, and when they possessed territory, people could emigrate there. "
"Islam is a religion based on feelings of guilt," he said. "Catholic Christianity? The Jewish family? In Christianity you can confess and accept forgiveness. Islam has three elements - love, fear and hope. As a child I learned that there is a balance between these elements. But preachers of radical Islam preach only fear. They are afraid of modernity, afraid that young people, especially in the West, will be spoiled. So they preach to them the extreme messages. And it succeeds."
Finally, I asked the man - who was inside Al-Qa'ida, who spoke with the most notorious terrorists of our generation, who was one of them- What is his insight about how to overcome terror from the school of militant Islam?
"We need more hope," he replies. "To fight terror, of course, but with less fear and more hope and love." At the moment, hatred is predominant, and this must be changed."