A conversation with Aukai Collins

The author of "My Jihad" talks about John Walker Lindh, his days with Daniel Pearl's killer and a 9/11 hijacker, and why the FBI had its head in the sand.

By Edward W. Lempinen
Published July 17, 2002 11:27PM (EDT)

He was a devout Muslim, devoted to holy war in defense of his faith, and there were times in the 1990s when he was so admired in the jihad camps and battlefields of places like Afghanistan and Chechnya that fellow soldiers called him Abu Mujahid, the father of warriors. He accepted that he might die in combat. He wished, in fact, for just that end.

And yet, Aukai Collins is not the Islamic extremist of modern stereotype. He was born in Honolulu, grew up in Southern California. His father was a Marine who did a tour in Vietnam; after his discharge, the family drifted from Hawaii to Florida to Indiana and finally to California, by which time they were wearing love beads and tie-dyed clothes, and their little blue-eyed boy had long blond hair and a string of puka shells around his neck.

But in "My Jihad," Collins' memoir of his Muslim warrior days, the red-bearded American casts himself in a Zelig-like role, as violent militant Islam becomes an international force through the 1990s and into the early years of the new century. In 1993, in an Afghan training camp, Collins befriended Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who was sentenced to death this week for his role in Daniel Pearl's murder. In the late 1990s, while he was a paid FBI informant based in Phoenix, he met Hani Hanjoor, who would later fly a jetliner into the Pentagon. He says that while he was working with the CIA, he was invited to meet Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but that the agency denied him permission. He even claims that he's mentioned -- though not by name -- in the infamous memo by Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams that warned of a possible plot by Middle Eastern men in U.S. flight schools. His story has parallels with two other American converts to Islam: John Walker Lindh, who traveled from Marin County, Calif., to fight with the Taliban, and José Padilla, a Chicago street tough who was arrested in May and charged with conspiring with al-Qaida to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States.

But Collins' odyssey is also singularly his own. He describes his nomadic childhood as anything but idyllic: When he was 4, his father split and his mother spiraled deeper into a world of bikers, criminals and drugs. When he was 8 and they were living back in Hawaii, she was murdered and her body dumped in a swamp not far from their home. "From that point forward," Collins writes, "emotions like fear only strengthened me."

By the time he was 17, he was a hard-assed punk doing eight years in the California Youth Authority for his part in an armed house robbery. But after a couple of years of bucking the system -- both the CYA and its hardcore race-based gang system -- Collins had a seeming chance encounter that would permanently change his life. One day, in a GED class, one of the other inmates left a Quran open on his desk. Collins took a look, and, he writes, he was transfixed. Within a couple of weeks, he had converted.

Out of prison, he gravitated to a ghetto mosque in San Diego run by the pacifist Tabliqis. But soon he became restless with their approach, and set off on a journey that would take him to Croatia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Chechnya in search of the "true jihad."

The irony is that, especially in those early years, Collins had a hard time finding it. Even once he hooked up with other Muslims who shared his desire for jihad, he was constantly frustrated in his effort to penetrate war zones, by the dull routine of sitting around camps and waiting for battle. Though devout in his aims, he clearly loved weapons, all sorts of weapons, from handguns to rocket-propelled grenade launchers to tanks. In one Chechen camp, his delight in munitions and his impatience with authority earned him another nickname: Abu Mushakil, or father of trouble. Later, though, he would see people being killed up-close, and he himself would kill -- and live to describe it all with an almost clinical lack of passion.

Even after his right leg was mangled in Chechnya -- it was later amputated -- Collins might've been just another soldier of fortune, albeit with a higher cause. But then he turned himself over to the FBI and CIA, because he believed the growing movement of Arab jihadis wasn't policing itself, was growing ever more lawless and turning to terror. His informant role was ultimately as frustrating as being a jihadi. In an interview, Collins said he believes Sept. 11 could have been prevented. Based on a deep cynicism developed during years working undercover with the FBI and the CIA, he thinks it impossible both agencies could be caught unaware by the attack. It's entirely possible, he says, that they knew very well what was coming -- and that they let it happen anyway.

For its part, the FBI has confirmed that Collins was an informant who provided valuable information on Muslim extremists -- but denies that he provided information that could have prevented Sept. 11. Salon spoke to Collins about his experiences the same week that John Walker Lindh and Ahmed Omar Sheikh were sentenced for their crimes.

On Monday Lindh pleaded guilty to two felony charges arising from his involvement as a soldier with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Last month, federal agents arrested Josi Padilla, and charged he conspired with al-Qaida to build and detonate a "dirty bomb." Most Americans are surprised to find Americans fighting alongside al-Qaida. In your years of active fighting in Bosnia or Chechnya or the Middle East, how many Americans did you encounter?

First of all, with Padilla, I don't think he actually ever fought anywhere. So if al-Qaida recruited in that picture, he's just an errand boy or something. What surprises me [about Padilla] is, from everything that we're reading about the guy, it seems that he's just a very low-level maybe errand boy at best that probably was just talking about some big ideas he had. And Ashcroft turned that into stopping a bomber on his way to Washington. John Walker Lindh, now he volunteered with the Taliban. And if his contact was with al-Qaida, it was for the simple fact that the Taliban usually instructs foreign mujahedin to go with the other foreigners, which would be the Arabs, which loosely you could call al-Qaida. Now in Bosnia, the war lasted what, maybe five years? There was a handful of black American Muslims who had gone there to fight, probably no white American Muslims, maybe one or two. So probably just a handful.

But is it your impression, having moved in this world, that there are a number of other Americans who might be fighting with the Taliban, fighting with al-Qaida?

Well, what's your definition of American? You know, American-American, or a naturalized American? Naturalized Americans, of course, you're going to find you have Pakistani Americans, Afghan Americans, that are going to travel back to Afghanistan and fight with Taliban or someone else. American-Americans, that's another story. Probably very few.

After Padilla's arrest, there was talk about there being an active Islamic movement with thousands of conversions in American prisons and detention centers. Could there be a class of people like Padilla who convert, and then go overseas to ally themselves with people who are fighting the United States?

No, no. I think Padilla, whatever he is, is the exception, not the norm. There's a lot of people who become Muslims in prison, but if you sat down and tried to figure out how many of those people ever went for anything close to jihad or anything like that once they got out of prison, you're talking about a tiny, tiny -- maybe low two-figures -- number of people. I was watching a report on MSNBC that al-Qaida is recruiting people in the prisons. That's the biggest load of crap I've ever heard. The Muslims who do become Muslims in prison, the imams who teach them are generally Pakistani- and Arab-Americans, and they're completely against any idea of jihad or radical talks, so the Muslims coming out of prison naturally take those lines. I myself, I've had conflict with many American Muslims at the mosques throughout the country -- we would have arguments, and they wouldn't even support the idea of supporting Chechnya even with money. They've been taught that this is radical, this could be related to terrorism or whatever. The idea they're being recruited in prison, that's just absurd.

Some of the accounts I've seen suggest Padilla converted to Islam while he was incarcerated, or maybe shortly after. Your conversion to Islam came while you were detained in the California Youth Authority. Do you see any parallels between yourself and Padilla?

Not really.

Do you see parallels between yourself and John Walker Lindh?

To a certain extent. Just the simple fact that we both accepted Islam. The media isn't talking about it, but from reading between the lines I can see he first got involved with the Tabliq -- the pacifist movement.

Was that in California?

Yes, it seems that way. Because they've interviewed people that knew him, his friends at the mosque, and they're obviously Tabliq by appearance and by speech. So he got involved with Tabliq and he probably came to a point like I did, that, 'OK, I'm ready to defend my religion.' And he probably got the same thing from Tabliq that I did -- that there is no jihad in Islam. So he progressed on from there. I believe from there he went to Yemen to learn Arabic, and then from there he went to Pakistan. And I think from there it's simple: In Pakistan, he probably had an opportunity to go up and do what in his mind he thought was jihad, which was the Taliban fighting against the Northern Alliance. That's where this whole traitor thing really confuses me. Because he thought that he was going to Pakistan to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan, which I can understand. The Northern Alliance are very bad people, even the U.S. [government] admits that now. They're criminals, the drug dealers, the warlords, and the Taliban was created to counter them.

What was your reaction to Lindh's guilty plea?

I agree with it. I don't know what he did do and what he didn't do, but if he believed that fighting for the Taliban was right, and all that stuff, then naturally you should plead guilty to it. If you did it, stand up and say: 'I did it.' I don't think that -- personally, I think that a lot of the charges against him are pretty outrageous and I think that if he did fight it, they would've had a hard time finding him guilty of anything, just for lack of evidence. But as a principle, I think pleading guilty is the right thing.

Lindh faces the possibility now of 20 years in prison, possibly a bit less. Is that punishment too harsh for what he did?

You've got to figure out, what did he really do? As far as I can tell, he joined up with the Taliban and it seems that his intention was to fight for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance to establish an Islamic state. What happened after September, and whatever the ties there, that's to the side. Just the idea of supporting the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance, I mean, I myself had considered many times over the years starting back in '95 and '96, traveling to Afghanistan just to see what they were about. Because if they were truly fighting to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan, as an idea, that's something I would support. Now of course Sept. 11 and harboring Osama and all that, that changes everything. But initially when he went there obviously it was before September and I just don't know if I find anything wrong with the idea. Now if he had actually sat down with bin Laden and said: 'I can help you do this or that to kill some Americans,' then obviously he needs to be punished for that. No doubt. But I don't know if he ever did that. I'm trying to say that if the only thing he's really guilty of is fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, I don't think that's even punishable.

You trained in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in 1993. What kept you from going to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over to see what the movement was all about?

If I would've gone, it would've been just that, to satisfy my personal curiosity. Because I had heard a lot of stories, for and against the Taliban, from people who had been there. Some people were Muslim, some people weren't. Even from Muslims there was some question about what was the Taliban all about. Were they doing things correctly, Islamically? If I would've gone, it would've been just to see with my own eyes. But I never wanted to go there to get involved with any conflicts, like between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, for the simple fact that it's too murky. Why would you go to Afghanistan and get involved in an internal conflict where you may be killing other Muslims?

Let's talk about your conversion to Islam. Can you describe your mind-set and the circumstances that led to your decision?

Well at that time, I mean, I didn't have any religion per se. I'm sure my family considered themselves Christian but we weren't raised any certain way. I was incarcerated almost two years before accepting Islam. And before those two years I really didn't like the idea of people who find religion while behind bars. I figured that if you were behaving a certain way before you came to jail, why change it now? Now you're going to find religion? That's just too convenient. But you know, one day I found an open Quran and I started reading it and it appealed to me. I studied briefly just for two weeks and I just decided that it made sense. And so I became Muslim.

Did you make the conversion with the idea at the time that you wanted to fight in jihad?

No, because like I said, the Muslims in prison, the imams who teach there and whatnot, not only are they against the jihad, but they probably try to keep any information related to jihad away from the people converting. Which is easy, because if you're in prison, it's not like you have access to a lot of materials. It wasn't in my mind at that time. I just saw Islam as something that would be good in my life, which it turned out to be. It was later when I got out that I started directing my attention to the war in Bosnia. And even then it wasn't like there was a group of Muslims trying to recruit me. Like I say in the book, I ran up against opposition when I finally decided I'd like to go and help Bosnia. The Tabliq informed me that this wasn't an option.

When you look at your own motivations for wanting to fight in jihad, what were they? What was the attraction for you?

At the time, back in '93 when I got out of CYA, it was basically Bosnia -- the height of the war was going on, Muslims were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands, literally, tens of thousands of women were being raped, and it wasn't just so much a religious thing, but a human thing -- that, you know, here these people are, being slaughtered, and the world isn't doing a whole lot to help them. And of course by the fact that they were Muslim, I had a little more interest in the subject. Sure, there were plenty of conflicts going on at the time, but this one, my attention was drawn to it. I just wanted to go and help these people. That's what jihad, the true jihad, is about. It's about defending people who are being attacked.

So in 1993, you were encouraged to go for training to a camp in Afghanistan. While there, you befriended Ahmed Omar Sheikh -- the same man who was convicted Monday and sentenced to death for his role in the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. How did you come to know him?

He showed up in the camp in Afghanistan I was in a couple of weeks after I had gotten there. At this camp, I was just going through what you could roughly call basic training -- it was just how to fire an AK -- and most of the people in this camp were then going on to Tajikistan to fight the communist government up there. That was before the Taliban -- and again, that wasn't to get involved in Afghan conflicts. As I viewed it, the people of Tajikistan were tired of this communist government, which everyone could relate to. And I guess Islam was the only viable alternative to the oppressive regime up there. So that was my intention. When Omar showed up, it was just someone from the West, because he was basically raised in London and he spoke English so we took to hanging out together just because of that reason. At the time, he appeared to be a fairly normal guy. I didn't sense, like, anything really radical from him.

But he discussed with you the possibility of doing some kidnapping?

Yeah, later on in our stay there, when I finally decided to call it quits, he started talking about, as an idea -- he wanted to go to Kashmir and possibly take hostages. And I'm assuming that by some twisted logic, he thought this would somehow bring some kind of attention to the cause there in the media. As far as I know he never expressed any desire to actually hurt anyone. It just seemed kind of like a twisted idea to get attention. Like I say, that's when I decided to call it quits as far as that area, because things were starting to get murky and I didn't want to be involved in anything like hostage-taking. I'd come to fight in Tajikistan and that wasn't panning out.

Were you surprised to see him emerge in the Daniel Pearl case?

Yeah. I didn't even know he was out of prison from his 1994 scheme, where he was caught after a shootout with the Indian military. I thought he was still in prison. I didn't find out that this was the same Omar that I knew until I saw a picture of him in the newspaper.

You were a little bit vague in the book about why you decided to become an informant for the CIA and the FBI. In one passage you mentioned fear of terrorism; in another passage you said: 'As long as Arabs control the way the jihad was handled, it will never progress or accomplish anything. I felt that big changes were needed.' What did you hope to accomplish in turning to the FBI and CIA?

Looking back, here I was coming out of the war in Chechnya, fighting on the front lines for our religion, for our people, for the true jihad. And there was true terrorism going down in Egypt at the time. Tourists were killed and whatnot. I just saw that the real mujahedin and those in the real jihad are against those terrorist attacks. The point being that [the Arabs] weren't doing anything to try to prevent it, to police their own, so to speak. I don't think it was that they didn't want to, but if you have a small group of people in Chechnya fighting the Russians, they're kind of overwhelmed with that problem. So I looked at myself as being in kind of a unique position. I could get into places and groups that probably no other Westerner could. I looked at that as a way to help the CIA, the FBI, whatever, combat true terrorism.

Did you feel that your effort was successful?

Ultimately, in the end, I hate to say it, but I don't think so. I tried my hardest; I risked my life, literally, for almost four years. I've complicated my life a great deal by writing this book and coming out -- it doesn't take much imagination to think there are probably a few people out there right now who would like to get their hands on me. But ultimately, what did I accomplish? I never saw that the FBI or the CIA did fight true terrorism. From what I saw they spent their time and their resources infiltrating mosques that were of no interest to anyone.

What is it in the makeup or the mind-set of the CIA and FBI that caused the kind of failures that you describe in the book?

I don't know enough about anything to really say. Just looking at them, it's their whole mind-set, their whole culture -- most of them are like middle-aged, upper-middle-class white American guys and they think that only their way is right. And like I was saying before, that no one else in the world has a right to fight for independence or anything like that. So they're confusing true terrorism and a true fight for independence somewhere and they're mixing the two together. That's why, first of all, that they're not able to stop terrorist acts, because they don't know where to start looking. They're always barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

During the time you were an FBI informant, you also knew Hani Hanjour, one of the pilots who later flew a jet into the Pentagon in September. How did you get to know him, and what did you tell the FBI about him?

A friend of mine who is also a pilot, but who has no involvement in all of this, was roommates with Hani back in maybe late '97, '98. This was a mutual friend -- I worked for some Arabs who owned some liquor stores in the valley, in Phoenix. This friend of mine also worked for them, and he worked at another store. So sometimes when I would get off duty working security at the main store in Phoenix, I would go out to their smaller store in Mesa where my friend worked. And Hani being his roommate, he would sometimes come around and hang out behind the counter, which was common with a lot of the Arabs there. All of the guys who became involved in flight training were in this little circle, and it wasn't uncommon to go there on any night of the week and find three or four guys hanging out behind the counter at this store. That's where Hani came into the picture.

I never had any direct relationship with him. I never even had many conversations with him -- he was always there in the crowd. I reported on him [to the FBI] just like I reported on everyone else who came around that was new. If some Arab would come around that I wasn't familiar with, I would pass that information on to the FBI as a matter of practice and then they would further the investigation from there. Usually people just turned out to be people, and not anyone who was worth an investigation. Obviously, that wasn't the case with Hani.

On Sept. 11 or 12, when you learned that he was one of the pilots -- what was your reaction?

This is why I find it funny that the FBI emphatically denies that I ever reported on him or anything like that. Because I forget what day it was exactly after the 11th, but when the first picture of him came out in the newspaper, I called the Phoenix office to talk to a woman there that -- sometimes we had discussions just on a personal level. And I called her and said, 'Hey, do you see who's in the newspaper today?' I didn't say any names, I just said, 'Did you see who was in the paper?' And she said: 'Yeah, I saw him, can you believe that?' And the conversation went on from there. And now they claim they showed me photos after that and that I couldn't identify him. Yet, I called prior to that to see if they'd seen who was in the newspaper.

There's been a lot in the news this summer about the memos that came out of the FBI in Phoenix and Minneapolis before Sept. 11. Were you surprised to learn of those memos?

Well, no. I was surprised to learn that they were only claiming they had limited information as far back as August or sometime in 2000. They had more than just vague information, dating back from probably 1997, 1998. Not just myself, but there's this guy who said he also did what I did as an asset for the FBI. He's claimed the same thing that I have -- that he gave them information regarding Arabs flight training, all this stuff, as far back as 1998.

Were you surprised by Sept. 11?

Surprised just as everybody was -- you're watching this thing on TV and it's shocking. I'm not surprised that something like that finally happened. It was just a matter of time I figured before somebody, I don't know who, struck out at America like that. But it's not surprising that somebody did.

Why not?

Everybody now who publicly tries to tell America, 'Hey, maybe you guys got to sit back and look at yourselves for a minute, look at your foreign policy,' everybody immediately jumps on that person. 'How can you make excuses for Sept. 11, and how can you suggest ...' Well, it's not making excuses for Sept. 11. Wrong is wrong. A tragedy is a tragedy. What happened on Sept. 11, nobody can justify it. It's just impossible. And if somebody sat down and tried to tell me, Islamically it was permissible, I would never accept it. And I don't think they could try to say that.

But, you know, it doesn't change the fact that, say, since World War II, America has seriously been stepping on people's toes. They prop up the most oppressive dictators of any given country. They back people with the worst human rights records. Finally, eventually, somebody's going to push back. Again, that's not saying it's right, but you can only push people so far before they push back.

To the extent there was any appeal to Americans who were born here or naturalized Americans to go and fight jihad, and possibly to end up alongside al-Qaida or Taliban, do you think Sept. 11 is going to diminish that appeal? Or is there a chance that it would increase the appeal?

There were non-Muslims that were very sympathetic to the jihad. Not the Taliban and not al-Qaida, nothing like that, but the true jihad in Chechnya. There were American Christians in Chechnya, volunteering with the Chechen rebels. So, yeah, of course Sept. 11 has changed a lot of that. It's taken people who might've been sympathetic before and willing to help and squashed that in them. And it's taken other people that were probably neutral before, and they're probably anti-Islam, or whatever. That's why myself I don't understand the whole Sept. 11 thing. Who in their right mind would've done such a thing? First of all, just because it's such a horrific act, and second of all, if it was an Islamic group that did it, why would they do it? They set us back 20 years.

Do you think Sept. 11 could have been prevented?

Oh, definitely. I cannot accept that the CIA, FBI, that they didn't know. The only thing I'll give them is that they might not have known the day it was going to go down. But did they know the target? Did they know the mode of attack? It's 100 percent [certain] that they did, for sure. Just think about it -- how could a group of people plan such a big operation full of so many logistics and probably countless e-mails, encrypted or not, and phone calls and messengers? And you're telling me that, through all of that, that the CIA never caught wind of it? And for that matter the Mossad, they have every Islamic group, every jihad group, every everything in the world penetrated, and they're an American ally. So they didn't give America a heads-up either? Of course they did.

What's been the reaction to your book from the FBI and the CIA?

Other than minor harassment, so far, not a whole lot. But that doesn't mean that things are over yet.

What kind of minor harassment?

Just letting their presence be known, outside where I live and things like this.

How do they do that?

[Chuckles] Just by letting their presence be known.

You mean that you're being tailed?

Not so much being tailed as letting me know that they're out there and that they're watching.

Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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