When Omar Nasiri heard about airplanes hitting the twin towers in September 2001, he knew without a doubt who was behind the attacks. As Nasiri explains in the introduction to his new memoir, "Inside the Jihad: My Life With Al Qaeda, a Spy's Story," being published this week by Basic Books, he had spent years working and aiding Muslim extremists in Algeria, Belgium and Afghanistan. He knew what al-Qaida was capable of, if not exactly what it had planned.
Nasiri (not his real name), now in his 40s, grew up in Brussels and Tangiers. In the '90s, he began working as a low-level compatriot of extremists, including his brother, in Algeria and Brussels. At first he purchased bullets, then small arms, and later high-level explosives for his Muslim brothers. He was always sympathetic to the cause but was consistently a more moderate follower of Islam (he liked to drink and smoke, and had less-than-perfect attendance at mosque). As the work got riskier, and as Nasiri became more disillusioned with the violent, indiscriminate nature of the work these would-be jihadists were doing, he decided to save himself and get out. He became a spy.
"I had eventually turned against them and their killing of innocents," writes Nasiri. In his work as an agent for the DGSE, the French counterespionage service, Nasiri infiltrated radical mosques and transmitted secret messages to jihadists in Pakistan; he even infiltrated an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and experienced the rigorous training and religious education Muslim extremists from all over the world hope to receive.
In "Inside the Jihad," Nasiri offers the first first-person account of an al-Qaida operative. It's a fast-paced read, to be sure; it's also an illuminating one. In telling his story, Nasiri attempts to shed light on some of the hard questions that don't yield easy answers: Why do certain Muslims become jihadists while others don't? What do terrorists want? In so doing, he takes us inside the world of fundamentalist Islam in a way no other writer has yet been able too.
In the excerpt below, which takes place in early 1995, Nasiri's brother Hakim has asked him to purchase explosives from his arms contact, Laurent, in Brussels, and then drive them in a beat-up car to Morocco. The passage illustrates how terrorist networks organize and operate in broad daylight, and how a familiar and everyday object, like an old Audi, can become a dangerous weapon. It also shows the futility of relying too strongly on domestic law enforcement -- especially in sensitive border areas and nations where corruption is routine -- to protect the world.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Everything was speeding up. Right around the time Yasin asked me to buy explosives from Laurent, Hakim asked me to do something more unusual still. One day, we were running an errand in town. We were in a tiny car I had never seen before -- a Peugeot. On the way home, he pulled over to the side of the road and asked me to drive for a bit. It seemed strange, but I went along with it. Once I started driving, I immediately realized there was something wrong with it. The car kept lurching to the left -- I had to use all of my strength to keep it on a straight track. Soon, Hakim asked me to pull over and I did.
"What's this all about?" I asked.
"Brother, I need you to do me a favor."
"What kind of favor?"
Hakim paused, and then began to speak slowly. "There is a brother in Morocco -- a very good one. I bought him a car as a favor, but he can't come to pick it up because he doesn't have a passport. So I'm hoping you will be willing to drive the car to him."
I was stunned. "What are you talking about?" I demanded. "You know I don't even have a license."
"That's not a problem," Hakim said quickly. "We'll have someone drive with you to the port in Aljeciras."
I could feel the blood rising in my face.
"If you want me to do something for you," I shouted at Hakim, "then you better tell me exactly what it is. I'm not going to drive a car down to Morocco for you unless you tell me exactly what's inside and what I'm doing with it. Don't try to fool me, Hakim -- I'm not stupid."
My brother just stared at me and said nothing. I got out of the car and walked away.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Two nights later, Hakim came up to my room.
"Come with me," he said. "I have to drop some supplies off with a friend of mine, and I want you to meet him."
There was something strange in the way he spoke, and I was curious. So I went with him to the car. We drove for about one kilometer and turned onto a residential street. We stopped in front of an apartment building and Hakim got out and opened the gate to an interior courtyard. Inside, there were four garages. The light was on in one of them. We walked over and Hakim knocked on the window.
The garage door opened and there were two men. One was clearly a mechanic -- he was wearing a jumpsuit and was covered with sweat and oil. Towards the back of the garage there was a curtain, and behind it I could make out the rear bumper of a car.
The floor in front of us was covered with all sorts of supplies -- piles and piles of currency, guns, radio transmitters. And what looked like bricks wrapped in white paper. It was obvious to me that the mechanic was taking apart the car to hide all of this stuff inside.
Hakim spoke a few words to the two men and gave them a bag of groceries he had brought with him. Then we left.
On the way home he turned to me.
"Will you do it?"
I didn't pause for a second. "Yes, I will do it."
If I said no, then he would know that I had never really repented, that I had never come back to him and the others. If I said yes, they would trust me again totally. Gilles [Nasiri's DGSE contact] had told me from the beginning that he wanted me to get into their inner circle, and I knew this was my chance.
I had only one question. "So when do I leave?"
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I saw Gilles the next day. I told him about Hakim's request, about the garage. He sat bolt upright as he asked me what I had seen, and I told him. When I told him about the bricks he nodded and explained that it was probably Semtex.
"So are you going to do it?" Gilles asked. He was obviously nervous, but I knew he wanted me to go. He wanted to find out how all of this worked. He wanted to get me in that inner circle.
"Yes," I said. "I already told him I would do it."
"You know this is very risky," he said. "We have no jurisdiction in Spain. If you get arrested there, there is nothing we can do."
"I know," I said. "I don't plan to get arrested."
Gilles exhaled. "All right, then. Here's what I need you to do: I need you to tell me everything about the car. I need you to tell me when you are leaving. And I need you to call me every time you stop along the way and tell me where you are so that we can keep track of you."
Gilles was playing the bully again, and it pissed me off. I had offered to do something incredibly dangerous, and now he was trying to tell me how to do it. I wasn't going to let him. Not just because I was stubborn, though -- although of course it was partly that. There was no way I was going to let Gilles track me while I drove across France with a car filled with explosives. I didn't trust him, and if he wanted to he could just have the police pick me up and search the car and I would spend the rest of my life in jail. If he tipped off the Moroccan police, it would be even worse.
"No way," I told him. "I'm not telling you where I am. I will call you when I get there and the deal is done."
"If we don't know where you are," he said angrily, "we can't help you if you get in trouble."
"I'll take that risk."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
At about 3am the next night, we went to pick up the car. Hakim brought me back to the garage. There was another young man waiting for us when we got there. Since I didn't have a license, they were sending someone to drive with me as far as the Spanish port. Once I got into Morocco, I was on my own.
The young man's name was Kamal. I had seen him around the house a few times before. He wasn't like the others -- he had a long beard, and was very quiet and spent most of the time reading the Koran.
The car was ready. It was a green Audi. There was a trailer attached to the back and the back seat of the car was filled with all sorts of things -- rugs, big boxes, electronics. We were supposed to look like a couple of immigrants traveling back to Morocco to see our families. Before we left, Hakim gave me a cell phone number. He told me to use it when I got to Morocco to reach Yasin -- he would give me instructions on finding the contact once I was there.
We headed out of Brussels towards Paris. Kamal was driving. We hadn't gotten far when we began to have car trouble. The engine temperature was rising, and I could see Kamal looking nervously at the gauge. About 20 kilometers past Lille we decided to stop and take a look. There was boiling water spilling out of the radiator. I had a water bottle in the car and I poured it in to cool the engine down.
We drove for a few more miles, and then the car started making a horrible sound. I looked over at Kamal and he was panicked. He was silent but I could see his mouth moving incredibly fast. He was praying.
I told Kamal to pull over to the side of the highway. I got out of the car and walked to the next exit, where I found a pay phone in a small village and called EuropeAssist. What else could I do? We had to get the car off the road. I went back to the car and told Kamal what was happening and he looked almost sick with anxiety. He said nothing. He just kept praying.
Soon, a tow truck arrived and they hooked the Audi up to it. Kamal and I sat in the front seat of the truck with the driver. We drove for a few miles to a small village and the driver unhooked the car in front of a car repair shop.
It wasn't at all clear to me how we would be able to fix the car. I knew what was wrong with it. The mechanic had stuffed every last inch with money and materiel. I figured he had put stuff at the bottom of the fluid tanks somehow, which would explain why the car kept overheating.
When the man at the repair shop opened the hood, the engine was smoking. He began to look at everything, piece by piece. I had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he didn't find any of the contraband. He asked me several times if I would like to go inside the shop and sit down but I told him no. Kamal stood next to me the entire time, praying silently.
It went on for what seemed like several hours. Finally, the mechanic looked up and closed the hood. He turned to me.
"There's nothing I can do. The engine is completely dead. You'll need to have it replaced. I can get a tow truck for you tomorrow if you'd like, so you can take it back to Brussels."
We left the car there overnight, since we had nowhere else to put it. I practically had to tear Kamal away -- I think he would have slept in the car if he could have. Then I called Hakim and told him what had happened. He was very upset, and told us to get back to Brussels as soon as possible so we could get the car fixed and get back on the road. I began to realize that they were in a real hurry.
Kamal and I stayed overnight in a hotel and spent the whole night fighting. I wanted to watch TV, which of course he considered tahout. He wanted to read his Koran instead. Every time I turned on the television he would wait a few minutes and then grab the remote and turn it off, and then a few minutes later I would steal the remote and turn it back on. I was so angry at him that I told him that I would drop him off in Brussels the next day and drive to Spain on my own. He said that the brothers would never let me do that since I didn't have a license. I told him that the brothers were stupid to let him come with me. Arab men have enough trouble with the cops in Europe, I told him -- his ridiculous beard made us a moving target.
We both went to sleep angry that night. The next day we got up early and sat in the truck as it towed the car back to Brussels. We didn't speak a word to each other. When we got back to the garage, Hakim was there waiting to let us in. There was an engine already inside, and all they needed to do was switch it out with the dead one.
Hakim and Kamal and I went back to the house that night and slept for only a few hours. When we left the house early the next morning, I noticed that Kamal had cut his beard. He hadn't shaved it off entirely, but it was short against his face. He was stubborn -- he knew I was right about the beard, but he wasn't going to give in completely.
The car was ready by the time we got to the garage. We wasted no time getting back on the road.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The trip was a complete disaster. The mechanic had done the same thing to the new engine and we had to be incredibly careful to keep it from overheating. We drove very slowly and stopped every half hour to pour cold water into the engine. Kamal was panicked the whole time and drove without speaking. In addition to all of the stops we made for the engine, he also pulled over five times a day to perform the sallah. Each time, I smoked cigarettes instead. I could tell this made him very angry -- that was the point.
The car broke down again in the south of France, and again we had to take it to a mechanic. It wasn't as bad as the first time, and he was able to fix it. Again, we both watched the entire process. We must have seemed crazy.
It broke down again just as we crossed the border into Spain, and then again as we drove up into the Pyrenees. Every time, I had to take care of everything. Kamal was totally useless, paralyzed. And every time I had to call home and tell Hakim that we had been delayed. He was getting more and more anxious. At one point he even yelled and told me to hurry up, that I was destroying the mission by taking so long. I told him that the only reason the trip was taking so long was that he and the others had hired a hare-brained mechanic.
It got a bit easier as we drove down out of the mountains. We were able to put the car in neutral and let it coast for kilometers at a time. But late that night, about 75 kilometers from Aljeciras, the engine overheated again. We had to stop the car in the middle of the road. There was nothing I could do this time. The engine wouldn't start. I wasn't going to walk along the highway in the middle of the night, so I sat down by the side of the road and smoked a cigarette, and then another one. Kamal was so nervous that he couldn't sit down.
"What are we going to do?" he wailed. "What are we going to do?"
I was so sick of him at this point that I just ignored him and lit another cigarette. But when I looked up I saw a police car coming towards us. Kamal was beside himself.
"Where do we go?" he pleaded. "How can we get away from them?"
I told him not to worry. When the police got out of their car, I approached them first and spoke to them in Spanish. I was very friendly, and explained that we had engine trouble. They were friendly in return, and told me that I had to get the car off the road somehow.
"How?" I shrugged.
Then one of the cops smiled and said he could help. They drove the police car around to the Audi and they took out some cables and hooked the cars together. Kamal and I rode with the police in their car for about 15 miles. They dropped us in front of an auto repair shop in a small village. I could see that there were lights on inside. As the police drove off, they smiled and waved and wished us good luck.
This mechanic was into everything. It seemed like he spent an hour studying each piece of the engine. I had to tell him that I didn't have enough money to pay for any serious repairs. I just needed to get to the ferry, I said. Just fix it enough so I can get the ferry. Kamal was standing beside me praying faster and faster. His hands were shaking.
At one point, I saw the mechanic reach down for the oil pan and I told him I didn't want him to touch that. He looked at me like I was a lunatic.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We stayed up most of that night with the mechanic, but I didn't mind. I knew that this nightmare would be over soon. It had taken us nearly a week to get here from Brussels -- a drive that normally would take only two or three days. But now we were only a couple of hours from the ferry.
Kamal and I left early and drove slowly, checking the engine every twenty minutes or so. As we reach the outskirts of Aljeciras, he turned to me.
"You should take the ferry to Ceuta," he said. "There will be less security than in Tangiers."
Of course he was right -- Ceuta is a Spanish outpost and the security was less stringent there as a result. But it was also a very small town, and much farther from Tangiers. Even if I could get a tow truck in Ceuta -- which I doubted -- it would take hours to get the car from there to Tangiers. It hardly seemed worth it.
"I think I'll take my chances in Tangiers," I said. "Given the shape this car is in, I don't have much of a choice."
Kamal kept pressing. "Really, I think you'll be better off in Ceuta."
He said it three times over the course of ten minutes. I ignored him.
We got to the ferry dock around midday. There was a long line of cars inching slowly forward as the ferry was loading. Kamal steered the car around to join it.
And then the car broke down again. The engine just stopped. He turned the ignition several times to try to restart it but nothing happened. The car was dead. I looked over at Kamal. He was staring straight forward. He looked like he was going to cry.
"Kamal, just go," I said.
He looked at me, surprised.
"I'm less worried about security in Tangiers than I am about your beard," I said. "You'll make us a target here. So just get out of the car and go."
"Really?" he asked. He looked relieved. But then a cloud passed over his face.
"Are you sure you don't want to take the ferry to Ceuta instead?"
"I'm sure," I snarled. "Just go."
Kamal looked like he was going to say something, but then he stopped and just shrugged. He took a roll of bills out of his pocket and handed it to me -- it was the money for the ferry tickets and everything else. Hakim hadn't trusted me with it, so Kamal had been carrying it the whole time.
"May God be with you in Tangiers, brother," he said. Then he opened the door and got out. When I turned around a couple of seconds later to see where he was, he had already disappeared.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I sat in the car for a few minutes and lit another cigarette. It didn't take long for a policeman to come over to the car.
"You need to move your car, sir. There are people in line waiting to get on the ferry and you're blocking them."
I looked up and smiled. "I'm so sorry," I said. "But the engine is dead. I can't move it."
"Then we'll have to get it towed."
"Onto the ferry?" I asked.
"No, to a shop. You'll have to get it fixed before you can get on the ferry."
"What if I push it on?"
He raised his eyebrow and looked over at the car. When I turned to look at it too, I saw his point. Packed with rugs and boxes, the car was so heavy that the chassis was nearly scraping the ground.
I looked around and tried to figure out how I would pull this off. I caught the eye of a Moroccan man standing by the entrance to the ferry. He was in civilian clothing, but he was standing with three other men and two of them had walkie-talkies attached to their belts. The man had been watching me talk to the cop.
I looked up at the police officer. "Give me a minute. I'll get some people to help me push it."
I walked over to the men by the gate. I knew who these guys were -- I had seen plenty like them during my years in Morocco. They were pretending to be customs officers or sailors or something, but they weren't doing anything. I knew that they were physiognomists, trained to pick out suspicious faces from the crowds boarding the ferry.
I approached them with a smile and with my arms open to show how helpless I was. "Please excuse me," I said in French. "I am so sorry to bother you. But I am going to see my family and my car just broke down." I pointed back to it in the line. "I bought the car because I thought I could sell it in Morocco and make some money, but I've spent so much money on repairs between here and Brussels that I don't have any left. I just need to get it on the ferry and my brother will meet me on the other side with a tow truck."
The men looked sympathetic. I knew I had them. I gave them my broadest smile.
"Is there any chance that you might be willing to help me push it onto the ferry?"
The men looked at each other and one shrugged and turned back to me.
"Sure, we can help."
Three of the men came back with me to the Audi. It took a lot of effort, but eventually we were able to push the car -- laden with explosives and guns and ammunition and contraband currency -- onto the ferry. I was laughing to myself the whole time. I had been tormented for years by the Moroccan police, and it seemed only fair that they were helping me now.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Once the car was on board, I headed up to the deck. I sat down and smoked a cigarette as the ferry pulled away from the dock. I ordered a whiskey, and then another one. I knew there were undercover police everywhere, watching everyone on board. I wanted to show them that I was no extremist -- just a normal guy going home to see his family.
But I also really needed a drink.