Last week, former Al Qaeda jihadi-turned-MI6 spy Aimen Dean spoke to David Toube about his book 9 Lives, exploring his formative experiences as a fighter in the Bosnian civil war. He discussed the process which resulted in him swearing allegiance to Al Qaeda. This week, the conversation explored his journey out of terrorism and how he came to work for British intelligence services.
Asked to pinpoint the first time that he doubted his allegiance to al-Qaeda, Dean identified the August 7th US embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya that left 240 people dead and 5,000 more wounded.
“I thought that we would be fighting military to military,” Dean says. Instead, he recalls, we were killing “innocent civilians” in “a land that didn’t have anything to do with the war between us and the Americans.”
Unease about these attacks spurred Dean to ask questions about the ‘human shield’ fatwa, an Islamic ruling which, he was told at the time, gave al-Qaeda religious justification to attack enemies hiding within civilian populations. Delving deep into the teachings of Ibn Tamiyaah, Dean was shocked by his realisation that this fatwa was issued in the context of 13th century Mongol attacks against Muslim communities, in which the population of one town was forced to push siege engines to attack the next one. In such limited circumstances, it was permissible to attack those siege engines, although doing so would result in the deaths of those innocents who had been pressed into service. Clearly, this “life or death” scenario differed vastly from the “cruel, merciless attacks” that had taken place. “It was then,” Dean said, that he said that he had an “epiphany”: what Al-Qaeda were doing had no basis in religious teaching.
Dean’s revelation prompted a wider conversation about the value of revisiting religious texts, particularly if – as in Dean’s case – the outcome may persuade others to change their perspectives on jihadist ideology. Dean discussed his view of the need for a “digital audit” of Islamic teaching, since far too often religious ‘laws’ relied upon by extremist groups are “far more fabrication than truth” and need to be reconstrued. For example, Dean explains that there are 300,000 hadiths in Islam. However, he says, it is virtually impossible for these to all have been the genuine teachings of the prophet, since “he would have needed to start speaking from the day he was born until the moment he died.”
The conversation moved on to speak about his defection. Dean chose to work for the British intelligence services rather than the French or the Americans. Explaining this decision, he said that he narrowly avoided losing his life to an American attack and felt that it would be difficult to swear allegiance to them as a result. As for the French, he joked that: “it meant that I would have to learn another language (…) not to mention that the French are rude, and aloof and arrogant”.
Over the course of his career, Dean’s double life frequently put him in severe danger. As he put it, “In the game of spying, your first mistake is your last.”
Dean’s work also took him to the heart of the London Jihadist scene. There, he encountered individuals like Babar Ahmed, Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher and imam closely linked to Al Qaeda. Despite being a senior recruiter and centrally involved in planning terrorist operations, Awlaki was allowed to speak at a number of prominent mosques in Britain. These appearances sowed the seeds of radical discontent in Britain.
“Anwar al-Awlaki, in my opinion, single handedly radicalised more English-speaking people around the world than any other jihadist propaganda could have done,” says Dean. His ability to translate theological texts “effectively,” “efficiently” and “accessibly” Dean believes made the theology of Jihad open to many impressionable Muslims, some of whom went on to become involved with the July 2005 London bombings.
Finally, Dean was also asked whether Saudi funding of religious institutions in the UK and Europe generally has played a role in that radicalisation process:
“The Saudi question is one of the thorniest questions that one needs to answer. The fact of the matter is that Saudi actions really demonstrate how accurate the phrase is that says ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
He went on to describe how there are three brands of Salafism. The first of which is “the quietest Salafism”, which believes in “the sanctity of the nation state”, “abhors violence” and is practiced by the Saudi state. The second is “political” activism, which is the “Salafism married to the Muslim brotherhood, the math made in hell”. The third is Jihadi Salafism, generally called takfiri in the West.
For Dean, Saudi Arabia’s downfall has been that in promoting the first kind of Salafism domestically and abroad. He believes that this has led many Muslims towards traditional, ultra-conservative lifestyles which have caused them to become “alienated from their societies”. Later in life, this has “made them easy pick for the other two Salafisms.”
Dean also expressed concern about Qatari funding of groups such as CAGE and MEND that are “active in subverting and frustrating” the government’s counter extremism and counter terrorism programmes, while also ‘promoting the narrative of victimhood”. His concern is that this message “takes people from being ordinary citizens to violent extremists”: because if you believe that your own state is the enemy, then “all bonds of allegiance and affinity will disappear”.