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9/11: The spies inside Al-Qaeda who could have prevented the attacks

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the fascinating stories of three spies who infiltrated Al-Qaeda for Western intelligence are worth reexamining. Why was more not made of the information they could have provided?

The conventional wisdom, oft-repeated in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is that it is extremely difficult to recruit informers and deploy infiltrators against Al-Qaeda, due to its extremely compartmentalised cell structure. In reality, in the run-up to 9/11, British, French and American intelligence all had spies capable of penetrating Al-Qaeda’s inner circle, including its training camps in Afghanistan.  

Omar Nasiri was born in Morocco in the 1960s, but grew up in Belgium. In the early 1990s, he got involved in gun smuggling for the GIA – an Algerian Islamist militia which was slaughtering tens of thousands in the Algerian Civil War. After getting into trouble for stealing money from the gang he approached French intelligence, who recruited him as a spy inside the GIA.  

Nasiri continued working as an arms trafficker, providing the weapons used in the 1994 GIA hijacking of an Air France flight, which aimed to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. That plot was thwarted when French special forces stormed the plane, but Omar carried on providing weapons to the gang. He even drove a car laden with explosives through France and Spain to deliver it to a GIA operative in Morocco. His French handler, Gilles, approved the mission and when a huge car bombing took place in Algiers a few weeks later, Gilles didn’t appear to care.  

These details came out years later when Nasiri wrote an autobiography and gave an extensive interview to the BBC.  

In the summer of 1995, Omar flew to Pakistan, on a new mission to get inside the Al-Qaeda training camps in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. He spent a year in the camps learning how to use weapons and make homemade explosives, as well as receiving religious indoctrination.  

On his return to Europe, Nasiri began working for British intelligence, tasked with infiltrating the emerging Islamist scene in London and the Al-Qaeda support network known as Al Muhajiroun. But Omar found this boring because it wasn’t planning attacks in the UK, and kept asking his handlers to send him back to the camps in Afghanistan. He provided British intelligence with phone numbers for his contacts in Pakistan, and even sent money provided by the British government, but the suits would not let him re-infiltrate the training camps.   

Even after the Al-Qaeda bombings on two US embassies in East Africa, his spymasters in MI5 and MI6 refused to let Nasiri go back to Afghanistan.  Following a period working for German intelligence, which proved similarly frustrating, Nasiri quit his life as a spy in 2000. Had his handlers taken him seriously and allowed him to return to Afghanistan it is highly likely, as we’ll see in the story of Aimen Dean, that Nasiri would have got advance warning of the 9/11 attacks.  

Around the time that Nasiri was getting sick of his bosses’ refusals to let him spy on people who were actually planning terrorist attacks, MI6 recruited a new informant. Aimen Dean was born in Bahrain in 1978, and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Like Nasiri, he became involved in the global jihad following the Soviet-Afghan war. He fought in Bosnia as part of the Western-backed Bosnian mujahideen, before getting involved with an Islamist charity in Baku, Azerbaijan, and then the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. Dean later wrote a book about his life and has been widely interviewed.   

The Al-Qaeda embassy bombings in 1998 changed his perspective – up until this point Dean was fully committed to the jihad, and had even sworn an oath of loyalty to Osama Bin Laden. But seeing the suffering and destruction in Kenya and Tanzania changed him, especially after he narrowly survived the US airstrikes on the Farouq training camp in the wake of the embassy bombings.  

Not long after leaving the camp, Dean was picked up by Qatari authorities and instantly spilled his guts, telling them everything he knew. They suggested he get a job as a spy for Western intelligence, and after a brief deliberation Dean opted for the British. For the next eight years, he worked as an undercover operative for MI6.  

Dean told his new handlers everything he knew about Al-Qaeda, including details of leadership, organisational structure, bank accounts, travel routes and financing sources. In 1999, they sent him back to Afghanistan to infiltrate the training camps and try to gain information on forthcoming attack plans.  

According to his book, Dean spent the next two years helping bring down the Millennium Plot, brokering a deal with the Taliban to ensure no one attacked the Sydney Olympics and escaping from a Pakistani ISI jail with the help of MI6. He even reports meeting Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  

In the summer of 2001 the camps were rife with talk that something big was about to go down, and Dean was sent back to London with letters for local Al-Qaeda leaders, telling them to scatter. Dean reported all of this to MI6 officers, but they mysteriously failed to act. They didn’t send Dean back to Afghanistan to try to get specifics, nor did they hand him over to the CIA, which at that time was desperately reaching out to friendly governments asking about spies inside Al-Qaeda.  

A few weeks later the 9/11 attacks happened, but MI6 never sent Dean back inside Al-Qaeda, preferring instead to use him to entrap Muslims in fake terror plots. It never shared him with the CIA to help in the hunt for Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or to help reconstruct the 9/11 plot to identify all the culprits.  

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The same pattern of failing to exploit opportunities in the run-up to 9/11 appears in the story of Aukai Collins, another former jihadi turned spy for the West who wrote a book about his experiences. Collins lived an amazing yet traumatic life – his mother was murdered by gangsters when he was 16, and he spent the following years repeatedly escaping from prisons after being jailed for street-level gang offences.  

After converting to Islam in prison, Aukai gravitated towards the expanding militant Islamic movement in the mid-1990s. His efforts to get involved in the Bosnian jihad drew a blank, so he spent some time in training camps in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and met the eventual killer of Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed Sheikh.

The Chechen war provided Collins with his first real taste of battle, as he travelled to Chechnya and joined the fight against the Russian forces. He met and married a beautiful 16-year-old girl, before an attack by Spetsnaz on the camp where he was staying resulted in Aukai suffering a major injury to his leg, which later had to be amputated.  

After some further misadventures with Chechen mafiosos, Aukai became disillusioned, and the attack in Cairo in April 1996 by Al Gama’at al Islamiyya led him to realise the threat posed by Islamist militants.  Collins walked into the US embassy in Baku, told a CIA officer everything he knew and everything he had done, offering his services as a spy. The CIA told him it couldn’t use him – though never explained why – and instead paid for him to return to the US and link up with the FBI.  

For the following four years, Collins worked as a counter-terrorism informant, mostly for the FBI but also on joint FBI-CIA operations. One scheme involved setting up a terrorism training camp in the US so they could spy on and track anyone who attended, but this was called off by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.  

In early 1998, while on a CIA mission to penetrate the Islamist scene in London, Aukai received a stunning offer: Bin Laden himself wanted him to go to Afghanistan so they could meet. He relayed this and while the FBI was in favour of infiltrating the camps his CIA handler – known in the book as Tracy – put an end to the idea, saying, “There was no way the US would approve an American operative going undercover into Bin Laden’s camps.” 

This is truly bizarre, as the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, Alec Station, had been trying to get someone close to Bin Laden for years. Michael Scheuer, the CIA officer who founded Alec Station, wrote in the foreword to Nasiri’s book that Omar was exactly the sort of spy the CIA lacked. So why was Aukai told that, despite a personal invitation from Bin Laden, it would “never, ever happen”?

This failure led to Collins walking away from working with the CIA, and he spent some time in Albania during the war over Kosovo before coming back to America and reconnecting with the FBI. He warned it about Hani Hanjour, the hijacker pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, after he met Hanjour in Phoenix and learned he was taking piloting lessons, but the Feds never followed this up.  

After his handler was promoted and replaced by a guy who didn’t trust Aukai, his relationship with the FBI deteriorated, and he quit. Over a year later, after watching the 9/11 attacks live on TV, he called up the FBI and offered his help, even suggesting he could go to Afghanistan to hunt down Al-Qaeda members.  Rather than taking him up on his offer, the FBI subjected him to a polygraph and accused him of having foreknowledge of the attacks.

So what were the FBI, CIA, MI5 and MI6 up to?  Why did they systematically fail to exploit their human assets inside Al-Qaeda, either before or after the 9/11 attacks? When Aimen Dean reported in the early summer of 2001 that a big Al-Qaeda attack was imminent, Western intelligence could have sent him, Nasiri or Collins (or all three) into Afghanistan to try to find out more, but they did nothing of the sort.  

Whether these are tales of tragic missed opportunities, outrageous institutional incompetence or something darker is unclear. While Dean is something of a public figure, Nasiri remains semi-anonymous and Collins died in 2016. The full story of the spies inside Al-Qaeda may never be told. 

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