For nearly 20 years during the height of the War on Terror, Aimen Dean was a jihadist turned MI6 agent at the heart of Al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons program. David Toube, Quilliam International’s Head of Policy, got the opportunity to speak to him about his experiences on and off the battlefield.
After eight years undercover, transitioning back to normal life has come as an enormous relief. “I remember when my identity was compromised in 2006,” Dean recalled.
“At the beginning, I was angry and I thought that it was a terrible calamity. A few months later I realized what a relief it was. I started to finally feel at ease … that I did not have to look over my shoulder all the time”.
In the years following the compromising of his identity in 2006, Dean has written an autobiography entitled 9 Lives: a detailed memoir of more than a decade of his activity at the highest possible levels of Islamist militancy. In it, he recounts the story of his journey from a young Muslim defending his faith to working for his once sworn enemy as a spy. The story begins in Bosnia, where Dean travelled aged 16 to participate in the Bosnian War.
Describing this experience, he said:
“The Bosnian conflict drew me in because of the clarity of it. It was a clear example of ethnic cleansing taking place on a big scale. When I arrived there, I was blind to the fact that the jihad there was not run by people who viewed Bosnia as just a localized struggle, but by veterans of the Afghan jihad who belonged to the Egyptian Jamaat al-Islamiyya.”
The fact that the camps were run by these individuals, he continued, “gave the jihad there a global flavor. It enabled them to tell us about the other jihads that they had participated in, including Afghanistan before Bosnia.”
During his time in Bosnia, Dean was introduced to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the principal architects of the 9/11 attacks. He described him as
“well-spoken, confident, with a strong presence and a soft voice”.
According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the only way for the Middle East to be safe and strong again was for
“the center to be re-ordered under an Islamic system run and led by the Mujahedin. In order to do that, we had to expel the Americans from the Middle East.”
Dean’s encounters with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed let him to a contact in Peshawar, Pakistan, which eventually took Dean to Afghanistan, where he swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
Hearing about Dean’s journey into terrorism led onto a discussion on the religious ideology of the takfiri jihadist movement. Asked to discuss jihad, Dean outlined two kinds of jihad in Islam: defensive and offensive. For example, a Muslim community may take up arms against an oppressor. Alternatively, a Caliph or Sultan may call for a jihad in order to expand the Muslim empires territorial or religious boundaries.
However, Dean was also clear to distinguish these narratives from the Jihad that was preached to him in Bosnia and in Afghanistan. As he put it, in his case the enemy did not need to be expelled, as it was not “in the streets of Cairo, controlling your life”. Instead, the Western world was perceived to have “usurped Islam’s right to be the sovereign of the land.” Men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed drew on the theoretical work developed by Sayyid Qutb to advocate for what he termed an “empowerment jihad”, whereby men would fight to “restore Islam to its rightful sovereign position”.
Dean also explained how eschatology – specifically the notion of prophecies – was key to justifying their struggle. According to Dean, Osama Bin Laden believed that he was one of the chosen figures who
“made it back from Sudan into Afghanistan in order to fulfil the prophecies of the Black Banners rising out of Khorasan.”
In the concluding part of the podcast, the discussion turned to Dean’s talent for interpreting dreams. His detailed knowledge of the Quran and ability to recall large amounts of information garnered him a reputation as a dream interpreter. This gave him invaluable access into the hearts and minds of many jihadists who came to confide in him. When he began to work for MI6, this
“became an incredibly effective intelligence gathering tool. People would open their hearts to you.”
Listen to Part I of the Aimen Dean interview. Part II follows next week.