By Henry Schuster
Adjust font size:
Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's investigative unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror" he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
PARIS, France (CNN) -- The first thing you learn about Omar Nasiri is that even his name is an alias.
It is the sort of deception you would expect from a man who says he's gone undercover and spied inside the jihad. When we sit down to tape an interview with Nasiri, he wants his face in shadow, saying he still fears for his life.
"Inside the Jihad" happens to be the name of Nasiri's new book, which is subtitled "My Life With Al Qaeda, a Spy's Story."
It is a fascinating story of a man who says he betrayed his brothers to the police and then had contact with senior al Qaeda leaders at a terror training camp in Afghanistan -- all the while spying for French, British and German intelligence.
It is also an attempt to explain to a Western audience what it is that makes the global jihadi movement so attractive to young Muslim men like Nasiri, something Nasiri says hasn't changed since he became involved in his double life in the early 1990s.
The man who ran the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit during the late 1990s says Nasiri's story is "the most detailed firsthand account of someone who made his way into al Qaeda."
And says Michael Scheuer, best-selling author of books on bin Laden and terrorism, "It's certainly more complete than anything I saw at the CIA."
Scheuer, now an analyst for CBS News, read the book at the the request of Nasiri's editor. He doesn't know Nasiri's real name but says the detail in his account tracks with the fragmentary classified evidence Scheuer saw at the CIA.
A double life
Nasiri is a man caught between two worlds, by his own account. A jihadi who likes a drink, somewhere between Salafism and scotch.
"My heart lies in Morocco, my head is in Europe," he writes. "Because I'm part Arab, part European, my home is nowhere."
Nasiri says he was born in Morocco, but his parents moved to Belgium when he was young. After he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Nasiri was taken from his parents and put in a sanitarium, where his education and care were entrusted to Catholic nuns.
He was put in foster care after that, before returning to his parents. He wasn't comfortable when the family moved back to Morocco and was a wild teenager, involved with guns and drug dealing.
One of his brothers, he says, was an extremist Muslim who became involved with the Algerian terror group GIA, and he brought Nasiri into that world.
Nasiri says he decided to go to French intelligence because he was worried about the safety of his mother and youngest brother, but from the day he did, his double life intensified.
Nasiri says he was asked to drive a car full of explosives from Europe to Algeria, and that French intelligence was aware what was going on.
He seems distraught when he tells us how he fears those explosives were used in a car bombing that killed 40 people in Algiers in late January 2005.
Then his personality seems to change as he justifies his action: "What I was doing is to infiltrate the one who I don't believe in ... to infiltrate the enemy, the one who massacred those civilians."
Little more than a month later came the raid that led to two of his brothers being arrested. Confused, he would confess to them that he betrayed them.
Then, scared for his safety, Nasiri says he fled Europe and made his way to the training camps of Afghanistan, with some help from French intelligence.
Life in the camps
His account of the camps is striking not just for the detail, but for what happened to him. Although Nasiri went to spy on al Qaeda, he was by his own admission seduced by life in the camps.
Nasiri's demeanor changed when we asked him about his memories from the camp. Even though he writes of the rough physical conditions and the rigors of his training, his face glowed as he talked about the smells and sounds of the camp.
He felt that the men in the camps shared a mission, which he says was to restore an Islamic state in the Muslim world. To his mind, then and now, it was a fight against injustice and one that even now clearly has great meaning to him.
Nasiri says he was even ready to go off and fight against the Russians in Chechnya, despite his spy mission, because he felt so deeply about the cause.
Nasiri met neither Osama bin Laden nor Ayman al Zawahiri when he was in Afghanistan; they were just returning from Sudan when he left in 1996. But Nasiri did have contact with two senior al Qaeda figures -- Abu Zubaydah and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.
Abu Zubaydah helped him get into and out of the camps, he says. Later, after returning to Europe, he would wire money to Abu Zubaydah, convincing British intelligence it was an important way to establish his bona fides.
As for Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who ran the camp where Nasiri trained, Scheuer says Nasiri offers the best portrait of al Libi he has seen.
Al Libi would become notorious, after being captured in November 2001, for lying to his interrogators and telling them that Saddam Hussein was working to get nuclear weapons to al Qaeda.
His story would be repeated by senior U.S. officials as evidence for going to war against Iraq, but he later recanted his story.
Nasiri says al Libi taught his charges at the camp to lie and deceive if they were ever captured.
Nasiri by his own account would lose his way after returning to Europe. He says al Libi wanted him to return to Europe, instead of going to Chechnya, so he could be called on for future missions.
Nasiri says French intelligence sent him to London, to work with the British, spying on extremist clerics. But no one, he says, was paying attention to what he was reporting. Disgusted, he says, he quit.
And it is this failure to listen, Nasiri tells us, is what prompted him to bypass intelligence agencies and write his book.
He says the West still doesn't get it, that Westerners don't understand what he calls the jihadist movement won't be ended if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq. Instead, at the root of it, Nasiri says is reclaiming Jerusalem and a greater Muslim world.
Omar Nasiri doesn't know if anyone will read his book, but he hopes people will pay attention: "I am just telling you how the things I am seeing through my eyes, nothing else ... it's better you understand it."