Lifting the Veil on al Qaeda: an Inside Story


Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda
Basic Books, New York, 2008, 384pp.

More than ten years after the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, there is so much literature on the subject that one can grasp the meaning of those attacks, the purpose and the objectives of al-Qaeda terrorists, the history of the organization and, eventually, its downfall. The vast majority of the contributions, however, depict the events (and the ensuing consequences) from one set of perspectives, i.e. from only one of the sides of the conflict between al-Qaeda and its targets. Meaning, the sources for the books, articles, reports etc. come from everywhere but the terrorist organization itself.1

From this perspective, Inside the Jihad is an exception. It was written by an insider, someone2 who worked as a secret agent for Europe’s top foreign intelligence services between 1994 and 2000 and from that position managed to infiltrate and become intimate with the workings of terrorist cells in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.

Omar Nasiri spent ample time amidst the criminal underworld of Islamist cells in Belgium, in the training camps of Afghanistan and with the radical clerics who preached in the London mosques. And when he reported all back to his employers in the (primarily French, but also English and German) secret services, he was disbelieved and cast aside.

Considering this, Inside the Jihad can be seen as expressing the frustration of a man who achieved so much with so little help and who was forced to retire from activity when he was probably most needed. This book is also revealing for the failure, on behalf of the French, English and, later, German intelligence services to understand Nasiri’s warnings concerning al-Qaeda, its purpose, objectives and resources. Finally, the appearance of this book illustrates the failure to engage a valuable resource, Nasiri’s knowledge of al-Qaeda and its links to other Muslim radical movements, in the ensuing fight against terrorism.

In this sense, the Prologue is most revealing:

„I heard about the 9/11 attacks on the radio. I was in my car, driving to pick up my wife from work. The reporters had thought an airplane had hit the first tower accidentally. My wife got in the car. She, too, believed the collision had been an accident.

But I knew it was no accident. Even before the second plane hit it, I knew. And I knew who had done it. […] I did the only thing I could: I picked up the phone to call my contact at the German intelligence service. […] He answered on the first ring. When I told him who it was he sounded surprised.

«I’m calling to offer my help» I said.

«Do you know who did this? Do you know any of the hijackers?»

«No», I replied. «But I know who’s behind this. I know why they did it. I know who these people are, and I know how they think.»

There was a short silence on the other end of the line, and then a single sentence: «We’ll call back if we need you.» Then a click. I never heard from him again.”

From a literary point of view, Inside the Jihad is an autobiography. It follows Nasiri from his childhood and teenage years spent in Morocco, to his early youth in Europe (Brussels mainly), then as a spy, throughout Western Europe, North Africa, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Nasiri protects his identity by not revealing his name or his age, he actually offers sufficient information about himself3, his family4, the people he met and the places he went to.

Inside the Jihad is structured into four parts – Brussels, Afghanistan, Londonistan, Germany – which coincide with the main episodes in Nasiri’s life. Each chapter is presented in a manner very similar to the way official files are drafted (no doubt, premeditated by Nasiri as yet another sign of his former activity with the intelligence services). There is a „List of characters” introducing the main actors taking part in the action of each chapter; a „Timeline” with the momentous events, meant to offer the reader a background on the subject matter; the first two parts also have each a map attached, where the reader can track Nasiri’s movements.

By all of this, Nasiri attempts to reach out to the reader, to make his story credible and even to convince of his intentions and meanings. He mostly succeeds, one of the few exceptions being the episode where he reveals the circumstances in which he became a spy.

Nasiri presents it as a deliberate choice based on a necessity when he relates the situation that determined him to make contact with the French external intelligence service, the DGSE. He presents himself as the victim of a misunderstanding, based on the actions he took to shield his family and their home from the illegal activities that took place there. As a result, he claims his life was in danger and the only option he foresaw was to change sides.

Precisely that moment marks the turning point that changes Nasiri’s life, the moment when he turns from an arms dealer into the DGSE informant. As a result of the information he provided, the terrorist cell in Brussels is disintegrated when the authorities arrest all of its members. By this time, he finds the work as an informant most disappointing and poorly remunerated, therefore he appeals to his contact in the French external intelligence service for something different.

As a result, the DGSE sends Nasiri to Turkey, which he regards as a decision to dispense with his services. Unable to return to Europe, Nasiri decides that his best option would be to head east and try to get in touch with the mujahidin fighting in Afghanistan. Thus in the second, and most extended chapter of the book, Nasiri details the exploits that took him from Karachi airport in Pakistan all the way to the training camps in Afghanistan.

Nasiri still considered himself a spy in the service of the DGSE and he took upon himself as his duty to carefully observe the training methods of what he considers would be the new enemy for Europe. He identifies the difference between the Taliban training camps (i.e. for those preparing for the war that was ongoing in Afghanistan) and the camps where foreign (Arab, Chechen etc.) Muslim fighters trained. He gives detailed accounts of Chechen and Maghreb fighters whom he meets and trains with as he realizes that the flow of highly trained, radicalized Muslims was already directed against Europe.

After almost a year spent training in Afghanistan, Nasiri returns to Europe, having been entrusted with the mission to establish a terrorist cell. He reestablishes his contact with the DGSE and is being sent to London, to work with the British secret service. Nasiri succeeds to get close to the Radical preachers and reports back. However, after nearly two years spent in London he fails to gain the trust of the British secret service and when the US embassies from Africa fall victim to al-Qaeda bombers,5 they decide to send Nasiri out of the country.

The fourth part of the book – Germany – is the shortest, as it marks the failure of Nasiri’s cooperation with the German secret service. He marries the German tourist girl he previously met in Paris and witnesses, with frustration, the materialization of the radical Muslim threat in the US and later, in Europe that he tried to warn against.

Besides one or two blur episodes, Inside the Jihad is full of revealing information. Nasiri himself made all the effort to disclose as many details as he could about his exploits, being aware of the fact that many would challenge his credibility. In this sense, the editors of the book found one of the best advocates for Nasiri. Michael F. Scheuer6 writes the Introduction to this book and supports Nasiri’s work by comparing it and identifying the similarities with both what he learned about al-Qaeda as a CIA officer and the literature available.

Valentin-Gabriel Budău
[The University of Bucharest]


1 Of course, al-Qaeda (just as any terrorist organization, for that matter) promotes itself and its actions via the internet, however, as Inside the Jihad reveals, the terrorists have learned that misinformation is an important part of the strategy and they act accordingly.
2 Omar Nasiri is, obviously, a pseudonym.
3 He reports on his mischiefs as a child or his illnesses. He also reveals detailed images of some of his family members.
4 He reveals that fact that he is the second-oldest son in a family with six boys and three girls.
5 On August7, 1998 the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi were attacked within minutes of each other.
6 Scheuer served in the CIA for twenty-two years before his retirement in 2004. Between 1996 – 1999 he was Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station, the unit responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden.



VALENTIN-GABRIEL BUDĂU – Drd., Facultatea de Ştiinţe Politice, Universitatea de Bucureşti..




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