Deep Under Cover in Al-Qaida The Mole and the Terrorists
Omar Nasiri infiltrated the Islamist terrorist network for European intelligence agencies. He got to know terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants in Afghanistan. Today he lives in hiding in Germany.
Terror spy Omar Nasiri met many of bin Laden's lieutenants in Afghanistan.
They were never fond of Omar Nasiri. But they valued him because, for years, he was one of their best sources of intelligence about al-Qaida. Nasiri sits on the terrace at the Kempinski Hotel in Frankfurt, his upper body muscular and powerful, his soft brown eyes restless and watchful. He picks at a mountain of shrimp, washes down his meal with a glass of beer, and looks visibly comfortable. He has spent time in Afghanistan, met close associates of Osama bin Laden, slept in caves and mixed explosives. Now he wants to enjoy life in Germany.
Beginning in 1994, Omar Nasiri was one of the first moles to infiltrate the radical Islamist group. Agents at Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence agency characterized him as "intelligent and flexible," but according to German agents who managed Nasiri until the spring of 2000, he was also "undisciplined, obstinate and had a tendency to dramatize. "No one tells me what to do or not to do," he says, taking another sip of his beer. "I am not a seeing eye dog. I am a free dog."
This week, Nasiri's story is appearing in book form, the essence of which has been confirmed by the intelligence organizations -- though not all details are verifiable. It is a story that paints an enlightening picture of the early years of the terrorist network, as it began to establish itself in Europe virtually unnoticed, like a parasite. Nasiri also reveals a great deal about the relationship between moles like himself and intelligence agencies -- associations that were so consumed by mistrust and intrigues that they almost overlooked the growing danger as the first generation of al-Qaida in Europe took shape in Belgium, France, England and Germany in the mid-1990s.
Preferred hashish to the Koran
Moroccan expatriate Nasiri, which is not his real name, now lives in hiding in Germany. When he was 26 his older brother Hakim tried to instill a deeper religious faith in Omar, but with a fervor that made Omar suspicious at first. The son of parents who commuted between Belgium and Tangier, Morocco, Nasiri was neither a true Moroccan nor a real Belgian. While his brother was discovering a new refuge in Islam, Nasiri preferred dealing in hashish.
His mother's house in a Brussels suburb soon became a meeting place for Algerian exiles Hakim had brought along. They wore long beards and the ankle-length robe known as the jalabiya, and they spent their days sending out copies of Al-Ansar, an underground paper for Algerian exiles. Two years later, in 1995, Hakim and his friends were involved in the bombing attacks in the Paris subway system, attacks that brought the Algerian civil war to Europe and provided the first indication that Islamist terrorist organizations were developing in Europe.
The group's initial weapon was language, but action wasn't far behind. The Algerian exiles supported the fundamentalist organization GIA's underground rebellion at home, and one of their goals in Europe was to drum up weapons and ammunition for the mujaheddin. Nasiri, who has a talent for manipulating people, found a Belgian weapons dealer who eventually sold the group 7.62-caliber ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles.
From then on Nasiri went to prayers with his brother and his friends. Although he would pray that the group's efforts would succeed, he says today that he was not as fanatical about the mission as his older brother. When the weapons and ammunition -- Kalashnikovs and Uzis, explosives and sniper rifles -- began piling up in his mother's house, Nasiri became a traitor to his brother's cause. Not only did he want to protect his mother and younger brother Nabil, but he also had his doubts about what Hakim and the others called jihad and the duty of every Muslim.
He drove to the French consulate in Brussels one morning. "I want to speak to someone who is responsible for French security," he told the receptionist. That was in early 1994, and it marked the beginning of a six-year career as an agent.
Car bomb in Algiers
It was at a time when the intelligence services had begun noticing that isolated cells were forming among immigrant communities in Europe. But it was long before Sept. 11, 2001, and they treated it as a criminal and not a social problem. They were like meteorologists who may be able to forecast rain for the next day, but who fail to understand that climate change is on the horizon.
Nasiri betrayed his friends at the GIA, but he also betrayed the intelligence agencies by not telling them everything and essentially selling them his information selectively. He took this approach so that he could remain independent. He felt strong and weak at the same time, because he was alone and because the others had their organizations to belong to -- the agents had their intelligence agencies and the radicals had the GIA.
The group was already planning its next move, and it asked Nasiri to take a car to Morocco. It was an older green Audi, packed full with carpets, electronics devices and explosives. Nasiri was supposed to drive this rolling car bomb, which had crossed Europe under the radar of authorities, to Tangier in late 1994. From Spain Nasiri took the car across to Africa. The engine died just as Nasiri was about to board the ferry, but three obliging security guards helped push the car up the ramp and on board.
A few weeks later a car bomb exploded in downtown Algiers, killing 42 people. Perhaps it was Nasiri's bomb. He will never know, but he says that the thought still troubles him today.
Nasiri was respected for having trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.
In 1995 Afghanistan was a refuge for mujaheddin. Bin Laden had used his wealth to develop several training camps, and the Taliban was a fledgling movement hungry for power. Nasiri met Libyan Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a high-ranking al-Qaida official who ran one of the camps, in front of a mosque. When Nasiri arrived at the camp he was questioned by seven Arabs -- a sort of interrogation prior to admittance. The brothers called him "Abu Imam."
Slow to grasp the dangers
In the Khalden and Derunta training camps, Nasiri learned how to fire a Makarov rifle, a Walther PPK semiautomatic pistol and Russian anti-tank missiles, and how to handle Semtex, TNT and C3 explosives. A fast learner, it took him less than 60 seconds to disassemble and reassemble a Kalashnikov while blindfolded. In the evenings the trainees would eat bean stew and recite verses from the Koran. The group, which included seven Chechens, was being trained to fight in Chechnya. The accidental detonation of an explosive device reduced the number of Chechens to five.
According to intelligence estimates, tens of thousands of young Muslims passed through the training camps, but only a few thousand underwent the kind of intensive, supplementary training Nasiri experienced. At the time, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, Britain's MI5 and France's DGSE noticed that young Muslims were mysteriously disappearing from Paris, London and Hamburg, only to resurface a few months later, apparently after returning from Afghanistan. But the European intelligence agencies failed to grasp the significance of what was happening or recognize the risks returnees like Nasiri posed -- returnees who had been instructed to establish underground groups in Europe.
After spending a little less than a year in Afghanistan, Nasiri reported his observations to the authorities. But the political environment at the time was not suitable for taking action. Even hate preachers like Abu Qutada, the so-called "Emir of London," who was recruiting young Muslims at the Four Feathers community center, were left alone. But Nasiri began working for British intelligence -- and in "Londonistan," a nickname the British capital had acquired because of its large Islamist population, Nasiri was respected as an Afghanistan veteran.
In England Nasiri met young Algerians who wanted to go into battle, and he met Abu Hamsa, the imam whose arms had been blown off by a bomb. Nasiri sent money to Pakistan and delivered secret messages. But when three young Muslims confronted him one day and asked him to come with them, Nasiri suspected that his cover might have been blown. It was time to leave London and go to Germany.
When Nasiri appeared at an office for political asylum applicants in the eastern German town of Eisenhüttenstadt on Dec. 22, 1998, he was expected. The DGSE had already notified the German domestic intelligence agency of his arrival and had asked the Germans to take care of Nasiri. The official who traveled to Eisenhüttenstadt to meet with him was an experienced manager of undercover agents who specialized in Algerian sources. Germany became Nasiri's third government employer, and its agents gave him the cover name "Finov."
Rejected for asylum
But Nasiri's days working for the Germans ended up being more of an epilogue, especially when compared with his more adventurous years previously. German intelligence was unwilling to approve an unlimited residency permit for Nasiri until he had proven his worth. On Jan. 25, 1999, the German agency that deals with foreign refugees rejected his application for asylum. At that point he was completely at the mercy of his employers in domestic intelligence.
They sent him to Frankfurt, where they wanted Nasiri to gather information at the Taliban's German office on the 10th floor of a bleak high-rise building. The Taliban was still semi-officially recognized at the time. It was a test. When Nasiri returned and presented his new employers with a few details, they were unimpressed. Nasiri, the agents noted, could apparently "barely read and write" and had seemingly gone to the wrong address in Frankfurt.
Nasiri was more successful monitoring a mosque in Oberhausen, where he drove each week for Friday prayers for almost a year. The agents also sent him to a mosque in Frankfurt, but even that mission failed to foster trust between the mole and his handlers.
The agents complained about Nasiri's insistence on being wined and dined in expensive restaurants when they he met with them. Nasiri was upset because the agents only approved a monthly expense account of 300 German marks and refused to grant him the necessary papers to marry a Moroccan woman. The agents were far from pleased when Nasiri asked them to pay a ticket he had been issued for driving without a license. In February 2000, he requested that the "intelligence service connection," as it is called in intelligence circles, be severed.
Nasiri was unaccustomed to earning a living with a normal job. His German was poor and he lacked a permanent residency permit. In January 2001 he contacted the domestic intelligence office in Cologne and asked to speak with the head of the agency, claiming the agents were at fault for his "desperate financial situation" and should pay him more money. He also filed a complaint with the Chancellery, in which he claimed that he had "facilitated hundreds of arrests." The agents in domestic intelligence coolly responded that, because he had not performed his alleged glorious deeds on their behalf, they regretted that they "could not help him."
According to Nasiri, he offered his services once again after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the offer was turned down. Wishing to remain in Germany, he married and applied for a German passport. His book, though, says a lot about his true loyalties. "I believe that the Americans and all the rest should get out of our country and stay away. I believe that they should stop interfering in the politics of Muslim countries," he writes in his book. "They should leave us alone, and if they don't they should be killed, because that is how one deals with invading armies and occupiers."
After much hesitation, the German authorities issued Nasiri a passport a few weeks ago.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan