Taliban fighter with AK-47 during US Marine Corps training (USMC, 2011) [880]

Aimen Dean: Our Man in Al-Qaeda

The Islamic Terrorist Who Became an MI6 Spy

As one of al-Qaeda’s most respected bomb-makers, Aimen Dean rubbed shoulders with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

As a double agent at the heart of al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons programme, he foiled attacks on civilians and saved countless lives, brushing with death so often that his handlers began to call him their spy with nine lives.

Nine Lives is the story of how a young Muslim, determined to defend his faith, found himself fighting on the wrong side – and his fateful decision to work undercover for his sworn enemy. From the killing fields of Bosnia to the training camps of Afghanistan, from running money and equipment in Britain to dodging barrel bombs in Syria, Nine Lives reveals what life is like inside the global jihad, and what it will take to stop it once and for all.

Dean was born in Saudi Arabia in 1978. Raised in a strict Muslim family, he had memorised the Quran and become a Hafiz by the age of 12. Following the death of his mother he sought solace in Sayyid Qutb’s In the Shade of the Koran. Sayyid Qutb’s ideas were the foundation blocks of modern Islamic extremism, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

He was part of an Islamic Awareness circle at Omar Bin Abdulaziz Mosque in Khobar, where one of the instructors was Yusef al-Ayeri. In 1989, his eldest brother Moheddin went to fight in Afghanistan for three months.

Bosnian Mujahideen

When his friend Khalid al-Hajj returned from fighting in Afghanistan, 15-year-old Aimen Dean decided to join him and travel to the collapsing country of Yugoslavia and fight for the Bosnian Muslims.

The Bosnian War was an armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, following the break-up of Yugoslavia. According to The Washington Post, Saudi Arabia provided $300 million in weapons to Muslim forces in Bosnia with the knowledge and tacit co-operation of the United States, a claim denied by US officials. Foreign Muslim fighters also joined the ranks of the Bosnian Muslims, including from the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and the global extremist organization al-Qaeda.

Already a seasoned fighter, Khalid al-Hajj would later to become the leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, but Dean was still green behind his radicalised ears. Speaking to the BBC, Dean said of this time:

“It was the most eye-opening experience I ever had. I was a bookish nerd from Saudi Arabia just weeks ago and then suddenly I find myself prancing up on the mountains of Bosnia holding an AK-47 feeling a sense of immense empowerment – and the feeling that I was participating in writing history rather than just watching history on the side.”

In Bosnia, Dean was part of the Bosnian Mujahideen Brigade that massacred over 200 prisoners by decapitation following the Battle for Vozuća. He witnessed his friend Khaled al-Hajj remove the head of a prisoner with a serrated hunting knife.

The Bosnian War gave birth to many talented leaders of al-Qaeda. The man accused of being the architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, was one of those who were in Bosnia.

Before the end of the Bosnian War, Dean was recruited by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who suggested that he go to Afghanistan and give him a contact in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda

Following Bosnia, Dean was invited to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and joined al-Qaeda. Here he trained al-Qaeda recruits in the basics of Islamic theology, history and the essentials of religious practice. He was worried by the 1998 United States embassy bombings and asked Abdullah al-Mohaja for the religious justification.

Dean was at a training camp in Afghanistan when the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed in 1998. As well as the 12 American casualties, he was shocked to learn that 240 or more local people died, and 5,000 were wounded. “I think that is when the horror of it started to sink in,” Dean said in an interview.

Spying for MI6

Dean decided to leave al-Qaeda, going to Qatar on the pretext of his health with the intention to disappear. He was captured on arrival in Qatar by Qatari Intelligence, who gave him a choice of intelligence agency and he chose to work with MI6. MI6 then spent seven months debriefing him, after which he agreed to go back to Afghanistan as a spy.

Dean spied on al-Qaeda for the next 8 years. During this time, he travelled between Afghanistan and London on behalf of al-Qaeda, allowing him to report to MI6. Dean said of his role as a spy, “my primary objective was to collect as much information as possible.” While in the UK, he acted as al-Qaeda’s representative and had to be careful to preach and recruit within UK law.

Dean claims to have foiled attacks involving suicide bombings and the use of poisons against civilians. He was also able to hand plans to British intelligence of a device that was intended to be used for a chemical attack on the New York subway. In the event, Osama Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called off the attack out of fear of the US’s retaliation.

Dean’s cover was blown by a US writer who published details that could only be traced back to Dean. Following this, al-Qaeda has made two attempts to murder him, the latest in 2016.

Aimen Dean now consults on security and counter-terrorism for governments and the private sector with a focus on counter-terrorist finance.

Paul Cruickshank is CNN’s Terrorism Analyst and Editor-in-Chief of CTC Sentinel, the flagship publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Tim Lister is a British producer and reporter who has covered international news for the BBC and CNN for more than thirty years. They wrote the international bestseller Agent Storm with Morten Storm.

Reviews of Aimen Dean’s Nine Lives

Aimen Dean’s Nine Lives has received widespread and well-deserved praise.

‘Nerve-shredding.’
– Daily Mail

‘It is rare that Western secret services place an agent within an organisation such as al-Qaida… It is unprecedented that any such individual publishes a detailed memoir of more than a decade of his activity at very nearly the highest possible levels of Islamist militancy.’
– Observer

‘A major contribution to the literature of espionage, and a rare book to say something original about contemporary jihadism.’
– Wall Street Journal

‘An endlessly fascinating portrayal of al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement before and after 9/11…a thrill ride of an autobiography…Nine Lives is also an exquisite portrait of what it is like to be a secret agent caught in limbo between the West and the Middle East… A must-read for anyone who seriously wants to end the scourge of jihadi terrorism in the West and the East.’

– New York Journal of Books

‘A compelling and invaluable account of life inside al-Qaeda through the eyes of a first-rate spy. This unique narrative throws open the shutters of the secret world of terror.’

– Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower

‘Aimen Dean has been on most of the major jihadist battlefields of the past three decades and met many of the most significant figures… Not only a gripping page-turner, but also an extraordinary contemporary history of the global terror threat.’

– Raffaello Pantucci, author of “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

‘This captivating real-life spy-thriller is a must-read to understand the enduring threat of global terror. It provides a fascinating account of one of the most lethal terrorist groups, from the unique perspective of a courageous double agent – an excellent read all round.’

– Ali Soufan, former FBI Special Agent and author of Anatomy of Terror and The Black Banners

‘One of the most extraordinary, captivating and insightful accounts of involvement in the violent global jihad. For many years, Aimen Dean risked his life time and time again, penetrated the leadership of al-Qaeda and saved many lives. Britain owes him a debt of gratitude. A seminal book.’

– Richard Walton, Head of Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), New Scotland Yard, 2011–2016

‘An incisive history of the war on terrorism and a riveting true-life thriller… An important book that sheds new light on al-Qaeda’s violent trajectory and its continued, stubborn resilience.’

– Professor Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University, and author of Inside Terrorism

‘A must-read for anyone interested in the inside story of the last two decades of the so-called War on Terror. This book defies easy classification. Is it an insightful book on intelligence tradecraft? Certainly so. Is it an important primer on the evolution of radical jihadism? Without question. Is it a key resource for our understanding of counter-terrorism policy and practice in the twenty-first century? Absolutely.’

– Dr Vince Houghton, Historian and Curator, International Spy Museum, Washington, DC
‘Nine Lives provides a stunning inside account of the making of a senior al-Qaeda operative, who trained with the organization’s master bomb-maker and WMD-specialist, who turned into an MI6 spy, foiling terrorist plots and uncovering al-Qaeda networks. The story of Aimen Dean is as close as you’ll ever get to the real thing. The book provides unique intelligence insights into the inner workings of al-Qaeda before and after 9/11. It also reveals how MI6 used him as one of its most valuable intelligence weapons in the global war on terrorism.’

– Dr Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director, Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Swedish Defence University, and Quality Manager, EU Radicalisation Awareness Network, Centre of Excellence

‘This is the most fascinating book about al-Qaeda I’ve read in a long time. It is a realistic and down-to earth account of al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons programme, told by one of its insiders. It’s a must-read for everyone who wants to understand al-Qaeda and the evolution of international terrorism.’

– Anne Stenersen, author of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Al-Qaida’s Quest for Weapons of Mass Destruction