Adventures in Bookland: Nine Lives by Aimen Dean
There’s not many testimonies from high up in Al-Qaeda and even fewer from someone who turned against the organisation and became a spy for MI6, so Aimen Dean’s Nine Lives will probably always rank number one in a field of one. Thankfully, it deserves its place for its intrinsic value as well as for its extrinsic interest.
Dean was a more than usually pious boy growing up in Saudi Arabia, the youngest of a family of brothers whose father was killed in a traffic accident and whose mother died when he was in his early teens (if I remember correctly). As such, he began to gravitate towards Islamist groups, enlisting at the tender age of 16 in the Bosnian jihad. Having survived that war – more by luck than skill – Dean’s appetite was only whetted to fight further for the cause of Islam and, after an abortive attempt to join the Chechen war, he ended up becoming part of Al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. A bright young man with a scientific bent, Dean was seconded to the weapons experimental division of Al-Qaeda, taking part in all sorts of experiments – many of which involved the death of various unfortunate animal test subjects.
What’s most interesting about the book is how Dean gradually became convinced that the jihadist ideology was wrong, being based on a partial and biased reading of Islamic law and tradition. Having made his decision to leave the organisation, Dean was arrested by Qatari intelligence and given a choice: cooperate with MI6, the CIA or French intelligence. He chose MI6 on the basis of a complete lack of knowledge of France and a general suspicion that the Americans did not protect their intelligence assets. It proved a wise choice. For the next most interesting part of the book is his account of his time as an MI6 agent and the delicate dance of necessity, choice and danger between Dean and his MI6 handlers.
In the end, it was the Americans who gave Dean away, in the memoirs of an official of the outgoing Bush administration, and Dean had to make a hasty getaway. It’s a fascinating story that answers both how someone can become a jihadi and how he might leave the ideology behind. Highly recommened.