Thursday, May 22, 2003

The book "My Jihad: The True Story of an American Mujahid's Amazing Journey from Usama Bin Laden's Training Camps to Counterterrorism with the FBI and CIA" (Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2002 - available here or here or as an ebook; reviews here and here and here and here) by Aukai Collins, describes his adventures in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Albania/Kosovo, and particularly, Chechnya (where he had two tours, the first when he seriously injured his leg, and the second wearing a prosthetic leg), not to mention his adventures as a counterterrorism agent acting for the FBI and CIA. Reading Collins, you get the impression that the battle is between pusillanimous and stupid Arab jihad leaders up against vile and officious American counterterrorist agents (and Janet Reno probably wouldn't be on his Christmas card list if he sent Christmas cards). It is a ripping yarn well worth reading for its entertainment value alone, and helps to explain the mechanics of how fundamentalist fighters are trained and sent on jihad and the mentality that would lead someone to have his leg voluntarily amputated so that he could continue on jihad. Collins had a rather unfortunate upbringing and youth, and, like many other Americans, converted to Islam while in prison. To put it mildly, he is very committed to fighting for his religion. His book does not contain much specific information on 9-11, but there are a few nuggets:

  1. On Harakat-ul Jihad, who ran the camp he attended in Afghanistan (pp. 9-10):

    "Harakat-ul Jihad was a Pakistani jihad group whose primary goal was to annex Kashmir or form a separate emirate. It also sent its mujahideen to other conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The leadership (and the dozens of other jihad organizations) was supposed to have a sort of loose confederacy with Al Qaeda. At the time I visited - four years after the Soviets had been pushed out of Afghanistan - American influence and support for the mujahideen had waned and other anti-Communist and anti-Westerm influences, such as Dr. Abdullah Azzam and his wealthy protege Usama Bin Laden, had stepped in. . . . In 1993 the mujahideen were still the 'freedom fighters' of Reagan administration lore, and nobody outside the circle of active mujahideen knew about Usama Bin Laden."

    Collins notes that the Pakistani ISI used Islamic fundamentalist fighters as cannon fodder to fight the battles against India over Kashmir, and thus kept the battle going without risking the lives of as many Pakistanis. The martyrdom which people like Collins sought was much more likely to happen in Kashmir than anyplace else.

  2. Collins, after quite an involved process, finally ended up in the training camp in Afghanistan (pp. 31-32):

    "After a while, a man named Umar showed up. He was Pakistani by blood but had been born and raised in the United Kingdom. . . . Umar was an intersting guy. He wore a full beard - as we all did - and he had bulging forearms and was taller than the average Pakistani. He was a devout Muslim, but back in Britain, he'd been a professional arm wrestler. I thought that many of the guys in the camp were a little soft, but Umar was a tough guy. He also had Western sensibilities, and between the two of us we never ran out of ideas about how to stay busy."

    and (pp. 33-34)

    "I'd assumed from the beginning that Umar had come to the camp the way I had, through the auspices of Harakat-ul Jihad. But when the tension started to grow with the commanders he told me that he was affiliated with another Pakistani group, which I later found out was Harakat-ul Ansar, and that he was here on an exchange program of sorts. Harakat-ul Ansar was funded by Usama Bin Laden and was the same group that John Walker Lindh would later belong to. By running around with Umar and causing a ruckus, we were creating tension with the Harkat-ul Jihad guys."

    One of the themes of the book is how passive and unimaginative most of the fighters were, especially the Arabs, and Umar and Collins made themselves unpopular with the camp leaders by engaging in their own training exercises. They eventually both left and returned to Pakistan, and Collins returned to the United States. Umar went to Kashmir to conduct a hostage operation against some British tourists for Harakat-ul Ansar. He is now better known as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

  3. Collins started to act as an American counterintelligence agent for the FBI and CIA, but was constantly frustrated by the bureaucratic problems caused, particularly by the CIA. He actually had an invitation (p. 178) to visit Bin Laden's camp, but the CIA refused to let him go.

  4. When in London, Collins was told about a Saudi living in the United States named Ghareeb, who was described to him as a good person who was involved in the jihad (p. 179). "He's just moved from Oregon to Sierra Vista, Arizona. That's funny, I thought, wondering if he knew he was living next to Fort Huachuca, the base for the army's military-intelligence school and an FBI training area." Back in the States, he met Ghareeb, and they became good friends, and hung out for almost a year preparing for jihad, until Collins left for his very unsuccessful mission to Kosovo, which actually was sabotaged (p. 212) by the CIA (by telling the Albanian officials that he was working for bin Laden and by stealing his luggage!), for whom he was supposed to be working.

  5. On attempts to obtain funding for his jihad (p. 212):

    "The so-called Islamic community in America is so afraid of its own shadow that it won't even listen to a subject that has anything to do with fighting. I tried to go to the mosques, but I was known too well as one of the mujahideen, and no one would even listen to me. I laugh when I hear the FBI talk about 'terrorist' activities being funded through the mosques in America. I have literally been asked to leave certain mosques because the Arabs there feared me as being too militant. The Muslims of Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosova, and other places have been slaughtered while the Islamic community in America has done nothing more than send letters to the president of the United States, begging him for his help."

  6. Back in Arizona, Collins started to hang out with Ghareeb again (pp.213):

    "While in Phoenix we would spend time playing with Ghareeb's Arab buddies. We generally avoided the mosques but would occasionally hang out at one of them to meet with other Saudis. One of Ghareeb's friends would later be one of a handful of people who would alter our world forever. I didn't particularly like him when I met him. I didn't have anything against him; I just didn't like him all that much. He was a little scrawny guy, short and maybe 150 pounds with his clothes on. He seemed like more of a follower than anything, the kind who would get caught up in something just because other people were doing it. He was one of many Arabs whom Ghareeb would visit to talk about jihad.

    I didn't like how these guys acted. They were what I call 'hanky-panky Arabs'; they participated in forbidden activities, like drinking alcohol or perhaps eating hotdogs and screwing around. They lived in America as any other person might but got all excited about jihad stuff when Ghareeb told them stories or brought them videos. Yet you'd never find a single one of them on the front lines. I never saw any of these guys in Chechnya, Kosova, or Kashmir."

    and (p. 214 - 'Andy' was one of his FBI counter intelligence handlers)

    "The little scrawny guy was taking flying lessons in Scottsdale, right up the road from my house. I'd known some of his roommates before Ghareeb started talking to him and was good friends with one of them. They were all taking flying lessons . . . . I was still working for the Bureau at this time and reporting to Andy regularly. Both the FBI and Andy were fully aware of all the Arabs whom Ghareeb and I had contact with, including the scrawny little guy, whose name is widely known now: Hani Hanjoor. Hani Hanjoor would get his pilot's license in 1999 and would fly an American Airlines plane into the Pentagon. They were hardly 'deep-cover sleepers,' as the FBI is calling them now. They lived very openly, and although I had no idea of what some of them would eventually do, they made no secrets about what they thought or believed."

  7. On his motivation for acting as a counterterrorist agent, and his reasons for quitting (p. 216):

    "I'd started working for them with honorable intentions. I never considered myself a traitor, although many Islamic figures will view me that way. I considered myself to be a mujahid, and I thought that working with them would be a way to fight the real terrorists of the world, the cowards who have never spent a single minute on the front lines and then go and kill unarmed civilians and call it jihad. Nothing was being done about this in the world of Islam. . . . Once it became clear that the FBI considered everything I believed in as 'terrorism' I could no longer work for them in good conscience."

    Whether you agree with him or not, there is an intellectual consistency in his distinguishing attacks on civilians, prohibited by morality and his religion, and fighting a battle against soldiers who are killing civilians.

  8. Something that comes out very vividly in the book from his two tours in Chechnya are the unbelievable horrors being inflicted by the Russians on the civilians of Chechnya, a topic that has mostly been avoided by the western press.

  9. From p. 248, discussing September 11:

    "I was very mistrustful about the fact that Usama Bin Laden's name was mentioned literally hours after the attack. When I combined this with the fact the FBI had no apparent desire to accept what I brought to the table, I became very skeptical about anything anybody said about what happened, or who did it. I thought back to when I was still working for them and we had the opportunity to enter Bin Laden's camp. Something just hadn't smelled right. There were also the details I knew personally about Hani Hanjoor, one of the 'hanky-panky' hijackers on the Pentagon flight. He wasn't even moderately religious, let alone fanatically religious. And I knew for a fact that he wasn't part of Al Qaeda or any other Islamic organization; he couldn't even spell jihad in Arabic."

    Let that sink in for a moment: "He wasn't even moderately religious, let alone fanatically religious. And I knew for a fact that he wasn't part of Al Qaeda or any other Islamic organization; he couldn't even spell jihad in Arabic." And yet we are supposed to believe that this 'hanky-panky Arab' was so full of commitment to jihad that he piloted Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11? Leaving aside the fact that Hani Hanjour wasn't nearly skilled enough to have piloted that plane into the Pentagon, he also clearly wasn't anywhere close to being pious enough to give up his life for a religious cause.

Collins caused a bit of a flap after 9-11, when he announced that he had tried to tip off the FBI about the suspicious activities of the group of Arabs taking flying lessons, a group which included Hani Hanjoor (the FBI denies that he provided them with any information on Hanjour prior to 9-11, but are perhaps just quibbling about the fact that Collins did not single out Hanjour, but informed them about the whole group). Indeed, one of the arguments that Moussaoui has made in his defense is that the FBI avoided arresting Hanjour because he was preparing to be involved in the September 11 terrorism, and arrested Moussaoui because he was not involved in the September 11 terrorism, but his big mouth may have brought too much attention to Arabs taking flying lessons, thus endangering the whole plot. Collins is clear in his book that his counterterrorism handler and the FBI "were fully aware of all the Arabs whom Ghareeb and I had contact with", including Hanjour.