In 1998 the CIA got an opportunity to infiltrate one of their spies into the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, but turned it down. This week, I examine the autobiography of that spy – Aukai Collins, an American jihadi who became a deep cover agent for the FBI and CIA. From his time training in camps in Afghanistan and Kashmir, to fighting on the front lines of the jihad in Chechnya and Kosovo, to how and why his relationship with the CIA went horribly wrong, this is perhaps the wildest story of any of the spies inside Al Qaeda.

Transcript

Aukai Collins, also known as Aqil Collins and Abu Mujahid, was born in Honolulu in 1974, the son of two hippies, his father was a Vietnam veteran. Like so many of the guys we’ve looked at in this series, he largely grew up without his father. His parents split up when he was four, then his mother moved them to Ocean Beach, San Diego for several years, but his father did not come round often and his parents’ relationship was very hostile.

In both Hawaii and San Diego his mother ran with a rough crowd – Hells Angels and other petty gangsters. She took drugs, she sold drugs, she was a bit of a tearaway. When he was 7 or 8 his mother moved them back to Hawaii and got involved with local gangs. One night a rival gang beat her up for selling drugs on their turf, so the rest of the gang used Aukai to lure them into an abandoned house where they beat them up and killed them. This was Aukai’s first entree into the world of deadly violence, at an astonishingly young age, but it didn’t seem to affect him that much.

In the summer of 1982 his mother was murdered by two Samoans who strangled her and dumped her body in a swamp. Aukai was temporarily adopted by a friend’s family and lived with them for a while, before his dad showed up with a ‘crazy meth-head’ new wife. It didn’t work out – after less than a year she insisted his dad send young Aukai to live with his grandparents in Indiana.

Inevitably, he got involved with gangs, and mentions how at age 15 he went around with a Magnum .357 – a Dirty Harry gun. He was arrested for stealing cars and given 8 months in a juvenile facility, but he escaped and fled to Mexico. He was caught, sentenced to several more months but escaped again. When he was caught once more he got sent to a reform camp in Arizona for troubled boys, which was little more than a brutalising prison. The day he arrived, all the inmates were beaten as part of ongoing ‘disciplinary’ measures.

Aukai escaped once more, was caught again and sent back to the camp, before escaping yet again, stealing a car and driving to San Diego. He fell back in with local gangs, stealing cars and holding up liquor stores, before getting into a shootout while robbing a house. Someone must have ratted him out because a few days later 13 cop cars show up at his house. He was sentenced to 8 years in the California Youth Authority, a prison for young people.

After causing a riot in the prison he was sent to the maximum security wing. He describes how gangs in prison typically broke along racial lines, and as a white guy the Aryan Brotherhood tried to sign him up. He told them to go to hell, and for the next two years they regularly tried to kill him.

He befriended a young man on a life sentence, who introduced him to Islam. One night while Aukai was watching Soul Train during his very limited time out of his cell, the friend invited him to an Islamic class being held in the prison chapel. Before long, Aukai converted to Islam.

When he got out he started attending mosques in the San Diego area, and got involved with the Tablighi Jamaat, an entirely peaceful movement who do a lot of Islamic outreach. After several months he started hearing about the war in Bosnia, and believed the stories that Serbs were killing tens of thousands of Bosniak Muslims. But no one in the mosque seemed to care, and (at least from Aukai’s perspective) the US government were not only failing to help, they’d imposed an arms embargo.

After the Imam at his mosque had tried to discourage him from going to join the Bosnian jihad, he met a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war who introduced him to Mohammed Zaky, who comes up in the Ali Mohamed story (Ali also lived in this area around this time). Zaky had fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and started making arrangements to send Collins to Bosnia. Aukai flew to Vienna – a typical stop-off point for Muslims who wanted to join the jihad in Bosnia, but none of the organisations there would help him get into the country.

Zaky told him to wait in Vienna and he’d find another way, but when Collins met a guy at a mosque who told him he could get him into Kashmir Aukai jumped at the chance. He flew to Karachi, and from there made his way to a mujahideen camp in Kashmir where he undertook weapons training. The emir of the camp gave him American military fatigues to wear – presumably leftovers from the war in Afghanistan.

But he never saw any action, because the Pakistani ISI didn’t want the dead bodies of foreign fighters turning up in Kashmir and being exploited by the Indian authorities. This led to a lot of tension between Aukai and the guys running the camp, so eventually they sent him back to Islamabad, tired of his complaints. A short time later he persuaded a local mujahideen organisation to get him into one of the camps in Afghanistan and they helped him sneak across the border and enter the Jihad Wahl camp near Khost.

Aukai stayed there for months, receiving a wide variety of weapons and explosives training. He became friends with a guy known as Umar, and they played games in the camp, sneaking out at night to stage mock-attacks. Umar, it turns out, was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man who sent $100,000 to Mohammed Atta on behalf of the ISI, and also a reported ISI and MI6 asset. Sheikh would become famous as the man who murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating the ISI-Al Qaeda money trail.

Collins’ thirst for jihad grew while he was in the camp, and he repeatedly asked to be able to go and join the fight in Tajikistan in the war against the Russians. One day an ISI officer turned up in the camp, looking for the American. A very silly conversation ensued where the ISI guy asked Aukai questions in English, but Aukai responded in Urdu, pretending he couldn’t speak English. Then the ISI officer figured out that if he understood the questions he did speak English, but Aukai pretended not to see his point.

His arguments with the camp commanders reached breaking point – they would not let him go to Tajikistan. So Aukai and Umar left the camp, snuck back over the border and would up in Islamabad. The next chapter would see Aukai finally get his wish to join the jihad.

Aukai Collins and the Chechen Jihad

With no money, Aukai had to call his father and beg for the money for a plane ticket home, and he flew back to San Diego. He got back in touch with an old girlfriend, Tammy, who converted to Islam and changed her name to Sumaya, and they got married. For a while it looked like Aukai was settling down.

The first war in Chechnya changed all that, and Collins learned about it reading news stories and knew this was his chance to go and fight the Russians. He bumped into Mohammed Zaky, who said he was on his way to Chechnya very soon. About a month later, another friend told Aukai that Zaky had died.

He got involved with the American World Wide Relief organisation that Zaky had been running, and raised money for a humanitarian aid shipment to Chechnya, on the proviso he could go with the shipment. He flew to Azerbaijan and prepared to move into Chechnya. He called Sumaya to say goodbye, thinking he was going to be martyred, and found out she was pregnant with their first child.

Upon his arrival in Chechnya he quickly joined up with the local militants, who rather amusingly were often dressed in Russian or American military gear. Most of their weapons came from corrupt Russian Army officials who were selling on the black market. Aukai’s descriptions of Chechnya are very vivid, and involve a lot of death and beautiful countryside. One mission in particular where they shot down a Russian helicopter is very well told – like so many of these stories, this would make a great movie.

He met various senior figures in the Chechen jihad including Shamil Basayev and Ibn al Khattab, and had a great time learning to drive stolen Russian tanks. Honestly, parts of this sound like a lot of fun. He even discovered that Mohammed Zaky was still alive, though Zaky did die in the fighting.

One particular episode saw them go to the town of Kurchaloy, which was very risky because the cities were much more closely monitored by Russian military intelligence. But it was an important mission – Kerchaloy still had a working TV station and they were broadcasting Enter the Dragon, with Bruce Lee. So a bunch of Chechen mujahideen sat around watching the movie and discussing the difference Bruce Lee would make to the war, with the consensus being that he’d turn the tide of the conflict because the Russians would be too scared to fight him. Aukai couldn’t resist, and asked them ‘What about Jean-Claude Van Damme?’. He was told to be quiet, because Van Damme would make them lose the war.

In Kerchaloy, Aukai met a beautiful 16 year old named Ayeesha and they later married. It seemed his Chechen adventure was giving him everything he wanted, but then things went very bad. One day the Russian Septnaz decided to attack the camp where Aukai and his band of jihadis were staying and during the fighting he appears to have stepped on a landmine, which severely damaged his leg. He was also shot in both legs as he lay on the ground, bleeding profusely.

Somehow, he survived and made it to a hospital after a couple of hours being driven with a shattered leg and bullet wounds. It was the same hospital where he had previously had an appendectomy so when he arrived in the back of a truck, covered in blood, one of the medical staff shouted ‘It’s Abu, the crazy American is back again’. He spent weeks in hospital and had several surgeries, though he was comforted at night by his new bride in scenes reminiscent of a James Bond movie.

After discharging himself from hospital, Aukai and Ayeesha travelled around for a while, having several encounters with Russian troops as they made their way back to Baku in Azerbaijan. His leg was still badly injured, and during another hospital stay in Baku the doctor told him he needed another operation to try to repair damage to the nerves. So he briefly went to Jordan to have the surgery before going back to Baku, where he found out that Ayeesha was pregnant.

Aukai decided to return to America to see his first wife, raise funds and buy equipment for another trip to Chechnya. Sumaya wasn’t very happy with him but he only spent about a month back in the US, including getting a leg brace fitted. He bought a bunch of equipment and left it with a friend who took it out to Baku, and when Aukai arrived back in Azerbaijan he bought weapons there too.

But it all went wrong. The Chechen mafioso he was working with to help get the supplies into Chechnya ripped him off and took most of it for himself. So Aukai hung around in Baku waiting to make a trip to a hospital for mujahideen in Saudi Arabia, spending most of his time at a house for mujahideen going to or coming back from Chechnya. They wiled away the hours playing practical jokes with firecrackers and rappelling from a large tree in the garden. There’s quite an amusing bit in his book about a conservative Islamic scholar from Saudi who was very nervous when he first tried the rappelling, but quickly found it was a lot of fun and didn’t want to stop.

Once again, Aukai became frustrated. He complains in the book about the problem of having Arabs in charge of the jihad, when they are so disorganised. He also documents how many of the supplies coming from America were being stolen, either by the authorities in Baku or by unscrupulous mujahideen figures in the city. Aukai probed into this to try to find out what was going on, and one night found himself on the receiving end of an assassination attempt.

He was supposed to go and see some of the major figures in the Baku jihadi scene and they sent along an Azeri gangster to pick him up. Aukai realised before he even got in the car what was going to happen, and took with him a fully-automatic pistol he’d bought months earlier. When the gangster tried to take him out, he killed him, exited the car and ran off into the night.

Aukai becomes a spy

Shortly afterwards he walked into the US embassy in Baku and offered his services as a spy. He says he isn’t sure why he did this, because he was still loyal to the jihad, but was frustrated with how it was being run. He does mention the terrorist attack in April 1996 in Cairo as a motivating factor. Terrorists from Al Gama’at al Islamiyya – the Blind Sheikh’s group – murdered 18 civilians outside a hotel, believing them to be Israelis. It was the worst single attack in Egypt until the Luxor massacre in late 1997 – an attack two of my relatives were nearly caught up in.

While Aukai believed in the jihad he saw terrorism as crime and murder, and wanted to protect his religion against the fanatics, as well as help the counter-terrorist cause. He met with a CIA officer in Baku and told him his whole story, though it seems the guy didn’t believe it. The CIA officer explained that they couldn’t work him – though never explained why – and gave him money to return to the US where the FBI would make contact. The CIA also gave him a plane ticket, and details of the FBI agent who would be his new handler.

So Aukai went back to America, though three days before he left Ayeesha gave birth to their child. The CIA said they had no interest in helping him get Ayeesha into the US, so he had to leave her in Baku. She would later go back to Chechnya.

The story of Aukai’s work for the FBI, and later the CIA as well in joint operations, is one of supreme fuck-ups. Though his first wife and child were in Phoenix the FBI wanted him to work in San Diego, but he couldn’t move his wife there. It would have made much more sense for his cover story – that he was reconnecting with his old Islamic community – but for some unknown reason the FBI refused.

Despite Aukai telling them it was a waste of time, the FBI had him infiltrating mosques and Islamic centres even though the people there were strictly anti-jihad, and didn’t tolerate discussion of Islamic militancy. So he moved back to Phoenix, where there was more of a jihadi sympathiser scene.

It was while he was in Phoenix that he met an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and was impressed by how fast the guy could run. Aukai’s leg was still not working very well, so he decided to have it amputated. The FBI paid for the surgery and for the prosthetic, though his wife didn’t understand why he was doing it.

Over the following year or more they expanded his infiltration of the jihadi scene in the US to Los Angeles, San Diego and even Chicago, though in his book he is fairly tight-lipped about what this actually involved. He also went to Istanbul to meet Ayeesha, and tried to get her entry to the US. But this was impossible without them being formally married, which they couldn’t do without the permission of their respective governments – the US and Russia. The Chechens in Istanbul said they had arranged a deal with the Russian embassy, but this turned out to be a lie and when Aukai and Ayeesha showed up they were threatened with arrest.

Without official marriage papers Ayeesha wasn’t allowed into the US, so after about 6 weeks Aukai went back to the US alone. It was the last time he saw Ayeesha – though he made other attempts to get to Chechnya to see her, she would divorce him not long after the Istanbul episode. In December 1997 his first wife, Sumaya, gave birth to their son.

After another operation on his leg he was back to spying, and an opportunity presented itself. Some wealthy Arabs in LA approached him about setting up a training camp in the mountains of Arizona, so Aukai and 2 FBI agents hired a Cessna and did some scouting to find the right location. That part of Arizona is militia country, and they didn’t fancy the idea of ‘a group of redneck militia guys’ running into ‘a group of Arabs training with firearms in the mountains’.

The idea was to have the FBI run total surveillance on the camp, and identify and follow anyone who attended, hopefully tracking them and mapping out the entire jihadi network in the US. But the operation never happened – a couple of days before they were due to start the attorney general herself Janet Reno called it off, probably worried about headlines about the FBI training terrorists or another Waco-type event. Aukai responded, ‘Call the bitch up and let me talk to her’ which his FBI handlers found very funny, but obviously they couldn’t do that.

As Aukai puts it:

With time and patience we could have attracted many, if not most of the terrorists to one place, under surveillance, with leads to everything they knew inside the US, with all their phone calls traced, their emails decoded, all their financial transactions calculated. Instead of spinning our wheels infiltrating pacifists in all the mosques of North America or detaining hardworking Pakistani store clerks for months on INS violations, the investigation would have revealed the lines and nodes of the terrorist network like a chance ray of sunlight on a spider’s web.

I’m sure you can see why I like Aukai Collins, he was a very honest guy who led an amazing life, and his book is punchy and direct to the point.

After the camp operation went south the CIA turned up again, wanting Aukai to get on the internet and infiltrate the online jihadi network. They even installed encryption software on his computer so he could communicate with militants and sympathisers that way, but also so they could monitor it all. Around the same time his FBI handler told him to develop relationships with the ‘Pakistanis in London’ in preparation for a mission into Chechnya. The CIA were interested in the connections between the Londonistan scene and what was happening in Chechnya, so Aukai did as he was asked.

The operation was very stop-start. It was called off on the day he was due to leave for London, but was then put back on shortly after they shut it down. But when he went to Virginia to talk with the CIA they were concerned about an American intelligence asset taking part in a foreign military conflict – the same problem as a decade earlier when Ali Mohamed went to fight in Afghanistan. They wanted him to ‘cozy up with an aggressive frontline rebel commander (Ibn al Khattab) in my capacity as a mujahid, but I was prohibited from actually going to the front lines or acting in the capacity of a mujahid. Brilliant! Genius!’

He convinced the CIA that he could find a way round this so he set off for London, and made contact with Abu Amin – a friend from Baku two years earlier and an associate of Osama Bin Laden. While he was in London the CIA decided that they didn’t want to send him to Chechnya without informing the Russian government first – the diplomatic rule about not running intelligence assets without telling the host country. Obviously this was moronic, and the FBI were on Aukai’s side and said if the CIA didn’t come back to reality they would cancel the op.

Also while he was in London the situation in Kosovo was flaring up, and once more Aukai believed the stories about the Serbs killing 15,000 Kosovar Albanian Muslims. Believing it was an attempted genocide (it wasn’t), Aukai thought about joining the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Army, an outgrowth of the Bosnian mujahideen.

The CIA were still playing stupid games, and when Aukai told them he could get to Chechnya through Azerbaijan they said they’d have to inform the Azeri government as well as the Russians. The only reason Aukai didn’t walk away at this point was because he wanted to get to Chechnya to see Ayeesha, but gradually the operation fell apart.

Then, a stunning offer came Aukai’s way. Abdul Malik – a friend of Abu Amin – turned out to be a member of Al Qaeda who had been to the camps in Afghanistan. He told Aukai that because he was American, Aukai could travel more easily and could be of great use to Osama Bin Laden. He offered to set up an arrangement whereby Aukai would go to the camps and meet Bin Laden.

This was before the embassy bombings so Aukai wasn’t convinced Bin Laden was a bad guy, but he took the offer to the CIA enthusiastically. His CIA handler, Tracy, said it was a nice idea but it would never happen. She said ‘there was no way the US would approve an American operative going undercover into Bin Laden’s camps’. They met again a couple of weeks later and Aukai reiterated his desire to go to Afghanistan, but was told it would ‘never, ever happen’.

Aukai and the KLA

At this point Collins lost patience with the CIA and the FBI and basically told them to shove it up their ass. He went back to the US to officially become ‘deoperational’ before heading for Kosovo. While he was back in the US Abu Amin showed up, along with a bunch of Saudis. Amin had a shopping list of items – like kevlar helmets – that he wanted Aukai to buy and ship to Kosovo. In the midst of all this the embassy bombings happened, followed by the US missile strikes including on the aspirin factory. Aukai comments:

We still don’t know whether the Clinton administration had bad intelligence or were just peevish at the Sudanese for harboring Osama Bin Laden. The cruise missiles that hit Afghanistan had to travel over Pakistan, which required permission from the Pakistani government. It appears that Bin Laden sympathisers in the Pakistani ISI warned him about the attack in advance so he was able to get out in time. I sometimes wonder how many $500,000 missiles were sent to blow up the mud shacks I described earlier, or whether I could have taken care of the matter myself. That is, if the bed-wetters in the Agency could get over having to declare me to the Taliban.

So Aukai set off for Albania and when he arrived at the airport there was a man waiting for him holding a sign saying ‘Abu Mujahid’. He describes Tirana as the most insane, chaotic place on earth with no traffic rules, widespread poverty and dysfunctional government. So like the UK, except we have traffic rules.

He hooked up with the KLA in Tirana and headed for the border, but they turned back before they got there due to reports that the police were cracking down on the KLA in the border towns. Back in Tirana, that night the house he was staying in was subject to a police raid, though he told them he was an American cop and they seemed to leave him alone. Then he realised the police had seized his bags with all his possessions in.

Through a chance meeting the following day Aukai managed to make contact with Albanian intelligence, and they accused him of being a Bin Laden associate who was involved with the Nairobi embassy bombing. Collins figured out quite quickly that this was some kind of CIA leak as revenge for him walking away from their relationship, calling them ‘too chickenshit to carry out their own vendettas’. Although Albanian intelligence didn’t arrest him, they wouldn’t give him back his property aside from one small backpack.

In a phonecall his FBI handler made it clear that this was all because he’d pissed off the CIA, and told him to get out of there for his own good. But Aukai wasn’t interested in following orders, and continued on his adventure and joined up with the KLA in Kosovo, which included bumping into a couple of old friends from Chechnya. Small world. He helped a KLA commander devise guerilla warfare tactics and had some fun adventures (though no real combat) in the Kosovo countryside.

One thing Collins brings up in the book is how:

At the end of the war in Bosnia the Bosnian government had been in on a US-Croat plot that led to the assassination of the top three mujahideen commanders, which effectively ended the jihad there.

I mentioned this in the Aimen Dean episode, because one of those commanders was the head of Dean’s brigade in Bosnia. I speculated in that episode that this was a covert plot to destroy the Bosnian mujahideen once they’d served their purpose, which is pretty much what Collins says was going on.

After a time messing around with the KLA he decided to return to the US to arrange equipment and weapons for them, so he went back to Tirana and tried once more to get his bags back from the Interior Ministry. He went to the US embassy to enlist their help, but by this time the bags had been signed out of the Albanian government building by someone signing the log with an American name. Basically, the CIA stole his luggage.

So Aukai went back to the US and got back in touch with the FBI and was reactivated as an undercover agent. He reconnected with some of the Saudis in Phoenix who he’d been spying on, and through them met a man who is now very famous – Hani Hanjour, the supposed pilot of the flight which hit the Pentagon on 9/11.

Collins describes Hanjour and most of the others as ‘hanky panky Arabs’ who talked about jihad but also drank alcohol, ate hot dogs and screwed around. Hanjour was talking flying lessons, and Aukai told the FBI all about him and the others, but it seems they did nothing with the information. Collins says they were living quite openly, and were not the ‘deep cover sleepers’ the FBI later said they were. Indeed, in a presentation he gave not long after 9/11 he dismissed the whole notion of there being dozens of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the US, and history has proven him right about that.

Then, after nearly three years working for US intelligence it all started falling apart. His handler got promoted and moved to the DC office and his replacement wasn’t of the same calibre. He started accusing Aukai of withholding ‘specific information’, but couldn’t specify what that information was. At a meeting with three FBI agents it all came to a head, and Aukai ‘gave each of them the one-finger salute and walked out the door’. His relationship with the FBI was over.

Well, not quite. In 1999 the second Chechen war started and Aukai went back to the country, though he found the country wrecked from the first war and getting worse. His descriptions of this period are much sadder than of his time there in the first war, and he encountered people who’d heard stories about him working for the CIA. These rumours appear to have been put out there by the Agency themselves.

So he returned to the US and started working as a bounty hunter, specialising in over-the-border apprehensions. This would later cause Aukai to wind in spending four years in a Mexican prison, but the book doesn’t cover that. It finishes on 9/11, which Aukai first heard about via an online forum. After watching the attacks unfold on the news he contacted the FBI, offering to start working for them again, even offering to go to Afghanistan to track down Al Qaeda.

But in a familiar twist, that didn’t happen. Instead the FBI treated him as a suspect, and he had to take a polygraph to prove he didn’t have any foreknowledge of the attacks. The final page of Collins’ book is worth quoting in its entirety, because unlike so many other spies he did not instantly leap to the conclusion that Al Qaeda was behind 9/11.

I was very mistrustful about the fact that 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 Hanjour, 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 organisation: he couldn’t even spell jihad in Arabic.

Within hours of the attacks Muslims all over the country were being rounded up and being held as supposed ‘material witnesses’. In the end nearly a thousand Muslims, mainly of Arabic origin, were sitting in jail cells across America. How could nearly a thousand people keep a secret about something of that scale without leaking it somehow?

To this day I’m unsure who was behind September 11, nor can I even guess. But one thing is apparent: Bush and his co-called war on terror are doing the world far more harm than good. At this writing, the authorities have apprehended neither Bin Laden nor even a single important terrorist. For all the talk of secret terrorist cells lying dormant in the US, we haven’t seen evidence of a single one yet.

Someday the truth will reveal itself, and I have a feeling that people won’t like what they hear.

Given this end to the book, it is no surprise that Aukai Collins was never called before any of the 9/11 investigations, even though they really should have heard his story. I don’t know why he wasn’t sent into the Al Qaeda camps and why the CIA were so opposed to the idea, or who Tracy was and whether she worked for Alec Station. It would make sense if she did, but we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Nonetheless, this story not only busts the myth that the CIA couldn’t get anyone inside Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, it proves the opposite – that when presented with the opportunity to do just that, they turned it down. That goes way beyond mere ‘intelligence failure’.