On this episode of Changed My Mind, Aimen Dean talks to academic Thomas Small about what triggered him to join al Qaeda and then leave the terrorist organisation. Decades on, he reflects on why it remains difficult to stop others following in his footsteps.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each week, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
'The Righteous Mind' by Jonathan Haidt
'Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy Inside Al-Qaeda' by Aimen Dean, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
'Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography' by Robert Irwin
'The Slippery Slope Argument' by Wibren van der Burg
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Aimen: I was seduced by that of course, basically. Why wouldn’t any 18 year old think that they are going to be part of God’s army, fulfilling his plan, as it was preordained 1,400 years ago? So basically I joined and I was full of, you know, zeal, and I was full of — how can I say? — a sense of destiny that I’m one of God’s instruments on Earth. And I went to become a bombmaker. I went into the bomb making program for Al-Qaida, including chemical weapons and biological weapons.
Thomas: You’d never think it, would you, to hear this lovely sweet voice and he’s charming and funny… But he was a chemical weapons mastermind!
Ali: Welcome to Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they have changed their mind on and why. I’m Ali Goldsworthy, chief exec of the Depolarization Project. You’ve just heard from one of our guests today, Aimen Dean, who went from making bombs for Al-Qaida to informing on them. Alongside Aimen is his co host on the Conflicted podcast Thomas Small, who changed his mind on his own fervently held belief.
Before we get to that, though, I’d like to invite you to sign up to our email newsletter. We promote the show with openDemocracy to their eight million regular monthly readers. You can find out more about this podcast and our work at depolarizationproject.com and you can find the back catalogue to our show and more information about this episode at opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject. As always, I’m joined for today’s episode by my wonderful co hosts, behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield —
Alex: Hi, hi everyone.
Ali: And director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
Ali: What do we need to know before we hear this interview, Alex?
Alex: Well, good question. Aimen and Thomas are real experts in areas that we aren’t, so the Middle East and terrorism. Their podcast, Conflicted, looks at what causes violent conflict and why. It’s highly recommended and I can’t wait to dig in with them around what behaviours are the same and which behaviours are altered by the cultural context.
Laura: Absolutely. And with that in mind, we’re very conscious that we and probably most of our listeners, are quite rooted in western perceptions of conflict, so we know some of what we’re going to discuss today and some of what you’re going to hear is going to be challenging. Aimen in particular made a very dramatic change when he chose to leave Al-Qaida.
Ali: Ok, well with that at the front of our heads, let’s hear our conversation with Aimen and Thomas. We’ll reconvene afterwards to digest some of what they had to say, and share our recommended reading for those interested in delving further into the topics they raise. I should say, everyone is recording this in lockdown, so we’re all in our own homes scattered across America and Europe. Let’s give them a call.
Ali: Welcome, Aimen and Thomas to Changed My Mind. I really wanted to begin by asking you about your own podcast, Conflicted, which you've just gone into the second series of. What's it all about?
Thomas: Aimen, do you want to answer that or should I?
Aimen: You start.
Thomas: Well, the heart of Conflicted, especially series one which launched us a year ago, is the is the biography of this remarkable man, my friend Aimen, who was as a young man a jihadist who then joined Al-Qaida, who then left Al-Qaida and joined MI6 as a double agent inside Al-Qaida and then left MI6 and joined the banking fraternity, helping banks to combat terrorist financing and other such things.
So, you know, as you can imagine, he has a remarkable life. And when I first met him and began talking with him, we realised that our conversations were always enthralling. And then a producer of podcasts thought that perhaps other people would enjoy listening in on them. So Conflicted is really just Aimen and me chatting about his life and linking his life story to the wider story of the modern Middle East. And in series two, even more widely into global issues like climate change and the stresses that capitalism is under at the moment.
Ali: And Thomas I think it might be worth, I mean Aimen that is quite the pen portrait that Thomas has just painted of you. Tell us a little bit about yourself as well. Or maybe I could ask Aimen to introduce you.
Aimen: Yeah. I mean I was going to introduce him. You know, first of all, I mean I from the moment I met him, I had such an intellectual crush on him immediately. I mean, to this day my wife is never jealous of anyone like him because….
Thomas: Oh, Aimen, you flatterer. You flatterer.
Aimen: Because basically I talk about him always with such reverence, because, you know, I never met someone who is versed in theology, in politics, in philosophy, in Arabic and Islam, Islamic studies, understanding of the media, the Middle East, you know, understanding of Christianity and Islam and the interaction between these two religions. And at the same time, someone who had actually been to my home country, Saudi Arabia, and actually, you know, went to many of the places where my former associates murdered people in cold blood. And he documented all of these things in his book. He co-authored The Path of Blood. And so when I met him, I was thinking, wow, you know, this is someone basically that not only I could have amazing conversations with but have so much discussion because how his life journey started from California, where he was born into an evangelical Protestant family, then he became an Orthodox Greek monk in training and then went to study Islam and Arabic and then became a filmmaker. Talk about an amazing journey.
Thomas: Aimen really is a flatterer. He always puffs me up well past what I deserve.
Alex: So there’s been an interesting increase in interest in the work of the scholar Ibn Khaldoun and his development of theories outlining us and them, which we are really interested in in the broader context of polarization and how our brains process us and them. You've studied him deeply. How do you think this translates or his work translates to the 21st century?
Thomas: Well, Ibn Khaldoun and I'm sure Aimen has a lot to say about him as well, was, you know, a 14th century North African polymath whose book The Muqaddimah, which is like the introduction because it was meant to introduce a much larger volume of universal history, has become notorious, infamous, certainly celebrated throughout the ages as some people would say the first work of sociology, because in that work, Ibn Khaldoun for the first time really tries to understand the forces, the natural forces, if you like, that inform the rise and fall and developments within societies and political structures almost, almost from a secular point of view.
I mean, by no means was Ibn Khaldoun a secular person. He was an Islamic jurist in the Maliki School of jurisprudence. He was associated with it with all the religious figures of his time. He was a pious Muslim. But his perspective does feel quite fresh and modern. And to the extent that he does seem to try to extract away from social phenomena the divine and try to understand its inner workings strictly as a natural sort of phenomenon. So that's him. And how can he help us today?
Well I mean I think a lot has been made of his theory of this thing. It is an Arabic word called 'asabiyyah', which is very difficult I think to translate into English. It is often translated as group feeling and Ibn Khaldoun uses this term, asabiyyah, to define that special something that some groups have usually, in his view, initially groups that are outsiders, sort of barbarian type people who live in the desert, in his world, in the desert, away from the city, who have this incredible, strong, almost clannish connection to each other, as well as a kind of lean and spiritual orientation. So they’re not fat by the pleasures of the city. They're very strong. And they can take advantage of the decadence of the city, come in, displace the decadent hierarchies that exist and replace them. And then sort of spread using religion really spread their asabiyyah, the sense of group feeling to the populace and knit together the polity so that it can continue to exist as one.
Now he's writing in a very 14th century context. And I do think his his ideas are particularly useful for understanding that context. I'm not sure how applicable they are today. A lot of people like to think that asabiyyah can be translated to our ideas of patriotism, our ideas of identity, of ideological identity. Conservatives often invoke Ibn Khaldoun today to suggest that, you know, that we need a return to religion as a unifying force in our nation states, which are weakened. Often these conservatives, ironically, are the ones who think that there are too many Muslims living in Western countries. Aimen, what do you think about all of this?
Aimen: I mean, for me, I love the workings of Ibn Khaldoun because basically his Arabic is reflective of the beautiful Arabic of the late Andalusian period. It's such an elegant and eloquent Arabic. The word asabiyyah, I mean, I would translate it to solidarity. Because basically the word asabiyyah you come from the route asba, which basically means a group, you know, basically. And so it's the solidarity that one feels with the group that they identify with. But also it could transcend into as Thomas said, some people will transcend into nationalism or blind patriotism, and also sometimes we have we use the word asabiyyah to mean tribal solidarity but in a negative way where you are from this tribe, you're not going to marry my daughter because we are from this tribe. You are from a different tribe. And sometimes it refers even to the negativity of the other. So sometimes it could be positive, because if it's used in a way that inclusive and religion sometimes can be looked at as inclusive. But then if you are going to use the word asabiyyah in terms of ethnic grouping, then well, I mean, I can't help it. I was born into this ethnicity. And you are telling me that you are, how can I say, only have solidarity with your own ethnic group? That's negative. If you have solidarity with your religious group, well, at least in that sense, I can convert and therefore, basically I can join you. And so there is a possibility of transcending. So he was more critical of the ethnic solidarity and more in favour of the religious solidarity.
Thomas: One aspect of Ibn Khaldoun's stuff that I do think is applicable in a way today. And it's often overlooked that, you know, asabiyyah for Ibn Khaldoun isn't just group solidarity, it's group solidarity that is so strong that it is able to impose its will on the majority. And because he's a medieval thinker before states were constitutional and institutional in the way that they are now, you know, a state was maintained by basically some strong man and his loyal retainers imposing his will with the sword on everyone else. And of course, in that context, without that, you don't have a state and then you have chaos.
In this context, it's less easily, You know, in our constitutional democratic orders, we tend not to think that what we really need to revive our societies is some barbarian group with a strong sense of solidarity to impose their will on us. But there are political actors at the moment in our society, both on the right and on the left, who feel disenfranchised or otherwise disillusioned with our institutions and our constitutional arrangements, who I think do sometimes use ideology to create a strong sense of solidarity with an idea of imposing that on other people, using political means, using constitutional means when it suits them, using extra constitutional means when it suits them. So that asabiyyah, which is Ibn Khaldoun's context of the 14th century, was more entirely, let's say, positive, because it did lead to the formation and the stabilization of states, in this context that that feeling, I think, can undermine our states.
Alex: It does remind me a little bit the asabiyyah — forgive my probably rubbish pronunciation — of Jonathan Haidt's, he's a professor of social and moral psychology at NYU, of…
Thomas: The Righteous Mind.
Alex: Exactly, The Righteous Mind.
Thomas: A very interesting book.
Alex: And his philosophy on groups that humans are, you know, we are all selfish but also fundamentally groupish. So we love to join teams, clubs and leagues, fraternities, you know, football teams, for example, and we take on those group identities and then work with our with people who share that identity towards common goals and sometimes those common goals, because we adopt the norms and behaviours of people who are working with towards common goals, which can also sometimes take over our own individual individuality. It sounds fairly similar, but maybe the difference is obviously that groupishness can lead then to identifying what we're not and forcing us to dislike people just because they identify with another group rather than people who are on our team.
Thomas: I think there is a lot that is similar. I mean, I think that that, you know, Jonathan Haidt's book is interesting from my point of view, because he in it, I think he analyzes something like six key moral foundations. And what was very eye opening to me is when he sort of showed in his research, despite himself being on, you know, on this a centre left kind of liberal person, that that those on the right, the conservatives, actually have a wider range of those moral foundations than the ones on the left, which is which was kind of for me a bit like, oh, because usually, you know, I'm quite a liberal person. And I often assume that liberal minded people are sort of wider. They take in more of the human experience in a way. But then his book made me stop and think. Well, perhaps liberals are actually more narrow, ironically.
Ali: You're not the only one that felt that. Thomas, I just wanted to jump back ever so slightly and push you for an example, because you did say that you thought sometimes leaders were using ideology to divide people nowadays. And was there an example that you had in mind if you were thinking of that?
Thomas: Certainly in the United States, the way that Donald Trump came to power, although in the you know, weirdly, he you know, he actually lost the popular vote. So he was not the most popular candidate, but he was sadly up against an even less generally popular candidate. But his rhetoric was quite unique in the history of America. For someone to get that far in the process, to be so divisive and to basically take what some people suggest — I think there's some validity to it — the sort of rhetoric that identity politics had developed in order to unify left wing political forces. He just kind of adapted that rhetoric but for white right wing people and that was very powerful.
In those people, one might say it suddenly energized an asabiyyah in them, a sense that they were united, that actually they were more virtuous, they were less corrupt, less immoral then than the people on the coasts. Too much can be made of this. I think ultimately Donald Trump is president because Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate and didn't campaign well. And the strange electoral college system and all that. But there is something to that. But on the left, I think you can see it in movements like Extinction Rebellion or some elements of the British Labour Party that coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn. I mean, I think they're on both sides you can see that happening.
Ali: Yeah, I think that there'll be a lot of sympathy and support for that from our listeners. One thing just before we move off this topic, given your deep expertise in it, if our listeners are interested in finding out more about philosophers who maybe are not as well known in America, in the US, who talk about issues of us and them — is there anyone from your work that you would recommend that they went and read?
Thomas: Well, I mean, not really.
Ali: You know, I love it when experts say I don't know, or just that’s a terrible question, it makes me feel better.
Thomas: I'm not sure I would call myself an expert on anything. I just know some stuff. So who can I recommend? Go read Jonathan Haidt. Go read Ibn Khaldoun...
Ali: And Jon’s a previous guest on this podcast, who actually did not change his mind on anything like as significant as you two were. Just before we get to that, I wanted to pass over to Laura very quickly.
Laura: Thanks, Ali. One of the things I've been wondering about here is we often talk about polarization, particularly in the context of Western democracies very much in terms of masses or elites, but thinking about it a bit more broadly. How do you see extremism fitting into that polarization picture? What role do you think it plays or do you see extremism as a different phenomenon?
Aimen: Extremism, if you're talking about it within the Muslim context, is a result of polarization that happened already within the Muslim world, because essentially I always tell people that the phenomenon of violent extremism that is taking place right now in the late 20th and in the 21st century is related to a civil war within Islam, not a war between Islam and the West as it has always portrayed.
And the reason for this is because if you look at the body count, if you are looking at the fatalities and the casualties of the wars of extremism that we are experiencing, the overwhelming number of the dead, displaced and wounded and an overwhelming number of the victims are Muslims killed by the hands of the extremists from both sides. Therefore, basically, why do we then associate extremism with Western policy is because of the mistaken belief by extremists that it's all to do with religion. There is an idea in their minds, you know, that, you know, American foreign policy makers, British foreign policy makers, French foreign policymakers, all they do day and night 24/7 is devise new plans to undermine Islam, to hold back Muslims from becoming technologically advanced countries and keep them subjugated in order basically to have free or cheap oil flow into the west.
That's what they think, which is, you know, after I have spent a lot of time basically within, you know, in the Western intelligence circles, I just keep telling them, oh, you poor souls, you have no idea how incompetent they are to devise plans like these and succeed as if they really could, as if they are good enough. The only people who hold you, are yourselves. The only people who hold you back are yourselves. And I know. But nonetheless, this is the reason why the polarization is happening in a very strange, ironic way within Islam, within confines of that faith.
Thomas: Aimen, I have a question for you, based on what you've just said, because I know in the West, I think we often think of ourselves, Westerners, as othering Muslims, and that our othering of them is sort of in some way the problem. It's certainly the policies that might come from our othering of them. But are you suggesting that, in fact, equally or perhaps even more so, the problem is that Muslims have been encouraged to other us, to think of us as the other that has only nefarious intentions over them and that that feeds into intra Muslim polarisation.
Aimen: I can tell you that every single Abrahamic religion, whether it is in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, encouraged to other people, as simple as that, because basically, if you believe that there is one true God, one true path, one true faith. Therefore, basically everything else is an other, regardless. So internal othering happened within Christianity before it even happened within Islam.
Thomas: Well, you could argue the reason that Christian, post-Christian Westerners, whatever you want to call us westerners, we other Islam as an inheritance of our Christianity.
Aimen: Exactly. So basically Muslims are othering themselves into Shias, and the Sunnis themselves basically are othering each other into Sufis and Salafi and Wahhabi. So the idea that it is unique to the West. No, it's basically almost possibly a human nature. This is what Ibn Khaldoun talked about, asabiyyah. I mean, we come back to what Khaldoun said. We are encouraged. We are wired somehow to do this othering.
But the question is to what degree this othering can determine day to day policies. If it doesn't interfere that much, then that's a sign of, well, civility. If it becomes the only compass that the way you other people. It's the only compass of how you actually deal with people, how you judge them. Then it becomes a problem. It becomes negative. And that's exactly I think what happened. It’s not the Western foreign policy fault alone. It's one of the minor contributing factors. But as I have always said about the village analogy, when I said basically imagine the world as a village and you have four corners and a centre. So at the four corners you have industry, in one corner you have commerce and another you have agriculture and in another you have finance. So the finance industry, agriculture and commerce and in the centre, there is water. And the people in the four corners are depending on the centre to give them water. So agriculture can flourish. So basically there is a commerce. So there is the finance and there is an industry.
But if there is instability in the centre where the water becomes disrupted, the water supplies become disrupted. Then one of the corners or two or three of them will interfere. So I always tell Muslims it's where you are, where the oil and the gas is, this is the water in the story. It's not because of who you are. It's because of where you are. It's not because you're Muslims.
You know, even if penguins were actually living in the Middle East, basically, it would still be subject to interference. You know, even despite the cuteness of penguins, because, you know, there is oil and gas — it’s the energy if it's disrupted by disagreements, by internal division. Some people say, well, these internal divisions could be fuelled by the West. Well, yeah, and it could be fuelled by the East or anyone else. The question is, why are you so vulnerable that interference could actually, you know, cause civil conflicts? So the fault I always say that the ultimate fault is not, you know, basically because of the lions are hungry and they want to hunt buffaloes because the buffaloes are divided.
Ali: Mm-Hmm. Gosh, that's a very interesting analogy. We could spend a long time digging into this, but I am very conscious that this is a podcast where we ask people about a time they changed their minds and why. And we should probably get to the meat of it. I know that Laura is going to kick off on that one. Aimen, I think there's quite the volte-face in what we're about to discuss.
Laura: Well done for pulling us back on track there Ali.
Ali: It was the equivalent of shall we get another bottle of wine?
Thomas: I have to say, ladies, I'm nursing a glass at the moment and I don't think Aimen is though.
Laura: We strongly encourage a relaxed wine based conversation on this podcast.
Thomas: Not for your Muslim guests.
Aimen: I'm holding a can of Diet Coke. Actually no, Coke Zero.
Laura: Anything goes.
Ali: It's midday here in California so I’m waiting a few hours. Sorry, Laura.
Laura: Bringing it back to the central question we asked everyone about changing their mind. Now, both of you have obviously been through some quite significant changes of direction in your lifetime. If I start with Aimen first, we've heard you worked with Al-Qaida. You've worked with Mi6. What took you first in the first direction and then into the second? What was your path?
Aimen: Well, what took me into the first direction which, you know, let me say it this way. I did not wake up one day, you know, when I was 16 and I decided I want to become a terrorist. It wasn't like that. You know, you slide into it, you know, subconsciously, you go into it without noticing because events take you to where you never anticipate.
I went to Bosnia because I wanted to become a terrorist. I wanted to join the foreign volunteer contingent of the Bosnian armed forces, also known as the Mujahideen Brigade. The idea is I was absolutely stunned and shocked by the level of brutality that the Bosnian conflict was taking and the ethnic cleansing, almost a genocide it was.
So I went there. I joined, spending 14 months in a conflict like this. And I just arrived there just three weeks after my 16th birthday. I remember when I left, of course, I was still 17. We went four, and we left two — two of our number were killed. So when I left with my friend and we were in Istanbul on our way to other jihad theatres. And he asked me, how do you feel, how do you feel about the last 14 months? I looked at him and I said basically I felt it was like 14 years. I can't believe it was 14 months. It felt like 14 years. I feel like I aged 14 years.
Now, of course, you know, I was told that, if I'm going to Chechnya, I need to improve my military skills. And so therefore, I need to be more valuable as a mujahideen. So go to Afghanistan. The training camps are really opening. So I go there. And that's basically when I first encountered Osama bin Laden, when he arrived back from Sudan, and that's when I encounter the head of his bodyguards. And that's when I encountered firsthand the power of the prophecy. The prophecies of old, the prophecies of the Prophet Muhammad that was mentioned, you know, in ancient books about this divine plan for a war with the West that is going to usher in a new era of Islamic greatness and the return of the caliphate and paving the way for the Mahdi, the Messiah that I was talking about earlier.
I was seduced by that, of course, basically, because why wouldn't any 18 year old think that they are going to be part of God's army fulfilling his plan as it was preordained fourteen hundred years ago?. And so therefore, basically, I joined and I was full of zeal, you know. And I was full of a sense of destiny that I'm one of God's instruments on Earth. And I went to become a bomb maker. I went into the bomb making programme for Al-Qaida, including chemical weapons and biological weapons.
Thomas: You'd never think it, would you, to hear this lovely, sweet voice, charming and funny but he was a chemical weapons mastermind.
Laura: I'm very struck, though, by you saying you were only 18 by then. Did you still feel 18? That sounds like a funny question but you said you felt like you aged so much after your experiences in Bosnia. Do you think your age was part of it? Or was it something else?
Aimen: I don't know. I felt as if my mental faculties were stretched to the limit just to keep up with the task at hand, because, of course, you know, when you're 18, you're a teenager. But I felt that my mind was stretched because I have to act like an adult, behave like an adult and learn things that only adults basically learn. Between the age of 18 and 19. I was experimenting with poisons and chemical weapons and learning how to use them. Despite my rudimentary chemical knowledge from school, I had to be taught chemistry all over again and in a short space of time. And I have to master it in order to make sure that my first mistake is not going to be my last.
Because a single mistake is gonna cost you your life, most likely. So I embrace that so much. But then I know that there is always that part of me since childhood, the annoyingly inquisitive child within me that's always been there, curious, inquisitive and doesn't accept things at face value. And a year after I joined Al-Qaida it fulfilled, finally, its promise to launch a war against the Americans. And they launched the attacks against the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. So Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It was a wakeup call to really what are the consequences of the things that we are going to do? You know, it's different when your friends in your group tell you we have a plan. And then seeing that plan in action, seein the consequences of that plan very clearly.
Thomas: Which were hundreds, hundreds of dead civilians, most of whom were Muslims, if I'm not mistaken.
Aimen: Many, many Muslims died that day. Almost a hundred. And also five thousand people were wounded. A hundred and fifty were blinded for life. I did not accept the religious justification they gave. The fatwa was so twisted and it wasn't applicable. I believe basically that, you know, the consequences, suddenly I begin to begin to feel that we are only four or five hundred people we know in Afghanistan hijacking the decision regarding war and peace on behalf of 1.5 billion Muslims at that time and how irresponsible it is that we are going to see many charities, many good projects shut down because of their association with, you know, a second or third cousin of someone who was a member of Al-Qaida. So I felt basically that this is not exactly something that I want to be part of. Two weeks after that, I went to research the fatwa, which I realised it was applicable to the Mongol invasion. It's about life and death. It's about something that happened seven hundred years ago. Nothing to do with now. Which pushed me towards abandoning the project. Of course, I did not wake up and say to myself, I'm leaving you and I'm going to become a spy. No, of course not.
Laura: Did you feel there was a mix of that, that sort of impact of seeing the consequences of the embassy bombings, but also your own inquisitiveness, which then took you into another path? Obviously, it's not instantaneous. Were there a few things you think came together to change your direction?
Aimen: Yeah. I mean, between the East Africa bombings and me physically living Al-Qaida was four months. So even though two weeks after that, I started to have massive doubt. But then a week after that massive doubt I survived the cruise missile attack by Bill Clinton, which was in revenge for the East Africa bombings. And that was for me a sign that this isn’t the right thing to do.
I remember vividly that night I thought to myself, look, where are we going? And the fact that everyone around me was celebrating this as if it was such a victory. And when I was asking, I remember. Twelve Americans, even if they were diplomats, CIA agents were killed. What about the 224 Africans who were at the wrong time, at the wrong place? You know, many of them are Muslims. So some were saying, oh, God will make it up to them. And yeah. So we were playing the part of God here. And there are others basically who even were worse. They're saying, oh, come on, bunch of Africans, who cares? Apart from playing the part of God, there was also the very overt racism and superiority complex which were very much on display there, which made me even more uneasy. So decided, well, the time has come to leave. I thought to myself, okay, I'm going back to the Gulf, I'm going to go into university, study history and become a history teacher. Now, much to the relief of my would be students, it never happened.
Laura: That’s not the way things went.
Aimen: No, I think six weeks after the East Africa bombings, I became 20. And maybe, I thought, I'm entering a new decade of my life. Maybe it's time to, you know, wrap up this experience that is accelerating towards disaster and just go back to education, how naive it was. I ended basically being treated as a guest of the state security forces in Qatar who intercepted me when I was leaving. But them believing that my leaving was genuine, and it was demonstrated very quickly that it was genuine, they believed me very quickly. They were impressed. And as a result, basically facilitated the recruitment to MI6.
Laura: Just before we move on to hear from Thomas, I have one more question. You know, I still can't quite get the idea of you being 16 in the first place out of my mind. But is there anything you think could have been done to stop you being in that position in the first place? Or interventions you think would have kept you from following quite an extreme path at such a young age?
Aimen: Well I don’t know, to be honest. I think I always used to think, because basically I lost my parents young age. I mean, my father died when I was 4 and mother when I was 12. So for me, I think if my mother was there when I was 16, I might have not left.
Laura: But not something that anyone else could really have stepped into.
Aimen: I think she would have been the only force to have stopped me apart from that, no other force, no other intervention could have really worked. I was determined to go.
Thomas: But, Aimen, what if you'd met someone that is like you, that is 41 now. You at 16 met 41 year old, Aimen or a guy like you could not have talked you out of it? Because you now try to talk young people out of there going to jihad?
Aimen: I tried to talk my nephew out of it, and he died still in Syria. I mean, he was 19, did my best, I pleaded with him. I even cried. I even though, you know, basically kiss his hand and told him, please don't go. And, you know, in the end, he did. And I had to go myself, September of 2013. I ended up going to Syria just to visit his grave. You know, taking a huge risk. Despite the fact I have a fatwa on my head.
But it didn't work. It worked with others afterwards. But only I was helped by the atrocities of Daesh, of Isis, that helped their atrocities helped shape my argument and you giving me ammunitions to use. But before that, when my nephew went in July of 2013, their atrocities were not very common, not very visible. And therefore, basically it was for him a clear cut. He was saying to me, people are dying. And he said, when people were dying in Bosnia, was there anyone going to stop you? And yet, in the end, basically, he did what he thought was right. And in the end, he paid the price for it.
Ali: I want to acknowledge our tremendously tough that must have been for you and thank you for sharing it. I wanted to slightly step back to your story, though, and ask what it was that meant that you really did change your mind. So rather than just leaving Al-Qaida, what was it that persuaded you to then become an informant?
Aimen: When I was leaving Afghanistan, I remember that there is a prayer that I'm sure Thomas is very familiar with, it's called the Taharah. You know, it's kind of like in the guidance prayer in a way. You know, you pray and you ask the Lord through his infinite wisdom, knowledge and kindness to guide you through. I prayed and I said, you know, I'm putting my life, you know, my whole destiny in your hand. Wherever you take me, I will follow.
So landed in Qatar, got arrested, and I thought if it was part of the plan it is part of the plan. Then when I was put through that proposition that I would end up debriefing, I wasn't told I'm going to become a spy. I was told it's going to be a debrief. It will last two months and then you will be on your own. You can go to university in the UK. You can continue your education. You will be fine.
Of course, the two months became six months of debriefings. It turns out I knew too much. A few months into the debriefings, it became clear that I was being gently persuaded into becoming more than just, you know, part of a debriefing to become know someone who will eventually become a spy. And I went along with it because it's just only me. But, you know, the people I met were of the highest quality. People who could persuade you to do anything without feeling any pressure or, you know, it's like like someone telling you go to hell in a way that would make you look forward to the journey.
Ali: I know I know some of those people, they’re quite amazing and tricky at the same time. But I'm really struck that the way you're describing this is that it wasn't a conscious decision on your part, that you were persuaded almost without knowing into changing your mind. Really changing your behaviour in a very dramatic way? Is that a fair interpretation?
Aimen: To some extent, yes. Because if look, if you put your faith in God, then you say that to wherever you take me, I will accept. Wherever you take me, I will go along with it. Whatever you choose for me, because that's it. It's not like I never gave God the option. And then I thought, what have I done? I gave him the option. So at least I could stand in the day of judgement. And I say basically, well, I I told you, I put my destiny in your hand. Wherever you take me, I will accept. And therefore, when the events played along these lines, I just went along with them.
And then during the debriefings, remember the debriefings weren’t really only them pumping me for information. The pumping goes both ways where they are pumping me with ideas about how good it was of me to change course. That I would be saving lives, that by giving information about active cells, I'm already saving lives. And the fact that the person who was sitting across the sofa for me, who's very well versed in the Koran and Arabic and and he's an English guy from Manchester. But he said to me that remember the verse in the Koran, which says whoever saves a life as if he saves all of mankind and whoever caused the life to die, as if he killed all of mankind.
And so I thought, wow. And then they go and do you know the importance of the nation state, the importance of saving lives, the importance of making sure that this monster doesn't become a greater monster. And they keep telling me that remember that when people go down the rabbit hole of extremism, extremism will end up cannibalizing itself from within because the extremists will start to accuse others of being less loyal and not extreme enough and therefore know zealotry will beget more zealotry. All of these ideas, you know, wish they were, you know, pumping into me basically more or less convinced me of the righteousness of the decisions that were laid out in front of me. And I took them. And in the end, when they told me seven months after I arrived, will you go back? And without hesitation, I said yes.
Ali: Thank you. Thomas, you have also been on quite a dramatic change, though not quite on the same scale as this.
Thomas: Not nearly as dramatic as that. I'm afraid the listener is now going to be much less impressed.
Ali: We can cheer you on in the background. You talked in the very first episode of your podcast actually about how you were planning to become a Greek Orthodox monk and then chose not to. And I wanted to get a bit more background about how did you end up deciding to become an Orthodox monk and then what triggered the change in decision?
Thomas: Well, the first thing you need to know about me, and I think it's probably because I'm a Taurus, that I don't actually change my mind very easily. I would say it's more like the Titanic changing its course than pivoting on an axis. I grew up in the suburbs of California. I attended every week a pretty mainstream evangelical church. My father taught the creationism course in the Sunday school. So, you know, I don't want you to get the idea that we were swivel eyed loons. We were pretty straightforward run of the mill evangelicals. But I believed that the Bible was the inerrant truth, that dinosaurs and men lived together at one point in time, the flood actually happened, that Jesus actually was God, that he died, he rose again, he will come again, the whole thing. I just believed it.
When I was about 16, say. And it's weird because Aimen’s story and my story actually have some weird sort of they inter lap a bit, even though his is more Muslim and mine's more Christian. And when I was 16, the idea of hell started to sit very uneasily with me. And I didn't really like the idea that if you weren't an evangelical Christian, you were going there. It just didn't rub me the right way. And I didn't know why exactly. But I started to read. And then I was introduced to Sufism, which is the mystical tradition of Islam and especially Sufi metaphysics, which are kind of neoplatonic and universalist in their foundations. And they basically teach that that every religion is a kind of form of a transcendent truth that is the same, that all the religions are paths to that truth and that there's no need to really other, if you like, the people, practitioners of other religions.
I liked this very much. And I was attracted to Sufism and I was actually thinking of becoming a Muslim, weirdly enough, until I realised that in Greece there was this place called Mount Athos, where for the last thousand years monks were participating in a kind of tradition of mystical prayer that was quite similar to Sufism. From what I could tell from my reading. So when I was 20, I just left home and I went to Mount Athos, where I spent six months, was baptized. I sort of left and came back then to become a novice, thinking that I would stay forever as a monk.
And while I was there, a sort of strange thing happened. I sort of increasingly realised that my fellow monks were not so interested in the universality of world religions. And they were, when they opened their hearts to you realised that they they had rather dismissive attitudes towards not just wholly other religions, like Islam, but Roman Catholics, they were probably going to hell. Protestants were pretty much certainly going to hell.
So I had gone from kind of suburban California and evangelical mega-churches with rock bands and everything all the way to Greece to a medieval form of worship that had no electricity in it. And we were wearing black robes and we were up all night fasting and praying vigils. And yet the attitude was the same. And it sort of reached a peak in me, weirdly enough, on Christmas Eve one night.
And I had this thing niggling at my mind. And we had been told that we must always confess our thoughts openly to the abbot. That was part of the thing. And we must be honest with the abbot about our thoughts, even if they were dark thoughts, because in conversation, such thoughts are dispelled. So in the middle of the night, I knocked on his door and he opened the door and I said, Abbot. I've just got to tell you something. I think Mohammed was probably a prophet.
Now that sounds ridiculous, I suppose. But to a Greek Orthodox monk, that was just sort of like the most insane thing to think. Because Mohammed is the great antichrist in their views. So that caused the problem. And then a couple of months later, my brother visited to see me. And after only three days in the place, he took me aside and he said, Thomas, you do understand that these people are just like the fundamentalists we grew up with because he had left Christianity by that point. You do understand that. It's just the surface that's changed. But these people are still fundamentalists.
And I had by that time, I had become non fundamentalist. It didn't wash with me at all. I just couldn't be that way. So the next morning, I told the abbot, I have to leave. He did say that if I left, the Holy Spirit would abandon me, that this was the devil talking. As a result of which, I spent a good decade feeling quite kind of. I mean, I don't want to say traumatized. But, you know, there was always this slight niggling voice in me that I had made the wrong choice and that I should have stayed a monk. But I ultimately couldn't be fundamentalist. And it does seem in this day and age that that committed religious practices requires that more often than not. So if you just don't have that in, committed religious practices, it is a difficult thing to embrace I would say honestly.
I don't want the listener at all to get a sense that the monks that I lived with were bad people or anything. Not at all. They are much better people than me, really, much better. Therefore, they're quite saintly. And the abbot is quite saintly. And the experience in the monastery was incredibly useful for me. It taught me prayer, which is an important, I think, life skill to put it in secular terms. And it taught me all sorts of things. And I grew up, a bit like maybe Aimen on the in the battlefields of Bosnia, in the monastery in Greece, I was sort of forced to stop being a schlubby suburban kid. And I kind of became a man. It was quite initiating in that way.
And ultimately, I don't hold it against the monks there that they didn't share with me a perspective that was anti-fundamentalist, if you like. I mean, most of them were from the island of Cyprus. They come from quite sort of simple backgrounds. They're pious Greek Orthodox Christians. And, in fact, the abbot of that monastery during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s, he saw his own father murdered in front of him by a Turkish soldier, which, of course, only solidified it in his young mind the impression he'd been given that Muslims were Satan worshippers. They have their own thing. And I think probably for those people who are suited to it doing a lot of good for them. But it just wasn't right for me. So I'm not actually sure if that is changing my mind in a way, it's more like not allowing my mind to be changed, but I don't know.
Laura: But it is interesting the commonality in some ways, of your two stories. Thomas you talk about being put off by the indiscriminate nature of condemning everyone to hell and Aimen you talked about the indiscriminate nature of killing innocent people in the course of something else, so it does seem like there's a sort of a reckoning with the consequences that affected you both at a particular time in your life.
Thomas: Aimen earlier talked about the Abrahamic religions, which are in their own ways, very sophisticated civilizational constructs that evolved in imperial contexts to help govern enormous polities. It's very difficult for us to imagine what it would have been like when Christianity was the ruling ideology of a world straddling empire. And for that reason, these religions are actually very sophisticated at creating that asabiyyah idea, that group togetherness that is required for polities to function and which does demand a certain amount of othering that's there.
But at the same time, these religions have the other side where they are sometimes universalist in their scope. And, you know, like on the one hand, Jesus seems to be sending half of humanity to hell. On the other hand, there's the parable of the Good Samaritan, and he says you should love everyone regardless of their religion. And it seems like a contradiction. And maybe, you know, these big empires, these state structures need to learn how to balance both enough group feeling to keep us together, but not so much that the different tribes amongst us are fighting each other.
Maybe that kind of weird balance is something that we today need to learn how to do, because as we become more polarized, sometimes I think we do lose sight of, , we're also certain that we know the right way to run our countries or who to vote or which political party to support. We just demonize the other. We have to be solid in our beliefs. We have to vote for our candidate. But we can also at the same time, remember that there's a kind of wider circle of unity that, you know, whether that be our humanity or our national identity. Or maybe we don’t have that balance right, just like a lot of religions often don't get the balance right but we should try.
Alex: Who would you like to hear from about a time that they've changed their mind on issues? So if you could invite one guest they could be alive or dead to ask what have they changed their mind on, who would it be? Aimen, do you want to go first?
Aimen: I’m just trying to think…
Alex: Or Thomas? If you’ve got one?
Thomas: I'd like to know if Tony Blair ever changed his mind because he seems to be someone who sticks quite passionately to decisions and to views on the world. And I wonder, I would like to hear from him. Perhaps you should have interviewed him and you can tell me go to episode 39.
Ali: Well, interestingly, he's changed his faith or denomination.
Aimen: Yeah, he converted to Catholicism.
Thomas: That's true, he did convert to Catholicism. That is true. Okay, well, maybe not then.
Alex: If anyone’s listening who has a link to Tony Blair...
Ali: I think for Tony, the interesting thing would be not just changing his mind, but admitting he's changed his mind. And some of the issues where people might want him to might not be those right through even. Aimen, I've given you a bit of time.
Aimen: I think I would really, really love to listen to Malcolm X, and how he changed his mind about how everyone else was the devil to coming back from his experience on the Hajj believing the white men are the devil and the generalization and the general judgement of everyone basically was wrong. So because many people, especially within the Black Lives Matter movement and many other anti establishment white movements view him as the symbol of a revolution, as a symbol of the black power. But really the last year or even a half of his life, he changed his mind significantly, fundamentally on the question of race relations. He's no longer preaching the gospel of segregation or separation.
Thomas: As a result of a deepening conviction to Islam, I believe.
Aimen: Exactly. Yes. So I would love to have heard more from him about what changed his mind, although he did say in his experience when he said basically that in the Hajj he was eating and drinking next to people basically who were whiter than whites and their eyes were blue and their hair was blond, he never thought he will ever do this again. But it happened and he felt such a spiritual awakening there that we're all humans, we all have aspirations and that you do not judge people by the wrongs of either their leaders or few among them. II would love it if he would have had the chance to really write about that transformation.
Ali: Thank you. What’s interesting is we hope we're being connected to someone who worked quite closely with him.
Thomas: Wow. That’s excellent.
Ali: Sneak preview, I don’t want to promise the listeners anything yet. It’s amazing where this podcast takes you. A huge thank you to Thomas and Aimen for joining us.
Thomas: Our pleasure, I’m sure.
Ali: Before we discuss that pretty incredible interview, let’s have a quick word from our sponsors.
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Ali: So Laura what was the key takeaway for you from that conversation with Aimen and Thomas.
Laura: Well, I was quite nervous before this one actually but I shouldn’t have been. On the one hand it was such an honest insight into one person’s path to extremism. Aimen was so honest about how hard it is to disrupt that. But what touched me most was when he talked about his mother and then his nephew. And so on the other hand talking to Thomas it was his realisation that he’d swapped one belief system from another when really he wanted to question all encompassing beliefs. Ali, what about you?
Ali: Like you, I was really incredibly struck by that moment when he talked about his nephew and the near futility of being able to dissuade people from taking up arms even when they’re among your nearest and dearest. It was a real reminder to me of how tough it is very often for people to change their mind and update their beliefs. Alex, what really chimed with you?
Alex: I think for me it was when Aimen said he didn't decide to be a terrorist overnight. For me this really chimed with some prior research around unethical behaviour with corporate organisations, it’s called the slippery slope hypothesis, and it tries to explain why good people do bad things. You don’t overnight turn from a good person into a bad person, but instead you do one small act of indiscretion that may lead over time to larger unethical acts. Basically you just become immune to what you’re doing so it becomes normal over time. That was what really struck me.
Ali: And you can find more about the slippery slope, about the work of Ibn Khaldoun, and links to Aimen and Thomas’s podcast Conflicted on opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject.
If Aimen and Thomas have inspired you to think of a time you changed your mind adn why, we’d love to hear about it. At the end of the series we’ll be doing a special listneers edition of the show featuring them. If you email [email protected] and tell us about it, we’ll give the best response a copy of Aimen’s new book, Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy in Al-Qaida. If you want to hear more about Thomas and Aimen’s work then search for Conflicted, their podcast, wherever you listen to yours.
That’s all from us today. Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Changed My Mind. If you liked what you heard, don’t forget we’ve got a full back catalogue of interviews with leaders that you can find by searching for Changed My Mind in your podcast app. We’ll be back next week with a new episode, moving to America where we talk to one of their leading animal rights campaigners about how meeting her enemy opened her eyes and changed her mind.
Thank you to openDemocracy for their support of the show, to Caroline Cramton for editing and producing, and to Kevin McCloud whose “Dreams Become Real” is our theme music.