Infiltrating a Jihadist Cell to Defend America … and Islam

FBI agent Tamer Elnoury says he went undercover to fight "this evil that is so personal."

December 21, 2017 5:00 am
Tamer Elnoury
Tamer Elnoury on CBS's 60 Minutes Overtime (CBS)

Standing in the shadow of the 9/11 Memorial, undercover FBI agent Tamer Elnoury was considering murder.

A wanna-be terrorist named Chiheb Esseghaier had just put his arm around Elnoury as Esseghaier admired the terrible work al Qaeda had done in 2001.

“Tamer, this town needs another nine-eleven,” Esseghaier said, according to Elnoury’s new book “American Radical.” “And we’re going to give it to them.”

Internally, Elnoury was screaming. “I wanted him off the face of the earth. He died in my mind that night,” he writes.

Elnoury knew he had a pen in his pocket and knew a couple swift movements and a well-placed blow to the eye socket could kill. But he also knew there was a lot more at stake.

So he stood still for a while before lightly pushing Esseghaier away and feigning food poisoning for his foul mood. It was all about keeping the relationship intact, after all.

Since the undercover agent had met Esseghaier seemingly coincidentally, in what’s called a “bump” on a flight to California months before, Esseghaier revealed himself to be devoted to carrying out a deadly terrorist attack on the West. Elnoury had played the part of a like-minded, if richer, jihadist who was well-positioned to be Esseghaier’s financier, confidant and eventual best friend.

As painful as they were to Elnoury, moments like the dark discussion outside the 9/11 Memorial were the reason he had transferred to counter-terrorism from narcotics years before. He needed to help build as strong of a case as possible to put people like Esseghaier away for a long time.

But he wasn’t just doing it to defend his adopted home of America. In a recent interview with RealClearLife, Elnoury, a native Egyptian, said he did the work and decided to write the book to defend something else very personal and dear to him: Islam.

“I felt that it was my duty to stand up and speak for those who don’t have a voice, not only as a Muslim American, but one that happens to have the highest security clearance — and, oh by the way, I work with a bunch of others at the tip of the spear of this global war on terror. So here’s the difference between a Muslim and a radical,” he said.

Elnoury, which is a pseudonym, is still an active FBI agent and is not used to the spotlight. (In a recent interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Elnoury wore an elaborate disguise to appear on camera.)

He decided to take the security risk by writing the book with co-author Kevin Maurer because he said most Americans don’t realize the role Muslims play in America’s counter-terrorism efforts. He was dismayed that when Islam is discussed, the public is often only seeing the horrendous deeds and twisted rationalizations of “only a handful of these radicals.”

In the shadows, Elnoury had been taking on those radicals since just after 9/11 when he transferred to counter-terrorism. He was an ideal CT undercover man. Born in Egypt but relocated to the U.S. when he was a child, he spoke Arabic, was a practicing Muslim and he had the undercover chops from his narcotics days.

He knew the proper, nuanced cultural etiquette that would allow him to slip into the skin of a radical Islamist, sometimes better than the often ill-informed radicals themselves.

Elnoury told RealClearLife that when he started, some close associates asked if he had any hesitation about allowing the FBI to use him, to take advantage of his faith for their ends.

“My response is, I’ll make the argument that I’m using them,” he said. “They’re protecting me and giving me a platform to combat this evil that is so personal to me. I am a Muslim and I see and I know and I was raised in the true tenets. I get to infiltrate them by using my knowledge… All of that was a tool to combat this evil in the name of a peaceful religion.”

The book is peppered with the tension between Elnoury’s undercover persona, who agrees wholeheartedly with the slaughter of innocents in the name of jihad, and his actual thoughts, described in bewildered or outraged asides.

Once, when Elnoury and Esseghaier scrolled through the State Department’s Rewards for Justice website, looking at the Most Wanted Terrorists, Elnoury writes that Esseghaier said he wished he was on the list.

“His words hit me like a punch,” Elnoury writes. “He wanted to be on a list of murderers. Of men who brainwashed the young with an ideology of hate.”

But instead of saying any of that, Elnoury just said, “God willing, one day, we will be at the top of that list with [al Qaeda leader] Sheikh Ayman [al-Zawahiri].”

“God willing,” Esseghaier replied.

Another time Esseghaier is justifying the killing of women and children, and while Elnoury agreed, in his mind he was arguing back. “This was not the religion my mother and father taught me. Islam wasn’t a religion of violence and revenge. The Quran says he who slays a soul on earth shall be as if he had slain all of mankind, and he who saves a life shall be as if he had given life to all mankind,” he writes.

(In an almost comical incident, a younger Muslim undercover agent working with Elnoury at one point gets so upset by what he saw as the jihadists’ perversions of Islam that he breaks cover to argue against terrorist attacks, leaving Elnoury to shut the discussion down and then struggle to explain away the younger man’s anti-terrorism outburst.)

Despite the talk of a second 9/11, the book’s main focus is on a 2013 plot for which Esseghaier and a co-conspirator would later be convicted in Canada. It targeted a rail line between Toronto and New York and the idea was to derail a train while it was crossing a bridge, in the hopes of drowning as many people as possible in the water below.

Elnoury describes trips with Esseghaier to the location to scout attack points, but the plot never progressed far enough that anyone was in danger.

Unlike the dramatic climaxes of fiction, reality intrudes on the book as the Esseghaier case wraps up suddenly, off-camera, by the Canadian authorities, to the disappointment of Elnoury and his FBI colleagues.

Esseghaier was found guilty of terror-related charges in March 2015 and was sentenced to life in prison. This summer, Esseghaier reportedly attempted to appeal the case by claiming mental health issues. Elnoury, who made it clear he was not trained to diagnose mental issues, told RealClearLife he believed Esseghaier “knew what he was doing.”

It was a successful operation by headquarter’s standards, but Elnoury said he still has some lingering questions that he’s frustrated he wasn’t able to answer.

Chiefly, in the course of his work Esseghaier made references to an American sleeper terrorist who was presumably planning an attack in the U.S. Elnoury pushed Esseghaier for more information on the sleeper and was in the process of setting up a meeting with the mystery man when the case was closed.

Four years later, does Elnoury think the American sleeper is still out there?

“I haven’t gotten the closure I’m looking for there,” he said.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

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