Inside the world of an undercover Muslim FBI agent.
"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with radicals. I am a Muslim. I am an American. I have been serving my country for twenty-two plus years. I am appalled at what these animals are doing to my country while desecrating my religion."
The evening of Sunday, October 22, 2017, I was mesmerized as I listened to "Tamer Elnoury" describe his FBI undercover work to Sixty Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley. "Tamer Elnoury" is not this FBI agent's real name. His real name will probably be known to the public only after his death, if then. His work is perilous for him and for his family. Elnoury is an Egypt-born Muslim Arab. He immigrated to New Jersey with his parents when he was five years old. He worked in law enforcement. Under the persona of "Rico Jordan," a street thug, he broke up cocaine and heroin rings. He contributed to 2,500 narcotics investigations.
Interviewing Elnoury at Ground Zero, near the reflecting pools where the Twin Towers once stood, Pelley asked Elnoury why he left narcotics and became involved in tracking down international Al Qaeda terrorists.
Elnoury replied that he was horrified by 9-11. He initially had no idea that a plane flying into a Manhattan skyscraper had any connection to Islam. "That's how naïve I was. That's how naïve we all were at that time." As a patriotic American and as a Muslim, he wanted to help stop terrorism. Elnoury was on Sixty Minutes to discuss his new book, American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent. Pelley said, "He wrote the book … so that fellow Americans could understand how the Islam he knows is tortured by terrorists trying to justify mayhem."
Beginning in June, 2012, Elnoury spent a year spying on, and interacting with, Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian scientist studying for a PhD in Quebec, Canada. Esseghaier, following instructions from his handlers in Iran, wanted to destroy train tracks so that a US-bound Canadian passenger train would crash and kill everyone on board. Later, Esseghaier plotted to plant bombs near the ball drop in Manhattan on New Year's Eve. Pelley said that Esseghaier, "twisted the Koran to justify attacking the West."
During a visit to Manhattan, at Ground Zero, Esseghaier told Elnoury that America needed another 9-11, and that he wanted to provide it. Esseghaier described how he could bomb Manhattanites on New Year's Eve. During this conversation, Elnoury became so upset, he nearly broke cover, and he came close to murdering Esseghaier. "I saw red at that moment. It was the hardest time in my career to stay professional. Here I am on hallowed ground … at that very moment I could feel a pen in the pocket of my jacket. I envisioned stabbing him in the eye and dropping him dead right where he stood. … We pretend to be someone we loathe while hanging out with people we hate … I almost broke that night but thankfully for the case I didn't."
In subsequent interviews, Elnoury repeatedly emphasized that terrorism and real Islam are unrelated. "The vast majority" of terrorists, he insisted, "have no idea what the true tenets of the religion is [sic]. Some of them can't even pray." He compared terrorists to school shooters. They are "lost souls" "looking for something to latch on to," he said.
Listening to Elnoury describe his work, I was enraptured. Elnoury is patriotic; he is brave; he is manly; he is effective. He is, in short, a real-life action hero. He risked his life to keep you and me safe.
Elnoury was so articulate, so passionate, so charismatic, that I had to give his book a chance. I was eager to see how he would spell out and argue for his Islam, this so-called "authentic" Islam, that not only did not justify terror, but that militated against terror and for peace. Elnoury claimed that terrorists "perverted" his religion. I wanted to read his words explaining exactly how.
American Radical, published in October, 2017, by Dutton, is a terrific book. It is written in flim noir style. Words and sentences are short and to the point. Action is fast-paced. Elnoury and his co-writer Kevin Maurer never linger over descriptions.
Elnoury's family had been successful. His mother was a chemist, his father, a medical engineer. He grew up in a suburban New Jersey home with a built-in swimming pool and a cabana with a fireplace where he and his friends partied. He lived between a church and a synagogue and socialized with Jewish friends in their homes. He grew up immersed in enough American pop culture that he talked shop with his colleagues by using baseball metaphors and he casually sprinkled his speech with references to movies like Pulp Fiction. Elnoury acknowledges that he is not perfectly adherent, and insists, "I'm no different from Catholics who go to church only on Christmas and Easter." 9-11 "wasn't Islam to me … Some asshole in a cave turned me and my family into the enemy. I hadn't felt this lost since my mother passed." His law enforcement colleagues confirmed his sentiment. "We know that is not your religion," they told him on the day of the attacks. Elnoury is a true American patriot. "A little part of me died every time I had to denounce my country or pervert my religion"
Elnoury's treatment of his mother's passing is poignant and caused this reader to cry. One cannot doubt that this woman, who remains unnamed, was a charming, empathetic and memorable earth mother. Elnoury talks about how loved she was by all she met. He talked to her by phone every day in college, and his college pals wanted to talk to her as well, she was such a loving presence. Elnoury's mother was determined that her son remain an Arab Muslim. She spoke only Arabic to her son. Before she died, she said to Elnoury that Allah's will, "is everything I ever taught you. You need to believe it in your heart." In a subsequent chapter, Elnoury's father tells him that terrorism "is not Islam … is not anything resembling Islam." Rather, terrorism "is an evil that needs to be wiped off our planet." Terrorists, his father insisted, offer "a warped rationalization." The Koran teaches that "women and children" are "off limits." In a chapter entitled "I Am a Muslim," Elnoury says that on 9-11, hijackers murdered "in the name of the most precious and private thing in my life." "Islam is what makes me who I am," he writes. Terrorists are "a small group of mass murderers."
War, the old saying goes, consists of long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Undercover work comes across the same way. Elnoury shadows his prey in day-to-day life. They go to restaurants, drive around, talk about girl trouble. These passages are rather dry and repetitive. But then Elnoury enters rooms without escape routes and he suspects that someone may have learned his true identity. The reader's pulse pounds and she contemplates what it takes to be a successful spy.
It is clear that Elnoury is struggling to place a genial face on Islam for his non-Muslim readers. The problem is the facts he presents so meticulously make it impossible for him to achieve his goal. The Muslims on whom Elnoury is spying fly on American and Canadian airplanes, dine on lobster in American and Canadian restaurants, shop at The Gap, slurp down coffee and scarf down pastry in Tim Hortons and Dunkin Donuts, sleep in Marriott hotels, stroll through crowds at tourist destinations, attend university classes and scholarly conferences. All the while they are hating and wanting to murder everyone around them: helpful stewardesses, bubbly waitresses, passing pedestrians, babies in strollers. Three Muslim men walking across a bridge on a sunny day are there for one purpose in Elnoury's book – not to retreat to a private place for a heart-to-heart talk, not to admire the scenery, not to stretch their legs or get a breath of fresh air. They are walking across that bridge to plot to demolish that bridge and thereby to murder kuffar. Chiheb Esseghaier, Elnoury's main target, works with deadly diseases. Ahmed Abassi, a Tunisian student at Canada's Laval University, tells Esseghaier to put a virus into a reservoir. We can, he said, reap a harvest of "thousands of dead Americans." "Live among them so as to defeat them," is Elnoury's motto as a pretend terrorist.
"Live among them so as to defeat them" is real terrorists' motto as well. It will be impossible for many readers ever again look at the Muslims around them without at least a hint of cautious, self-protective suspicion. Esseghaier spells out to Elnoury how and why he can live among kuffar, pretend to be a participating member of society, while remaining merely a "sleeper" waiting for the text message from his overseas handlers to murder his kuffar neighbors. "'Hypocrisy is haram in Islam, but not during times of war or necessity' … Muslims can break rules in order to survive – eat pork it if is the only food – and pretend to be American in order to blend in."
Why do jihadis feel they must murder kuffar? Because Americans and other non-Muslims "are spreading adultery, they are spreading alcohol … they are spreading Christianity … it's our duty to make trouble in their homes … God almighty says fight their leaders … Islam is a very powerful weapon … you can bulldoze the whole world." Esseghaier and his fellow sleeper jihadis are outraged by liquor sales, by a friendly waitress who goes out of her way to be kind, and belly dancers in Middle Eastern restaurants. The terrorists Elnoury shadows are outraged by women in attractive dresses and men with alcohol on their breath. Every aspect of Western life is a potential irritant for jihadis. The jihadis in this book are convinced that they must punish the kuffar for living lives normal in Western culture. One of Esseghaier's complaints: Canada won't allow him to slaughter his own lamb for Eid. A licensed butcher must slaughter the lamb. This violates Islam. One cannot read these passages and not reach the conclusion that Muslim immigrants, and their children, migrating to any non-Muslim country, not just Western ones, confront an obstacle course of flashpoints that could trigger the more devout and less well-balanced to turn into the next Anwar al-Awlaki, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or Nidal Hasan.
Another factor that taxpayer readers will not help but note. Counter jihad surveillance is very expensive. At one dinner, Elnoury drops a thousand dollars for dinner for three, with, of course, no alcohol.
Given his intimate contact, Elnoury provides a detailed portrait of the foibles of his wannabe jihadis. Esseghaier would spend up to forty-five minutes in public restrooms ensuring that he had not allowed so much as a drop of urine to contact his clothing. Such a drop would contaminate him and invalidate his next installment of the five daily prayers. Elnoury does not linger on what motivates Esseghaier's urine obsession. In fact this obsession is rooted in Islamic sacred texts. In one hadith, Mohammed said that he could hear a damned soul being tortured in his grave. The man committed, Mohammed said, a "major sin." He "never saved himself from being soiled with his urine." Mohammed placed the green leaf of a date palm on the grave in order to lessen the torture temporarily, until the leaf dried, when, evidently, the torture would begin anew. At one point, in order to participate in one of the five mandated daily prayers, Elnoury had to purchase a new set of clothes for Esseghaier because one drop of urine had made contact with his clothing.
Elnoury gave Esseghaier and the other jihadis he trailed every chance to renounce their evil. Elnoury did this because he is a decent human being and he wanted to "save" his targets from their lives dedicated to hate and death. Elnoury also did this for legal reasons. Readers will be astounded to discover how far jihadi wannabes can go before their words merit even so much as their deportation. Merely saying that you'd like to murder many kuffar in the name of Allah is not enough to build a court case. Elnoury had to give his targets a chance to announce in no uncertain terms that they were fully prepared to carry out a specific terrorist act before they could be taken to court.
We are about to murder women and children, Elnoury announced to his wards. "Are you sure this is considered halal? Is this what Allah wants?" Esseghaier offered Islamic supports for jihad. As he listened, Elnoury thought, "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."
Tamer Elnoury has published an exciting book about espionage. Has he achieved his larger goal of redeeming Islam in the eyes of his readers? Absolutely not.
The closest Elnoury gets to Koran exegesis is his comment on 5:45, "And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, in legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him." Elnoury insists that this verse states that "human beings are not supposed to be judge and executioner. That is God's job. Humans forgive and forget." Elnoury is exactly wrong. The verse says nothing about forgiveness or forgetting. The verse says that it is the wronged person's "right" to take life. If one does not take that life, not taking that life is an "expiation" for the person's past wrong. In other words, if the person had killed someone in the past, and gotten away with it, and someone kills his loved one, he can let that killer get away with it as payment for his own crime. This is a profit-and-loss worldview. Lives have dollars-and-cents value in Koran-inspired legal systems, and this dollars-and-cents value can be traded like any other commodity. Diya, or the monetary value assigned to human life in Shariah, varies. Muslim men have the highest value. Then Muslim women. A Hindu woman's life is worth a fraction of the value of a Muslim male's life. Diya misses the concept of murder as a crime against society. Elnoury misrepresents the Koran as being more compassionate and humane than it is.
Elnoury insists that the Koran "specifically states that Muslims must abide by the country's laws in which they reside." Elnoury offers no Koran verse to support this assertion. In any case, not all Muslims agree. As one wrote, "There is no such principle within Islam that says you have to obey any laws other than what Allah (SWT) has revealed. It is outrageous to claim that the 'law-of-the-land' supersedes the Sharia laws, if so then what value and authority do the Sharia laws have?" An online argument for such obedience cites no Koran quote specifically supporting Elnoury's claim; rather, it cites vague Koran quotes about honoring contracts. Even the page arguing for Muslims' obedience to the law of the land states that Muslims may break the law if it is contrary to Allah's wishes. According to press accounts, attorneys in Michigan will present a "religious freedom" defense when Dr Jumana Nagarwala's female genital mutilation case goes to court. Her lawyers will argue that Islam supersedes the law of the United States. In 2010, a New Jersey judge found no criminal intent in the actions of a Muslim man who raped and tortured his arranged, teen bride. Those actions, the judge found, were consistent with the assailant's Islamic beliefs. In short, not only are there Muslims who argue against Elnoury's assertion that Muslims must obey the law of the land, there are culturally relativist Westerners who do so, as well.
Elnoury says that the Koran teaches that whoever takes one life is like one who slays all mankind. Elnoury misrepresents the Koran here. The "one life" quote is originally from the Talmud, not the Koran. The Koran acknowledges this origin in verse 5:32. It begins, "We [Allah] decreed upon the Children of Israel that" whoever kills one person it is as if he had killed all humanity. The very next verse, 5:33, states, "the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land."
Elnoury says that Mohammed prohibited the killing of women and children in war. Mohammed is "al-Insan al-Kamil," the perfect example, worthy to be emulated. Mohammed massacred the non-combatant Banu Qurayza, a tribe of Jews. Mohammed forced youths to expose their private parts. If they had pubic hair, he beheaded them. If not, he enslaved them. Mohammed raped, and recommended the rape, of captives. Mohammed tortured Kinana al-Rabi. Mohammed ordered at least forty-three assassinations. In Sahih Bukhari (52:256), Mohammed condoned attacking at night in a manner that guaranteed casualties among women and children. In Sahih Bukhari (52:220), Mohammed said, "I have been made victorious through terror." Elnoury does not address Koran 3:151, "We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve," or 8:12, " I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip," or 8:60 "And prepare against them all the power you can muster, and all the cavalry you can mobilize, to terrify thereby God’s enemies and your enemies." In the centuries since Mohammed, Muslim thinkers have reinforced the religious obligation of jihad on all Muslims. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun wrote, " jihad is a religious duty because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the jihad was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense. But Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations." In short, Elnoury's insistence that Mohammed prohibited the killing of women and children in war is not reassuring.
"Jihadis," Elnoury writes, "are using a peaceful religion to further their agendas. That's not religion. It's politics. The reality is that radical Islam is a very small minority that twists the Quran to fit its needs. Just look at Chiheb, Jaser, and Abassi. Chiheb though the Quran justified the murder of innocent men, women, and children because he chose not to honor the Prophet's rules of war … Jaser thought Allah wanted him to kill Jews."
Let's address this paragraph point by point. In Islam, there is no separation between religion and politics. "When anyone studies a little or pays a little attention to the rules of Islamic government, Islamic politics, Islamic society and Islamic economy, he will realize that Islam is a very political religion. Anyone who will say that religion is separate from politics is a fool; he does not know Islam or politics … Islam is politics or it is nothing," said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Muslims who approve of violence in the name of Islam are not a "very small minority." The Pew Research Center reveals that significant percentages of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims, that is roughly one fourth of the world population, support even something so heinous and nihilistic as suicide bombing; see graph here. In one poll, one in four young, American Muslims supported bombing. There is nothing "very small" about these numbers.
Elnoury's use of the word "innocent" serves to obscure rather than to enlighten. “Non-Muslims are never innocent, they are guilty of denying Allah and his prophet," said Anjem Choudary. The Muslim belief that all non-Muslims have "denied" Allah and his prophet may astound many non-Muslims. To clarify: in the Muslim worldview, everyone is born Muslim. To be anything other than Muslim, according to Mohammed, is to obey "devils" "who made them go astray." This is why Muslims believe that no one "converts" to Islam; rather one "reverts" to one's status at birth. What appears to the naïve to be the innocuous use of the word "revert" rather than "convert" underlies a diabolical belief. All non-Muslims have obeyed the devil and rejected Allah and his prophet, and all non-Muslims are guilty and deserve to die in jihad. Not all Muslims believe this, of course, but enough do to use this belief to murder those they judge as having rejected Allah.
Tamer Elnoury expresses outrage at one of his targets, Raed Jaser. Jaser, Elnoury writes, was not a true Muslim in his belief that he ought to kill Jews. It is incumbent upon Elnoury to address Koran 2:65, 5:60, and 7:166, all of which describe Allah turning Jews into despised apes and pigs. Elnoury should address the impact of Islamic daily prayer, which requires Muslims to repeat multiple times every day that Jews have earned God's anger. (See The Qur'an and Its Interpreters Volume 1, page 49.) Elnoury should address the Koran verse advising Muslims not to take Jews as friends. Elnoury should address Sahih Muslim 6985, "The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews." Elnoury should address the impact of sermons like this one, broadcast over a loudspeaker at Mecca, "O Allah vanquish the unjust Christians and the criminal Jews, the unjust traitors; strike them with your wrath; make their lives hostage to misery; drape them with endless despair, unrelenting pain and unremitting ailment; fill their lives with sorrow and pain and end their lives in humiliation and oppression; inflict your tortures and punishments upon the unjust Christians and criminal Jews. This is our supplication, Allah; grant us our request!" Elnoury should address the textbooks and popular media found throughout the Muslim world that depict Jews drinking children's blood. Elnoury focuses on the anti-Semitism of one man, Raed Jaser, his target, while ignoring the scripture and culture that generated and supported that man's homicidal hatred. Elnoury said that terrorists are so divorced from their religion that some of them can't even pray. In news photographs, it appears that Chiheb Esseghaier's forehead is marked with a zebibah, a discoloration from repeatedly striking the head to the ground in prayer.
Elnoury objects when a terrorist refers to jihad as the sixth pillar, that is, religiously prescribed duty, of Muslims. It's all well and good that Elnoury objects. The problem is many Muslims do view jihad as Islalm's sixth pillar. Jihad "is the biography of Mohammed," as one terrorist put it in Elnoury's book.
Terrorists scrupulously cite Koran verses and hadith to justify their abominations. No perversion, no act of sadism, is beyond the sanctifying reach of the Koran or hadith. After ISIS burned Jordian pilot Muath Al-Kaseasbeh alive in a cage, ISIS justified the act with the Islamic concept of "qisas." ISIS justified its sex slavery with Koran verses and hadith. Indeed, the very 9-11 attack that prompted Elnoury to become an anti-terror agent was justified by Osama bin Laden with Koranic verses.
Living as he does so closely to Esseghaier, Elnoury wishes he could save him. He sees in Esseghaier a "naïve," "awkward" lonely man who is clumsy with women, and a nerdy scientist whose intelligence could serve humanity. "I was happy the terrorist would never be free. I felt sorry for the man." Esseghaier is true to the Koranic dictate in 48:29 to be compassionate to fellow Muslims but to be harsh to unbelievers. The notes Esseghaier exchanges with his terrorist handlers are obsequious and soppy to the point of being nauseating. As long as you are committed to murdering kuffar, you are "habibi," "dear brother," and accorded every courtesy. Indeed, the reader cannot help but be touched by Esseghaier. He is a poor graduate student, but he donates thousands of dollars of his own money to "the cause." The cause, of course, is murdering kuffar – the very people educating him in Canada. Elnoury notes Esseghaier's cold willingness to murder and resigns himself: he can offer no salvation to this man who has chosen evil.
This aspect of the book is important. Anyone who calls jihadis "animals" is mistaken. Plenty of jihadis are men who, living in a life-affirming culture, would make good husbands, loving fathers, and productive citizens. They want to do the right thing. They have been brainwashed to believe that God is named Allah and Allah demands murder. Those who recognize the falsehood of that statement need to communicate loud and clear: Islam's Allah is not God, and murder is a wicked crime, not a good deed.
When the planes hit the Twin Towers, Elnoury had no idea what was going on. "That's how naïve I was. That's how naïve we all were," he said.
Officer, whose real name I do not know, you are wrong. Some of us knew exactly why even the first plane, never mind the second, hit the World Trade Center. We knew it was jihad, because we knew Muslims who expressed the sentiments that were manifest that day. Years before 9-11, I met, in New Jersey, men who spoke like the men you surveilled. Tamer … whatever your name is … you insist that you are the hero you are, and you are a hero, because of Islam. Forgive me for speaking this truth to you: you're wrong. You're not a hero because of Islam. In fact, you aren't a Muslim. Contrary to the literal definition of the word, you have not submitted to Allah. You, Tamer, have defied Allah. You are loyal to America, in spite of the Koran verses devout Muslims cite to argue against any Muslim being loyal to an infidel state. You drink alcohol to the point of intoxication, in defiance of Koran 5:90. You are comfortable with flirtatious female strangers who engage in casual touching. You have beloved Christian and Jewish friends, in defiance of Koran 5:51, which dictates that you not take Christians or Jews for friends. You celebrate Thanksgiving with your father, in spite of imams condemning any Muslim participation in non-Muslim holidays. You like exotic dancers and you laugh at pranks involving sex toys. You put fellow Muslims in kuffar jails for life sentences. Tamer Elnoury, you are courageous, resourceful, loyal, and you are all these things not because of Islam. You are an American, my friend. You are, furthermore, like Bruce Springsteen, Chris Christie, and Jack Nicholson, a Jersey Boy. In spite of your cloak and dagger disguise, I'm a Jersey girl, and I can hear it in your accent.