In 2002, Aukai Collins, a Californian convert to Islam, wrote a memoir, My Jihad,[1] recounting his days as a jihadi from his training in Pakistan to his endeavors on the battlefield in Chechnya. Although Collins' book, interesting but poorly written, received little to no attention, a very similar memoir recently written by a Moroccan man is drawing significantly more consideration. Using the pseudonym of Omar Nasiri, the man details his years in the jihadi underworld from living with the core of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) network in Brussels, to training in Afghanistan, to becoming a regular in London's most radical mosques.

Both books provide an unusual firsthand account of terrorist life "from the inside." But the major difference between the two accounts is that Nasiri claims to have done all his work as a spy at the service of various European intelligence agencies. Some have contested the veracity of this assertion, alleging that Nasiri's involvement with French intelligence is a fabrication designed to spice up his story. It is obviously impossible to ascertain whether Nasiri was actually a spy throughout his career as a jihadi. While his story is fairly believable, as all his claims check out with actual events, Nasiri does not really reveal anything not available through a thorough research in open sources.

In any case, those who decide to give Nasiri the benefit of the doubt will not be disappointed. While no literary masterpiece, Nasiri's memoir, particularly the first part recounting his days in Brussels, is a good read. Those looking for new information on Al-Qaeda will not find much, yet the book provides detailed confirmation of phenomena already known. First, it shows that Europe was a key center for jihad, no less important than Afghanistan, as early as the mid-1990s, swarming with top jihadi leaders. Second, if Nasiri's dealings with them are true, his account demonstrates the European intelligence agencies' lack of cognizance of the nature and magnitude of the problem. While the "ruthless" French General Directorate for External Security (Direction Generale de la Securité Exterieure, DGSE) was an exception, German and British intelligence are portrayed as incompetent and completely oblivious to the long-term threat posed by Islamist networks on their territory.

While these historical facts are now common knowledge, the real value of Nasiri's memoir lies in the insight into the minds of young, mostly European Muslims. Nasiri confirms the appeal that jihad has had for many of them, including himself, who, while still working as a spy and enjoying some of the most "un-Islamic" freedoms of the West, became fascinated with the purity of the cause and of some of its supporters. "There are guys like this all over the world: They drink, they smoke, they snort coke, they are complete infidels in the eyes of real Muslims," writes Nasiri describing a young Arab criminal in Brussels. "But at the first mention of the words umma [nation] or jihad, they suddenly reconnect with Islam. I think this is particularly true in Europe, where young men are so far from everything, from the Muslim land. Jihad is nothing for them, nothing real. But it is also everything."

[1] New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2006