CIA operations officer Doug London has one shot to recruit one of al-Qaeda's key facilitators. Doug has to find common ground with a man with a vastly different background and belief system. Lives hang in the balance. He has to succeed. Vanessa Kirby tells the story of how Doug did it.
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True Spies, Episode 80: Allied with al-Qaeda

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies, Episode 80: Allied with al-Qaeda.

DOUGLAS LONDON: I wanted him to see me as an authority figure. I wanted him to see me as somebody who had control at this point, maybe over his life and death, but not a man of evil. I wanted his help to keep more people from dying. And I said: "People were dead because of you. And here's your opportunity to make amends by keeping more people from dying.”

NARRATOR: Twenty-one years ago, somewhere in the Middle East, a wanted terrorist is seated at a table in an austere interrogation room. The walls are bare. The heat? Oppressive. All night long, the terrorist has been held in detention, anxiously awaiting his hour of reckoning. It’s nearly 4 am by the time Douglas London enters the room dressed in a crisp blue suit, carrying a file, a thick dossier, on Yousef, the man on the other side of the table.

DOUGLAS LONDON: I didn't say anything to him at first. I just kind of looked at him, and I looked at the file. I kept thumbing through the file. He was reaching out and saying: “Hello, sir. Good to see you, sir.” All the pleasantries, and being very deferential and very respectful. And I just pretended to go through the file. And I remember at the time I was clicking my pen. I had a pen in there and I had a notepad and I was clicking it because I saw it made him a little more uncomfortable - which for my purposes was kind of good. And then I just shook my head and said: "What am I going to do with you?” And then, of course, Yousef protested and said: "Sir, I'll do anything you need. I haven't done anything wrong. I'm just a common, ordinary man.” And such like that. And I started to refer to him by his real name. And it stunned him when I used his real name.

NARRATOR: A CIA operations officer plays a lot of different roles in working with foreign agents. Of course, all good spies are credible actors. But that’s just one element of the theater of recruitment. There’s the art of crafting a compelling script, making sure there are no holes in your story. There’s also a bit of stagecraft: finding the right setting, the right props, the right things to wear. And, as in any good show, it all comes down to timing. A strong performance moves at a clip and it brings about an emotional catharsis as the curtain falls.

DOUGLAS LONDON: My name is Doug London. I retired from the CIA in 2019 after 34 years of service in the clandestine service. I served mostly across the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. And my 34 years of service fits rather neatly 17 years prior to, and 17 years after, 9/11.

NARRATOR: As a CIA operative and a skilled recruiter, Doug London gave many fine performances. But one of his most artful took place right at the fulcrum of his career. The year was 2000. The world had not yet witnessed the devastation of the September 11 terrorist attacks, had not yet learned it was possible for such a thing to happen on American soil. But the CIA was hearing rumblings of an upcoming event, and they knew bin Laden was determined to strike America at home. Still, Doug thinks the expectation shared by most people in the intelligence community was that the next major attack would happen somewhere else.

DOUGLAS LONDON: There was probably an expectation that it would still be abroad. It would be some sort of multiple attack situation, just like they had done in East Africa, where the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were both attacked. So while, obviously, no good intelligence officer is going to rule out anything, and we knew that bin Laden wanted to conduct a homeland attack. I guess it was just a disbelief that they could be successful in the homeland or at least on such a scale.

NARRATOR: Let’s set our scene, shall we? It’s the new millennium. Y2K had turned out to be, as [former US President] Bill Clinton put it: "The first challenge of the 21st century successfully met.” The dot.com bubble, on the other hand, was on the brink of collapse. Doug London was a mid-career officer for the CIA serving as chief of station somewhere in the Middle East. He isn’t at liberty to say where, exactly. That remains a secret to this day. But he can say this.

DOUGLAS LONDON: My command was in a location where the country itself was not a place of great hustle and bustle and not cosmopolitan. In fact, it was somewhat sort of at the end of the rope, the end of the line. It was fairly remote, but it was situated in a region that was quite active and busy, and a lot of my mission was focusing on countries in the region. To say it was a democracy would probably be an overstatement. There was at least the appearance of democracy in the country. But we had a good relationship, and one of our joint missions, obviously, was counterterrorism.

NARRATOR: Doug and his colleagues worked closely with the local intelligence service. Their partners helped them keep an eye on people coming and going, people from certain backgrounds or associated with certain organizations who might be involved in suspicious activities.

DOUGLAS LONDON: And we just routinely came across this individual. He had a Middle-Eastern-sounding name, an Arabic-sounding name.

NARRATOR: Let’s call him Yousef. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: Yousef had grown up in a country that was pretty much a police state in the Middle East. He was a professional. He was very well educated. His family actually was well-to-do and connected to the government and lived off its good connections. He was very religious so he was going to the mosque. And he got pulled away by folks in the mosque who had more extreme ideas or were, in fact, more religious themselves, and got himself connected to some of these radical cells. And based on his connection to individuals who were considered troublemakers by his local government, because of his family, he knew enough that they were taking an interest and he was told to flee. And flee he did.

NARRATOR: Yousef and his wife and children were welcomed by terrorist recruiters to make a life in exile in the former Soviet Union.

DOUGLAS LONDON: That's where al-Qaeda would sometimes bring people, indoctrinate them, vet them, make sure that they were who they wanted them to be, and provide them training.

NARRATOR: Thanks to his affiliation with extremist groups, Yousef was a known entity to the local counterintelligence service, who kept a few details and a photo on file. Now, his presence back in the Middle East signaled trouble. What was he doing there, in Doug’s post city? And what plots was he involved in? Could he be supporting a terrorist cell that was involved in the larger operation on the CIA’s radar - the event that would turn out to be the 9/11 attack? There was another thing that raised suspicions: Yousef was working for a so-called 'charitable organization'. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: And at the time, before 9/11, al-Qaeda frequently used a lot of charitable organizations. They'd sometimes use it for cover for some of their operatives. They'd certainly try to manipulate the funding of those organizations to use as a way to collect donations from people. So we kept a bit of an eye and, basically, we just submitted the name and the picture for routine traces.

NARRATOR: Traces: essentially, a review of all the classified and open-source information the CIA can dig up to see if the person in question is someone they know. In this case: someone with a known connection to terrorism. The CIA didn’t have a photo of Yousef, but they were able to trace his actual name back to a physical description that matched his distinctive appearance. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: The trace came back, suggesting he might be identifiable with an individual who we'd heard about. He'd come in reporting as having been connected to a number of terrorist plots across Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Some of those plots had been disrupted beforehand. Some of them took place. But in either case, whether there were arrests or there were documents found, there was a mention of an individual who fits this physical description, who had the same professional profile, who always seemed to disappear shortly after either the terrorist attack took place or the operation was foiled. So he had a bit of a legend, if you would, for either being a mastermind of sorts or unbelievably lucky for having just been one step ahead.

NARRATOR: Yousef wasn’t just affiliated with a terrorist organization. If he was who they thought he was, he knew everyone who was anyone within al-Qaeda. And he was a key operator in this turbulent region, where he worked as a facilitator for the group.

DOUGLAS LONDON: They're like the crew chief, the support chief. They do everything from getting documents, maybe procuring safe houses, logistics, buying materials, the arms, whatever it takes to make an operation go.

NARRATOR: Facilitators aren’t the ones dropping bombs or carrying out sniper attacks. They’re behind the scenes, laying the groundwork.

DOUGLAS LONDON: But in a lot of ways, the facilitators are more important because often it's the bombers, the shooters, who come in at the end who may not even have a lot of insight into the operation. They're just sort of plug-and-play whereas the facilitators are the brains. They work with the leadership. They know the ins and outs of the operation, as they have to, in order to be able to support it.

NARRATOR: If their suspicions were correct, Doug and his colleagues had stumbled on a really important figure within al-Qaeda. Remember, the CIA was hearing rumblings of something major. If al-Qaeda was going to carry out an attack, this guy would almost certainly know about it.

DOUGLAS LONDON: And our research and our operation had the expectation of leading to an arrest. That if he really was this terrorist, that ultimately we were trying to persuade the local government to arrest him and detain him - at least remove him as a possible threat to us - and maybe, ideally, while under their detention, talk about what his plans were and provide insight to whatever operations that he was aware of. That was really the goal at the outset.

NARRATOR: But Doug had a more ambitious idea.

DOUGLAS LONDON: As I'm sure it is with any people who surveil people, they come to have an image of that person. And he was an interesting guy. He was very intelligent but he was very self-deprecating. He was interested in business deals but he didn't seem to be the most effective business person. And in some ways, he even came across a bit as the absent-minded professor. So I think, in a funny way, despite knowing that he was linked to terrorist operations that had killed many people, including Americans, we all found him likable in a strange, odd way. Which more began to reinforce the potential that, is there any way we could recruit this guy? Is there a way we could get him to work for us? 

NARRATOR: Imagine looking at the profile of a terrorist and thinking: "I kind of like this guy. Maybe we could do business together." Doug had never even met this very charming terrorist but he’d already begun to see him as a good investment. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: No detainee or no combatant killed on the battlefield is as useful as someone who could provide you secrets, and particularly who could do it on a sustainable basis.

NARRATOR: Yousef, after all, was the legend who always stayed several steps ahead. Wouldn’t you want him working on your team? If Doug arrested him now, he might foil one plot, one threat, one deadly attack. But an ongoing relationship with an al-Qaeda facilitator could, in theory, help put an end to many more. At this point, you might be wondering: what would make a member of al-Qaeda want to support the American Central Intelligence Agency? The answer is often more personal than ideological.

DOUGLAS LONDON: One misconception is that if we're going to recruit somebody, CIA is going to recruit somebody, it's going to be somebody who loves America, who loves democracy, who waves the red, white, and blue and always dreamed about being an American. They don't really need to love us. They just need to trust us. 

NARRATOR: Oftentimes, trust comes easily when a target finds himself in a vulnerable situation.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Agents come to us or we get them on board. We recruit them because of circumstances in their life. It's conditions. it's situations. It's a son who has leukemia that they need medical treatment for, or they need to pay off their mother's house before she gets thrown out in the street. There's a whole variety of reasons that agents spy, and it's not because they believe in the US, in our case, or they've had a change of heart about their own ideology at home. Generally, they have a crisis, or the case officer, if you would - and this is where the manipulation comes in - helps them to think they have a crisis, helps them to believe they have a need, and persuades them based on trust that's been established, that: “Here's a way I can help you solve your problems.”

NARRATOR: Yousef fell into the latter category. Doug would need to retrofit a problem in need of a solution.

DOUGLAS LONDON: So, here's a guy who is part of al-Qaeda. So obviously, he's not a fan of the United States. He loves his family. He's happy. He's got a great sense of humor. He seems to be enjoying life. There is no precipitating crisis I have found in his life to persuade him so we had to create a precipitating crisis.

NARRATOR: Yousef didn’t appear to be desperate for help. Far from it. He’d played his cards just right, skipping from one place to another just before chaos would strike.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Well, we know he kept jumping one step ahead of the law. He always happened to leave just about the time something went up in smoke. Either there was an attack or people were taken down. He was a facilitator and not a trigger puller. He wasn't the person who'd deliver the bomb, who'd open up and fire on somebody. So clearly he believed in living. He wanted to live, and he was also here with his family. He took his family wherever he went, so family life was important. This was not somebody who wanted to martyr himself.

NARRATOR: And he wasn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality. Thanks to the deadly plots he’d been involved in, Yousef was wanted all over the world. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: Any of these countries that wanted him, he would not have gotten, let's say, a totally fair trial. And he would have probably been handled very poorly and would have eventually been executed. So we thought those are probably the things on which we could play.

NARRATOR: Yousef had been radicalized but he didn’t want to die for his cause. He was a family man who would do what he could to protect his wife and kids. And he knew all too well that he wasn’t going to be welcomed warmly abroad. Doug had plenty of leverage to get this terrorist on his side. Yet despite all that, CIA headquarters was pushing him to abandon his plan. The threat of an attack was looming large on the horizon.

DOUGLAS LONDON: At this point, the agency was getting more and more nervous. Those red lights were blinking brighter and brighter. The alarm bells are going off louder and louder. That's when the pressure came from CIA headquarters that they wanted him arrested immediately. They just thought that's the safest thing to do. If we just take them off the battlefield, it might at least throw them off, disrupt the activity, postpone the activity and give us some more breathing room.

NARRATOR: But Doug kept pushing back. He’d spent a lot of time getting to know Yousef, even though they’d never met in person. He knew what made him tick. And he knew that the CIA and its local partners could make it worth his while to collaborate with them. Still, tangling with a terrorist on the eve of a major attack? That was a pretty hard sell. Fortunately, Doug had support on the ground.

DOUGLAS LONDON: One of my senior leaders in my geographic component kind of negotiated a compromise. It wasn't really much of a compromise, it was like: "Okay, what we'll do is, we'll give you essentially 24 hours. You've got to get the local service to arrest this guy and you've got 24 hours while he's in detention to recruit them. To turn him around. To convince him." So 24 hours is all I got.

NARRATOR: The CIA knows that an attack by al-Qaeda is imminent. And somewhere in the Middle East, Doug has 24 hours to turn a terrorist into an asset. No big deal.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Being a case officer, being an intelligence officer, you're always juggling a lot of things, and there's always a lot of stress. It's not like you could ever decide: "I'm going to call all my adversaries who might be surveilling me, watching me, looking at me, and just say, ‘Guys, I'm just going to hang out with my kids today. If I go to the ball field, I'm not doing anything operational. If I have a soccer game…’” I mean, it doesn't work that way. So you're always under all that pressure because you're under pressure based on keeping your agents safe and secure, recruiting new agents, maintaining your own pattern of life that allows you to operate under the noses of your adversaries. You just wind up being great at multitasking and keeping everything on the inside so that you look terrific outside and you have like 200 over 150 blood pressure.

NARRATOR: Doug and his team have to work fast to map out a plan. First, they’ll need to figure out where they’ll be able to find him and take him into custody without anyone else noticing.

DOUGLAS LONDON: What we knew is, we had a short window of time where he had to disappear but no one could know he was disappeared. His family couldn't know he was disappeared because we had to do this all in secret so tha, were he to say yes, he would have the opportunity to go back and conceal the relationship to which he has now agreed. We knew there was a point in his activities and his route where he would be by himself. He would be someplace where my people could grab him and pick him up, identifying themselves as local security officials or not, as the case may be. I mean, they would get his attention and he would go with them. 

NARRATOR: Of course, they also needed a cover. They couldn’t very well just introduce themselves as the CIA. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: We figured what we would do is we would have my team acting as the local service - which also had a reputation, as I suggested, which wasn't the most pleasant - picking him up. And then I would pay a visit to him at some point during the night.

NARRATOR: Thirdly, they needed a place to detain him, a place where Doug could approach him with his pitch. Somewhere secure, discreet, and maybe a little intimidating.

DOUGLAS LONDON: We found a facility that could appear to be a jail. It had actually been a prison holding facility, and such like that, that wasn't being used at the time. It was a small facility, like what a local police station would look like in a rural area. It certainly had the appearance, had government flags and all that kind of stuff, and it was a jail, a jail cell. It was a prison cell that locked. And it had a cot and a place for him to take care of his biological needs. And that was it. We also needed an interrogation room because I didn't want to have him interrogated in his cell. It's just not a good condition. I wanted it to be a small little interrogation room, which is what we set up.

NARRATOR: Lastly, Doug needed to fine-tune his pitch. He had one shot to get this right. And while he had a good feeling that Yousef could be recruited, he needed to know he wouldn’t bolt as soon as he was freed. Who’s to say Yousef couldn’t agree to Doug’s demands one moment, then turn around and kill him the next? And everything had to go off without a hitch - all within the span of several hours under cover of darkness. The night of the operation, Doug’s team found Yousef exactly where they expected him to be.

DOUGLAS LONDON: He stayed to his habits. He stayed to his pattern. My folks were there. They picked him up. They didn't have to rough him up. There was no violence. He was not a fighter. They took him to this prison - or at least this facility that looked like a prison. They put him in the cell. He thought he was under arrest. He thought he was under arrest by the local intelligence service, and not the police, which… There's a big difference in being a terrorist facilitator. He knew that was the difference, and he knew what that difference meant. He wasn't arrested because of some petty crime. They were onto him. 

NARRATOR: Local intelligence authorities had a reputation for ‘disappearing’ their dissenters. Of course, Doug was collaborating with partners who would abide by both US and local laws. But the fact that Yousef believed he’d been detained by local intelligence only made him more nervous.

DOUGLAS LONDON: So I gave him a few hours to stew. This country was very hot. There was no air conditioning. It was not a very pleasant place in terms of weather and conditions. And I thought the first thing we’d do is give him a few hours to stew. Let him think about what's going on. And when people are in those situations, they tend to think things even worse than you can imagine them to be. I mean, it's their worst nightmares, right? What is the worst that could possibly happen?

NARRATOR: Yousef was an anxious wreck by the time he was called for an interview. Doug’s local team leader did the honors. We’ll call him Salah.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Salah was perfect for the role because Salah was a really smart guy but he wasn't physically intimidating - not like the individuals that we used to arrest him, who were big, physical guys. Salah looked intellectual. He was short, studious-looking, academic-looking. Glasses. A real soft-spoken guy. 

NARRATOR: The plan: Salah would soften Yousef up a bit before Doug entered the scene. Not exactly good cop/bad cop, more like bad cop/really bad cop.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Salah had a thick file, which didn't have a whole lot of real stuff in it, but it looked like a thick file that had a whole lot of stuff in it. And Yousuf, he's a charming guy, and Yousef used his charm effectively. So as soon as he got in the room with Salah, he wanted contact. He's talking to Salah. He's asking questions. He's being very respectful. 

NARRATOR: But Salah wouldn’t utter a word in response.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Salah's just sitting, looking through his file, and we knew that would only make Yousef even more uncomfortable and more nervous. And Salah merely just stated that Yousef was in a lot of trouble. And that what decision was going to come of Yousef's fate was not going to be his, Salah's, but was going to be Mr. David’s. 

NARRATOR: Yousef’s fate was in the hands of Mr. David, a mysterious figure with a European name. Salah returned Yousef to his cell to ruminate a little longer, now knowing precisely who would determine whether he’d live or die. It was 3 am or 4 am by the time Yousef was brought back out into the interrogation room, face-to-face with Mr. David. Of course, he didn’t know Mr. David’s real name. But Mr. David certainly knew his.

DOUGLAS LONDON: I used his real name and I started describing his family - not just his family here, his wife and his kids, but his family at home because I wanted it to be clear to him - at least give him the belief - I knew everything there was to know about him. 

NARRATOR: Not just about him, but about people like him, people for whom things wouldn’t turn out so well.

DOUGLAS LONDON: And I started talking about the terrorists that he had known, and naming them, and naming also their fate because some of these terrorists would die in their operations. Some would be arrested and die in prison.

NARRATOR: But Doug - excuse me, Mr. David - had a counteroffer. And with the two options side-by-side the choice seemed pretty clear.

DOUGLAS LONDON: I basically told him, I said: "Well, here's where we find ourselves.” I said: "The easiest thing for me to do is just let the local government authorities ship you off to…” And I probably mentioned Egypt as well as a couple of other countries. And I said: "But that doesn't do me any good because you're going to go to these countries and, well, we both know what's going to happen to you. And we both know what's going to happen to your family because they'll be left behind here. And what are their options? I mean, if they go back to their home country or follow you to where you're incarcerated, they could be in jeopardy. Who knows?” I'm not making direct threats here. I'm just talking about the circumstances he was facing, but I'll acknowledge that it was meant to be coercive. It was meant to get his attention and give him limited options. I said: "Really the only alternative - and I don't know that it would be of any use to me - would be for you to help me and help my government to find out more about your old friends and your organization and what you're doing,” I said: "Because you being arrested or dead really does no good for me.”

NARRATOR: Hard to argue with that. Yousef was on board.

DOUGLAS LONDON: I had to conceal my own delight. “Oh my gosh, you said yes.” But now what to do with him? 

NARRATOR: Doug outlined his terms. Yousef would call his wife and tell her he was traveling with friends for a bit. Maybe a week. Then he’d go away with Doug for a while so they could get to know each other better. Doug wanted to find out who Yousef knew and how he could be of real help to the CIA. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: And over the next couple of days, I would spend hours with him debriefing him about who he was and what he was, knowing and having the answers to a lot of the questions, seeing how much he would incriminate himself, and giving him the opportunity to at least pretend to have been a man that made poor choices for the wrong reasons but based on the best of intentions. That he basically fell in with the wrong crowd. I wanted him to see me as an authority figure. I wanted him to see me as somebody who had control at this point, maybe over his life and death, but not a man of evil, somebody who was doing something for his country, for security, that I wanted his help to keep more people from dying. And I said: "People were dead because of you. And here's your opportunity to make amends by keeping more people from dying.”

NARRATOR: Doug is doing a bit of rhetorical Jujutsu here. Yousef knows he’s killed people. He’s been living with that for years. He believes wholeheartedly in al-Qaeda and believes that its members have a duty to defend Islam against the West. But as much as Doug is trying to turn Yousef’s thinking around, Yousef himself is engaged in his own mental gymnastics. In order to say yes to Doug, to protect himself and his family, and to get off scot-free, he has to contort himself into thinking he’s been duped by the organization he worked with for so many years. He has to sell out his collaborators and compatriots. He has to convince himself that it's a worthwhile thing to do.

DOUGLAS LONDON: He had this amazing ability to rationalize, as he would with our relationship, why it was the right thing to do. So I used that same ability, that same capacity that now he had found himself taking advantage of. That this group - to which he had committed himself and his family and put his family in jeopardy - had gone beyond what he expected. That the resistance that they had carried out against the West had turned violent, which he never wanted to do because he himself was not a violent man. All this was a great set of mind games. And luckily, Yousef had an already existing capacity to do that, and I was merely able to tap into it and manipulate it to then provide the context for why he was now working with me.

NARRATOR: Doug was now in a working partnership with one of al-Qaeda’s key facilitators. For a while, things went swimmingly. Yousef was able not only to provide intelligence about al-Qaeda’s operations in-country, but also to travel to places where the organization had a larger presence. With his exceptional memory, he was able to provide the CIA with invaluable names, dates, and details, all of which the Agency was able to corroborate. Then came 2001. And then came September the 11th.

DOUGLAS LONDON: We were all shocked, right? We shouldn't have been shocked. We all knew something bad was coming. We all knew that al-Qaeda wanted to strike America. And it did.

NARRATOR: Doug grew up in New York City. One of his childhood friends died in the Twin Towers. To say that the events of that day hit home for him is an understatement. But imagine being in his shoes. You’ve been working hand-in-hand with a key facilitator for al-Qaeda, a man who has played a role in the deaths of untold numbers of civilians around the world. Now the killing has happened in your own backyard. Do you ask yourself: did I place my trust in the wrong man? How do you feel in the hours and days after the attacks, not knowing what role your asset played in the four hijackings and thousands of lost lives? Doug was left to wonder.

DOUGLAS LONDON: What if Yousef knew about the plot? What if Yousef all the while - though he's been giving us a lot of great information, things that we could verify - has been holding out on this and still presents a threat to me?

NARRATOR: Doug called an emergency meeting with his asset. But the rapport that the two men had established together over time had frosted over.

DOUGLAS LONDON: So the meeting allowed for security procedures, what we call high-threat procedures. We had an opportunity to see if he was coming alone, to watch him at certain points in his approach to the meeting site. And I, likewise, was armed and I, likewise, had my hand on my pistol at this point because I don't know necessarily what I'm walking into. So we made contact. He saw that I was armed and had my hand [on my pistol] and scared the hell out of him. And he's like: "David, what's this all about?” And I said: "Yousef, we got to talk.”

NARRATOR: Under extreme security measures, the two men went somewhere they could speak privately. There, Yousef could give his honest reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Delight. He thought it was great. He was happy and proud. He kind of tried to keep it a little bit low-key because obviously, you know how I felt about it. But to him, it was a reflection of David and Goliath and that the United States finally got to taste what it had been serving. Yousef never stopped believing the United States was a negative force in the world. He never believed that the United States was a force of good. But he did believe the United States government, the CIA, was his loyal partner and was committed to making his life better and safer, better for his children, for his family, and protecting him. So he never stopped cooperating with us or holding back. But at the same time, he never lost his sentiment that he still believed in al-Qaeda's mission. He still believed that the US had to learn its lesson and that it was wrong for what it was doing. But it also allowed him to educate me on that, to tell me that sometimes these are compatible issues.

NARRATOR: Yousef claimed he had no knowledge of the attacks before they happened. But he knew some of the conspirators behind them, and he knew about other operations they had in the works. Operations that, with Yousef’s help, the Agency was able to foil. Yousef was an incredible asset, despite his abhorrence of the United States. The ethical pretzels he twisted himself into allowed him to give his family a good life. They allowed him to provide invaluable intelligence to his professed enemy, even after 9/11. And to keep him with the Agency, Doug had to continue to nurture their relationship. He had to compartmentalize his sense of loss. And ultimately, his recruitment of this al-Qaeda facilitator proved to be one of the most gratifying cases of his career. It’s true what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

DOUGLAS LONDON: You just don't have the luxury of letting that emotion sway you from the course you have ahead. It's there. You feel it. You just have to manage it, and at the end of the day, the amount of energy you put into engaging somebody at that level of intimacy - and it is intimacy, to be able to deal with an agent where to them, you are the only person in the world that they could trust with everything. You know all their secrets. You know they're good. You know they're bad. You become their priest, their imam, their rabbi because you don't judge them. You take them for what they are and you respect them for what they do. And what they do for this greater cause. The greater cause in this case of keeping more people from dying from terrorist operations. So you can find that way, and you have to because you cannot have that relationship be as effective as it needs to be without that intimate connection.

NARRATOR: Yousef kept working for the CIA but, eventually, Doug had to turn him over to another case officer. Lest you believe Doug could keep emotions out of it entirely, he describes their parting as challenging for them both. The two men embraced. They shed a few tears. And before they went their separate ways, Yousef pulled Doug close and whispered in his ear. 

DOUGLAS LONDON: “I was really afraid of you at first, but you're really a softie. You're not really the bad guy, tough guy, I thought you are. You're just really a soft-hearted guy.” So we both cried and hugged and took away our memories and off we went. And I was never able to speak to Yousef again.

NARRATOR: You can read more about Yousef in Douglas London’s new book The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. I’m Vanessa Kirby. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Douglas London spent 34 years in the CIA's clandestine service, working extensively across the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia. He was a CIA subject-matter expert on Iran, counterterrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. Douglas London's op-eds have been published in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and The Hill.

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