Tamer Elnoury is a patriotic American, a proud Muslim, and a highly-effective undercover agent. As part of the FBI's elite counterterrorism task force, he's made a living out of fooling some of the world's most dangerous radicals. In Part 2, the plot thickens as Tamer becomes embroiled in a deadly plot to derail a passenger train. But that's just the tip of the iceberg - Tunisian scientist and radical Islamist Chiheb Esseghaier reveals that an even greater threat is lurking on American soil. The FBI finds itself in a race against time to neutralize the threat. Sophia Di Martino narrates.
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American Radical, Part 2: Sleeper Train

: Some of the language contained in this podcast will not be suitable for all ages.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb took it as an affront that I was wavering, that I was weak, that I was a weak terrorist, and he spilled all his rationalizations for killing innocent people. This is True Spies American Radical, Part 2: Sleeper Train.

NARRATOR: Undercover FBI agent Tamer Elnoury does not have much in the way of a social life. As a member of the Bureau’s elite Counter-Terrorism Unit, his work keeps him on the move. But Labor Day Weekend, 2012, is special.

TAMER ELNOURY: I jealously guarded that weekend.

NARRATOR: It’s the destination wedding of a dear friend. The kind of thing you don’t miss - not if you want to keep having dear friends.

TAMER ELNOURY: Right before Labor Day weekend 2012, before I was scheduled to fly out on vacation, I stopped before my flight to meet with the Assistant Director of CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and his entourage.

NARRATOR: Months ago, before summer, Tamer had assisted the Canadians with a counterterrorism case. If you haven’t already, you can hear all about it in Part One of American Radical. But a recap never hurts. Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian biologist based in Montreal, had been suspected of having contact with prominent Islamist radicals. When Chiheb traveled south for a conference in California, a joint US-Canada operation was launched. Tamer, one of the FBI’s finest undercovers, had been tasked with learning the extent of his terrorist sympathies. Posing as a wealthy property tycoon with links to al-Qaeda, Tamer had become fast friends with the affable scientist. But over dinner, Chiheb had revealed the dark depths of his ambitions in the West.

TAMER ELNOURY: The look in Chiheb’s eyes when he talked about killing Americans was something I'd never seen before. At that moment, I was convinced our involvement in the case was done. We were going to tell the Canadians, and we did, “Hey, you're screwed. You can't take your eyes off this guy. He's the real freakin' deal.”

NARRATOR: Talk is one thing. But to make an arrest, the Canadians would need solid evidence that Chiheb was planning something concrete. But that was their problem. Tamer had moved on to other operations. During the summer, however, our True Spy kept in contact with Chiheb. Just in case. Now, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, CSIS, needed to speak with Tamer and his team in person. Urgently.

TAMER ELNOURY: So we could discuss Chiheb’s pending movements that they wanted some insight into. 

NARRATOR: The meeting took place in an FBI conference room overlooking the Hudson River. Decked out in dark suits and visitor’s passes, the CSIS team filed in. Tamer told them what he knew.

TAMER ELNOURY: In that meeting, me and my team expressed and explained how Chiheb essentially represents everything there is to know about the Mujahideen and the jihadi mindset. It means that everything you do while embedded in the Western world, your enemy's world, serves a purpose. That purpose is your mission for jihad. If you happen to get a job while living in the Western world, that becomes your cover so you can live amongst them, as them, to defeat them. That is the basis of the Mujahideen mindset. That is what Chiheb was beating into my head [during] all of our conversations that summer. I told them I didn't know when, I didn't know where, but we wholeheartedly believe that this guy was here to hurt us.

NARRATOR: The assistant director of CSIS sat, deep in thought, and listened. Eventually, he turned to the Special Agent in Charge and said:

TAMER ELNOURY: “We know for a fact that Chiheb is going fishing this weekend in Toronto. We just wanted to get some insight into the people he was going to meet.”

NARRATOR: Tamer’s eyebrows made twin dents in the ceiling tile. 

TAMER ELNOURY: Fishing? this guy isn't listening to us. This guy isn't hearing that Chiheb wouldn't be caught dead fishing.

NARRATOR: Pushing past the blur of incredulity, Tamer recalled an important detail.

TAMER ELNOURY: Two weeks prior to this meeting, Chiheb mentioned to me that he was going to visit a Palestinian brother in Toronto. Now admittedly, at the time, I didn't know Canadian geography. I passed along the notes to my supervisors but didn't think anything of it. He's going to visit a guy in Toronto. He's in Montreal. 

NARRATOR: During the meeting on the Hudson, Tamer learned that Toronto is, in fact, a six-hour drive to Montreal.

TAMER ELNOURY: I interrupted the system director and said, “Let me put it to you this way; If I asked anyone in this room, anyone at all, if you had any plans this weekend, even if you didn't have anything firm, you all have something in the back of your mind. Some of you might be going on vacation. I'm going away in about an hour. This is how normal people live their lives. We take breaks, we travel for pleasure.”

NARRATOR: But Chiheb is a jihadist. For a jihadist, pleasure is a distraction from the path.

TAMER ELNOURY: There is no way Chiheb is going to drive six hours one way to cast the line with an old Muslim buddy to catch up. 

NARRATOR: Tamer can’t believe what he’s hearing. There’s a palpable tension in the room.

TAMER ELNOURY: And the assistant director because of course, he's Canadian, and he's polite, he put his hand up, turned to the SAC, and said, “We know for a fact that he's going fishing. He even rented a boat. The area in Toronto he's going to is a very popular fishing destination.” 

NARRATOR: By now, Tamer’s patience is wearing thin. He didn’t come here to be ignored. And he has a plane to catch.

TAMER ELNOURY: That's when I popped up out of my seat, interrupted him, said goodbye to my team, and left for the airport. I shut all my government phones and all my undercover phones off. I think at this point in my life I had about eight or nine, and didn't plan on being sober the rest of the weekend.

NARRATOR: Two days later, Tamer was on the beach, enjoying the latest in a long convoy of Moscow Mules.

TAMER ELNOURY: The only phone I kept on my personal phone was ringing off the hook. It was Nelly.

NARRATOR: Nelly was the case agent on the Chiheb Esseghaier operation. He had bad, but not entirely unexpected news.

TAMER ELNOURY: He couldn't tell me much on an open line. But he told me that the fishing trip was nefarious and that I needed to get home as soon as possible.

NARRATOR: Over the weekend, the Canadians made an unsettling discovery.

TAMER ELNOURY: I caught the next flight home and found out that the fishing trip was a recon mission. The target was a train bridge. The plot was to blow up a train from New York City to Toronto. And based on what CSIS saw and heard that Labor Day weekend, they believed the threat was imminent because the bad guys used the words ‘anniversary attack’ they believed this was a 9/11 anniversary attack, which is only a little more than a week away. We needed to act fast. Both governments needed to act fast.

NARRATOR: Clearly, somebody needed to keep a close watch on Chiheb Esseghaier. 

TAMER ELNOURY: I, being an undercover FBI agent, had a personal relationship with the leader of this terrorist cell. So it was a no-brainer, as long as the Canadians can afford me the same protections I have here in the United States, which they did, we were going to dive right in.

NARRATOR: No time to waste. Tamer needed to be in Canada, with Chiheb, yesterday.

TAMER ELNOURY: I called Chiheb and told him that I was planning on being in Montreal within the next few days under the ruse of some big real estate deal in the area. He was excited to have me over. 

NARRATOR: The FBI and CSIS established a safe house in Montreal - a discreet venue for Tamer’s debriefs.

TAMER ELNOURY: And the stage was set. 

NARRATOR: Tamer reached out to Chiheb and the rogue scientist quickly invited the undercover to meet him at his apartment.

TAMER ELNOURY: And we sat down and caught up and started talking. And now because of our history, because of how close we became all summer, at that moment, we were able to speak a lot more frankly.

NARRATOR: Chiheb trusted Tamer. 

TAMER ELNOURY: And the second he asked me to shut down my phone, take the battery out of the phone, so we could speak even more freely, I realized that he was about to let me in.

NARRATOR: Satisfied that they were truly alone, Chiheb began to open up about his al-Qaeda training, which had taken place on the border of Iran and Afghanistan. Eager to demonstrate a similar level of commitment, Tamer waxed lyrical about a trip to the Arabian Gulf that he had made a few years previously. He’d also met with the leaders of an al-Qaeda cell there and discussed funding their cause. Naturally, he neglected to mention the outcome of that meeting to Chiheb.

TAMER ELNOURY: They weren't going to be a threat to the US or the West anymore. 

NARRATOR: Now, Chiheb was all-in. This, surely, was a true brother.

TAMER ELNOURY: He believed that fate brought us together. And honestly, as a Muslim American, I believe that fate did bring us together, just not in the same way that he did. And we started to discuss our beliefs, our feelings, our jihadi shared mind, at which point he invited me to meet another “like-minded brother” in Toronto if I wanted to drive and visit with him before I went back to the States, and that was exactly what I was hoping for. 

NARRATOR: The counterterrorism team, courtesy of CSIS, knew that Chiheb had a contact in Toronto - he of the unlikely ‘fishing trip’. By inviting Tamer along on his follow-up visit, Chiheb had played right into the hands of law enforcement.

TAMER ELNOURY: So, after fighting with my team about driving over flying - because the last thing in the world I wanted to do was spend six hours with Chiheb - I was convinced. And we went on that six-hour road trip from Montreal to Canada to visit Raed Jaser, who was also involved in the plot.

NARRATOR: The road trip scored low on laughs, but high on actionable intel.

TAMER ELNOURY: That trip was gold as far as getting to know one another. Spending that alone time, having him speak freely about his training, about the people he knew. 

NARRATOR: Chiheb also unloaded the details of the New York-Toronto train plot, an act with the potential to claim hundreds of American and Canadian lives.

TAMER ELNOURY: How it was given to him through al-Qaeda senior leadership, how he was trained overseas to avoid law enforcement and intelligence detection. He was trained to live among them, as them, to defeat them. And he told me that Jaser was going to help him and that it was important for me to get along with him, so I could be a part of their plot, and that I could finally do more physically in the fight against our oppressors than just giving money overseas. 

NARRATOR: None of this was good. But Chiheb had one more bomb to drop.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb revealed to me that there was another al-Qaeda operative sent to the United States, right before he was sent to Canada. There was an American sleeper cell, an American version of Chiheb within our borders, a better-trained, more sophisticated version. And the only connection to that threat was Chiheb Esseghaier and his al-Qaeda handlers overseas.

NARRATOR: FBI undercover specialist Tamer Elnoury is on the worst road trip of his life. Six hours trundling across Canada with Chiheb Esseghaier - a Tunisian scientist and Islamic extremist - is not his idea of a good time. But, from a professional standpoint, it’s been a Godsend. Chiheb has been talking, almost non-stop, about his murderous plans for the West - including an imminent plot to blow up a passenger train on its way to Toronto from New York. What’s more, Chiheb has just announced that there is another, more sophisticated sleeper cell active in the US. Tamer is beginning to suspect that he will be forced to endure many more hours in the Tunisian’s company.

TAMER ELNOURY: So it's important to note that that road trip resulted in several things. We learned about the American sleeper. We also learned that it was an anniversary attack. But it wasn't what the Canadians initially thought. The anniversary that the bad guys were referring to, was actually not 9/11. It was Christmas, Jesus Christ's birthday. In Arabic, anniversary and birthday are synonymous. So that's where the confusion came in. 

NARRATOR: In Toronto, Chiheb introduced Tamer to his co-conspirator, Raed Jaser. Jaser was a bearded Palestinian with dark eyes and febrile energy about him. Together, the three men set out on their business.

TAMER ELNOURY: Essentially, the plan was to derail a train over a bridge in the Toronto area that had about a 65- to 85-foot drop with minimal water and maximum casualties. The plot was to have that train get derailed and explode on Christmas Day from New York City to Toronto. So I was invited to scout the train, the location, if you will, of where we were going to conduct this terrorist attack with Chiheb and Jaser. 

NARRATOR: The next morning, Chiheb, Jaser, and Tamer piled into a rental car and drove out to a location near the US-Canadian border. A bridge.

TAMER ELNOURY: I remember, as we were walking up to the bridge, which, once you commit to going on that bridge, there were only two tracks. And there was about, I don't know, a few feet between the tracks, and then four feet on either side of a cement landing area, and then an 80- or 90-foot drop, right where we were standing. 

NARRATOR: Once they were on the bridge, there was nowhere to go. Their timing had to be perfect. 

TAMER ELNOURY: So as we were walking, I specifically asked Chiheb, I said, “You checked the train schedule, right?” He said, “Absolutely.” He was so confident to the point where I didn't even bother Googling it. He knew what he was doing.

NARRATOR: Trust has to go both ways. Well, it needs to seem like it does, anyway.

TAMER ELNOURY: And while we were on the tracks, you had Jaser looking over the one bridge area. And I was standing closer to Chiheb and we were right in the heart of the bridge. Chiheb was on all fours inspecting the tracks, because he wanted to know what needed to be done to destroy this part of the bridge, in an effort to derail the train and have it fall. And all of a sudden, I could feel it in my feet. There was a vibration. And it was getting stronger by the second. I looked up at the bend, and I could see a train barreling down toward us. Jaser started jumping around back and forth, didn't know which way to go, “Do we go forward? Do we go backward? Do we jump?” It was actually sort of comical if I wasn't about to die. Chiheb looked right up and then continued doing his work. 

NARRATOR: Nothing distracts Chiheb from the path. He is impervious to women, wine, and Western luxury. A speeding train? Child's play.

TAMER ELNOURY: I realized that neither one of them was going to be a help as far as which side we needed to get on. I looked at the train as it was making its turn. And if I could see the North tracks when it made the turn, then I knew we needed to jump to the north side. If I couldn't, then we needed to jump to the south side.

NARRATOR: Tamer waits, squinting. Once he knows which side the train is on, he’ll need to act immediately to get out of its way.

TAMER ELNOURY: Thankfully, as it made the turn, I realized I couldn't see the North tracks, which means it was on the north side. So we had to get as far away. If we stayed on the landing on the north side definitely would have hit us. So I grabbed Chiheb, and Jaser followed and we hung on to the fence on the south side and let the train pass us by. And that's when it just narrowly missed us.

NARRATOR: The stunt did not go unnoticed.

TAMER ELNOURY: The train conductor called the police. And of course, no one knew we were there. No law enforcement agencies knew we were there. This was an intelligence and federal law enforcement investigation. So we were stopped. Where we were questioned about our whereabouts, about who we were.

NARRATOR: Tamer and Chiheb fobbed the clueless policemen off with a story about becoming waylaid on a sightseeing trip. They bought it and soon, the trio was on their way again. But one of their numbers was unhappy with the unwelcome scrutiny.

TAMER ELNOURY: That spooked Jaser. Chiheb couldn’t give a crap, he didn’t care. We were still full steam ahead and the fact that Jaser got scared pissed Chiheb off. He did not feel that he should be afraid of being arrested or killed for the cause. 

NARRATOR: A rift had formed between Chiheb and his Palestinian accomplice. Tamer had to make a choice.

TAMER ELNOURY: And the choice was clear, it was a no-brainer. Chiheb was my only link to the American sleeper. And as far as I was concerned, Jaser, we thought he was already under arrest. He just didn't know it yet. I was done with him. So, Chiheb and I broke free from Jaser and we continued down our own way.

NARRATOR: By now, the Canadians had more than enough dirt on both Jaser and Chiheb to wrap both men up for good. But Chiheb was Tamer’s only link to the mysterious American sleeper agent. Until he outlived that use, he was untouchable - and so, by extension, was Jaser.

TAMER ELNOURY: An undercover operation is a house of cards. If you take one off the deck, everything else crumbles. Any police action that you take takes me off the board. Because either it puts me at risk, or no one's going to trust anyone at that point. 

NARRATOR: Tamer had no choice but to keep going - to deepen his bond with Chiheb. By now, it was strong enough that he felt as though he could test its tensile strength. On the drive back to Montreal, he decided to offer Chiheb an opportunity.

TAMER ELNOURY: So one of my methods, throughout my career, I nicknamed it the ‘Christian burial speech’ that I like to give my subjects.

NARRATOR: The ‘Christian Burial Speech’ comes from an old case in which a suspect kidnapped and murdered a young girl.

TAMER ELNOURY: Ironically enough, he was a diehard Christian and he believed in the Bible. The police officers went to pick him up and said to him that there was a snowstorm coming and that “if you didn't lead us to the body, she would never get a proper Christian burial”. 

NARRATOR: That resonated with the murderer. He told the police everything. 

TAMER ELNOURY: It's based on religion and it's based on taking my subjects to the good side of their dark side if you will.

NARRATOR: Now, Tamer hoped to apply the same tactic to Chiheb. Whatever he was, he believed himself to be a man of God. Could his religion be levered against his hatred? 

TAMER ELNOURY: So on the way back from Toronto, I gave him my Christian burial speech. What I want my subjects to feel or think, is that I am now wavering. I'm involved in your plot, I am in your terror cell. We are going to kill hundreds if not thousands of people in America and Canada, everywhere. I'm with you. But now I'm wavering. Now I'm wondering, as I know the Quran, as I know the hadiths and the religion, where does it say that we're supposed to kill innocent women and children?

NARRATOR: A less vehement fanatic might have felt a flicker of doubt behind the eyes. Not Chiheb. As a hidden recording device whirred away behind the dashboard, the scientist turned to Tamer and looked him dead in the eye.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb took it as an affront that I was wavering, that I was weak, that I was a weak terrorist. And he spilled all his rationalizations for killing innocent people, as warped as they were, for the next 19 or 22 minutes, he essentially had a soliloquy of his deepest, darkest explanation for killing innocent women and children. And that was it - at that moment - I realized he was so far gone. 

NARRATOR: Chiheb was truly beyond redemption. The case continued. Together, bouncing back from the loss of Jaser, the two would-be jihadists began setting up meetings with other ‘like-minded brothers’. 

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb said, “There's this guy who has been hounding me at the mosque. He wants to go to dinner with us tonight.” Long story short, I agreed to meet him. We sit there, and this guy did nothing but turn the conversation back toward himself and his radical views and how he hates the West and he wants to kill people. It was not an appropriate conversation for anyone to have where we were. And because I just met you, I don't know you. And these are the words that are coming out of your mouth. Chiheb was put off by him, I was put off by him and I was annoyed.

NARRATOR: Something about the encounter sparked at the edges of his instinct. Later, back at the safe house, Tamer told his team what had happened. The blood drained from their faces. Nelly, the overall case agent for the operation, turned to a handler in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had been brought in on the case alongside CSIS and the FBI. He spoke.

TAMER ELNOURY: “You better tell him now.” At which point, they told me that was an informant, a guy who walked in off the street to the RCMP and said [he] was trying to give a tip about Chiheb Esseghaier, and that he was dangerous and that he would like to give him up to the RCMP. I lost my shit. I was mad that I did not know. I felt like it was a risk I didn't need to take.

NARRATOR: According to Tamer, Canadian informants, used in an undercover capacity, are deliberately less prepared than their American counterparts.

TAMER ELNOURY: Because they want every interaction they have with their subjects, or their targets, or their sources to be natural. 

NARRATOR: If Chiheb had smelt law enforcement, he would have known that he was under surveillance. This is not an atmosphere in which trust flourishes. Fortunately, the Tunisian moved on, believing that their eager new acquaintance would be a liability. But not all of Tamer’s meetings bore such meager fruit. In October 2012, the Canadians pulled up a name - Ahmed Abassi. A fellow Tunisian and scientist, they knew that Abassi had become close with Chiheb Esseghaier at a conference. But Chiheb hadn’t mentioned him. There had to be a reason - perhaps a personal falling out. Tamer knew he had to meet Abassi. Claiming that he needed to travel to Quebec to scout out some property investments, he pushed Chiheb to tell him if there were any brothers worth meeting on the French side of the provincial border. Reluctantly, Chiheb spoke Abassi’s name - and more.

TAMER ELNOURY: He was essentially the man that, I found out later from Chiheb, radicalized Chiheb. He was the one that started Chiheb down this path before Chiheb went overseas to get his training. He was the one that opened Chiheb’s mind to this world. 

NARRATOR: So, why the reticence? Well, jihadi or not, money is the quickest way to sour a friendship. Chiheb had lent Abassi $2,000 for a semester of school. Abassi had never paid it back. Tamer was relieved. This, he explained, was nothing in the grand scheme of things - a distraction from the path. If Abassi could help their cause, then of course, Chiheb must introduce them. Tamer’s radical passion won out and Chiheb sent a conciliatory email. Abassi, in his turn, was delighted to host his mujahideen brothers at his apartment in Quebec City.

TAMER ELNOURY: And from the day that I met him, I realized that he was everything that he had told me he was and more. He was conniving and maniacal, and he hated the West, specifically the US.

NARRATOR: A few weeks later, Tamer made the trip to meet with Abassi one-on-one. During that conversation, it became clear that he had bigger ideas than blowing up a train. Abassi spoke of high explosives, chemicals, nuclear reactors - big league, geopolitically important acts. And he wanted Tamer to fund them. Uneasy, Tamer returned to New York. For now, in Jaser’s absence, the train plot would not go ahead - not that Christmas, anyway. In fact, in December of 2012, Chiheb planned to be in Singapore, attending a conference. This was bad news for Tamer and the FBI. The Canadian government would not allow Chiheb to leave the country. If he tried, he would be arrested and the operation would have reached a definitive end. If Tamer wanted to keep working on him - to finally eke out the identity of the American sleeper agent - he’d need to keep him firmly in-country. But what could possibly pull Chiheb away from his tropical sojourn? Only jihad.

TAMER ELNOURY: So I invited Chiheb to New York City during Christmas week 2012, under the ruse of him helping me send a significant amount of money to the Mujahideen brothers overseas. Up until this point Chiheb has heard of what an asset I was to the Mujahideen and al-Qaeda senior leadership and et cetera, but he's never seen it. He's never had a hand in it. 

NARRATOR: For the fanatic, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

TAMER ELNOURY: He helped me stuff tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars into a suitcase. And in his mind, that was going overseas to the Mujahideen brothers. He saw and witnessed firsthand the benefit of potentially combining the two cells, the Canadian cell, and the American cell. Now we just needed him to convince his handlers.

NARRATOR: Throughout the operation to date, Tamer has been encouraging Chiheb to reach out to his seniors in the Middle East and ask for a meeting with the American sleeper. Tamer’s demonstration of financial heft proves to the Tunisian that collaboration is a good idea. Remember, the whole point of a terrorist ‘cell’ is that it is self-contained. In theory, if one falls, they shouldn’t be able to betray another. You’d need a very good reason to break that rule. This was a promising development. But Tamer still had to entertain his guest.

TAMER ELNOURY: So while he was there under this ruse, Christmas week, 2012 I took Chiheb to see Times Square. 

NARRATOR: But Chiheb wasn’t there to ooh and aah at the neon jungle.

TAMER ELNOURY: He didn't see Times Square as any other foreigner would. He saw it as an opportunity to kill, to create mayhem and terror. The scientist’s brain was merging with the terrorists and I could see his al-Qaeda training taken over.

NARRATOR: Chiheb’s eyes dance across the square. He has a photographic memory. Inside that brilliant, twisted mind, a plan is taking shape. He starts asking questions. What does Tamer know about New York’s security protocols? From the Joint Operations Command Center in Manhattan, the FBI is listening intently.

TAMER ELNOURY: We all knew where this was headed. 

NARRATOR: A few nights later, Chiheb and Tamer take another stroll. This time, they make their way to the Freedom Tower - the skyscraping main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex. The two men take a moment - to all appearances, they are taking a respectful pause to consider the weight of what happened here, more than a decade ago.

TAMER ELNOURY: He put his arm around me and while rubbing his beard, he said. “Tamer, this town needs another 9/11. And we're going to give it to them.” 

NARRATOR: Tamer has been working undercover for a long time. He doesn’t break character. He doesn’t lose his cool. But Chiheb has hit a throbbing nerve. 9/11 changed everything. The cliche rings true. And for Muslim Americans, it’s truer than true.

TAMER ELNOURY: Some savage in a cave made me and my family the enemy that day.

NARRATOR: To Tamer, Chiheb’s brand of radical Islam is an insult. 

TAMER ELNOURY: Let's just say I lost my shit at that moment. And I couldn't keep it together. I could feel my carotid artery bulging through my neck.

NARRATOR: Chiheb invites Tamer up to his downtown apartment, to discuss the plot further. But the undercover has had enough.

TAMER ELNOURY: I shoved him off of me under the guise of, “Something I ate earlier didn't agree with me.”

NARRATOR: Until now, Tamer has ended every encounter with Chiheb by asking him if he needs anything. 

TAMER ELNOURY: And he always replies the same way. “I'm eating, I'm sleeping, I'm praying, I have all that I need.” 

NARRATOR: As Tamer stormed back to HQ, face burning, some better angel of his nature tapped on the tight hunch of his shoulder. He’d forgotten to ask the question. Would this be enough to spook Chiheb?

TAMER ELNOURY: But thankfully for the case the next morning, I got everything the US Attorney wanted on this new plot and then some. Chiheb laid out his plot to place multiple IEDs throughout Time Square. He told me where each bomb had to be hidden. He drew me a map. He calculated where the survivors would run after each explosion, and that's when the next bomb would go off, and so on, and so on. Maximum carnage, no survivors.

NARRATOR: Once again, Chiheb had let enough slip to earn some hard time in a dark cell. But the American sleeper loomed large in the imaginations of the FBI. The case remained open, and Tamer’s painful friendship with the deranged scientist continued apace.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb flew back to Montreal and he tasked me with several duties in furtherance of a new plan which he dubbed Operation Happy New Year, hoping we could pull it off sometime after the train bombing.

NARRATOR: In the spring of 2013, Ahmed Abbasi - the man who had recruited Chiheb Esseghaier for al-Qaeda - re-entered the frame. He’d been visiting family in Tunisia. When he tried to return to his home in Canada, he found that his visa had been revoked. The Canadian authorities saw no further reason to host this dangerous radical on home soil. Tamer extended an invitation to Ahmed Abassi to join him in New York, with the aim of eventually sponsoring Abassi for a job in his fictitious property empire. Obviously, Abbasi had no intention of ever actually working on anything but jihad. To Chiheb, it appeared to be a simple act of brotherhood - and one that would dissuade him from thinking any suspicious thoughts about why Abassi might have been targeted. Together, the three men continued to lobby senior al-Qaeda operatives in the Middle East for a meeting with the American sleeper.

TAMER ELNOURY: We were under the gun. We had the Canadians and our own government breathing down our necks. We knew the clock was ticking. And after several weeks on target with Chiheb and Abassi, I was exhausted, I wasn't seeing straight. I was dealing with their fighting, their jihadi-ness, their craziness, their anger toward the west. But talks with al-Qaeda were moving quicker now. 

NARRATOR: In April 2013, Chiheb flew to San Francisco for yet another of his scientific conferences, with the intention of scouting out “like-minded brothers” on the side.

TAMER ELNOURY: And Abassi and I flew out to Las Vegas to meet a potential jihadi friend of his, yet another tentacle in this investigation. At this point, the investigation was going in so many different directions. There were so many moving parts, but none more important than identifying the American sleeper. While Abasi and I were out in Vegas meeting with his friend, I got a phone call from Chiheb. 

NARRATOR: Tamer steps out to take the call.

TAMER ELNOURY: He was excited and out of breath. I could tell he couldn't wait to tell me. Al-Qaeda senior leadership agreed to combine the two cells. They invited me and Chiheb to Dubai for a meeting for the introduction to the American sleeper. They'd never give that information over any medium that could be intercepted. It had to be in person.

NARRATOR: This was the moment that Tamer and the Bureau had been waiting for. All the answers were one flight away.

TAMER ELNOURY: So my mind was already in Dubai when I hung up with Chiheb, but I still had to deal with these two idiots in Vegas, one of which, Abassi, we had an arrest warrant for. 

NARRATOR: Soliciting an American visa under false pretenses with the intent to commit acts of terror. That’s a crime, by the way.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb cut his conference short and flew back to Montreal to wait for me so we could fly to Dubai together. I wrapped up my meetings with the bad guys in Vegas and drove directly to the safe house to meet with my team.

NARRATOR: Tamer arrives at the safehouse expecting a jubilant reception. These are the days the Counterterrorism Unit lives for - the thrill of the endgame.

TAMER ELNOURY: But the mood in the safe house when I got there was anything but excitement. We ran out of time. 

NARRATOR: On April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure-cooker bombs tore through the Boston Marathon. While the tragedy had nothing to do with Tamer’s case, it meant that counterterrorism units on both sides of the border were on high alert. 

TAMER ELNOURY: That coupled with the fact that the Canadians were never going to let Chiheb go overseas, even with me.

NARRATOR: Ultimately, the operation was shut down before the American sleeper could be identified. To say that this outcome was a blow to Tamer’s team would be an understatement. But they couldn’t just down tools. They had to finish the jobs that they could finish - and that meant making arrests.

TAMER ELNOURY: I've been arrested, Geez, dozens and dozens of times throughout my career. And even when I know what's coming, there's nothing like staring down the barrels of those handguns and machine guns, knowing full well that they're your mates, they're your friends. It doesn't matter, at the end of the day, it’s still scary. On April 22, 2013, arrests were made and search warrants were executed simultaneously in New York, Toronto, and Montreal. I was also arrested for a show with Abassi upon our return from Las Vegas at JFK Airport.

NARRATOR: Tamer and Abassi were separated and brought into two separate interrogation rooms. Nelly, the case agent, greeted Tamer in his. Without saying a word, they hugged.

TAMER ELNOURY: I was driven to a safe house in the city. That was FBI protocol after a major undercover op came down for officer safety reasons.

NARRATOR: At the safe house, Tamer was alone - still somewhere between his true self and his alias. The end of a case is always a strange time.

TAMER ELNOURY: I always felt like maybe the case ended a little too soon. And we might have missed something. We left a little meat on the bone. 

NARRATOR: This time, Tamer knew that they had. The American sleeper was still out there. But in this game, you don’t last as long as Tamer has without learning to let go. More to the point, the case wasn’t over - not really. The fate of Chiheb Esseghaier was still to be determined.

TAMER ELNOURY: The day he was arrested, he was immediately transferred to Toronto because that's where they were prosecuting him. He was interrogated for weeks and he never once gave me up. He protected me at every turn. Even though they played recordings for him of our most private conversations, he just assumed the government found a way to record us and that they were trying to trick him.

NARRATOR: Eventually, the penny dropped for Chiheb.

TAMER ELNOURY: After it finally sunk in that I was FBI, he broke his silence. But not to the investigators, to the media. He called in some reporter from Toronto for a jailhouse interview.

NARRATOR: Chiheb kept the conversation relatively light. He was smart enough not to reveal any incriminating details before his trial.

TAMER ELNOURY: But he asked the reporter to print something for him, which the reporter did, at the very end of his article. “Being in prison doesn't matter. I'm eating, I'm sleeping, I'm praying. I have all that I need.” That was the special goodbye that we did every single time we spoke.

NARRATOR: Perhaps it was Chiheb’s way of saying goodbye. ‘I forgive you.’

TAMER ELNOURY: It wasn't until about a year and a half later, when I saw him again, in the courtroom of his trial, that I realized what he was actually saying to me.

NARRATOR: That look of focused hatred - the one that burned in Chiheb’s eyes when he spoke about the cause - was now focused entirely on Tamer.

TAMER ELNOURY: The entire time I was on the witness stand, three and a half weeks.

NARRATOR: Now, he understood what Chiheb had been trying to tell him.

TAMER ELNOURY: “You didn't beat me, Tamer. You can't win this war.”

NARRATOR: I’m eating, I’m sleeping, I’m praying. I have all that I need.

TAMER ELNOURY: Chiheb and Jaser were both convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Abassi took a plea in New York, mainly because the Bureau didn't want to put me through another trial. He spent about two years in prison and then was deported to Tunisia. He'll never set foot in the US or Canada, any Western country, again.

NARRATOR: Tamer was glad to see them go. But when you give so much of yourself to an alias - another life - the line between the lie and the truth can smudge.

TAMER ELNOURY: It's important to understand that the relationships that we cultivate as undercovers, they’re real relationships. You have to connect with their humanity and not what they're doing or trying to do. And with this particular case, Chiheb Esseghaier, the connection was very deep, and it was emotional. It was based on the ideology that he believed we both shared, and that we were two Mujahideen brothers together in the Western world. But at the end of the day, he was a terrorist. He was here to kill people. Everything he stood for was the antithesis of me, and millions and billions of Muslim Americans and Muslim people across the globe. This is not Islam. everything he stood for was an affront to the religion. This guy was desecrating my religion while trying to kill people in my country.

NARRATOR: Today, Tamer continues to serve his country. As we mentioned in the last episode, Tamer Elnoury is not his real name.

TAMER ELNOURY: My identity is obviously important. Still, on the job, I'm in the winter of my career, I have been doing this job for almost three decades now.

NARRATOR: Do you have what it takes?

TAMER ELNOURY: You know what, it's just the price that we have to pay to do this job, to be all in. I don't do anything half-assed. It's all or nothing, everything I do is all or nothing. And you can't do counterterrorism, you can't do law enforcement, you can't do drug work, you can't do any of it with one foot in the pool, you have to dive in. 

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. You’ve just heard an abridged version of Tamer’s work on this case. For the full story, pick up a copy of American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent. You can also hire Tamer to speak at your event at Join us next time on True Spies for a deep-cover drug operation with a crime-fighting husband-and-wife team.

Guest Bio

Tamer Elnoury is a 'legend' for an FBI agent who spent years working undercover to route out al-Qaeda terrorists in the US and Canada. He also worked internationally, gaining the trust of terrorists who dreamed of bringing America to its knees in the years after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

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