Islamic convert tells tales of extremists and the FBI

By Seth Hettena, The Associated Press
Monday July 01, 2002

San Diego man claims to have
encountered Pearl’s alleged killer,
Osama Bin Laden’s associates


SAN DIEGO – A chance encounter at a San Diego mosque led him to Kashmir and a meeting with the man later accused of killing journalist Daniel Pearl. Fighting with the mujahadeen in Chechnya cost him his leg. While working as an FBI informant, he was invited to chat with Osama bin Laden at a terror camp. 

Aukai Collins’ jailhouse conversion to Islam took him from a troubled youth in San Diego to the front lines of jihad. And then another change of heart led him to work for the FBI, a story chronicled in his newly-released memoir, “My Jihad.” 

Collins’ version of events, which cannot be independently verified, add to mounting evidence that U.S. intelligence officials missed numerous opportunities to unravel the links to terrorists then operating inside the nation’s borders. The book also offers a detailed look at how easily American citizens can slip into the world of Islamic extremism. 

In the book’s most sensational claim, Collins writes that three years before the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI agents in Phoenix were “fully aware” of Hani Hanjour, a “scrawny little guy” who later helped fly American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. 

An FBI spokesman in Washington admitted that Collins was a paid informant to the agency but said a thorough review has turned up no evidence he ever let agents know about Hanjour. 

In 1998, Collins said he passed word to the FBI that wealthy Arabs in Los Angeles had approached him about establishing a firearms training camp in the mountains of Arizona. The FBI made plans to have Collins set up the camp and conduct surveillance on what went on inside. 

But a day before the camp’s patrons were to arrive in Phoenix, Collins said then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno pulled the plug on the operation — a move the author calls “a colossal mistake.” 

“With time and patience we could have attracted many, if not most of the terrorists to one place, under surveillance, with leads to everyone they knew inside the United States, with all their telephone calls traced, all their e-mails decoded, all their financial transactions calculated,” he writes. 

The FBI declined to discuss Collins’ claims. 

Collins also said he met but did not work closely with Ken Williams, the Phoenix FBI agent who authored a now-famous memo linking students at Arizona flight schools with a militant Muslim group. 

Collins never met bin Laden, but the terrorist leader has links to many of the people he encountered on his travels, from warlords in Chechnya to students in London. In 1999, Collins said he told his CIA handlers about another sterling intelligence opportunity: Osama bin Laden had invited him, through a mutual acquaintance in London, to chat with him in Afghanistan. 

The acquaintance, a Bahraini named Abdul Malik, said Collins, as an American able to travel more freely than most Arabs “could offer bin Laden many valuable services.” But his CIA handler, a woman he knew as “Tracy,” told him to forget it. 

“I pressed the issue to try to see what the problem was, but all that Tracy would say was that there was no way the United States would approve an American operative going undercover into bin Laden’s camp,” Collins wrote. 

His relationship with the CIA goes downhill from there. One chapter in the book is titled, “How the CIA Betrayed Me.” The CIA declined comment. 

Born to hippie parents who gave him the Hawaiian name Aukai, pronounced OW’-kai, meaning “of the sea,” Collins was raised by a drug-addicted mother who left him on his own on the streets of San Diego’s laid-back Ocean Beach neighborhood. He took to carrying a .357 Magnum to school, stealing cars, robbing liquor stores and eventually landed in a youth prison. Behind bars, he found Islam. 

In some ways, his story has striking similarities to Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and is now accused of plotting with al-Qaida to blow up a radioactive “dirty bomb” inside the United States. 

But in an interview, Collins said he sees a big difference between himself and Padilla, whom he calls a “low-level messenger boy.” Collins said that, unlike Padilla, he maintained a clear sense of right and wrong. 

A few months after his release in 1993, Collins, at age 19, decided he wanted to go to Bosnia to fight for jihad, which he called “the highest act of faith of Islam.” Mohammed Zaky, a San Diego man Collins met at a San Diego mosque, gave him his chance. 

Zaky ran the Islamic Information Center of the Americas, a San Diego-based organization that the FBI says served as a clearinghouse for terrorist information. Through his contacts, he offered Collins a chance to fly to Europe and enter Bosnia posing as a journalist with the nonexistent “La Jolla Tribune.” Zaky himself was killed fighting in Chechnya in 1995. 

Once overseas, Collins grew frustrated by a missed series of connections, roadblocks and difficult border crossings — a constant problem in his quest for jihad. 

Collins headed to South Asia in search of a good fight. He moved quickly through Kashmir and on to Afghanistan, where, in 1993, he met British-born militant Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, who later would be accused of luring Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl to his death. The two parted ways when Saeed invited Collins to participate in a hostage operation in Kashmir. 

“I was more shocked than anybody when I found out what he’s accused of doing now,” Collins said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t have imagined that he would have done something like that.” 

Frustrated with commanders who never allowed him to the front lines, Collins returned to San Diego in 1994 and found a job building yachts. But he still yearned for jihad. Kifah Jayyoussi, an associate of Zaky’s working then at the University of California, San Diego, raised money from friends to pay for Collins’ plane ticket to Chechnya. 

In Chechnya, Collins teamed up with warlord Omar Ibn al Khattab, an Arab believed to have ties with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. Collins’ lust for combat earned him the nickname “the crazy American.” He was witness to the brutal execution of Russian soldiers and his leg was badly wounded. He later chose to have it amputated, figuring he could run better with a prothesis. 

In 1996, Collins made the fateful decision to walk into the U.S. Embassy in Baku and offer his assistance to the American government. Collins said he was motivated by a jihad leader in Chechnya who betrayed him, and a wave of attacks on tourists in Egypt. 

“As I was fighting the Russian army and shedding my blood in the defense of Islam, a bunch of cowards in Egypt were killing old ladies and kids in the name of jihad,” Collins wrote. 

The FBI paid him as much as $2,500 a month as an informant from 1996 to 1999, when agents accused him of being a terrorist. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI made him take a polygraph to reassure themselves that he had no advance knowledge of the plot. 

Collins’ book, which is dedicated to Zaky and other jihad fighters, was published by The Lyons Press this month. 

Collins, who says he works as a bounty hunter seeking U.S. fugitives in Mexico and as a free-lance security consultant, lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Out of concern for his security, he declined to specify where. 

While Collins has ended his work with the FBI, he said his experiences have convinced him that the agency is woefully unprepared to fight terrorism. 

“They don’t understand and they don’t want to understand what it takes to get inside terrorist cells,” he said. “It’s not just like any white, old cornbread American agent can walk into a terrorist group and be received.”