Published by Dutton Books
Publication date: October 23, 2017
Genres: Book Clubs, Crime, Debut, Non-fiction
Like some of the other non-fiction books I read last month (Educated, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), American Radical by Tamer Elnoury reads like fiction. High-wire tension, thriller kind of reading. Tamer Elnoury (not his real name) is an undercover FBI agent. He was brought here from Egypt by his parents when he was a small boy. English is his first language and he speaks it without any accent whatsoever, but at home his mother always spoke Arabic with him. Meaning he speaks it flawlessly as well. This plus the fact that she made sure he grew up learning about and practicing their religion, Islam, made him, in the days after 9/11, a linguistic unicorn, much sought after by the FBI.
After one successful mission working for the FBI Elnoury gets pulled into a situation in Canada when a man they are concerned about is going to be in America. Elnoury is asked to “take his temperature”, FBI code for getting a sense of whether a person is truly dangerous and likely to act on their beliefs. What was supposed to be a one-off occurrence turns into a years’ long investigation. Elnoury becomes close friends with Chiheb, a Tunisian PhD student living in Montreal, who he learns is working with al Qaeda in Iran and is a true jihadi, living only to find a way to kill as many Westerners as possible. American Radical details the months of interaction between Elnoury and Chiheb and just how close Elnoury was able to get to the man and his connections.
American Radical is chilling reading not just for its depiction of men whose only goal in life is to eradicate any population who doesn’t share their twisted view of how people should live, but also for the extraordinary danger of Elnoury’s mission. Al Qaeda leaders may live in remote areas, but they are anything but backwards and unsophisticated in the pursuit of their objectives. Every minute detail of Elnoury’s fake background and life history was checked and verified—bank accounts, what mosque he attended, where his extended family lived and all of their information. If something went wrong or his cover were blown, the consequences would be far-reaching.
One of the most difficult aspects of American Radical is watching Elnoury cordon off his psyche against the assault of Chiheb’s corruption of Islam. How would any of us deal with someone who was speaking as a follower of the same faith, but was twisting it beyond recognition? We would run, we would fight back, and yet, none of these is an option for an undercover agent. Instead, when Chiheb tells Elnoury he wants to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for killing more Americans than any of the terrorists currently on the list, he must nod in agreement. At the same time, Elnoury’s unspoken responses to the lies educates the reader. When Chiheb rhapsodizes about jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam, Elnoury lets us know there are only five pillars to Islam (faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca). Only the terrorists claim there are six.
American Radical should be required reading for anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of how fundamentalists pervert true Islam—much the way they do any religion. It allows the reader to see both the distorted, false face of Islam, but, even more importantly, the true face of the religion. Tamer Elnoury is more of an American hero than most of us will ever be in our lifetimes. He is as ardent about defending his country, America, as he is about his religion, Islam. He does so anonymously and so faces anger, misperceptions, and discrimination in his everyday life, when really, he, and every person like him, deserves honor and thanks from every American.
These are the rules of war in Islam. No innocent person can be killed. Women and children of your enemy are off-limits. Even the men of your enemy who are not fighting are off-limits. Never to be touched. The only people of your enemy that you are allowed to kill during times of war are the combatants. This is black and white in the Quran.