Face-to-Face with al-Qa’ida

Checked my notes, adjusted my blazer, and took a deep breath to steady myself before entering the debriefing room. I had never interacted with a real-life terrorist before, so I faced the operation with an equal mixture of nervousness and excitement. My hands were shaking, but I told myself, “This is the moment you’ve been preparing for your whole life. You can do this!”

I knocked lightly on the door and then turned the knob to walk into the tiny debriefing room. My husband, Joseph, was already there with his source—Abu Muhammad, who had agreed to give the CIA information on a powerful insurgent group in Iraq. 

Abu Muhammad jumped up, excited to see a female entering the room. In his radical culture, being in the room with a female to whom he was not related was haram, i.e., not permitted. Freely interacting with me in such a forum was an exciting prospect for him. Despite their outward displays of piety, many hardline elements jump at the opportunity to bend the rules when nobody’s looking.

In addition to the strange gender dynamics, there was the challenge of respect. Abu Muhammad believed women should be at home raising children and managing the household. They should not leave the house without a male escort and without being covered from head to toe by a burqa. And they should never work. In his mind, I might as well have been growing horns out of my head. 

Because of his radical views of women, he would not expect me to be intelligent, to have any insights on the Arab world, or to have a clue about terrorism. There was no way that I, as a Western female, could understand Iraq’s complicated sectarian dynamics or the conflict the country had been embroiled in since Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

In addition, Abu Muhammad did not know that I was Joseph’s wife—only that I was a “special officer” who wanted to meet with him and ask some questions.
Joseph also never corrected the false assumption that he was a Muslim. 

Abu Muhammad had no idea that either Joseph or I was a Christian. 

A Long Road to the Front Lines

Joseph’s father was a pastor, and his parents ran a well-known Christian ministry in Egypt. In truth, Joseph was everything that Abu Muhammad hated: A local who had never converted to Islam, a holdout, a person of derision, and an easy target for terrorists looking to carry out their intense hatred of infidels. The likes of Abu Muhammad had been persecuting Christians for centuries, and now he was standing in front of the kind of people he despised.

Having been surrounded by people like Abu Muhammad growing up, Joseph was used to dealing with tricky personalities. Some of his high school classmates’ parents were leaders of secret terror cells, including some of those responsible for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. These groups were the precursors of al-Qa’ida, and not surprisingly, several of Joseph’s
classmates and neighbors were part of al-Qa’ida’s core leadership and Usama bin Laden’s inner circle. 

Being surrounded by radical elements like this was extremely difficult for him as a Christian—yet it was the best education in terrorist ideology and culture. At the time, growing up in such a hard place seemed like a curse. As the son of a prominent pastor, Joseph was on the receiving end of many threats, not only by classmates but also by school leadership. Going to school every day was an exercise in reliance on God and his protection. 

This difficult and unique childhood was what enabled Joseph to communicate with radical elements in a way few others could. Joseph could not have imagined how God would use all of this in the service of a greater cause.

Unlike Joseph, I didn’t grow up with terrorists (thank God!). I had the opposite challenge: I knew very little of the world. I didn’t have politically active or well-
connected parents. I didn’t go to a prep school. My family was simple. We were regular small-town Americans. I had a great childhood in central Florida, sheltered from the outside storms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the oil crisis, the Middle East hijackings of passenger aircraft and all the conflicts raging on the other side of the globe. 

At some point in middle school, I got hold of my neighbor’s collection of National Geographic magazines, which gave me glimpses into the wide, wonderful world outside my rural little town. This fascination with foreign cultures was further fueled by my church’s visiting missionary families, who shared what life and ministry were like abroad. Something about that lifestyle—exploring, learning, and growing through travel—appealed to me. It stoked a desire deep within to get off the beaten path. But I never felt called to the mission field or ministry, per se. I knew I was called by God, as we all are, but the nature of that calling was a mystery to me.

Despite getting an excellent education and undergraduate degree, I found it very difficult to find my footing after Joseph and I got married and moved to Washington, D.C. It took months to get a job, and when I finally did, it was as an administrative assistant, not a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill or an analyst working for a think tank like other political science graduates my age. 

Divine Delays

Everyone else seemed to find their way with no problem, scooping up amazing jobs left and right. Filled with a great deal of passion but never having the necessary skill set for the jobs I was applying for, I was forlorn over my inability to get a decent-paying job in the field of international affairs. It seemed like every door I knocked on was sealed shut. Nothing I could do would pry them open. And I mean nothing.

Not knowing what else to do, I heeded the urge deep inside to learn about the Middle East. I started taking Arabic classes after work, which eventually whetted my appetite to do a deep dive of the region. Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service had an amazing Arab studies program, and I was lucky enough to be accepted. While I was studying, family and friends would ask, “What in the world will you do with a master’s degree in Arab studies?” I had no idea. I was simply following my gut sense of direction, hoping and believing that it was the Holy Spirit’s leading. 

Meanwhile, Joseph was working as a researcher and advocacy specialist at a major pro-democracy and human rights think tank focused on the rights of minorities in the Middle East. He used his firsthand experience to educate policymakers on the difficulties of being a minority in places where the legal framework is built upon Shari’a law. In the late 1990s, he collaborated with several congressmen and senators to advocate for the release of three Muslims who had converted to Christianity and were being tortured by the Egyptian government for doing so. These efforts did not make him popular with the Egyptian government. But he felt it was the right thing to do, and eventually those young men were released—battered and bruised but free from the physical chains.

During my final year at Georgetown, I attended an information session about the CIA. Afterward, I threw my résumé into a big bin to apply to the agency, not really believing I would receive any kind of response. I desperately needed a job, so I applied for every job opportunity that came my way. The dozens of rejections I received in return were stinging and difficult. I could not seem to move my life forward, and I couldn’t understand why. I had dedicated my life to the Lord, and yet I couldn’t figure out where He wanted me. 

Turning Points

But a few weeks later, I received a phone call from a CIA recruiter. 

I was completely shocked. The CIA had reviewed my résumé and was interested in me. What in the world? Were they mistaken? Didn’t they know I was just a regular person, not some political, cultural or linguistic savant?

Though filled with doubt, I decided to follow this road and see how far it would take me.

What came next was a long and winding road into the CIA that was filled with even more confusing rejection. I was initially hired to become an analyst at CIA headquarters, but that job was pulled from under my feet days before I started, with no explanation. Why was life so hard? Where in the world was God in all of this? Why wasn’t He showing me where He wanted me? 

Months later, Joseph and I learned about the other side of the CIA—the clandestine service where the “real” spy work was done. At the urging of a friend, we applied to work as undercover officers in the Directorate of Operations. I couldn’t believe this was an actual job, or that we would be qualified to do such a thing, but we moved forward in faith. 

What followed was a year’s worth of intensive interviews, polygraphs, background investigations, and physical and psychological evaluations. 

To our complete and utter amazement, we got through each level of that process, advancing as tens of thousands of others were cut. (According to the CIA, the recruitment center receives between 30,000 and 180,000 résumés a year.) Could it be that no other door would open to me because they were not supposed to? Could it be that God had been preserving me for this job that I didn’t even know existed and could never have imagined myself doing? Was this why He had been nudging me all along to study, study, study—to prepare me for this unorthodox and challenging career? 

I later learned that had I started in the analyst position, I would have spent my career in the D.C. area. I would not have been allowed to change jobs, to switch to the Directorate of Operations. I would not have spent the majority of my career abroad, at the “pointy end of the spear,” executing the war on terror in the field. 

I didn’t know that, but God did.

As Joseph began the training process and I was set to join the next class of clandestine trainees, something unbelievable happened: Arab terrorists executed the most violent terrorist attack in our nation’s history. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and we realized our country was under attack, Joseph and I shuddered with the knowledge that this was a historic turning point for America. It was a turning point for us, too.

A Kairos Moment

Before this, no one had paid that much attention to an Arab studies degree. Now it became one of the hottest commodities on the planet. Joseph’s experience growing up in the lion’s den, the epicenter of terrorist ideology, had uniquely prepared him to deal with terrorist adversaries. We were pre-positioned and ready to go. We had the education, experience, and skill set needed to serve our country at that particular moment in time. 

Joseph and I had spent a lot of time slogging forward, overcome with uncertainty. We had no idea what was about to happen, but God made sure we were completely prepared to execute the mission set before us—the mission we could not have seen coming.

As students and young adults, we had prayed for the 10/40 window—that longitudinal swath of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia that is home to most of the world’s Muslims. But after finishing training, we were being sent out to this challenging region as counterterrorism officers. For the next 10 years, we were on the ground in war zones and high-conflict areas, living and working in some of the toughest places on earth. 

Our job was to interact with individuals who, had they met us on the street in different circumstances, would have preferred to slit our throats rather than talk with us. It was a delicate exercise figuring out how to connect with these “bad guys.” We had to find a way to see these people as human beings in need of redemption, like all of us, instead of evil incarnate. We had to have empathy to understand them and their motivations, as well as how to make the relationship beneficial for both parties (while making certain they were not double agents who would sell us out).

One of the jobs of an intelligence officer is to make sources feel comfortable giving up the type of information we need to stop attacks from occurring. Building trust with your sources is the key to getting them to reveal the most sensitive details they’d rather hold back. They don’t want to be identified as the source, which ultimately could get them killed. It’s imperative that these sources believe you will do everything you can to protect their identities. 

Abu Muhammad was no fool. He was an incredibly street-smart individual used to playing games of deceit and manipulation. But we knew that. We knew all the challenges we faced in dealing with him. If I was able to present myself, in the first few minutes of that meeting, in such a way that I could shock him with my intelligence, I knew I could get the intel I needed. So I quickly crafted an approach to address all of his misconceptions about me. 

I moderated my nonverbal behavior to be sure he wouldn’t think I was flirting: I gave him direct but not sustained eye contact. I sat close to demonstrate my authority, but not too close. I was friendly but professional. I spoke using interesting Arabic phrases to demonstrate my knowledge of the language. I praised him for his courage and the sensitive intelligence he had already provided. 

And I could sense a sea change in the atmosphere when Abu Muhammad realized I was not what he expected. I was not a silly girl or a toy. I knew my subject matter, and I was just as capable as my male colleagues. The moment when he decided to like and trust me is hard to describe, but it was clear and it was palpable. After I had used my emotional intelligence to present myself in a particular way to Abu Muhammad, I had changed the terms of this engagement—and now we could get down to business. 

By the grace and wisdom of God and years of studying language and culture, I had figured out how to transform my disadvantage as a female in this setting into an advantage. Now Abu Muhammad wanted to prove his worth to me, and was motivated to work extra hard to gather the key pieces of intelligence that we needed.

From Mess to Message

When I gave my life to the Lord as a child, I placed no restrictions on my commitment. I simply told Him, “Wherever you lead, I will go.” When I said these prayers, I had absolutely no idea He would usher me into a career that heretofore I had seen only on the big screen in splashy Hollywood movies. 

In the same way, Joseph could not have anticipated God’s intervention in his life after the sting of being denied a university education in Egypt. God made a way in the desert where there was none—moving several people to act on his behalf, eventually resulting in the provision of a full-tuition scholarship to Palm Beach Atlantic University, which is where he was studying when I met him while I was in high school. Like the Biblical figure he was named for, what seemed like a curse was turned in his favor. 

Our paths were not laid out in front of us like the Yellow Brick Road. Instead, one step was revealed at a time (and it sometimes took far longer than expected for the next step to materialize). But the excruciatingly challenging process of trusting God with each tiny step eventually led us into the halls of the great CIA, and to that debriefing room in Baghdad where we worked daily to stop terror attacks from being carried out. And after Joseph left the agency in 2011 and I followed in 2012, we were able to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East and provide security training to church and ministry groups using our unique backgrounds and knowledge of terrorism and personal-security principles.

We are all called to be salt and light on this earth. For Joseph and me, that calling took us to the Middle East and brought us face-to-face with al-Qa’ida, ISIS and other insurgent groups. Don’t put God in a box. He has the whole world in His hands—and if your faith is greater than your fear, there’s no telling where He’ll take you. But you’ve got to hang in there long enough for that plan to be executed in His perfect timing. 

Sometimes the frustratingly slow, confusing and hard paths are the ones that lead to the most interesting places.

 

Adapted from Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What’s Worth Fighting For, by Michele Rigby Assad (Tyndale Momentum, February 2018, $25.99).

Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.
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