The holy warrior known as Abu Mujahid cracks open the front door to his shabby apartment with one hand perched warily on the weapon in his back pocket. It's a slim, collapsible police baton, which, when properly applied to the knees or elbows, can inflict crippling pain.
Somebody's out there, maybe an enemy.
A wad of mail rattles harmlessly past the screen door. It's just the postman.
The holy warrior -- also known as Aukai Collins, 28, a product of San Diego -- relaxes and limps past a carton full of books titled "My Jihad." It's his blood-soaked account of training in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and fighting alongside fellow Muslims in Kashmir, Chechnya and Kosovo. He lost his right leg below the knee because of war wounds.
He mutters his contempt for Baltimore, where he moved a few months ago to live with his latest girlfriend: "It's just awful." He vows to move as soon as he gets his first royalty check.
With his shaved head, billy-goat beard and Popeye-size forearms, Collins has the fierce look of a man ready to lunge into battle. A former thug who converted to Islam in jail as a teenager, he seems to fear nothing -- except what people might think of his low-rent neighborhood, where dope dealers ply their trade outside his door.
"Lowlifes," he says, glowering out the front window, which is curtained with a bedsheet.
"I've got a book that made the Palm Pilot e-book Web site -- it's their number 1 bestseller -- and it's the top pick on Barnes & Noble's e-book site." He chuckles sarcastically. "And I'm living in the ghetto and I'm broke. It doesn't make a lot of sense."
E-book sales haven't made "My Jihad" a summer beach reading sensation, but Collins takes pride in his accomplishment as a first-time author: "Here I am, I never finished ninth grade, and I wrote a book that sold out its first print run" of 30,000 copies.
Good timing helped. Among the acquaintances who figure in Collins's memoir are Hani Hanjour, who piloted the airliner that would smash into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and Sheik Omar Saeed, who later would stand trial for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Collins denounces the followers of bin Laden and other terrorists for twisting and betraying the Koranic concept of holy war. "Jihad is the highest act of faith in Islam," he writes -- but only when waged to defend Muslims and their lands against attackers. He rebukes "the cowards who never spent a single minute on the front lines and then go and kill unarmed civilians and call it jihad."
For several years in the 1990s, he spied on Islamic radicals for the FBI and CIA, working undercover in Arizona and overseas. But, by his account, U.S. counterterrorism officials bungled every opportunity he handed them -- including a chance for him to meet bin Laden in 1998 and infiltrate al Qaeda. He also claims the FBI ignored his alerts about Hanjour and a half-dozen other Arabs who were taking flight training in the Phoenix area four years ago.
The FBI describes Collins as an "oftentimes productive asset" for Squad Five, its Phoenix counterterrorism operation, from 1996 to 1999. "He did some very productive things and helped some cases over the years," a spokesman says. Collins was paid $2,500 a month in cash.
But the spokesman says the FBI "had no knowledge of Hanjour prior to 9/11, period." According to officials involved in the matter, who asked not to be identified, Collins never mentioned Hanjour or expressed familiarity with him -- even when shown a picture of the hijacker after the attacks.
The CIA would not comment on "My Jihad."
Collins says he wanted to continue helping the FBI and CIA but the agencies have blacklisted him. They consider him "a terrorist and a psychopath," he says. He wants to sue somebody.
When he set out upon the path of jihad nearly a decade ago, Collins fully expected, and wanted, to die in battle. "My goal," he writes, "was to become a shaheed" -- a martyr whose wounds ooze perfume and who rises directly to Heaven to meet Allah, according to believers. Now he's stuck in Baltimore, an angry survivor, a soldier who has no war.
Lunch In a restaurant with a view of the city's tourist-choked Inner Harbor, Collins orders a cheese-covered shrimp and crab casserole for lunch. He lets it cool. And cool some more. Two hours pass.
The waitress stops by several times, wondering what's amiss. He waves her off. "I wait till stuff gets cold," he says.
When he finally starts eating, he tears into the food, occasionally using his fingers.
"I can't eat anything warm. It's got to be cold."
That's the way he ate on the front lines.
Evolution of a Convert When Aukai Collins was 7, he says, he survived on cans of unheated Spaghetti-O's because his mother would disappear for two or three days at a time. His father was mostly AWOL, too, he says.
They divorced when Aukai -- the name means "from the ocean" in Hawaiian -- was 4. The boy became flotsam in the '70s drug culture of California and Hawaii.
He was living on the island of Oahu with his mother when she was strangled and her body tossed in a swamp. He was 8. In the book, he blames her involvement with drugs and sinister Samoans.
How old was she?
"I don't even know," he says, his blue eyes staring blankly.
What became of his father?
"Pretty much I don't deal with him anymore," he says, sealing off the topic.
By 15, Collins was running with a gang in San Diego, toting a .357 magnum, robbing liquor stores and stealing cars "to have a place to sleep." Eventually caught and sentenced to juvenile prison, he was taking a GED class when he noticed an odd-looking book on another inmate's desk. It was the Holy Koran.
There were "no lights in the sky or anything," Collins recalls. But he had read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and was impressed with how Malcolm had applied Islam in practical terms: "He had some discipline in his life."
Praying five times a day, avoiding alcohol and tobacco -- that took discipline. Collins became a Muslim and joined a mosque upon his release. But he soon grew disillusioned with the pacifists who ran it. In 1993, distraught over the Serbs' slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, he decided to take up arms with the mujaheddin -- the holy warriors.
Sporting a chest-length red beard, the 5-11, 200-pound convert first made his way into Pakistan for training, then into Afghan camps for a couple of months. Back when Ronald Reagan called them freedom fighters, a previous generation of "mooj" honed themselves for war against the Soviet army in such camps. They were pushed to victory in part by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire praised by his followers as a fearless combat commander in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Now, under protection of the Taliban, Sheik bin Laden was back. His camps were turning ragtag romantics into actual soldiers. Collins was an eager student.
"I'd had a long-standing love for weapons," he writes, lovingly cataloguing the available firepower, from AK-47s and sniper rifles to tripod-mounted antiaircraft guns.
"I wanted to learn how to use almost any weapon currently manufactured. I wanted to do it all, and this place was ideal for just that."
From Fighting to Writing Waiting for his lunch to grow cold, Collins rolls up the right leg of his olive Old Navy pants and displays the graphite prosthetic attached to the stump.
"Very painful," he says in a soft, stoic voice. "It's causing a lot of problems right now. I can't walk well."
He tripped two mines in the breakaway republic of Chechnya in 1995, defending Muslims against the Russian army. Both legs also were riddled with automatic weapons fire. Later, part of the right one had to be amputated.
"I was happy," he recalls. "I made my bones. I put in my work. I had something to show for it."
He was wounded on what was supposed to be his wedding day. A week earlier, he'd met Ayeesha, a 16-year-old Chechen girl whose family had blessed the union. He recounts his recovery this way:
"By day the doctors would torture me until I would howl at the top of my lungs in agony, and by night Ayeesha would comfort me with her young body."
His 248-page narrative is rife with such potboiler prose. But as in the work of Mickey Spillane, action and intrigue carry the tale and keep the pages turning. Another sample:
I was woken the next morning by the rattling of windows and the deep, hollow detonation of bombs. I scrambled to put my leg on and grab my AK before heading out the door.
The memoir focuses on the eight remarkable years Collins spent accumulating his war stories, wives (he had two) and children (three). The author roams from battlefield to battlefield, slitting enemy throats, dodging bombs or plying his other trade as, in his words, a "professional spook."
In 1999 he returned to Chechnya for a final stand against the Russians, whose jets were pounding Grozny into rubble. A Chechen health minister convinced him that he could do more good back in America, raising money for medicine and supplies.
The book chronicles his falling-out with the FBI, which he says accused him of being a terrorist. It includes a long rant against U.S. intelligence officials -- whom Collins describes as "clowns," "bed-wetters" and "idiots" -- and culminates with Sept. 11.
The book evolved from a project by author Robert Young Pelton, who hosts a TV series called "The World's Most Dangerous Places." Pelton is the risk-taking journalist who interviewed Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh for CNN in Afghanistan.
Pelton hooked up with Collins in Phoenix in 1999, conducting a series of interviews with the holy warrior and traveling with him to Chechnya. This became a part of Pelton's book, "The Hunter, The Hammer, and Heaven: Journeys to Three Worlds Gone Mad."
Pelton also urged Collins to write his own book.
"Write a book? I have trouble writing a letter," Collins told him.
"You start writing, and I'll start shopping the idea around," Pelton said.
Collins came up with 70 pages as a sample. Pelton was impressed, but nobody was interested -- until the terror attacks of 9/11. Within days, Lyons Press, Pelton's publisher in Connecticut, gave Collins a contract. The publisher also brought him to Connecticut for two months so he could finish the manuscript.
"Some folks have suggested there was a ghostwriter, but it's simply not the case," says Jonathan McCollough, Collins's editor at Lyons.
"That's offensive," says the author. "I have no official education, but I don't drool when I speak."
Devotion to Duty It's early evening at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Preppy-looking young policy analysts file out of their cubicles, heading off to play softball in the office league. Older, professorial types linger to discuss developments in the Middle East. The hallways are decorated with photographs by Man Ray and Sebastiao Selgado.
Collins, sporting a button that depicts a skull, arrives to participate in a briefing on terrorism. Given his experiences as Abu Mujahid (the nom de guerre means "father of a fighter"), he is considered an expert on jihad groups. Other attendees at the closed-door gathering include former CIA and military intelligence officials.
"They just don't get it," Collins reports after the briefing. One speaker warned of the ongoing, organized "recruitment" of Muslim militants, and Collins countered that holy warriors are strictly volunteers.
"What recruitment? They make it seem like the jihadis are a bunch of brainwashed zombies that were recruited by some foaming-at-the-mouth imam," or mosque leader. "It's just not true."
Devout Muslims volunteer to fight and die for a simple reason, adds Pelton, who also spoke that evening. "It's the same reason people join the Marines."
As a teenager, Collins could have continued his life as a criminal or become a mercenary, but, according to Pelton, "being a mujahid was the most noble way for him to channel his energies."
A Notorious Motto Recently, Collins posed for a series of photos to accompany a Maxim magazine piece. He proudly provides proof sheets that show him dressed in battle fatigues, clutching a large weapon. On his upper sleeve a patch is visible: a skull with the German motto Meine Ehre heisst Treue.
In English: My honor is my loyalty. "That's our unit insignia, you could say, for some of the mujaheddin," Collins explains. "I actually started it."
It's also the motto of the Nazi SS, Hitler's most rabid loyalists, perpetrators of the Holocaust, infamous war criminals.
"The SS had a very strong concept going. Good tactics. Good loyalty. Something soldiers can learn from," says Collins. "I'm a big fan of the SS just from a military point of view. . . .
"It was actually a minority of the SS that was doing the killing of the Jews," he continues. "The Totenkopf, the skull, got a bad name."
Don't misunderstand -- Collins is no Hitler apologist. "The Jewish part of it and the Nazi thing, I could care less about," he says.
"The whole idea with the skull was it's a reminder of your mortality: You might have to give your life for this cause."
Waiting for Allah's Call The Arabs took to calling me Abu Mashakil, "Father of Trouble."
-- From "My Jihad"
Over a cheesecake dessert (already chilled), Collins ponders his future as a one-legged man with a love of action. He'd like to become a cop -- preferably detailed to a SWAT team -- but doubts it will happen. He says he volunteered to help federal law enforcement agencies bust up drug gangs but was spurned. After 9/11 he again offered his services to the FBI, to no avail.
Last winter he offered to go to Pakistan to intervene with Pearl's kidnapper after realizing he once trained alongside him in Afghanistan. No thanks, the feds said. The same thing happened in 1998, when he offered to go after bin Laden.
"It's almost like they want me to be a bad guy." He sighs.
Government officials point out that sending an American abroad to do potentially life-threatening work is never done lightly. They made a "multiagency decision" not to support Collins's planned visit to bin Laden in the summer of 1998, citing his safety and the uncertainty of success, among other factors.
But ex-CIA case officer Robert Steele, an agency critic who knows and admires Collins, speculates that timid managers stopped the mission. "Americans routinely serve as access agents under contract," Steele says. "What happened here is that the bureaucracy had become so frozen . . . nobody was holding their feet to the fire to get serious about terrorism."
Whenever Collins enters the country, he says, he is stopped and strip-searched. But the FBI, for its part, heatedly denies Collins's claims that he has been flagged or blackballed.
"We haven't done anything to put him on any list," a spokesman says. As for the falling-out? "It's not uncommon for these relationships to get strained."
"To burn me like that, man," Collins fumes. "I gave them complete loyalty -- four years of my life. I liked that job. I never had any intention to ever be anything but an FBI asset."
He has picked up work in counterterrorism training and providing security -- recently in Liberia -- and as a bounty hunter, tracking down suspects who've skipped bond and fled to Mexico. "Bounty hunting was a natural extension of my skills."
He's living now with his 4-year-old son, and someday he hopes to locate his Chechen ex-wife and their daughter, whom he lost contact with three years ago. There are another ex-wife and daughter living in Saudi Arabia. But getting to them is a complicated process -- and a whole other tale.
Collins heads back to his un-air-conditioned, $500-a-month apartment, the only place he could rent without a steady paycheck. The floor slopes. The bathroom walls shed plaster. It ought to be condemned, he says.
He doesn't go to mosques anymore. He has, "unfortunately," cut back on his prayers. Death in holy war was supposed to be his shortcut to Heaven, but it didn't happen.
As he wrote in his book: "Allah only chooses the best among the mujahideen for such an honor, and I am still waiting." In Baltimore.