I had never met a terrorist face-to-face, so my pulse was racing and my hands were shaking. Having studied his file and worked on his case for months, I was keenly aware that he was a bad guy without the trace of a conscience. His group had killed many people, but Abu Muhammad* had been convinced by his CIA handler that carrying out attacks on Iraqi Shi’a and Coalition forces wasn’t making us go away. Instead, their efforts were being met with a surge of military forces and intelligence officers, the opposite of what the Sunni population was trying to achieve.
Though we were the enemy, Abu Muhammad had agreed to stop carrying out attacks on us. Instead, he would work with us to identify those who still were engaged in attacks, allowing us to prosecute counterterrorism operations against those shooting, ambushing, and blowing up Iraqis and Coalition forces.
Having studied the Middle East for so long and being a student of human behavior, not only was I nervous, but I was immensely excited about this meeting. Here was my chance to see—up close and personal—one of the extremists I had studied for so long. My job that day was to ask Abu Muhammad about a specific operation that targeted and killed an American nongovernmental organisation official. It was a horribly nasty attack that took the lives of numerous people in a particularly dicey part of Baghdad, not far from where Abu Muhammad operated.
But here’s the rub: I had the deck stacked against me. I had several obstacles to surmount to make a connection with this human being (terrorists are people too). I had to get him past these obstacles in order gain his trust so that he would give me the sensitive intelligence I needed. If he couldn’t trust me or my capabilities as a CIA officer, there’s no reason to put his life on the line to give me the protected information known to only a few people. If that information was mishandled, it could result in him being identified as the source of the leak and would result in a painful, awful death.
So what was standing between Abu Muhammad and me? It was the normal hang-ups of being an American, a CIA officer, and (per their assumption) Christian. But in addition to these handicaps, I was a woman. In Abu Muhammad’s radical ideology, women should be in the home raising children and managing the household. They shouldn’t be permitted to leave the home without a male guardian and shouldn’t go out in public without their bodies and faces being completely covered. Abu Muhammad could not conceive of a woman being a counterterrorism specialist, a CIA officer, or someone knowledgeable about the Arab world. For him, I was the opposite of what he expected. I was an enigma.
In that meeting I knew I had to use everything at my disposal to achieve my objectives. I had one chance to get him to trust me, and it had to happen fast. I had to get him past all his preconceived notions in the first few minutes of the meeting or I wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Before I entered the debriefing room with shaking hands and a racing heart, I gave myself a little pep talk: “You’ve been studying the Middle East for so long. And you know this culture so well. This is your moment! Forget your training and execute your own unique approach to this situation. Just do what you feel compelled to and you can make this happen! Compose yourself. Take a deep breath, and just go in there and do your thing.”
I surprised myself. I used those first few minutes like a pro: I spoke with confidence, I spoke with authority (even though I was apprehensive), and I carefully and strategically steered our introductions and initial conversation to demonstrate very clearly and very strongly that I was no joke. Neither was I a toy to mess around with. My strong people skills enabled me to use both verbal and nonverbal behavior to connect with Abu Muhammad’s specific kind of personality. This approach helped Abu Muhammad to see past my gender and realise that I was a force to be reckoned with, an intelligent woman, a full-fledged member of the team, someone he could work with.
This meeting was a turning point for me. Since the day I was hired to be an undercover officer in the clandestine service, I had felt severely out of place. My personality and behavior were so different than the officers promoted to senior positions. Most of them were severe, difficult to deal with, hostile to their employees… I was friendly, smiley, and enjoyed dealing with people. How could I get ahead and have any kind of impact in the world of intelligence if I was so different?
But that day in Baghdad I realised that not only was I good enough, I was actually a pretty incredible intelligence officer. All those qualities I had castigated myself for were responsible for my success with Abu Muhammad and other sources who wouldn’t share sensitive intelligence with their CIA handlers. Those qualities were what enabled me to shine.
The feeling of empowerment I received by being my authentic self in that debriefing room was a true gift. Now I felt free to create methodologies that worked, instead of blindly following others who—at the end of the day—didn’t really know what they were doing.
How often do we do that to ourselves? We think everybody else has it figured out and we’re the only one who doesn’t. It was so liberating to realise that there was more than one way to accomplish our life-and-death objectives. When you’re dealing with people like Abu Muhammad in the dangerous world of espionage, you must remember that success is contingent on the ability to deal with each source as a human being, no matter how challenging or distasteful they or their ideology might be. Having substantive expertise was critical but without emotional intelligence, the area knowledge doesn’t get you very far. Your operational skills are only as good as your people skills.
After 10 long years working in war zones and high-conflict areas, I resigned from the CIA to work as an international security consultant, trainer, public speaker and author. I love using my unique stories from the CIA to show people the value of being you—even in industries or sectors that seem unaccommodating. You can change the game if you’re willing to trust your instincts.
Breaking Cover by Michele Rigby Assad is out now.
*Not his real name.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email email@example.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.