Aimen Dean remembers the moment he and his wife, Saadia, decided to make their home in Scotland. They had toured the Highlands and were standing on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, looking out over the city’s skyline.
Dean already knew Scotland: as one of the UK’s key spies, operating in the highest levels of al-Qaida, he had visited the country in secret six times before, to be debriefed by MI6 officers at safe houses deep in the Highlands or, on one occasion, a hotel on the island of Iona.
Saadia was from Pakistan and of Kashmiri descent and Dean recalls that the beauty of the Highlands resonated with her. “I want to see mountains; I want to see greenery and all of those things,” she said. “It’s a place I will never get tired of.”
By December 2019, it was decided. They rented at first and then found a newly built house near Edinburgh, settling into a new life. They applied for their infant daughter to join the nursery at St George’s school, one of Scotland’s premier private schools. “We thought it would be perfect for her,” he said. “Actually, it was a mistake.”
For Dean, this new life was the ultimate reward. For eight years he had worked undercover for MI6 deep inside al-Qaida, the Islamist terrorist group run by Osama bin Laden, which in 2001 carried out the 9/11 bombings and a series of other atrocities.
Then a Bahraini citizen, he had been recruited by al-Qaida to become a bomb maker after fighting in Bosnia, like thousands of other young Muslims, against the ethnic cleansing campaigns of Serb nationalists. In 1998 al-Qaida announced itself to the world by bombing two American embassies, in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It killed 224 people including 12 US personnel, injuring thousands more.
Dean said those atrocities shattered his faith in the cause. Attacking civilians had no theological or political justification, he reasoned, nor did a borderless war against the west. Some months later, he was recruited by MI6. By the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, Dean was the west’s most important human asset within al-Qaida.
Philip Ingram, a former colonel in British military intelligence, saw Dean’s reports from Afghanistan. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is significant stuff. There’s someone in there who has a very detailed understanding.’”
He quit spying in 2006, becoming instead an expert in Islamist terrorist financing at HSBC. Granted British citizenship, in 2015 he outed himself in a BBC interview, before publishing a critically acclaimed account of his time in the group, Nine Lives, and launching his own podcast series on fundamentalism and global affairs, Conflicted.
In September 2021, Channel 4 screened a three-part documentary on Bin Laden to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings. Dean was a star witness. By then, their daughter had started at St George’s and appeared to be flourishing. But a few weeks later “everything became sour”.
On 14 October, Dean and his wife were summoned to an urgent online meeting with the school’s headteacher, Alex Hems, and a senior colleague. The couple were told that several parents had raised concerns about his presence, fearing he could be a target for assassination on school grounds. They were asked to alter their daughter’s drop-off and pickup times and, according to Dean, to delete a photograph of her in her school dress from Dean’s social media accounts.
Dean says Hems confirmed the school had fresh assurances from MI5 that he posed no threat to the school’s safety, repeating its promises from 2019. Even so, Dean alleges Hems told the couple: “Do not expect a welcome here in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh. The people here are conservative with a small C, and they will not be as welcoming as people in London.”
The couple reluctantly complied, Dean said. For the next seven months their daughter arrived at school 20 minutes after her classmates and was picked up 30 minutes after school finished. But still things did not go smoothly. He claims some parents would linger outside, giving hostile and sneering looks, and on numerous times he and his daughter were left waiting for long periods at the gate, sometimes in the rain, for staff to buzz her into school. After he complained about one delay, Hems apologised.
Repeatedly late for class, his daughter was allegedly shouted at by a member of staff. That, the couple say, deeply damaged her confidence. Dean recalls his daughter telling them: “They aren’t kind. They keep shouting at me, ‘Sit down, sit down’. Why do I have to go to school here? Why does the school hate me?”
Unable to mollify the unidentified parents who had complained – and anxious about encountering any hostility – the couple decided not to risk allowing their daughter to attend class parties. Nevertheless, in April they applied for their son to join St George’s nursery; he is autistic, so the couple offered to pay for one-to-one assistance in class for him.
Staff had indicated this would be accepted, they say, but to their shock the offer was rejected. During a meeting at school, with their son playing close by, Dean alleges one teacher said she had “a radical idea”. In his complaint to the registrar, Dean claims she said: “What is holding you back here in Edinburgh? Why don’t you leave the country? The Middle East offers fantastic facilities for children like [your son].” Dean claims a colleague concurred, stating: “You must take the wellbeing of both your kids into consideration.”
That shocked them profoundly, he said. It felt like a total rejection, one they feared could be repeated at another British school or town. Rather than risk relocating, Saadia told Dean she wanted to sell up and leave the UK. A week later, the couple told St George’s they were leaving.
In mid-May, feeling their relationship with the school had become irreparable, a furious Dean accused other “racist and bigoted parents” of triggering the crisis in a message to a parents’ WhatsApp group, and warned: “You messed with the wrong person here!” He posted, but quickly deleted, a third message asking some named parents to confirm whether they were the complainants. Hems responded, Dean said, by banning him from the school grounds, calling his message “deeply offensive” and “upsetting”.
On 7 June, Hems met the couple at school, where she pressed them to agree to mediation to settle their dispute, which the couple rejected. Dean said Hems rejected his request for an apology and to allow their daughter to resume normal school hours. He alleges she told them: “You’re al-Qaida. That is scary for other parents. I did my research; al-Qaida is a scary matter all over the UK.”
The school said it “very strongly disputed” Dean’s allegations, and was confident the registrar would find it “acted fully in accordance with all relevant safeguarding and regulatory procedures”. Hems is also understood to strongly reject his account.
Dean told the Guardian he was publicising his complaint because he feared failing others who risked their lives for the sake of the UK. “[Next time] it will be the kids of Afghan interpreters or brave Russian spies who we’re helping. It’s tempting to sweep this under the rug and never speak of it again. This scenario will be repeated, whether it’s York or Brighton or London or anywhere else, if we don’t take a stand on this now.”