Gamal Abdel-Hafiz was perhaps the best counter-terrorism agent the FBI had. He got confessions from seven Al Qaeda members who planned the USS Cole bombing and broke open the Lackawanna Six case, which President Bush touted as the biggest success to that point in the War on Terror. He was also the first Muslim FBI agent. The bureau gave him an unprecedented role: he circulated through North Texas mosques overtly, FBI business card in hand, building alliances between imams and the Dallas field office, between everyday Arabs and covert men in black. But by 2003, he’d been suspended. He had been called a traitor by two Chicago FBI agents on ABC’s Primetime and on The O’Reilly Factor. He was living in Flower Mound, broken, heavy bags under his eyes, embarrassed to be seen in public.

But one day in October of that year, he answered a knock on his door.

He managed a warm smile, taking my hand in both of his as he welcomed me inside his home. He was thin and his shoulders sagged, taking inches off his 5-foot-9 frame. Gamal’s close-cropped hair had turned a shade grayer. He looked older than his 44 years.

40-greatest-stories-bug2.png Click for more about this remarkable story.

Gamal led me past two of his three children playing in front of a television, past his wife, Amal, in the kitchen, and up plush white-carpeted stairs to a bedroom that had been converted into an office. Gently, in Arabic, he called down to Amal to prepare tea, then closed the door for privacy.

Gamal turned his eyes to the wall. “The proudest day of my life,” he said, looking at the 1996 photo of himself shaking the hand of then FBI Director Louis Freeh. Graduation day. “It really was a very emotional moment for me, knowing I was the very first Muslim FBI agent in the history of the FBI. It was really something that I will never forget.”

But ever since the agents in Chicago accused Gamal of refusing to wear a wire—they claimed Gamal said, “A Muslim does not record another Muslim”—his life has been a nightmare.

“Unfortunately, because I respected my agency, and I respected my obligation to my agency to not respond, it was taken for granted that I was guilty of these accusations,” Gamal said. Anger pitched his voice higher. “A lot of people in the media and on the Internet took it and flew with it, and they spoke out of ignorance.

“I did not only lose my job. I lost my dignity, my reputation,” he said, slapping a palm hard on a desk. “I lost self respect, for myself and my family, because of the accusations.”

The story that had emerged was “a fabricated lie!”

It turns out he was right. About all of it. Now Gamal has filed defamation and libel lawsuits against the Chicago agents, as well as O’Reilly, Brian Ross at ABC, and others. Today, because the FBI has reinstated him, Gamal can’t talk to the media about his past or the effect it has had on his present. But from depositions and numerous interviews with FBI officials, a maddening story emerges. The nation’s greatest counter-terrorism agent is once again working leads for the FBI. But he’s a shell of his former self.

•••

Thunder woke 9-year-old Gamal and the rest of his family—except this thunder sounded different. It was not sharp, but low and sustained. It drew Gamal and his older brothers onto the balcony of their Cairo home. There they saw the red mushroom clouds of Israeli bombs. It was 1967. The Six-Day War with Israel. Gamal’s father, Elsayed, herded everyone into a basement where they waited out the bombs. President Gamal Abdel Nasser had whipped his nation into a frenzy. But not Gamal’s parents. They were moderates. Gamal’s father had served in the military under the British, when Egypt was a colony. He hated Nasser’s anti-West message. “My family just made sure we weren’t involved with any of that,” Gamal says. (This quote and all others from Gamal come from his 2003 interview.)

Gamal was the youngest of seven children, six brothers and a sister, raised in Cairo’s small but relatively privileged middle class. Gamal’s father held a partnership in a textile factory that supported regular expansions of the family’s three-story home. He was a deeply religious man who’d memorized the Koran. But Gamal’s father also believed in the value of secular education because, as he often preached, it was the only way to avoid the poverty many Egyptians suffered.

Gamal’s brothers and sisters received public education, but Gamal attended a premier Christian school run by the Coptic Church, the church of Egypt. Later, Gamal attended a private high school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. Growing up in this diverse environment insulated Gamal from the radical Islam preached in some mosques. “Half my friends throughout my education were Christians,” Gamal says. “It eliminated the barrier between Islam and Christianity.”

"I'm not going to let somone force me to change my whole life against my will," Gamal said. "Threats like this are part of my job."

After graduation, Gamal drifted. His father pushed him to become an English interpreter. Gamal enrolled in the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, the only school in the country that offered a degree in translation. Gamal was soon elected to the university’s apolitical student union. He had a personality that drew people closer, invited their confidence. He was an observant Muslim—never drank, gambled, or chased women. He often let loose his high-pitched giggle, and he never forgot a name.

It was as a student leader that he heard about Mohammad Elmougy, another young man studying English and one who, coincidentally, years later, would move to Dallas and rekindle his friendship with Gamal. At university, Elmougy one day argued with an autocratic faculty member. The teacher retaliated by essentially deleting Elmougy’s grades for the year. Gamal came to Elmougy’s defense, at considerable risk to his own academic future. The intervention was unsuccessful, but Elmougy never forgot it. “He has a strong sense of right and wrong,” Elmougy says. “That’s always been the kind of man he is.”