Kevin Maurer was working as a reporter for the Wilmington Star-News last July when a friend reached out about an idea for a book. “You’ve got to do this one,” the friend said, convincing Maurer to listen.
Days later, Maurer pulled into a parking spot in front of the Old Navy store off South College Road to take another phone call. On the other end of the line this time was Tamer Elnoury, who would become the centerpiece of Maurer’s latest project. The result of their collaboration is American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent.
“He was born in Egypt and came over here as an immigrant,” Maurer says about Elnoury, who tells his story under a pseudonym. “After 9/11, he knew he had to help. A native speaker, he slowly but surely ends up getting to the point where he infiltrates this Al Qaeda plot in Canada that was looking to blow up a train between Canada and New York, as well as some targets in the United States. He spends months with these guys, and gets to be their financier is who he’s posing as. I immediately jumped (to be part of the project).”
Maurer’s new book comes out a little more than five years after No Easy Day, his collaboration with former Navy Seal Mark Owen, which topped the New York Times bestseller list after its’ release in September 2012. Maurer’s journey to that lofty position did not follow the same road as many other authors.
“I’ve never taken a journalism class or writing class, ever,” Maurer says. “It’s just curiosity that allowed me to go to places that I couldn’t get to otherwise.”
Kevin Maurer traveled overseas as a child and young adult. His father served as Assistant Attache for Customs in Paris, where he spent four years. Maurer enrolled in Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps as a student at Old Dominion University, which included trips to the Baltic, Northern Ireland and Russia.
“I realized I don’t have the warrior ethos they were looking for,” he jokes. “So, I quit when I got back, and on my last fitness report that they write about you, they said ‘this guy should never be near the military, he has no military bearing and is unfit for military service’. Then, what about six years later, I’m on the Iraq invasion, so it’s sort of funny.”
Maurer cut his writing teeth working for a Boston company that did databases for public relations firms. He and his wife moved to Washington, DC in 2001, where Maurer landed a job writing for the “Inside OSHA” newsletter. He speaks about the experience at 4:55 of the podcast.
The office for the newsletter publisher was about a block and a half from the Pentagon. When the terror attacks happened on September 11, 2001, Maurer could see the events unfolding from his window. He remembers pieces of the Pentagon floating into the sky, the military planes flying overhead, the deserted National Airport on his way home.
“I just remember thinking at that point I’ve just got to get to Afghanistan,” Maurer says. “I’ve got to get to the story. This is the story that has to be told, I want to help tell it. This is the biggest story that I can think of in my lifetime.”
Maurer’s first news reporting job came in 2003, when he was hired as a military reporter at the Fayetteville Observer. Maurer admits he “oversold” his experience to land the position, which months later led to the first of his dozen assignments as an embedded reporter overseas. He talks about getting that first opportunity covering the 82nd Airborne in Iraq at 10:55 of the podcast.
“It was sink or swim, and I sunk a lot on that trip,” he says of that first deployment. “But it was literally, you had no choice, you just had to do it. We found bunks in with this one unit, and the first night we got a scud alert and we all had to run and get into the bunker. That’s how it starts, and you just go. “
Maurer recounts the scariest event of that first deployment at 16:40 of the podcast. “That was when I realized, wait a second, it was fun, we were playing army, no one ever really thought they were going to get hit with a scud. Now, all of a sudden, this is real,” he says.
At the 20:00 mark of the podcast, we delved into the next step in Kevin Maurer’s career. Maurer says he used to tell people he had no interest in writing books. But he now has eight to his credit. The first, Valleys of Death, was published in 2010 followed a year later by Lions of Kandahar, and then in 2012 came No Easy Day, working with a member of Navy Seal Team 6 involved in the death of Osama Bin Laden. Go to 32:00 of the podcast to hear the full story.
As part of the process of applying for the job, Maurer had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that carried a $500,000 penalty. He met with Mark Owen and Owen’s agent at a restaurant in Washington, DC. When Maurer walked in, he found Owen seated on one side of a booth across from the agent. Maurer chose to sit next to Owen, hoping it would show his willingness to become a team. The ex-Seal had brought giant chocolate cupcakes along for the meeting, and put one in front of Maurer. Despite his hatred for chocolate, the writer finished half of the cupcake. Team mentality. After about an hour, the meeting finished, and Maurer drove back to his reporting job Wilmington. The call came the next day.
“Hey, we’ll do it’,“ Maurer remembers being told. “Here’s what we’re going to pay you. You’ve got to start next week. Can you be in Virginia Beach next week?’ So, I had to go into the Star-News and quit, and tell them ‘I can’t tell you what I’m doing’. They were cool about it.”
Maurer talks in-depth about how the two men went about putting the book together. No Easy Day published in September of 2012, and rose to the top spot in the New York Times bestseller list. Maurer had returned to reporting for the Star-News, and recounts where he was when he got the call about the ranking.
“I was covering an agenda review for New Hanover County Commissioners, and I got a call from my editor,” Maurer says. “He asked me some other question and then he said ‘the (New York Times) list will be out tomorrow. Congratulations, you’re on the list’. I said ‘what number?’ He said, ‘number one’. I thought ‘no’. It didn’t dawn on me until my agent called and said ‘hey, congratulations!’”
No Easy Day turned out to be an apt description for the impact the book had on Mark Owen’s life. His true identity, Matt Bissionette, was revealed. The Pentagon claimed he violated non-disclosure agreements and revealed sensitive information. He was ostracized by fellow Seals. In the end Bissionette agreed to forfeit nearly $7 million in royalties and other revenue resulting from the book, and the Pentagon dropped its claim. Maurer gives his thoughts on the fallout at 45:00.
“I felt bad for him,” Maurer says about Bissionette. “I mean, it was a guy who lived in this culture and this community. Then, all of a sudden, people that he’s worked for, he’s sacrificed for, are now saying ‘no, you screwed this up’. Really, I felt sorry for him more than anything else, and it really took a toll, you know, on him that I don’t think was fair.”
Maurer and Owen would work on another book, No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy Seal, which published in 2014. Maurer has also written several stories for comic books, including a two-issue set of The Punisher for Marvel Comics. He is currently looking for a new project, now that American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent is in book stores.
“It’s a fascinating look at terrorism,” Maurer says of the new book. “It’s a fascinating look at guys who we only see in the news. Because I got FBI transcripts and surveillance video, so I’ve got exactly what they said. The way they rationalize terror, and the way they bicker amongst each other about who’s the best terrorist, who’s more devout. All these little things.”
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