Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
- Born in Denmark, Morten Storm was a radical Islamist who lost his faith and turned informant for western intelligence organisations – CIA, M15, M16 and PET
- Storm says he helped the agencies eliminate key al-Qaeda and al-Shaabab members
- The autobiography highlights the reasons young people are attracted to the jihadi movement and the challenge of identifying ‘lone wolf’ attackers
- He decided to blow the whistle after relationships with his intelligence handlers broke down
- He knew the alleged mastermind of the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya. He says he might have known of and helped thwart the plan had he still been working with western intelligence in 2013
Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
Published by Penguin Books
On April 22, 2015 a huge crowd of Ethiopians marched in Addis Ababa to condemn the murder of some Ethiopian Christians by Islamic State (IS) militants in Libya. The horrifying killings, recorded on video by the IS, sparked global condemnation. This happened as Kenya was still burying 148 people - many of them students at Garissa University College who were murdered by Al Shaabab. In West Africa Boko Haram, which is seeking to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, has so far killed and displaced thousands since 2009.
The rate at which terrorism is gaining ground in sub-Saharan Africa since the Lord’s Resistance Army was formed in Uganda in 1996, is worrying. Also worrying is the increasing number of young Muslims that are getting radicalised and joining violent causes in and out of jihadi hotspots.
There are many documented thoughts on why and how radicalisation happens. Some experts paint a story of disenfranchised (politically, economically and socially) young men and women believers with no hope of achieving their potential, and therefore feel they have little stake in society. There are even studies on the other fast-growing breed of jihadi – the well-educated and wealthy Muslim. Take one of the terrorists in the Garissa attack. He was a self-employed law graduate.
Whatever the ‘why’ and ‘how’, a common denominator is the complex nature of the answers – something that resonates in Morten Storm’s account of his rise and fall as a Muslim, jihadi and spy for western intelligence agencies.
Storm’s autobiography is an insight into what attracts young Muslims to the global jihadi movement. The book also highlights the difficult task (for intelligence agents) of identifying a ‘lone wolf’, described as a radical individual who acts solo.
CNN terrorism analysts, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, helped Storm write the book. In a recent interview with uSpiked, Lister spoke about the arduous challenge of detecting small-scale lone wolf attackers: “Intelligence relies on monitoring communications, meetings and associations. If there are none, and there is no suspicious behavior online or in social media, these people can emerge from nowhere. Whether they present a danger depends on their skills as bomb-makers (such as the Boston bombers) or as gunmen (such as the Kouachi brothers in Paris).”
Storm’s incredible story starts in Korsor, a working-class coastal Town in Denmark. He was born in 1976 and had quite a troubled childhood – his alcoholic dad left when he was four and the new step-father beat him and his mom. The parents of many of his playmates were immigrants from Yugoslavia, Turkey and the Arab world. He says he identified with the society’s underdog from a very young age.
“The few photographs I have from those days show a face full of uncertainty…But I also had a manic energy – energy that seemed to invite trouble,” narrates Storm. And so it wasn’t surprising that he would go on to seek acceptance and a sense of belonging in the wrong circles, or that he celebrated turning thirteen by attempting his first armed robbery. The downward spiral featured convictions for bar fights, violence and cigarette smuggling. He joined the Bandidos, a notorious biker gang famous for thuggery. “I worried that the lifestyle was making me an addict…There was no space left for relationships, for peace of mind.” The seeds of self-doubt were planted, and Storm started questioning the purpose of his life.
The turning point for Storm was in 1997 aged 21, when at the local library he read about prophet Mohammed whose ‘dignity’ and ‘simplicity’ seemed impressive. He converted to Islam, but continued with his gangster ways. “It was – of all people – the Korsor police who inadvertently pushed me towards a much stricter adherence to my new religion,” he says of his radicalisation. A stint in jail after he was arrested on suspicion of attempting to rob a bank had exposed him to radical Muslim inmates.
Storm fled to London after his release from jail and spent time with radical Islamists at Regent’s Park Mosque. He would later travel to Yemen to study Islam at the Salafi seminary, marry and name his first son Osama after Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Wikileaks Guantanamo files explain why Storm easily found like-minded friends involved in militant activisim in London in 1998. By the late 1990s, Regent’s Park and Finsbury Park mosques anchored extremism where young Muslim men were radicalised before being sent to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
According to the leaked files, over 35 Guantanamo detainees passed through Finsbury and Regent’s, and also other extremism centres in the UK. Specifically mentioned are leaders of al-Qaeda cells Abu Hamza (former radical imam at Finsbury) and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, a fanatical cleric. Together they indoctrinated many gullible young men, many of them immigrants.
In the book, Storm describes plenty of his new friends as angry young men looking to inflict revenge on the West for its persecution of Muslims. “A few clearly had emotional or psychological issues, displaying wild mood swings or budding paranoia, but most were driven by an unshakeable belief that they had found the true way to obey Allah and that obedience called for waging jihad.”
The militant activism described in the book comes out as shoddy, but still a real threat due to the connectedness of the radicals at the global level. For instance, in Storm’s network of close contacts was Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-US-born Islamic militant who was eventually killed in 2011 in a US drone strike; Zacarias Moussaoui who was convicted for the 9/11 attacks, and Ibrahim Ikrimah – a Kenyan Al Shabaab operative and suspected mastermind of the Westgate attack in 2013.
Storm (accompanied by his young son) first met al-Awlaki at the cleric’s house in Yemen when he returned there in early 2006. He was impressed with al-Awlaki and attended his talks and debates on Islam given to a mainly foreign audience. “It was refreshing to be away from the endless circular chatter of faux-jihadis in England…” he says.
Around this time the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had become a powerful political and military outfit in Somalia. By June 2006, UIC had taken the capital city Mogadishu from the transitional government, the first of their many triumphs. According to Storm, plenty of would-be-jihadists - in the West and from Arab countries – were excited by the events unfolding in Somalia. “For militant Islamists like me, Somalia was a rare victory to be celebrated, where authentic Islamic principles had brought stability.”
Getting to the frontline in Somalia was a given for Storm. His determination grew when Ethiopia – with the encouragement of the US – sent in troops in July 2006 to prop up the troubled transitional government. His mission found a godfather in the form of Abdelghani, a Somali friend from Denmark who had already travelled to fight alongside the Islamic Courts Militia.
Just before Storm could travel to Somalia from London, Abdelghani called to say it was too dangerous and that he should abort. The Ethiopian army had taken over the airport and was arresting ‘holy warriors’. Storm says he felt angry at the refusal and Abdelghani’s defeatism. He couldn’t understand why Allah wouldn’t let him go and why he let the mujahideen lose. “Dejection soon became anger, and anger began to ask some hard questions,” he writes.
Still enraged by the rejection, doubts crowded his mind about the extremist version of Islam that he practiced, and in particular the concept of predestination and free will. He also began to reconsider some of the justifications made for murder and maiming of civilians in the name of Allah. “I thought of the twin towers, the Bali bombings, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 … If they were part of Allah's preordained plan, I now wanted no part of it. My loss of faith was as frightening as it was sudden”.
Soon after his epiphany, Storm secretly renounced Islam and offered his services to Danish intelligence service, PET; the CIA and Britain’s M15 and M16.
Had Storm not been a turncoat, this book would probably not exist. He decided to blow the whistle via a Danish newspaper because he felt betrayed by his intelligence handlers, particularly the CIA who refused to admit he helped them get al-Awlaki. Storm secretly recorded a conversation about this issue with a CIA agent during a meeting at a Danish hotel.
The book describes in detail his role in a series of anti-terror operations that aimed to kill key Al-Qaeda figures, as well as the meetings, trainings and discussions he had with various handlers in lavish destinations.
One such operation is the 2010 Navy SEALs’ helicopter attack in Somalia that killed Saleh Ali Nabhan, a senior Al-Qaeda operative who was suspected to have been one planners of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. In 2009, Storm travelled to Kenya to deliver electronic equipment that the agents had fitted with tracking devices to an Al Shabaab contact. That equipment was for al Nabhan, he was later informed by his contact.
Had he still been working for western intelligence in 2013 (his relationship with PET and the CIA ended in 2012), it is possible he would have known about the plans to attack Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The person he had met to receive the equipment on behalf of al Nabhan was Ikrimah - the mastermind of the Westgate attack – with whom he kept in contact via email.
In one email, Ikrimah writes of longing to take ‘revenge’ against the Kenyan government for deploying forces in Somalia, and his possible link to Samantha Lewthwaite: “You need to be extra carefull they don’t get a single trace of anything coz they are now tracing a sister who was a window (sic) of one of the London 7/7 bomber and they are accusing her of financing and organizing terrorism.”
In their communications between 2008 and 2012 Ikrimah indicated his plans to send Western al-Shabaab recruits to attack their homelands. He intended to connect with the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Together they would plot to attack western targets. al-Shaabab now has deep links to the US.
“To some degree western intelligence created Ikrimah,” writes Storm. “The CIA, M16 and PET helped him rise through the ranks in al-Shaabab because the supplies and contacts (e.g. Anwar al Awlaki) I provided him impressed his superiors.”
Helping Ikrimah was the price paid for a greater gain – killing Saleh Ali Nabhan, one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda operatives in East Africa, and learning how al-Shabaab operates.
After the Westgate attack, Storm wondered if Ikrimah might have been captured or killed had he maintained contact with him. “I might have had a better sense of his place in al-Shabaab, his plans and even some of the recruits he was training. It would have been possible to deliver a tracking device to him hidden in equipment – as arranged for Nabhan.”
The most detailed operation (and the major reason he fell out with all the intelligence agencies) described in the book involved al-Awlaki. The CIA had promised Storm US$5m to help kill the cleric. Storm believes he led the CIA to al-Awlaki’s location in Yemen and when they finally got him they refused to keep their end of the bargain, and then allegedly tried to have him killed.
Then he decided to go public. He lives in an undisclosed location in the UK. “Occasionally I see a newspaper headline about one of my former ‘brothers’ who has finally crossed that Rubicon from talk of terror, and the millions of pounds and dollars being spent to stop them.”
uSpiked interviewed the co-author of Agent Storm, CNN’s Tim Lister, on what he thinks is the greatest threat of terrorism today and how exposés like Morten Storm’s impact terror groups and anti-terrorism agencies. Click here to read the interview.