ClandesTime 185 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: Morten Storm
Morten Storm is a Danish man who converted to Islam in the 1990s and got involved in the jihadi scene in Denmark, the UK, Yemen and Somalia. In 2006 he suffered a loss of faith, and turned to Danish intelligence and offered to help them fight the war on terror. He spent several years working for British and Danish intelligence, but was double-crossed by the CIA after he helped them find and kill Anwar al Awlaki. In this episode, I examine this story via Morten’s book and media interviews and show how his life fits a pattern of similar figures in the alternative history of Al Qaeda.
I’ve known about Morten Storm for some years – he first came forward with his story in 2012. What I hadn’t realised until I read his book was that he knew so many major Al Qaeda figures. Also, as we’ve moved beyond 9/11 in this series and most of his story, including his entire career as a spy, happened after 9/11 this will help bring us a little more up to date, but this is – after all – a history.
Morten was born in 1976 in the small Danish coastal town of Korsør. He grew up without his father, and with a violently abusive stepfather. Aged 13 he attempted an armed robbery which failed miserably because he tried to rob a business where one of his friend’s worked and they recognised him. He then gets sent to a special school, having been diagnosed with hyperactivity, but gets kicked out.
Storm then joined the Raiders, a predominantly Muslim street gang, and gets involved in youth boxing tournaments. He serves time in prison for an assault, gets into cigarette smuggling, spends more time in a prison for another assault he didn’t commit, and when he gets out joins a biker gang during the Great Nordic Biker Wars. Morten sees himself doing all kinds of illegal and immoral things and starts to wonder if he’s a psychopath, and what the hell he is doing with his life.
At this point Morten discovers Islam, after wandering into a library and picking up a book about the life of the prophet Mohammed. He is captivated, sits there reading it all day until the library closes. He starts reading more about Islam, reading the Koran, listening to lectures and so on. In 1997 he converts to Islam and adopts the name Murad Storm, and like any good Dane celebrates by getting drunk.
After some more trouble with the Danish police he moves to England, settling in Milton Keynes with his girlfriend. He somehow gets involved with the Al Muhajiroun scene at the Regents Park mosque and is offered the chance to go and study Islam in Yemen. In the summer of 1997 he left the UK and travelled to Dammaj in Yemen, where there was a rustic but fairly well-known fundamentalist college. He meets various salafists including Rashid Barbi, a US Army veteran from Kuwait who had turned jihadi. In mid-1998 he leaves Yemen and returns to London.
Storm gets more involved in Al Muhajiroun, he meets Cat Stevens several times after he moves to Brixton, meets Richard Reid too – the ‘shoe bomber’. Like most people who knew Reid, Storm describes him as a weak man who could be manipulated. He also meets Zacharias Moussaoui, the ‘20th hijacker’ who was ultimately prosecuted for not informing US intelligence about his knowledge of the 9/11 plot.
In late 1999 he attends a lecture in Luton, where Al Muhajiroun were building a base for themselves. Somewhat disenchanted with the Western way of life, he decides to go back to Yemen. However before that he meets a Moroccan woman online, goes to Morocco and proposes to her and they both go and live, in pretty basic conditions, in Yemen.
Storm was in a barber’s shop when 9/11 happened and watched the news coverage on TV. In the following months he wanted to go to Afghanistan and join the jihad, believing it was now a duty and not an option. But his wife was pregnant so he didn’t go, and a few months later his son was born. They named him Osama.
In 2002 they move back to Denmark so Osama could meet his grandmother, but the wife, Karima, doesn’t like Denmark so they go back to the UK, living in Luton. But the relationship isn’t working out and at one point Karima runs off back to her family in Morocco, pregnant with their second child. Though she does come back to the UK the marriage is falling apart and doesn’t last much longer.
Despite getting more involved in the jihadi scene in Luton at this time, Storm never mentions meeting Germaine Lindsay, the supposed 4th bomber on 7/7. While there are reports of the other three alleged bombers – the three Pakistani lads from Leeds – attending Al Muhajiroun meetings there seems to be no connection between Lindsay and Al Muhajiroun. Which is strange because he lived in Luton, an Al Muhajiroun hotspot.
In early 2004 Storm first hears Omar Bakri speak, and he becomes a friend of Bakri and a de facto member of Al Muhajiroun. He describes Bakri – ‘He had a remarkable record of mentoring and teaching young militants who subsequently plotted violence, but of never being involved in or aware of their plans.’ Pretty much the textbook definition of a provocateur.
Around this time he also meets Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen who lived just around the corner from ‘Q’ a.k.a. Mohammed Qayyum Khan, a key figure in the 7/7 story. Al-Abdaly became Sweden’s first suicide bomber in December 2010, right in the middle of the 7/7 inquests.
Storm gets more involved with Al Muhajiroun, running boxing gyms in Luton for young Muslims and even running paramilitary training trips in the nearby countryside. I should make clear – there were no weapons involved, these were much like the ‘training camps’ run by Martin McDaid, and involved little more than doing athletic drills and getting shouted at.
Throughout this whole period Storm was being monitored by Danish intelligence – after all he was a Muslim convert with a criminal record for violence who was knocking around the jihadi scene in the UK and Denmark and had been to Yemen twice. But his book makes no mention of him being monitored by MI5 at this time, though he must have been because of what happened next.
In April 2005 Newsweek reported that US personnel at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down a toilet to humiliate and bully some of the prisoners there. A lot of Muslims were outraged, and it led to a large, aggressive protest in Grosvenor Square outside the US embassy in London. Morten was part of that protest, and believed they were going to storm the embassy and smash it up a bit. Omar Bakri helped organise the protest and spoke at the event, but then it all broke up and they went home.
Storm felt let down by this, and in his book he says a lot of these people, including Bakri, were ‘pussies’ who talked the talk but didn’t follow through. He began writing a pamphlet to expose the ‘fake salafis’ which then became a book of over 100 pages. It is while he was writing this (on his computer) that he was first approached by MI5. Though he was initially hostile, he spoke with the officer for 2 hours and acknowledged at the end of the conversation that he was ‘now part of the game’. I don’t mean he was recruited by MI5, merely that he knew he was now a pawn on the chessboard.
Then 7/7 happened, and in the climate in the UK following the bombings he decided it was best to go back to Yemen. His marriage had fallen apart, he felt disillusioned with the UK jihadi scene which he felt was full of posers, so back to Yemen he went.
It is at this time that he first met Anwar al Awlaki, who was becoming notorious due to his use of youtube to spread his message of jihad. It is clear that Storm not only respected Awlaki and somewhat fell under his spell, but also that there was a genuine and mutual affection there. Awlaki called him ‘polar bear’, referring to the fact Storm was a giant of a man and very pale-skinned. He also met Alwaki’s son, who would go on to be killed by the US as we discussed in the Awlaki episode.
Amusingly, Awlaki was pissed off at America in part because of government officials leaking the details of his meetings with prostitutes. He felt like he had been set up and they were smearing him, so (according to Storm) part of his motivation was revenge for the whole hooker story.
In Yemen he meets a second women who would become his wife, and maintains contact with jihadis in Somalia where the Islamic Courts Union were gathering strength and territory. Despite falling in love with the new woman, Morten has his heart set on going to Somalia to join the jihad. They pair go back to Denmark so Morten can get a job to save up money for the trip, he even buys equipment and gets everything ready.
Morten hears that some of his friends in Yemen have been arrested for a plot to smuggle weapons out of the country and to the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. Morten gives an interview on Danish TV news saying his friends are innocent, and that the Danish government should intercede on their behalf and protect their legal rights.
Shortly after this an officer from the Danish PET intelligence agency approaches Storm and tries to recruit him. Morten rejects their advances, buys a plane ticket to Somalia and gets ready to travel. But then he gets a phonecall from one of his friends in Somalia, telling him the government have taken back the airport in Mogadishu so it isn’t safe to travel.
This causes another existential crisis in Storm, who believes it must have been against the will of Allah for him to join the jihad. He undergoes a loss of faith, and at one point even googles ‘contradictions in the Koran’ and starts reading about criticisms of Islamic doctrine. He starts to recognise that terrorism cannot be justified by appeal to religious belief, his whole worldview crumbles.
In early 2007 he approached the PET and offered to work for them, helping to fight the war on terror. His main handler was a guy using the codename Klang, though he mentions several others. In the hotel where they first met he surprised them by ordering a bacon roll and a beer, proving he was no longer a Muslim. For the next five years he would lead a double life, pretending to be Murad Storm in order to infiltrate jihadi rings in the UK, Yemen, Indonesia, Denmark, all over the world.
The (Im)morality of Spies
I’m not going to recount Morten Storm’s entire story as a spy, because if you want all the details you can read his book, which I strongly recommend. It is quite different to Aimen Dean’s book with the same two co-authors, Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank. While that comes across as someone spinning a yarn, Storm’s book seems more authentic to me.
Nonetheless there are a couple of threads I want to tease out, namely how Storm got Awlaki a blonde wife from Europe, and how Storm contributed to the death of Anwar al Awlaki. He was also involved in a bunch of other stuff including working with MI5 and MI6 but these two aspects are the core of his story and pose the most questions.
In 2009 Anwar asked Storm if he knew of any Muslim sisters from Europe who might be interested in marrying him. Later that year he asked Storm to find him a European Muslim convert to marry. The farmer wanted a wife. Or more precisely, a third wife.
Storm took to facebook, where Awlaki had quite a presence, to try to find a suitable woman. At this point he’d been working with PET for several years and with the CIA for a couple of years, and it was the CIA who particularly targeted Awlaki and approved of finding him a wife.
Via facebook Morten located Irina Horak a.k.a. Aminah, a 32 year old Croatian woman who had converted to Islam, and who approached Storm after the two met via an Awlaki facebook page. He talked her into travelling to Yemen to marry Awlaki, but only after Awlaki had sent her a personal video (via Storm) proposing to her so she would know it was for real. Storm met her in Vienna, and recorded her response.
Though British intelligence warned him off the plan, saying they didn’t like it and that Storm was going to get ‘fucked over’, he pressed ahead. The CIA were offering him $250,000 if he could get Aminah to Yemen. By this time Aminah was communicating with Awlaki via the Mujahideen Secrets software, a means of encrypting and decrypting messages sent via USB flash drives. Storm had been taught how to use the software by Awlaki some years earlier, and was then instructed to teach Aminah how to use it.
In the summer of 2010 British intelligence broke off their contact with Storm, unhappy about Operation Aminah. But Storm was not deterred, and flew out to Yemen with her, even providing her with a suitcase that the CIA had rigged with a tracking device. The idea was that they’d be able to find Awlaki by picking up the signal via a spy satellite.
In the event the plot didn’t work because Awlaki told Aminah to transfer her stuff into other bags before joining him in the desert. So the CIA suitcase got left in a hotel room in Sana’a.
Nonetheless Aminah did meet and marry Awlaki, and lived with him right up until his death in September 2011. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, in June 2011 Morten decrypted a message from Aminah to his own wife, including a shopping list of items she wanted Storm’s wife to buy for her. This included chocolate – specifically Ferrero Rocher and Kinder Bueno, Dolce&Gabbana perfume and some clothes including a ‘demin mini skirt – tight and very short’.
It is ridiculous to think that out in the desert in Yemen there was a house where a leggy blonde Croatian woman was tottering about in a denim miniskirt eating her Kinder Bueno while her husband was busy making jihad on youtube and becoming America’s most wanted terrorist. But I have no reason to think this isn’t true.
While the Aminah operation failed due to the suitcase problem, the CIA gave Storm his $250,000. The Danish intelligence officers took him on a celebration holiday to Spain complete with prostitutes and lap dancers. Indeed, throughout the book Morten portrays the PET guys as living high on the hog at the taxpayer’s expense.
I’m not exactly sure of the legal situation but it is definitely morally wrong to find a woman and feed her to Anwar al Awlaki for the sole purpose of trying to find and kill him. Was there any consideration that drone-bombing Awlaki might kill this woman? There is no indication that was ever discussed. And what happened to her after Awlaki was killed? According to Storm the last contact he had with her was in 2012, by which time she was still in Yemen living under the protection of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But he was killed in 2015 so god only knows where she is now.
OK, she agreed to do these things but she never would have had the opportunity without Storm and the CIA. From what I can see, she sounds like she lived in a boring town in rural Croatia and wanted an adventure. That’s not a good enough excuse for doing what the CIA and Morten Storm did to her.
Though the suitcase plot failed the CIA continued working with Storm, now promising him $5 million if he helped them find and kill Awlaki. By this point Awlaki had become more security-conscious and Storm had stopped meeting him face-to-face. But they still exchanged messages via a network of couriers, which included a young Yemeni friend of Storm’s who he’d originally met in 2001. In the book he is referred to only as ‘Abdul’, a pseudonym.
Over time Storm started to suspect that the CIA had another agent inside Awlaki’s network, and suspected it was Abdul. Awlaki also had suspicions about him. In mid-2011 Storm flew out to Yemen and delivered a thumb drive to Abdul containing a message for Awlaki. He mentioned in the message that he was only using Abdul because it was so hard to get in contact, saying he didn’t trust Abdul. A few days later a courier handed Storm a flash drive containing Awlaki’s response. It contained instructions for emailing Awlaki via the website for Inspire – the Al Qaeda magazine.
They started exchanging encrypted emails, and Awlaki wanted Storm to buy him various things – solar panels, a fridge and other equipment, and some bomb-making materials. He took this list back to his Danish handlers, who okayed most of it but not the hexamine, which can be used to make explosives. They said the CIA wanted to know why Storm was suspicious of Abdul, which Storm brushed off by saying Awlaki was the one with suspicions.
Through his handler’s responses Storm figured out that Abdul was working for the CIA, which was later confirmed by the Danes after Awlaki had been killed. So Storm continued with the mission, gathering the non-lethal materials Awlaki had asked for and transporting them to Yemen. But he didn’t take a fridge with him, because the CIA were still busy hiding a tracking device inside it. He went back to Yemen, handed off the shopping to another courier along with a message telling Awlaki he would be overseas for a while.
A few weeks later the drone missiles rained down and killed Anwar al Awlaki.
But the message came back from the CIA – via Danish intelligence – that it wasn’t Storm’s mission that had led them to Awlaki, so he wasn’t getting the $5 million. Two days after Awlaki’s death Storm picked up a copy of The Telegraph and read a story, based on briefings by US intelligence officials, about a young courier who had led them to Awlaki. Storm realised they were talking about Abdul, and his mission had been a success and the CIA were lying to him.
So when he met with his Danish and CIA handlers a week later he recorded the conversation on the iPhone provided to him by PET. Clips from this have been played in media reports on the case, it’s quite amazing to think he got away with this. The CIA officer admits that he played the biggest role in the operation and told Storm that the President knew who he was and all this flattery. But they still refused to acknowledge that they owed him the $5 million, effectively ending the relationship.
Storm did continue working for PET for another year or so, but eventually he’d had enough and blew the whistle on the whole affair, in both European and American media. This caused a lot of embarrassment in Denmark not just because of the behaviour of their own intelligence officers but also their involvement in the Aminah operation and their involvement in a CIA assassination plot. The CIA basically refuse to comment, and British intelligence have said nothing, as per usual.
To my mind it seems clear that Storm led the CIA to Awlaki, or at least led them to Abdul, who led them to Awlaki. If they promised him $5 million for that then they should pony up, but they aren’t going to. But I find this very interesting, for two different reasons. The first is that this is the third major change in Storm’s life – from biker gang member to Muslim fundamentalist, from fundamentalist to spy and from spy to whistleblower. He has described in interviews how he has PTSD, and in the book he has an ongoing problem with cocaine and clearly suffered incredible stress while doing all this.
The other reason this is curious is because it shows the US government and the CIA have a habit of messing up spies in Al Qaeda, either by burning them and making the identities public, or by just screwing them over. Remember that I started this series in part to debunk the myth that it’s difficult to get spies inside Al Qaeda, that the reason so many terrorist attacks happen is because it’s so hard to stop them.
But if that were true then why did the US reveal Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan’s name to the media after he’d only been working with the CIA for a few weeks? And why did they burn Aimen Dean and leak his name to the press? And why did they then screw over Morten Storm? If we take the general war on terror narrative seriously, whereby there’s this amorphous Islamist threat that’s really difficult to infiltrate then these three men are like gold dust. The CIA, MI5 and everyone else would be tripping over each other to keep working with such informants, who could get close to the highest-profile of targets.
So clearly, that narrative simply isn’t true.
How have the media responded to Mortem Storm’s story?
Another dimension to this is how the news media have responded to Morten Storm’s story, because he’s been on everything from CBS and CNN to This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. Admittedly, when you look at the view counts on youtube these videos are getting a few thousands hits at the most, but nonetheless this is a widely-reported story.
Obviously I don’t speak Danish so I cannot read many of the original Danish news articles on this, so we’ll start with the book itself. Much like Aimen Dean’s book it is littered with footnotes adding more information about various people and events, which appear to have been included by the co-authors.
But in some cases it’s bullshit.
For example, the book says twice that the Boston bombers used a bomb recipe published by Inspire, Awlaki’s magazine that was produced by Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who was killed in the same airstrike as Awlaki. This isn’t true. There is evidence that the Tsarnaevs read Inspire, but the particular article the book references is the notorious ‘How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom’ article.
As reported in the summer of 2011, years before the book came out and while Morten was in Yemen getting shopping lists from Awlaki and his wife, that article was hacked by MI6. They replaced the bomb recipe with a recipe for cupcakes. So if the Boston bombers had used that recipe then they wouldn’t have been able to kill anyone.
This is obviously an attempt to help make the book more relevant to recent events – the latest edition of the book even tenuously tries to link in the Charlie Hebdo and associated attacks in Paris in early 2015. But the fact the authors didn’t know about Operation Cupcake shows how lax their research is.
When the book was originally published a promo event was held at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, which is probably a front for intelligence agency PR. The co-authors were there with a live audience, and Morten Storm joined via videolink from an undisclosed location in the UK. This was aired by C-Span as part of their BookTV series. The following week a CNN special report also covered the story and promoted the book.
But both got a few things wrong. Most obvious is the 2005 protest outside the US embassy in London, which Storm attended and which provoked his ‘exposing the fake salafis’ project. This protest was provoked by the story in Newsweek about the Koran being flushed down the toilet in Guantanamo Bay, which strikes me as reasonable grounds for a protest, particularly if it’s non-violent. Obviously Omar Bakri was also pulling the strings and turning it into an Al Muhajiroun protest, not just a Muslim protest.
At the Spy Museum event Paul Cruickshank introduced a video clip of the protest showing Morten Storm in the middle of the crowd. Just take a listen to what he says.
(14:45 – 16:35)
This is a CNN terrorism analyst talking about a major, famous protest outside the US embassy that was one of numerous such protests across the world and he says it was because of media reports that a Koran had been desecrated in Pakistan. He’s not talking about media reports in Pakistan, he’s talking about the Koran being desecrated there.
Now, this was a major story that any serious journalist working in this field should remember, I’m sure many of you remember it. So he’s either unforgivably stupid and actually doesn’t know what he’s talking about despite it being a key moment in the book he’s just published, or he’s deliberately misleading people. A few days later the CNN special dealt with this by simply not mentioning it – they included the video of Storm at the protest but didn’t explain what provoked it.
So you see how this CNN terrorism analyst and CNN themselves cover up for the war on terror. I don’t want to make too much of this because to be honest they did a lot worse things at Guantanamo Bay and at various black sites, but it speaks to a failure of the Western media to recognise that these crimes by our governments provoke and encourage this sort of backlash, and worse.
One of Storm’s first big TV interviews was with CBS’ 60 minutes, who did a segment on him. One moment that stood out to me is when the interviewer tells Morten that him calling his son Osama is offensive.
This is one of the psychological problems of the war on terror, and why wars on terror are so successful. People are treated like children, told simple little stories to make them feel better, when of course the main reason they feel bad to begin with is because the same officials told them scary (and often untrue) things. But the fact they are so coddled, encouraged to not even try to understand why some people in the world might see 9/11 as a good thing, keeps them trapped in this perpetual grief-state. The notion of someone calling his son Osama, even a guy who subsequently spied for the CIA and helped them take down supposedly the most wanted terrorist on the planet, is framed as ‘offensive’.
The audience is never encouraged to use the insight this man can offer to maybe understand a bit more about why there is such hatred of America, it’s just treated as ‘they hate us so we hate them’. They are never encouraged to grow the fuck up and stop seeing the world in such a simple way whereby they are always the innocent victims and should love their victimhood even as it becomes a psychic prison. In short, this is why wars on terror work so well.
One other thing struck me when I was watching the CNN report – their summary of Anwar al Awlaki. There is a consensus that Awlaki was behind the 2009 Underwear Bomb plot, which failed miserably, and behind the 2010 printer cartridge bomb plot, which failed miserably due to a tip-off from Saudi intelligence. But for a while he was being credited with having inspired virtually ever major terrorist attack and plot in the Western world.
So according to CNN, Awlaki inspired the 7/7 bombings (which he didn’t), the 2006 Liquid bomb plot (that never existed and couldn’t have worked), the 2006 Ontario plot (which I’ll get to in a moment) and the 2008 attack on the US embassy in Yemen (which appears to have been inspired by the film Rules of Engagement). For some reason they forgot the shootings at Fort Hood, which Awlaki may or may not have inspired.
The 2006 Ontario plot is an interesting one because in 2008 a documentary called Unfair Dealing claims that the charges against the Toronto 18 were largely exaggerated or just fabricated in order to justify and excuse Canadian counter-terror legislation. This was an independent documentary that was largely distributed online and is must-watch material for anyone taking a critical look at the war on terror. It’s not without its flaws but it is a very good investigative account of the plot.
The main informant in this case, Mubin Shaikh, is someone I may take a look at in a later episode, but you can see how there’s a lot more to this case than these guys watching one Anwar al Awlaki video.
I could point to other examples, but there’s a theme to how Morten Storm’s story has been spun, from the misleading comments about the 2005 embassy protest, to the re-asserting of the biggest, scariest version of the Awlaki story, to the emotional coddling and infantilisation of the audience.
The pattern is one of re-affirming and re-asserting the war on terror, even though Storm’s story suggests we’re not genuinely fighting it. As I say, if the war on terror narrative was true then the CIA would have been more careful about how it handled Agent Storm. It seems that deep down these various media figures and outlets know this, and feel obliged to double down on this false narrative. While Storm’s story is a great example of how the war on terror is a pack of lies, obviously CNN can’t say that. So instead, they told a pack of lies.
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