To his extremist ‘brothers’ he was a white Muslim convert eager to commit atrocities. In truth, as he reveals in a gripping new book, Morten Storm was an MI5 spy. Here, in our second extract, how he tracked down a top target.
The sheikh, as everyone called him, was an impressive man — tall in his tribal white robes, a sword on his hip, a scholar and a philosopher with natural authority. American-born but of Arab origin, he had fled the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, worried he was being targeted by the FBI.
Now, in hiding in the desolate ‘Empty Quarter’ of Yemen, a favourite training ground for Islamic militants dreaming of holy war, he was the spiritual guide of jihad and one of Al Qaeda’s key figures – every bit as influential and charismatic as Osama Bin Laden himself.
Morten Storm, former undercover agent, is the spy that infiltrated the Al-Qaeda and had the chance to kill one of its leaders Anwar al-Awlaki after setting him up with a new wife
It was there in Yemen that in 2009 I travelled to see the Sheikh — real name Anwar al-Awlaki — whom I had known already for several years.
Ostensibly I was a trusted fellow jihadist, a white convert to Islam who had taken up the cause with passion and pursued it in the mosques and on the streets of Britain.
In reality, I had rejected the faith two years earlier and taken on the highly dangerous role of an undercover spy for the British Secret Intelligence Service and the CIA. Increasingly Awlaki was on their — and therefore my — radar.
He was constantly on the move from one safe house to another. From these he delivered messages of hate in emails and over the internet.
Once he had condemned the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. as un-Islamic, but no longer.
‘I pray that Allah destroys America and all its allies,’ he declared, a military camouflage jacket over his robe and a Kalashnikov over his shoulder.
‘We will implement the rule of Allah on Earth by the tip of the sword whether the masses like it or not.’
He was not concerned that civilians would suffer and die as a consequence. The cause justified the means.
‘The Americans want me dead,’ he told me when we were together, all the more so because Yemen had once had him behind bars but then let him go.
American unmanned drones wandered the skies looking for him. And no wonder, since Al Qaeda’s spiritual guide had also become its quartermaster.
He told me with pride how his men had ambushed Yemeni government forces and netted heavy weapons, including anti-tank rockets, to send to Islamist fighters in Somalia.
He urged me to go back home to Europe and recruit militants to come to Yemen to get training for a campaign of terrorist attacks against the West.
In the days when I was a cheerleader for Islamic militancy with a wish to become a martyr for the cause myself, I would have been sympathetic — although I had been troubled by the targeting of civilians.
Anwar al-Awlaki became Storm’s target – and he befriended him under the guise of a white Muslim convert
But sickened by the growing number of acts of terrorism against innocents, I had made the momentous decision to switch sides.
I had put my intimate insider’s knowledge of the extremists, built up over years, at the disposal of Western intelligence agencies to try to thwart any more terrorist atrocities. My job now was to find, track and inform on people whose beliefs I had shared not so long ago.
And at the top of that target list was Awlaki, my one-time ‘brother’ and friend. He trusted me completely, so much so that we communicated through a shared email account in which we hid messages to each other as drafts.
I brought him supplies he requested, such as night-vision goggles and a laptop – one that, unknown to him, included a tracking device, courtesy of my new friends, the CIA.
He then introduced me to a special encryption software he called ‘Mujahideen Secrets 2.0’ with a unique, secret digital code to lock and unlock messages. I passed it to my CIA handlers, who were thrilled as they built up their dossier on him.
Then suddenly an event in Texas accelerated Awlaki to the top of the CIA’s list of urgent targets. On November 5 2009, 39-year-old U.S. major Nidal Hasan, an army psychiatrist, entered the Fort Hood military base and shot dead 13 people and injured 30 more.
It turned out he was an Awlaki disciple who had been exchanging emails with him about whether it was permissible for a Muslim to serve in the American army. Hasan wrote that he could not wait to join Awlaki in the afterlife, where they could talk over non-alcoholic wine.
Dressing the part: Morten Storm, who posed as a military jihadist for five years while working undercover, pictured after he converted to Islam
The FBI had routinely intercepted the emails but passed them as harmless.
Not any more.
U.S. agencies were now poring over everything connected to Awlaki — who responded on his website by declaring: ‘Nidal Hasan is a hero,’ and, in an uncompromising clarion call, encouraging other Muslims in America to follow his example.
I had seen at first hand Awlaki’s hold over his followers in the West.
In March of that year I had organised a secret fundraising call via Skype with a group of British-Pakistani supporters in Rochdale. Among them were several doctors eager to contribute to jihad.
They listened spellbound to Awlaki’s assured answers on a variety of religious topics. MI5 had given its blessing to the event to bolster my credentials in militant circles, on the condition no funds raised reached the cleric.
I still have a recording of the event. Awlaki was as adept at fundraising as any American politician: ‘The enemy is oppressing the Muslims.
‘It becomes important for every brother and sister who knows the Haq [truth] to act upon it . . . if Allah has blessed you with wealth then you should support the Islamic causes, whether we are talking about Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq . . . and not just sit on the sidelines and watch.
‘When it comes to Yemen because it’s not on the news, it’s being forgotten, and therefore I would encourage every brother who has the capability to assist.’
But now — in lionising Nidal Hasan — Awlaki had crossed the Rubicon. ‘It’s time to take him out,’ my CIA handlers told me, using the information I had gleaned about his whereabouts.
But he proved to be an elusive target. A cruise missile strike hit a meeting of senior Al Qaeda figures he had been expected to attend, and first reports indicated Awlaki had been killed.
But I got an encrypted email from him that read: ‘Phew. Maaaaaan – that was close.’
Shortly afterwards, a young Nigerian Muslim tried to detonate a device made of explosive white powder in his underwear in a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. It didn’t work and he was arrested.
It turned out his martyrdom mission had been orchestrated by Awlaki, whose parting advice to the would-be martyr had been for him to wait until the plane was over the U.S. before bringing it down. Americans had only just been spared another 9/11-style attack on the homeland.
Demonstration: The converted Muslim formed part of protests against the U.S’s involvement in Iraq outside their embassy in London in 2005
No wonder that the Obama White House had taken ‘the extremely rare if not unprecedented’ step of approving the assassination of an American citizen because he was now actively involved in terror plots.
In Washington, intelligence officers studied satellite images of the village in Yemen where I had visited him: I was able to point out his personal compound. Shortly after, it was raided by Yemeni special forces intent on taking him out. Al Qaeda later claimed US special forces were involved too.
Unfortunately he was not there that day, though some of his followers were and they died — including one I knew and liked.
This news deeply unsettled me. For the first time it came home to me that my work as an informant was killing people, and I had no say in who was targeted and who was not. I felt guilty, while also cursing my naivety in not realising this was bound to happen and preparing for it.
I realised that the stakes were now too high and the urgency too great for me to wallow in self-recrimination for long. If I had doubts then, Awlaki soon dispelled them by formally declaring war on the U.S.
‘America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil,’ he announced in a recorded message. ‘Jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.’
Through all this, he never suspected that I was working for those trying to stop him. In an exchange of emails, he told me I was one of the few ‘brothers’ he could count on. ‘I care about you,’ he wrote.
His words touched me, and I began to wonder if there was some way I might reel him in quietly and present him to the authorities, a captive and no longer a threat, but at least alive.
The key might be that he had asked me to help find a wife for him in the West.
Through Facebook, I had alighted on a blonde and beautiful Croatian named Irena who changed her name to Aminah after converting to Islam. She was as fanatical as he was and desperate to join his cause.
The CIA’s plan was to plant a tracking device in her luggage when she travelled to Yemen to meet and marry him and for her to unwittingly lead us to him. I was offered £145,000 ($250,000) as my reward for setting this up.
All went smoothly getting Aminah and her secretly tagged luggage to Yemen.
But then it all went wrong.
Difficult upbringing: At the age of 20, following a childhood filled with crime, he was labelled ‘Denmark’s youngest psychopath’ before he ‘found the prophet Muhammad’
On the instructions of the cautious Al Qaeda courier who had met her, she dumped the suitcase instead of taking it with her into the desert. No tracking device made the journey with her to Awlaki’s home.
After the failure of this mission, the Americans froze contact with me, and for a while my double life as a spy went quiet. Then early in 2011, they were back in touch.
They were desperate by now. Awlaki had been exposed as the brains behind an ingenious plot to blow up U.S.-bound cargo planes with explosives concealed in printer cartridges, which was only foiled by a last-minute intelligence tip. Three young men radicalised by him had also tried to blow up New York subway trains at rush hour in September 2009.
He really was bringing jihad to the American homeland, and it must have seemed only a matter of time before he succeeded. By now, Bin Laden was gone, killed in a raid by U.S. special forces on his home in Pakistan. But Awlaki was rapidly taking his place as the great bogeyman of the West.
One of my handlers told me he was U.S. Public Enemy No 1, but taking him out would not be easy. US military drones over Yemen locked on to a pick-up truck he was thought to be in, only for him to switch vehicles moments before the missiles struck. So I was tasked to find him — and a ‘very significant sum’ was on the table if I could lead them to him.
The plan was for me to go back into Yemen and make personal contact with my old ‘brother’.
I was given intensive weapons training for what lay ahead, on submachine guns, pump-action guns and Kalashnikovs. I was taught to shoot left-handed and right-handed, and how to fire out of windows while driving. If I came under sustained fire I should hide under the steering wheel because the engine block offered protection against incoming fire.
A psychologist asked me a battery of questions and I told him I felt torn about going after Awlaki because he’d been my friend and I knew he would give his life for me.
‘That’s normal,’ he said, before okaying me for the operation, ‘it’s only human to have a conscience.’
A fellow agent told me: ‘You are doing the most dangerous job in the world so make sure you demand what you need.
And when you are over there, don’t sit with the terrorists because the Americans won’t hesitate to kill you if you are with their target.’ It was a chilling reminder that I was dispensable.
‘I contacted Awlaki through the Mujahideen Secrets software, signing in as ‘Polar Bear’, the private nickname he had given me because of my Scandinavian origins. Then I flew to Yemen.
I knew meeting him face-to-face was going to be very difficult. He was in deep hiding now, and I was diverted through numerous couriers as I tried to reach him. In his email messages he was very jumpy, though anxious to see me. He gave me a long shopping list of things he and Aminah needed, including bras and feminine pads for her and even a fridge.
It was a slow business, but bit by bit I was getting one of the world’s most dangerous men firmly in my sights.
Change: After he no could longer find any justification for attacks such as 9/11, he decided to help Western intelligence agencies when they contacted him
Reports came to me that ‘Big Brother’, as the CIA was known, was very happy with what I was doing, so much so that they were offering £2.9 million ($5 million) if I could get a fix on him. My plan was for him eventually to invite me to his desert hideout. Initially, though, the route to him would have to be through the supplies he had asked me for.
They would, of course, be fitted with tracking devices, including a satellite transponder in the fridge. I made the arrangements, and then waited for him to make contact. Finally a rendezvous was fixed with one of his men in the car park of a KFC restaurant in Sana’a, the Yemen capital.
I waited nervously, Colonel Sanders in his apron staring down at me from a brightly lit hoarding among the mosques and minarets.
A courier appeared and I handed over a sports bag with some of the supplies. I received an encrypted email from Awlaki three days later confirming he had the stuff. He also asked for a New York Times article he’d heard about which claimed Al Qaeda in Yemen was buying up castor beans to make ricin, a poison, and attack the U.S. I shuddered.
It seemed like he had some sort of biological or chemical attack against the West in the works.
I realised it didn’t matter any longer how he was stopped, as long as he was. In August I took a break and went home to holiday with my children in Europe — I had a son, Osama, and a daughter, Sarah by first wife, Karima.
Time with them was sacrosanct — even if it disrupted the mission to neutralise the most wanted terrorist in Al Qaeda.
In my absence, an item Awlaki had asked me for was picked up by his people, and the Americans had monitored the handover as a way of tracking him. The mission was going according to plan.
When I returned from holiday, I would be able to travel into Yemen’s badlands to meet him, and . . . bingo!
Instead, one late-September day, I turned on the television and saw breaking news. CIA drones had taken off from Saudi Arabia and zeroed in on a group of pick-up trucks in the Yemeni desert.
A clutch of Hellfire missiles were launched, and Awlaki and six other Al Qaeda operatives were killed instantly. The U.S. had finally liquidated the man it considered an urgent and present danger and I had played my part.
But as I shall tell tomorrow, the pressure of my secret life was becoming unbearable, and far from helping to protect me, my spymasters were soon to double-cross me.
- This edited extract is from Agent Storm by Morten Storm with Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, published by Viking on July 3 at £16.99 © Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister. To buy a copy for £14.99 (incl p&p), call 0844 472 4157.
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