Even Obama knew the name of the Danish double agent who never got his due for helping lead U.S. drones to Anwar al-Awlaki. Now he’s telling his own story.
This is an abridged and translated version of the investigative reporting project that won the European Press Prize in the News Reporting Category last month. Originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, it recounts the extraordinary story of Morten Storm, a former agent of the Danish secret service, and his role in helping the CIA locate the American-born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by U.S. drones in Yemen with three other suspected members of al Qaeda in a targeted assassination in September 2011.
Dismayed that he wasn’t credited by American officials for his help finding Awlaki, Storm approached Jyllands-Posten with his story. Journalists interviewed him for more than 120 hours and vigorously checked his extraordinary account against a trove of documents and email messages as well as audio and video recordings that he provided. The Danish intelligence agency PET provided a statement to the reporters, but the CIA did not return requests for comment.
The story is Storm’s account of his own role in a high-profile targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen by U.S. forces. With its cloak-and-dagger plot twists, it’s an astonishing story that provides a glimpse into the strange—and sometimes strained—partnerships in the war on terror.
The American is traveling with his cohorts in two pickup trucks through the rugged desert in northern Yemen. Around 9:30 a.m., the trucks pull over, and a slight man, with a bushy beard and wire-rimmed glasses, steps out of one of the trucks. His small frame belies his importance: Anwar al-Awlaki is the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and trained as an engineer, the 40-year-old Awlaki has grown into a brilliant orator and strategist within the terror network, suspected of involvement in an attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing in 2009, among other things. For more than a year, his name has been on the CIA “kill list”—one of a number of people whose assassination President Barack Obama has authorized.
The men sit down to eat a breakfast of tea and dates when a sound from the sky unnerves them. It’s the morning of Sept. 30, 2011. And the sound the men are hearing is the sound of two unmanned drones, sent from a secret U.S. military base somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. As the men start running back toward the pickup trucks, they are struck by Hellfire missiles fired from the drones. None survive.
In Washington, President Obama hails the assassination as “another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda.”
Unmentioned in the subsequent news accounts detailing the hunt for Awlaki is the unlikely double agent who infiltrated the innermost circles of al Qaeda in Yemen—a burly, redheaded, 37-year-old Dane who appears to have been a central character in a bizarre U.S.-Danish mission to track down the terror leader.
This is the story of Morten Storm, who has since decided to go underground, fearing for his safety.
For almost 10 years before this story begins, Storm was an internationally well-known figure in radical Islamist circles, known by the nickname Murad Storm. A convicted criminal who had converted to Islam, Storm visited mosques throughout Europe and the Middle East, speaking openly about the need for armed jihad.
But, he says, a series of complicated events in 2006 prompted a crisis of faith and left him disillusioned with the cause. No longer a believer, he decided to become a double agent and, in the winter of 2006, called the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, also known as PET.
Well aware of who he was, the Danish security agency took his call and quickly arranged a meeting between him and agents from the British intelligence agencies, The Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at a tony hotel near Regent’s Park in London. Later, PET facilitated a meeting between the CIA and Storm, which took place at the Scandic Hotel in central Copenhagen. During these and subsequent meetings, the agents discussed possible ways in which Storm could infiltrate radical Islamist groups.
One plan, involving the procurement of a European bride for Awlaki, so worried the Brits they opted out of the partnership. But the American and Danish intelligence agencies continued to work with Storm, he says, and by the end of 2006, the Dane was leading a double life. In radical Islamic circles in Europe and the Middle East, he was known as the militant Murad; with agency handlers, he was Aghi—meaning “brother” in Arabic—an undercover agent trying to infiltrate a dangerous terror network.
Danish and American intelligence agencies “knew that Anwar saw me as his friend and confidant,” Storm said. “They knew that I would be able to reach him and find out where he was hiding. That meant that I would be able to help … in the process of tracking down Anwar so the Americans could set up a drone attack and kill him. That was the plan.”
Storm had first met Awlaki earlier in 2006 at the house of Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki. At the time, Storm was living in Sana, Yemen’s capital, where he studied Islam and Arabic at Al Imam University, a university known to teach a radical form of Islam and led by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, whose other students had included Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden.
In part because of their shared Western background, Awlaki and Storm grew close, Storm says. “Anwar did not see me as one of his ordinary students of Islam, nor did he see me as a pupil. He saw me more as a friend. We both came from the West, and we could speak freely to each other, while others who came to his lessons treated him with the utmost respect.”
Over the next several years, Awlaki, whose star was on the rise within al Qaeda, began to make use of Storm, asking him to bring him equipment including flashlights, solar panels, and Leatherman knives as he traveled between Europe and Yemen. At the same time, the Western intelligence agencies pursued their own goals.
“The people from the CIA instructed me to buy two sets of everything so that their technicians could check if it was possible to hide tracking equipment,” says Storm. “Their objective was to place a sender that would enable them to track down al-Awlaki.”
Nothing came of the plans, though, until Storm visited Awlaki on Sept. 17, 2009.
The terror leader, now on America’s most-wanted list, was hiding out in southern Yemen where radical Islamists held sway. As a tribal leader led him to Awlaki, Storm feared that, this time, someone would call his bluff. But Awlaki greeted him warmly, embracing him in front of 30-some mujahedin warriors and asking him to join them for dinner. After the meal, Awlaki and Storm left the others to talk privately, and Awlaki started to list what he wanted his friend Murad to do.
Beyond equipment and help with fundraising, the two discussed terror attacks.