What makes a member of a violent biker gang put aside his leather jacket and cocaine for the austerity of an Islamic school in Yemen? And when that man has become the confidante of some of the leading lights of Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, what leads him to switch sides and choose the life of a double agent working for Danish intelligence?
Those two questions were at the front of my mind when I picked up Morten Storm’s memoir, which starts with his troubled childhood in Denmark and ends with his estrangement with both his former brothers in radical Islam and his former Danish intelligence handlers.
Storm undergoes a number of transformations in his story, stating at one point that he seemed to need a fresh start every eighteen months. Most of his transformations are consistent in their convolutions; it’s not surprising that having left the world of rumbles with the Hell’s Angels to Islam, he was only going to bounce around peaceful mosques and madrassas for so long before he gravitated toward the extremists. Nor was it surprising that having become a radical and then a double agent, it was only a matter of time before Storm fell out with his handlers.
Agent Storm is not just Morten Storm’s personal story. It also gives us a look at the secret war between Islamist militant groups and western intelligence agencies that goes a lot deeper than the highlights spectacular enough to make the headlines. It doesn’t show either side with the air of flinty competence they’d probably like to see in themselves.
Storm describes taking a group of radicals from the British Midlands for fieldcraft training in Yorkshire. On what was presumably their first experience outside a city, they had a wonderful time waving airguns and machetes and shouting jihadi supplications until a dog being walked past their camp sent them fleeing in terror.
Storm’s mentor turned primary target, Anwar al-Awlaki, proved a more ambiguous character. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, al-Awlaki rose to the top of the CIA’s target list but proved remarkably adept at keeping in touch with radicals around the world without giving away his location. He could have been anywhere withing hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of Yemen.
Danish intelligence became involved when the CIA identified his weakness: he wanted a blonde wife. Storm became embroiled in a plot that reads as though the pages of a James Bond film screenplay somehow got mixed up with the pages of a Carry-On script, in which Storm was tasked to arrange a marriage between al-Awlaki and a Croatian model who had converted to Islam.
The plan was to smuggle her to Yemen with a transmitter concealed in her luggage, allowing the CIA to track her to wherever al-Awlaki was hiding. The plan was thwarted when al-Awlaki’s people took the routine precaution of switching her luggage, leaving her to vanish into the same obscurity as al-Awlaki himself and periodically requiring Storm to send lingerie and make up after her. Farcical as the scheme appears to be, it’s probably as well for the model that it failed. That transmitter could hardly have been used to target a drone strike that didn’t kill her along with her husband.
Al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike that Storm insists was based on his intelligence, although he fell out with the CIA over their refusal to pay him for it. There are hints that part of the reason his role was not acknowledged may have been that Danish intelligence wanted to distance themselves from the operation. Apart from the fact that using al-Awlaki’s bride as a Judas goat amounted to human trafficking, the Danish intelligence service is explicitly forbidden from carrying out assassinations.
If reservations about the CIA emerge from Storm’s story, he is more openly scathing about the Danish intelligence service. He describes his handlers organising debriefing sessions in Spanish brothels and seizing every opportunity to play the sycophant to ‘Big Brother’, as they called the CIA.
Personal animosity permeates the later chapters as Storm describes several instances of payments being promised and not given. At the same time, the Danish intelligence service took an unsurprisingly dim view of Storm going public and threatened his Yemeni wife’s residence status to try to shut him up.
That Danish intelligence come across as more Our Man in Havana than Smiley’s People makes more sense in the context of the scandal-ridden directorship of Jakob Scharf. Later investigations revealed that at the time Storm was a Danish intelligence agent, Scharf was having too much fun with his own expense account, illegally tracking opposition politicians and enjoying an office Christmas party in a way that did not speak highly of his personal tradecraft: instead of taking an attractive colleague into the traditional stationery cupboard for illicit covert ops, he took her into a glass-walled corridor in full view of his entire staff. After Agent Storm was published, Scharf was jailed for revealing state secrets in his own memoirs.
While Agent Storm shows the farce and tragedy of what we might call either the War on Terror or the Global Jihad depending on our perspective, I finished it without feeling the questions I’d started with had been answered. Storm’s narrative describes his changes of heart without much detail, leaving me wondering what really drove him. That’s fair enough; nobody said this was a book about the psychology of a double agent. I still find myself wondering.