From Bandido to wannabe shahid: Morten Storm
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Loneliness of the long-distance jihadi: Morten Storm’s double life inside al-Qaeda

Storm, despite being a spy at the forefront of western intelligence efforts, was primarily driven by a desperate need to belong.

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
Morten Storm
Viking, 418pp, £16.99

The jihadis on the gate radiated warmth. “Welcome, brother, welcome,” they greeted me, clasping my hand, smiles beatific, their eyes glowing with that ethereal shine peculiar to those with only the most ardent sense of self-righteousness.

It was the summer of 1994. The Bosnian war was in full throttle and among the hundreds of foreign jihadists who had arrived there to fight on behalf of the Sarajevo government were al-Qaeda envoys and several dozen British Muslims. It marked an important staging post in the advance of militant Islam in western Europe. Accompanied by a Bosnian Muslim friend, I had walked to the gates of the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion, known locally as Katibat al-Mujahedin al-Ajanib, based in a former fire station outside the Bosnian city of Zenica, wishing to interview their emir, the Algerian jihadist Abu al-Maali.

Mistaking us for young Bosnians who wished to join their ranks, the guards at the gate, Bosnian and Arab alike, were particularly fawning in their welcome, despite their reputation for brutality, atrocities and rabid anti-western sentiment. Clearly they had been ordered to make potential recruits feel accepted from the moment they arrived.

The warmth of that welcome, and its contrived underlying projection of “belonging”, resonated two decades later as I read Morten Storm’s timely autobiographical account of his rise and fall as a jihadi and intelligence agent.

Storm, despite being a spy at the forefront of western intelligence efforts to eliminate Islamist terror cells in Europe and abroad, was primarily a lonely man who felt a desperate need to belong. The desire to be part of something – the common denominator among so many disaffected western converts who become Islamist militants – drove his every crucial decision.

Abandoned by his alcoholic father, beaten by a violent stepfather, the young Dane took a path to the brotherhood of gang membership that was entirely predictable, as were the jail terms that followed. He served as a foot soldier in the Great Nordic Biker wars, brawling as the youngest chapter leader of the infamous Bandidos bike gang in Denmark; he then became a radical Muslim convert who studied at the Salafi seminary in Dammaj, Yemen, finding “faith and fellowship where there had been none”; and finally transformed into a prized double agent who at various moments belonged to the CIA, MI5, MI6 and Denmark’s PET.

Journeying back and forth over a 15-year period between Copenhagen, Yemen, Kenya, Birmingham and Luton, Storm, known to his erstwhile jihadi brothers as “Murad”, paints a bleak picture of the jihadi world and its component mix of idiocy, sophistication, unquestioning obeisance and terror. Although he associated with some of the most notorious Islamist terrorists at home and abroad – the Yemeni-American fundamentalist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “20th hijacker” in the 11 September 2001 attacks – his account can nevertheless sound unwittingly like the screenplay sequel to Four Lions, Chris Morris’s slapstick poke at jihadist culture in the west.

Mujahedin melodramatics in banal settings such as Barton Hills, Luton – where Storm, designated the “emir of training” by al-Muhajiroun, makes local extremists run around the woods shouting “Allahu Akbar” – are somehow abjectly comic. His break from militancy also provokes an unavoidable smirk. There is no ideological epiphany involved: having purchased a one-way ticket to fly from Denmark to Mogadishu to fight and die as part of the Somali Qaeda franchise al-Shabab, he buys a stock of camouflage gear and Swiss army knives in preparation for martyrdom. But his mission is cancelled before he can catch his flight, leaving him feeling scorned and isolated trailing his suitcase packed with uniforms and pen knives. Alone again, he decides to “join” a new group: western intelligence services.

The difference between marginalised losers seeming funny and them being terrifying lies in the degree of their exposure to seasoned terrorists, which is what frightens British security services so much about the latest nexus between British volunteers and veteran jihadis in Syria. Sometimes only chance distinguishes comedy from terror. How funny would the “Underwear Bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, have been if the bomb in his pants had gone off to plan? The difference between a ridiculous terrorist with a burnt penis and a massacre was, Storm argues, only a matter of Abdulmutallab’s perspiration desensitising the main charge in the device.

Storm’s portrayal of the intelligence services is scarcely edifying, either. The Brits come out of it the best. Their efforts to consolidate their relationship with the lonely Dane by taking him fly-fishing on the River Dee appear delightfully understated compared to the CIA’s arrogant “money takes all” attitude to him. The Danish PET officers, by comparison, seem a riotous assembly of hard-drinking whoremongers, barely able to hold a debriefing without a drink and a hooker on the scene.

In this non-fiction noir, Storm is not easy to like, either. In the absence of any conviction, he turns coat only according to where he best senses security. The mechanics of betrayal are never attractive, but his grooming of Irena Horak in 2010 seems especially sordid. An impressionable young Croatian woman recently recovered from cancer, she was sent as the convert “Aminah” to become al-Awlaki’s third wife, unknowingly bugged by the CIA so that she could be tracked and her husband assassinated by drone. The British reject the plan out of principle. The Danes, banned by law from assassinating any target, nevertheless throw their weight behind it. To enhance his own credibility, Storm, who knew and liked al-Awlaki, even involved his own wife in grooming Horak, a woman every bit as lost and lonely as he is, and who was likely to be killed at the same time as her husband.

Storm eventually ended up turning on his handlers in a fit of enraged paranoia, certain that his own life was to be thrown away in a CIA plot to kill the Yemeni terror chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi. After an unseemly spat over money, he went rogue and sold his story to Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which sounded the death knell of his relationship with the intelligence services.

It seems that, in their threesome rush to share Storm as an asset, not a single intelligence agency – not the Americans, not the Danes, not the British – bothered to identify what made him tick and what gave him the individual sense of security, of belonging, that he needed. Not so intelligent after all.

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times. His memoir “Another Bloody Love Letter” is published by Headline Review (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood