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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.