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

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle