'Agent Storm' recounts the journey from radical Islam to informant

Burly, red-headed, and Danish, Morten Storm was an unlikely double agent in the war on transnational terrorism.

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, Grove/Atlantic, 320 pp.

Life was not easy for Morten Storm. His alcoholic father left the family when he was an infant. Strom grew up in a working class Danish town where he was expelled from every school he attended, joined a local gang, and was smuggling cigarettes well before his peers graduated from high school.  Storm’s rough pursuits and burly physique made him an easy target for the Danish police, and he was a regular at the local jail for numerous infractions.

Seeking direction and an opportunity to refocus his life after a spell in prison, Storm converted to Islam in 1997 at the age of 21. He was a passionate convert, and within six months he traveled to Yemen to study at a Wahhabi seminary in the largely lawless northwest corner of the country. This first trip to Yemen would galvanize Storm’s devotion to the Wahhabism, a branch of Islam known for its literalist interpretation of a number of holy texts. Upon his return to Europe several months later, Storm’s militant connections lent him a great deal of credibility among his Muslim friends there, and quickly enabled him to widen his faith-based network throughout the continent.

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA is Storm’s gripping firsthand account of his extreme devotion to radical Islam and then his nearly instantaneous reversal of those firmly held beliefs to assist Dutch, British, and American intelligence agencies in capturing and killing the very people he once called brothers. 

Storm is often a difficult character to understand.  He spends precious little time explaining the rationale behind becoming an informant after associating exclusively with anti-Western radicals for over a decade. He is honest enough to later admit that “the money was a factor,” referring to the retainer that various intelligence services paid him for his efforts  He is similarly reserved about the path that led him to Islam, although it is likely that the camaraderie and status afforded to him by his Muslim friends appealed to a boy with a checkered past and an uncertain future.

Storm is at his best when explaining the bureaucratic machinations of the numerous intelligence services that enlisted his support. Extravagant vacations to Thailand and Iceland (to name only a few exotic destinations), unique training opportunities, and sizable sums of cash were given to Storm by the Americans, British, and Danish alike. And while all of these organizations are purportedly allies, Storm provides valuable insight into the national rivalries, bickering, and occasional contrary aims of these intelligence agencies. 

For all of Storm’s militant bluster, it is odd that he never chose to fight in Afghanistan, Yemen, or elsewhere in support of the very ideals that supposedly guided him  It is likely that his Danish passport and northern European looks were valuable enough to the various terrorist groups that he supported before becoming an informant in 2007. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, recognized the potential of his Danish protégée as a supplier of materiel and equipment from Europe to Yemen and beyond. Storm even arranged for Awlaki’s marriage to a Croatian woman as part of a CIA-led plot to kill the cleric.  While this maneuver was certainly rich in intrigue, it remains unclear whether it led to Awlaki’s death. Nonetheless, Storm boasts of receiving $250,000 cash from the CIA for his matchmaking skill.  While seemingly helping his supposed mentor with the most personal of favors, much of Storm’s work and information may have contributed to the death of the man he once considered his close friend and spiritual guide.

Storm’s prose, assisted by the journalists Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, is gripping and seems ripe for adaptation into a screenplay. The main concern with a story of this scope is the difficulty of confirming the details associated with Storm’s memory. In many cases Storm provides photos documenting his exploits, but a great deal of his work was sensitive enough to make such efforts impossible, and it is here that we must trust both Storm’s version of events and Lister and Cruickshank’s diligence in corroborating the facts.

Storm’s work provides valuable and fascinating insight into the quiet battle being waged between clandestine national agencies and various terrorist organizations. The commitment each side brings to the contest is fierce, and – while informants like Storm clearly have a role to play in the fight against transnational terrorism – "Agent Storm" reminds us of the disturbing contradictions and uncertainties that they bring with them.

Jackson Holahan is a Monitor contributor.

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