This is an abridged and translated version of the investigative reporting project that won the European Press Prize in the News Reporting Category last month. Originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, it recounts the extraordinary story of Morten Storm, a former agent of the Danish secret service, and his role in helping the CIA locate the American-born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by U.S. drones in Yemen with three other suspected members of al Qaeda in a targeted assassination in September 2011.
Dismayed that he wasn’t credited by American officials for his help finding Awlaki, Storm approached Jyllands-Posten with his story. Journalists interviewed him for more than 120 hours and vigorously checked his extraordinary account against a trove of documents and email messages as well as audio and video recordings that he provided. The Danish intelligence agency PET provided a statement to the reporters, but the CIA did not return requests for comment.
The story is Storm’s account of his own role in a high-profile targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen by U.S. forces. With its cloak-and-dagger plot twists, it’s an astonishing story that provides a glimpse into the strange—and sometimes strained—partnerships in the war on terror.
The American is traveling with his cohorts in two pickup trucks through the rugged desert in northern Yemen. Around 9:30 a.m., the trucks pull over, and a slight man, with a bushy beard and wire-rimmed glasses, steps out of one of the trucks. His small frame belies his importance: Anwar al-Awlaki is the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and trained as an engineer, the 40-year-old Awlaki has grown into a brilliant orator and strategist within the terror network, suspected of involvement in an attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing in 2009, among other things. For more than a year, his name has been on the CIA “kill list”—one of a number of people whose assassination President Barack Obama has authorized.
The men sit down to eat a breakfast of tea and dates when a sound from the sky unnerves them. It’s the morning of Sept. 30, 2011. And the sound the men are hearing is the sound of two unmanned drones, sent from a secret U.S. military base somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. As the men start running back toward the pickup trucks, they are struck by Hellfire missiles fired from the drones. None survive.
In Washington, President Obama hails the assassination as “another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda.”
Unmentioned in the subsequent news accounts detailing the hunt for Awlaki is the unlikely double agent who infiltrated the innermost circles of al Qaeda in Yemen—a burly, redheaded, 37-year-old Dane who appears to have been a central character in a bizarre U.S.-Danish mission to track down the terror leader.
This is the story of Morten Storm, who has since decided to go underground, fearing for his safety.
For almost 10 years before this story begins, Storm was an internationally well-known figure in radical Islamist circles, known by the nickname Murad Storm. A convicted criminal who had converted to Islam, Storm visited mosques throughout Europe and the Middle East, speaking openly about the need for armed jihad.
But, he says, a series of complicated events in 2006 prompted a crisis of faith and left him disillusioned with the cause. No longer a believer, he decided to become a double agent and, in the winter of 2006, called the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, also known as PET.
Well aware of who he was, the Danish security agency took his call and quickly arranged a meeting between him and agents from the British intelligence agencies, The Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at a tony hotel near Regent’s Park in London. Later, PET facilitated a meeting between the CIA and Storm, which took place at the Scandic Hotel in central Copenhagen. During these and subsequent meetings, the agents discussed possible ways in which Storm could infiltrate radical Islamist groups.
One plan, involving the procurement of a European bride for Awlaki, so worried the Brits they opted out of the partnership. But the American and Danish intelligence agencies continued to work with Storm, he says, and by the end of 2006, the Dane was leading a double life. In radical Islamic circles in Europe and the Middle East, he was known as the militant Murad; with agency handlers, he was Aghi—meaning “brother” in Arabic—an undercover agent trying to infiltrate a dangerous terror network.
Danish and American intelligence agencies “knew that Anwar saw me as his friend and confidant,” Storm said. “They knew that I would be able to reach him and find out where he was hiding. That meant that I would be able to help ... in the process of tracking down Anwar so the Americans could set up a drone attack and kill him. That was the plan.”
Storm had first met Awlaki earlier in 2006 at the house of Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki. At the time, Storm was living in Sana, Yemen’s capital, where he studied Islam and Arabic at Al Imam University, a university known to teach a radical form of Islam and led by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, whose other students had included Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden.
In part because of their shared Western background, Awlaki and Storm grew close, Storm says. “Anwar did not see me as one of his ordinary students of Islam, nor did he see me as a pupil. He saw me more as a friend. We both came from the West, and we could speak freely to each other, while others who came to his lessons treated him with the utmost respect.”
Over the next several years, Awlaki, whose star was on the rise within al Qaeda, began to make use of Storm, asking him to bring him equipment including flashlights, solar panels, and Leatherman knives as he traveled between Europe and Yemen. At the same time, the Western intelligence agencies pursued their own goals.
“The people from the CIA instructed me to buy two sets of everything so that their technicians could check if it was possible to hide tracking equipment,” says Storm. “Their objective was to place a sender that would enable them to track down al-Awlaki.”
Nothing came of the plans, though, until Storm visited Awlaki on Sept. 17, 2009.
The terror leader, now on America’s most-wanted list, was hiding out in southern Yemen where radical Islamists held sway. As a tribal leader led him to Awlaki, Storm feared that, this time, someone would call his bluff. But Awlaki greeted him warmly, embracing him in front of 30-some mujahedin warriors and asking him to join them for dinner. After the meal, Awlaki and Storm left the others to talk privately, and Awlaki started to list what he wanted his friend Murad to do.
Beyond equipment and help with fundraising, the two discussed terror attacks.
“He wanted to attack the big shopping centers in the West ... by using biological weapons. But I said that I didn’t want to take part in killing civilians—I could only agree to attacking military targets,” Storm says. “Of course I wouldn’t have helped him carry out any kind of terrorist actions. But I had to let him think that I was on his side.”
According to the stamp in his passport, the double agent left Yemen two days later. It was the last time the two men saw each other.
Upon his return, Storm was debriefed by agents from the Danish, British, and American intelligence services at a London hotel. A couple of weeks later, another CIA meeting took place at a hotel in central Copenhagen. Here, Storm was shown a number of satellite photos of a southern province in Yemen.
The agents wanted Storm to pinpoint the place where he had met Awlaki—something he says he did. A few months later, Yemeni troops attacked the Yemeni safe house in a large-scale operation, killing its owner. But by then, Awlaki had already left. In an email dated Jan. 17, 2010, the terrorist leader wrote to Storm:
“Do you remember the guy you stayed with? It has been confirmed that he has been killed. I had just spoken to him a while ago and told him to escape into the mountains if the government troops decided to attack. He said that he would fight to the death ... and that is what happened.”
After the attack, the Americans lost track of Awlaki, and Storm volunteered to find him.
By spring of 2011, Storm met with three agents from PET whose code names were “Klang,” “Olde,” and “Abu Kaj” at a seaside hotel north of Copenhagen. Another agent, a slight, redheaded woman, gave Storm an iPhone and an Acer Aspire One computer, which he was to use for all communication.
“The mission discussed at the meeting was clear: al-Awlaki had to be killed,” says Storm. “The people from PET believed that I could lead them and the Americans to Anwar. That turned out to be true.”
Since Qaeda leadership believed that the Yemeni government was keeping an eye on Storm, however, it was no longer possible for Storm to meet directly with Awlaki, who had disappeared into the Yemeni hinterland. To try to contact the terror leader, Storm wrote an email to the Qaeda magazine Inspire signing off as “Polar Bear,” a nickname bestowed by the terror leader. Storm wrote that he would soon be arriving in Yemen and that he was ready to help Awlaki with anything he might need. Awlaki, who was heavily involved with the magazine, answered that he would send Storm a message by courier, and that the message would be stored on a USB flash drive. Storm immediately called the PET from the iPhone given to him at the latest meeting, telling the agency that he was in contact with Awlaki.
The plan, Storm says, was for the CIA to track down Awlaki either by making the USB flash drive traceable by satellite or simply by trying to follow the courier who would carry the message from Storm to Awlaki.
Storm arrived in Yemen on June 23, 2011, and managed to establish contact within days of his arrival with someone Awlaki trusted. According to his passport, he left the country again five days later, only to return in late July, spending the following weeks trying to establish a secure contact. Storm sent Awlaki a message listing three different times and locations where the courier would be able to meet him—a standard safety precaution within al Qaeda. Storm told Awlaki that he would only wait 15 minutes at each location before leaving because he was concerned that people might notice him.
No one showed up on the first two nights Storm suggested, but on the third night, Aug. 14, the courier arrived on time at the agreed spot, the entrance to the Yemen Mall, carrying a USB flash drive with a message from Awlaki as well as $300. Awlaki wanted his friend Storm to buy some personal items for him and send them back to him with the courier. That same evening, Storm went to Hadda Street in Sana to buy the things Awlaki wanted, handing them off to the courier when they met later in a restaurant called Alhamra.
A few days later, Awlaki sent a thank-you message to Storm—and the two continued to correspond.
“On the last USB flash drive that I received from Anwar, he asked me to find out what the West had been writing about him and his plans to carry out a ricin attack,” Storm recalls. “He also asked me to find a transportable fridge where he could store elements to be used in biological weapons. He asked me to bring it the next time I visited Yemen.”
Storm contacted PET and was told to come to a meeting in southern Spain to discuss a plan of action. Before he left, he contacted Awlaki to let him know that he was leaving the country on a private trip but that he would hand over a flash drive, containing the newspaper articles he had found, to a middleman in Sana that Awlaki knew and trusted.
In Malaga, Storm met the Danish agents Klang, Olde, and Abu Kaj along with “Hvalpen” and “Jed,” an American agent who had been Storm’s CIA handler in Denmark for so many years that he was even mentioned in a Christmas card sent by the agents to Storm at one point.
“Everyone’s spirits were high, and we were giving each other high-fives because we sensed that we were close to locating Anwar,” Storm says. “The American said that the bounty on Anwar’s head was enormous, and that the account had no expiration date because they wanted him dead. The PET was present during the meeting in Malaga, as always, when I met with the CIA. The PET knew and accepted the consequences of the mission—they were fully aware that al-Awlaki would be killed.”
A few days later, in early September, Storm received a call from the middleman, who said he was about to meet Awlaki’s courier to give him the flash drive with the news articles so the courier could bring it to Awlaki.
Storm says he called PET straight away to tell them where the exchange would take place; the Danish agents told him they would contact the Americans immediately with the information. Later, the middleman in Sana told Storm the courier had met him at the mall and received the USB flash drive with the news stories.
Three weeks later, Storm saw on the news that Awlaki had been killed. The CIA drones had found their target.
Storm believed he had played a key part in helping the Americans track down Awlaki before the assassination, and was therefore surprised when the Danish agent Klang told him that the Americans denied that, crediting instead intelligence from a separate mission. Frustrated that he wasn’t getting his proper due and recognition, Storm told PET he no longer wanted to have anything to do with the Americans. But the Danish agents tried to smooth things over by setting up a meeting between Storm and a CIA representative by the name of Michael, who Storm had been told had recently taken over from Jed.
The meeting was to take place exactly a week after the attack on Awlaki at the same seaside hotel north of Copenhagen where he had met the Danish agents before. But Storm had grown distrustful and decided to use his cellphone to record the meeting. On the recording, the voices of several Danes can be heard (later identified as the PET agents) trying to persuade Storm to talk to the American, who is nearby. Storm reluctantly agrees and the Danish agents lead him to an apartment near the hotel, where he is left alone in the living room with Michael as the other agents make coffee in the kitchen.
During the conversation, the American can be heard saying that “al-Awlaki was an evil man” who “had to be neutralized.” During the exchange, the man also confirms that Storm has worked for the CIA and PET for many years, and that Storm and PET have played a crucial role in helping track down Awlaki. The agent even suggests that President Obama knows who Storm is.
Michael: “I want you to understand, this was a team. All of this was a team effort, which involved a team from my organization—me here with you guys, Jed who was with you, OK. For this long period of time—it was not—we had our team, we had a project going. And you played the most important role in it. OK. And it’s because of that that there is a lot of people in my government—and when I say a lot, I mean, a few chosen ones ...”
Storm: “Yes, we all know Alex, we all know George [CIA agents that Storm met] and you know—all the others.”
Michael: “Yes, but I am not talking about Alex and George, you know. I’m talking about ... ”
Storm, laughing: “What, Obama?”
Michael: “I am talking about the president of the United States of America ... he knows you ... he knows about you. So the right people know what you have contributed with. And we are grateful for that.”
At same time, however, Michael insists that, to his knowledge, it wasn’t Storm’s mission but a parallel operation that located Awlaki.
The CIA did not return requests for comment.
Asked to account for PET’s role in planning the mission that killed Awlaki, Jakob Scharf, who heads the Danish agency, wrote in a statement:
“Out of consideration for PET’s operational work, the PET neither can nor will confirm publicly that specific persons have been used as sources by the PET. Furthermore, the PET is prevented from publicly passing on information about specific source operations. However, the PET does not participate in or support operations where the objective is to kill civilians. The PET did therefore not contribute to the military operation that led to the killing of al-Awlaki in Yemen.”
Asked if the Danish agency had been involved in the parallel operation that supposedly localized the terrorist leader, Scharf didn’t want to comment further.
Storm remains unconvinced by the explanation of the parallel operation.
“It all fits with the plan we had made,” he says. “My trusted middleman in Yemen told me that the courier who came to pick up the USB flash drive was a young boy of 15, 17 years. And the time fits, too.”
In several news accounts after the attack, Western security officials are quoted as saying the CIA, or Yemeni agents working for the CIA, detained a junior courier close to Awlaki, and that it happened in early September—around the time that Awlaki’s courier was picking up Storm’s flash drive in Sana.
“The entire execution as described by the CIA is exactly as we planned it,” Storm says.
“I am convinced that the CIA caught the courier who came to pick up the USB flash drive on my orders, and that this event led them to Anwar’s hiding place. But, apparently, the Americans do not want to recognize that it was a PET agent from a small country like Denmark who led them to Anwar.”