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The stormy life of an ex-jihadi

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

404 pages; Rs 599

Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, is said to be making a film on the life of Danish jihadist-turned-undercover-agent Morten Storm. His story, which moves frequently between Denmark, England, Yemen and Kenya, is remarkable by any standard: ill-treated by his stepfather, radicalised in his youth, Mr Storm gains the confidence of the Al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen till the day he is disillusioned, orders a hamburger and switches sides. Intelligence provided by him helps take out several jihadists, the most important among them being Anwar Al-Alkawi, the American citizen who became famous as the Osama bin Laden of the internet, the instigator of innumerous suicide bombings.

The takeaways from Agent Storm are no less interesting. It is clear that the global war against Al-Qaeda is being fought by the Americans - and the Americans alone. They spend big to track their adversaries and, if Mr Storm is to be believed, are even ready to compromise their agents. Mr Storm breaks away from the Americans when he is required to carry a consignment solo to Abu Basir, a target. He suspects a drone attack while he chats with the jihadi. What the Americans will gain by liquidating him is left unsaid.

In Mr Storm's case, the American modus operandus looks too obvious for even a novice jihadi to miss. The Al-Qaeda warriors demanded supplies from Mr Storm, which came fitted with tracking devices. Drones did the rest of the work. That the jihadists fell for it time and again tells you something about their preparedness. Perhaps their trust in Mr Storm (Murad Abu-Osama, or Murad, the father of Osama, was the Muslim name he had taken) was so high that they never suspected him of any wrongdoing.

Apart from the Americans, the others appear fringe players in the whole fight. The Danish intelligence agency PET, in particular, comes out in poor light. Its agents appear to be happy to meet Mr Storm at expensive locations across the world, the bill for their fun-filled "missions" always picked up by the unsuspecting taxpayer. One evening of debriefing that leads to all agents curling up with women in sofas set the Danish taxpayers back by as much as $8,000. Mr Storm finally decides to spill the beans to a newspaper after he realises that the PET won't pay him a promised sum. His disclosure caused a furore because the Danish government can't be seen as abetting murder, even of a jihadi, and leads to a purge in the agency.

The money floating around in the war against jihadists is huge. And there are people in intelligence agencies ready to build a personal fortune on it - that's the inescapable lesson of Mr Storm's story. The Danes party all over the world - Thailand, Spain and, of course, Denmark - along with their prized double agent without any fear of his cover being blown and his security being compromised. Maybe this is how agencies unwind: Mr Storm has given the world some serious food for thought. Maybe somebody in India will take the lead and tell the truth.

At one stage, Al-Alkawi, already twice married, asks Mr Storm to find him a new wife: a Westerner who has converted to Islam. Mr Storm locates one such girl, Irena Horak, a Croat, who has become Aminah, on the social media. Under the watchful eye of the Americans, her luggage is suitably bugged and she is dispatched to Yemen. Everything seems to be going according to plan, till she is asked to leave her baggage at Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, before she starts for the tribal areas where her eager groom is waiting. Mr Storm gets $125,000 for the work, Al-Alkawi has a new wife, and the Americans are left fuming. Ms Aminah, in the whole operation, is nothing more than the bait - an expendable commodity. Mr Storm expresses the guilt pangs that tug at him more than once. Till over a year after her husband's death in a drone attack in September 2011, Ms Aminah does not suspect that he was done in by Mr Storm. Over email, she tells him of her desire for shahada (martyrdom), which will take her straight to her husband in heaven!

Mr Storm feels guilt also for betraying Al-Alkawi, his one-time friend. But then he tells himself how the jihadi had refused to distinguish between civilian and military targets and caused such a huge loss of life. The same guilt chases him when Al-Alkawi's teenage son is killed in another drone attack. But it's short-lived because we learn the lad had formally joined the Al-Qaeda shortly before he met his end. Clearly, a double agent's life is not easy. One has to put on an Oscar-worthy performance at all times. Given the whole army of double agents spawned by intelligence agencies in their war against jihadists, Mr Storm could have his cover blown at any time. The thought that he might babble something in his sleep kept him awake at nights. Cocaine became his refuge. It was only after he had "retired" that Mr Storm decided to tell his wife about the double life he had led for over five years.

Read Agent Storm for these insights.

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First Published: Thu, September 11 2014. 21:25 IST