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Book Review: Agent Storm, My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.

An Enthusiastic Muslim

The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.

Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.

A Double-Agent

Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.

Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.

Tradecraft

Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.

Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.

Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.

A Few Criticisms

A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.

Conclusion

Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.