My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA

By Morten Storm with Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister

Atlantic Monthly. 404 pp. $26

This book reads like a screenplay for a James Bond movie written by Joel and Ethan Coen. An unlikely double agent from Denmark infiltrates al-Qaeda. His managers, the clandestine services of the United States, Britain and Denmark, distrust one another. His story has such immediacy that it seems to have leapt from yesterday’s headlines into a book with scarcely a detour at the printing plant.

Morten Storm was by his own account a thug — a gang member who engaged in criminal behavior and random violence, a smuggler who used drugs and spent time in prison. Denmark funds social programs to rehabilitate wayward youth like Storm, but he was incorrigible. His first epiphany came from a chance encounter with a biography of Muhammad. Storm emigrated to England, where he found refuge in a community of the Islamic faithful.

He got caught up in the rising tide of Islamic indignation at perceived slights of the prophet. He found an Islamic bride from Morocco who provided him with a son whom he dutifully named Osama. Soon Storm was off to an Islamic religious academy in Yemen, where he learned to speak Arabic and found out that Islam is riven with rival sects as bitterly at odds with one another as they are with Western culture. “As a heavy-set Dane with a shock of ginger hair and a long beard,” he writes, “I might as well have been an alien life form in a country of wiry, dark-skinned Arabs.” Yet his appearance did not foster distrust among his new friends.

“Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA” by Morten Storm, Pal Cruickshank and Tim Lister. (Atlantic Monthly/ )

After a few years of zealotry, Stone had another epiphany. He was put off by the “shiekhs all too ready to send ignorant, gullible men to their deaths” and annoyed by the concept of predestination or Qadar, which holds that Allah decides everything. “So what was the place of free will, where was the capacity to make a difference? It seemed that none of the scholars I had talked to could explain how Qadar fitted with the obligation of jihad, nor why Allah would create a man he had already condemned to hellfire.” New England Puritans wrestled with that same question.

Storm had been contacted by the Danish intelligence agency PET, which knew he was interacting with Islamic terrorists. After his change of heart, he went on its payroll. He also worked for Britain’s MI5 and the CIA, and his account of how these three agencies manipulated him, often while working at cross purposes with one another, makes for lively reading.

Storm was worth the trouble, helping the agencies track down some notorious terrorists. His friends in the Islamic underground included Zacarias Moussaoui, who helped plan the 9/11 attack on the twin towers and is now serving a life term; Saleh Ali Nabhan, killed by U.S. forces following a lead provided by Storm; and the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, also killed, who for a time was considered the likely successor to Osama bin Laden.

Now living “underground,” Storm offers insights into the mentality of Islamic militants intent on acts of terrorism, saying “they often had similar backgrounds: with difficult or violent childhoods, little education and few prospects; unemployed, unmarried and seething with resentments.” Anyone interested in the saga of terrorist fanatics will find “Agent Storm” compelling.

— Hank Cox