Double agent jihadi: To his extremist ‘brothers’ he was a Muslim convert hungering to commit atrocities in Britain. In truth, he was a spy for MI5. In a new book he blows the cover on his terrifying double life…
As we raced through the desert in a cloud of dust, I knew I was on my way into the lion’s den, about to put my head in its jaws. I was in the lawless, fly-blown state of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and, Kalashnikov in hand, being driven to meet one of Al Qaeda’s top figures, a man tipped as the successor of Bin Laden.
To the fighters I was with, I was Murad al-Danmarki, a brother jihadist.
Later that night in January 2012, after being greeted as a trusted friend, I was asked to go one step further in my commitment to the cause and take an oath of allegiance to the Al Qaeda leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi. With no choice, I intoned: ‘I will be true to Leader of the Faithful, and will fight Allah’s cause.’
It was done. This ginger-haired, white-skinned Westerner — a one-time juvenile delinquent, biker gang member and jailbird, now a convert to Islam — was a signed-up member of Al Qaeda, dedicated to the destruction of kuffars [infidels], particularly in the U.S. and Britain.
Except I wasn’t. For five long years I had kept up this pose as a militant jihadist. In reality I was a spy, working undercover for Western intelligence agencies.
I’d seen enough videos of brutal executions by Al Qaeda to know my fate if discovered — a savage and slow beheading or crucifixion, my body left hanging for days.
Avoiding such a grisly end depended on keeping sharp. In London, Luton and Birmingham, where I operated, there were so many radicals on the streets I could not let the mask drop for a moment. Even my wife, Fadia, had no idea who I really was, nor my children.
I moved constantly back and forth between two worlds and two identities — when one misplaced sentence or an overheard phone conversation could cost me my life. I switched identity in airport departure and arrival halls, flipping between atheism and hardline Islam, English and Arabic, T-shirts and robes.
And it worked. Information I supplied had helped foil bomb plots. I planted the equipment that directed American drone missiles against some of the most dangerous men on the planet.
It was a ruthless game. An MI5 psychologist checking on my suitability as a spy once asked me: ‘What would you do if you were with Al Qaeda and ordered to execute a prisoner?’ Before I could reply, he told me what I knew was the only answer: ‘You’d kill him to avoid attracting any suspicion or doubt.’
For years I had been fuelled by the need to stop the next attack, by the adrenaline rush and camaraderie with my handlers. But this lifestyle had brought me to the verge of a breakdown. It was time to opt out before it was too late.
My real name is Morten Storm and I was born in Denmark in 1976, a working-class boy with a drunk for a father and a violent stepfather who beat both me and my mother. I was 13 when I attempted my first armed robbery, holding up a shop with a hand gun.
It was the start of a downward spiral into crime, violence and prison. I smuggled, consumed ridiculous amounts of drugs and delighted in street brawls. Hailed at the age of 20 as ‘Denmark’s youngest psychopath’, I joined a biker gang known as the Bandidos, deadly rivals of the Hell’s Angels, whom they fought with guns and knives at every opportunity.
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Covert: The Danish national lived in fear, knowing if his true identity was discovered, he would be brutally executed
But I began to worry that the constant fixes of violence and drugs would eventually kill me. After one fight in which I hit a man with a baseball bat, I couldn’t get the sound of his knees and arms cracking out of my head. Perhaps I really was turning into a psychopath, and that made me start questioning the purpose of my life.
Then one day, I went into a library and, though I had never been religious, I picked up a life of the Prophet Muhammad.
I knew about Islam through immigrants I met on the streets, and had always envied the strength of their families and the bonds that united them while facing poverty and discrimination.
…For years I had been fuelled by the need to stop the next attack, by the adrenaline rush and camaraderie with my handlers
Now I was utterly absorbed as I read about the Prophet’s dignity and simplicity and the way he had fought for what he believed in. His words set out a system of belief that was both merciful and compassionate, offered absolution for sins and a pathway to a more fulfilling life. Islam could help me rein in my instincts and gain some self-discipline. I was converted.
I joined a mosque, where an imam welcomed me, and I declared my new-found faith — ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.’ He replied: ‘You are now a Muslim. Your sins are forgiven and you are my brother.’
A Muslim friend told me with a grin that I ought to be circumcised, ‘but it’s not compulsory. It’s more important that you now take a Muslim name’.
‘You should be “Murad”,’ he said. ‘It means “goal” or “achievement”.’ It seemed appropriate.
After that I prayed five times a day and wore an Islamic cap as I zealously soaked up the prescriptions of Islam. I felt a sense of stability I had never had before.
As part of this new life, I decided to move to England. At the Regent’s Park Mosque in London I was welcomed as a convert and encouraged to continue my studies in a Muslim country. A ticket to Yemen was offered, and I went. There, I was drawn deeper than ever into the intricacies of my new religion.
After the best part of a year, I returned to London. In Brixton, Hounslow, Shepherd’s Bush and Finchley, I came across mosques energised by a new militancy. Angry young men were looking to inflict revenge on the West for what they saw as its persecution of Muslims in many parts of the world.
Some began wearing combat fatigues to the mosque, among them a Jamaican-Englishman called Richard Reid, who years later would be jailed as the ‘shoe bomber’ for trying to blow up a plane with explosive powder hidden in his footwear.
Soon London — and especially the mosque at Finsbury Park — was the clearing-house for dozens of militants intent on acts of terrorism. They often had similar backgrounds: difficult or violent childhoods, little education and few prospects, no job and a lot of resentments. Just like me, in fact.
Demonstration: The converted Muslim formed part of protests against the U.S’s involvement in Iraq outside their embassy in London in 2005.
I, too, was increasingly radicalised. When I first became a Muslim, my view had been that jihad was a defensive duty rather than offensive warfare against other faiths. But now I was shifting towards support for taking up arms to defend the faith, crossing the line from talk to action.
I was back in Yemen with plans to travel to Osama Bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan when the Twin Towers in New York were attacked. I had to make a decision. Whose side was I on? With important Islamic clerics pronouncing that it was now permissible to kill civilians in pursuit of jihad and President Bush declaring, ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists’, I had no option. I could not side with the kuffar.
…Bin Laden became my hero. When my son was born in May 2002 I named him Osama. The following year, the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq seemed like another declaration of war against Muslims and another reason to embrace jihad
Bin Laden became my hero. When my son was born in May 2002 I named him Osama. The following year, the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq seemed like another declaration of war against Muslims and another reason to embrace jihad.
My commitment to the cause went beyond words. Back in Denmark I joined other would-be jihadists for training at paintball sites where we practised suicide-style attacks. Although I did not know it at the time, my activities and my militant messages online were being monitored by Danish intelligence.
In 2003, I returned to England and set up home in Luton, where the U.S. occupation of Iraq was fuelling more radicalism.
Talk of jihad was common, and after so much time in the Arab world among its militant leaders, I soon built up a following.
No level of violence or brutality seemed excessive as justifiable retribution for the invasion of Muslim lands. We took satisfaction from watching the video of kidnapped American civilian Nick Berg having his head sawn off in Iraq. I even managed to find a religious justification for the 2005 London Tube and bus bombings in which 52 people died and many hundreds were injured.
Yet deep down I was having nagging doubts about this targeting of civilians. To my mind, non-Muslims were fellow human beings, albeit misguided ones. I didn’t see the need to kill them.
I was lost for words when an Englishman I was working with as a nightclub bouncer asked me: ‘Why does Allah want people to kill other people? Don’t you think He would prefer you to teach them to read?’
His question troubled me. I realised that, since becoming a Muslim, I had learned to see enemies everywhere. I was defining myself by what I loathed, to distract myself from the anger and frustration that had been part of me since childhood. Wasn’t it better to reconcile than to hate?
But I put these thoughts aside as my network of extremist contacts round the world continued to grow. There were many youngsters in the West desperate to get to places like Somalia and Yemen to take up arms for the cause. I was desperate to become one of them myself.
I made plans to go to Somalia and was within days of departing when I was warned by Islamists there that it was too dangerous. I was devastated. Why was Allah, the all-knowing, making it so hard for me to serve Him by giving my life?
Difficult upbringing: At the age of 20, following a childhood filled with crime, he was labelled ‘Denmark’s youngest psychopath’ before he ‘found the prophet Muhammad’
And from that, other questions began to run though my head. Had I got Islam wrong? Was the true faith being distorted by militant preachers? One of its precepts is predestination — that Allah has decided everything, past, present and future. In which case, where was the capacity to make a difference if we were just helpless puppets?
Into my laptop I typed ‘Contradictions in the Koran’. And up came more than a million hits. Suddenly my faith was a house of cards that just came tumbling down.
I could no longer see any justification for jihadist attacks such as the Twin Towers and London 7/7. If they were in Allah’s preordained plan, then I no longer wanted any part of it. But I felt I couldn’t just walk away.
…I realised that, since becoming a Muslim, I had learned to see enemies everywhere. I was defining myself by what I loathed, to distract myself from the anger and frustration that had been part of me since childhood
I knew so much about my militant ‘brothers’ and their plans to wreak more terror. I needed to stop them from taking the lives of more innocents.
Not so long before, I had been quietly approached by PET, the Danish security and intelligence service. Like its counterparts, MI5, MI6 and the CIA, it was finding it difficult to penetrate rapidly growing terrorism networks. Inside information was hard to come by.
When they had first contacted me, I had sent them away with a flea in their ear. But what should I do now, after turning my back on Islam and jihad? If I called them and offered my services, there would be no turning back for me, no middle ground. I would have to lead a double life, one in which a single mistake could cost me my life.
But the alternative seemed worse. How could I stand by as people I knew brought carnage to Europe? So I made contact.
At my first meeting with two agents, I turned down the offer of coffee or water and ordered a bacon sandwich and a beer, both forbidden in Islam. It was my way of saying: ‘I’m on your side.’ I felt like a weight had been lifted from me.
‘I’ve decided I’m no longer a Muslim,’ I told them. ‘The religion that became my life has lost its meaning. I am ready to help you in the fight against terrorism.’
The task they set me was to go about my normal life among these people, keep my eyes and ears open, and report back on any potential threat. My initial arrangement was with the Danes, but soon it was agreed I should also report to MI5 in England, who set me up in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham, which had become a hotspot for Islamist radicals.
I needed a cover story to allay any suspicions about the cash I was receiving, so I was set up as a taxi driver. MI5 even bought me a Mercedes, with leather-trimmed seats. But taxi-driving wasn’t my cup of tea and I gave it up.
Developing extremism: After travelling to a militant madrassa in Yemen, Osama Bin Laden became his hero. He even named his son after him
With my wife Fadia, I lived in a rundown council house on a street littered with discarded needles and rubbish. She was far from happy, but for her sake, and mine, I couldn’t explain why. It was the price of my living a lie.
I had some preliminary training. Later, MI5 taught me counter-surveillance in Edinburgh and MI6 took me to a secret facility near Portsmouth harbour for role-playing games. It turned out I was a natural problem-solver.
I was let loose on the streets, where I used my connections and my credentials as an outspoken militant of many years’ standing to immerse myself in the extremist scene.
…At my first meeting with two agents, I turned down the offer of coffee or water and ordered a bacon sandwich and a beer, both forbidden in Islam. It was my way of saying: ‘I’m on your side.’ I felt like a weight had been lifted from me
My lifeline was the mobile phone with which I communicated with my handlers several times each day, running through information and ideas but always being careful with our language in case anyone was listening in.
Getting my ‘fellow’ extremists to open up was not difficult. Most loved nothing better than to chat. Soon my knowledge of the militant scene in the UK and my Rolodex of jihadists was generating results.
Hassan Tabbakh was a Syrian in his mid-30s, who confided to me that he had been learning how to build bombs and showed me sketches of targets in London, including Oxford Street and the area around Parliament.
‘Brother, what do you think? Will it work?’ he asked, inviting me to join the plot. He was a physics graduate, and I had little doubt he would be able to build the bombs. The question was when.
I alerted MI5 and discovered Tabbakh had not even been on their radar. He was the archetypal ‘lone-wolf terrorist’, the sort that are most difficult to detect. ‘We need you to stick very close to him,’ I was told, and I did.
As part of the operation to gain his trust, MI5 even staged the detaining of me at Gatwick airport — which further burnished my credentials among the militants in Birmingham.
Wary of blowing my cover, MI5 took elaborate steps to mask my role by shifting suspicion on to another of his associates. Tabbakh was arrested in December 2007 and later convicted of making bombs to launch a terrorist attack.
One killer was off the streets, thanks to me. There would be many others.
But my role was taking a personal toll. The espionage business was all-consuming, and even when things were slow, I found it difficult to switch off. Occasionally, I took long drives into the countryside for a pint in a pub and a chat with ordinary people. For a few precious minutes I just needed to drop the mask or I’d have gone mad.
Change: After he no could longer find any justification for attacks such as 9/11, he decided to help Western intelligence agencies when they contacted him
Many of the Islamic extremists I moved among turned out to be blowhards, talking big but thankfully doing nothing.
An exception was a British-Pakistani I knew only as Saheer. I discovered he was in his late 20s and already had a conviction for armed robbery. Like a growing number of young Muslims, he had been radicalised while in prison.
‘Brother, we need to fight back against the kuffar,’ he said, as we shared a yogurt cake in a Moroccan cafe. ‘Murad, I’d like to do a martyrdom operation. I want to die in an attack. I want to be killed “fee sabeel Allah” [for the sake of Allah].’
His chosen target was the office of a Danish newspaper that had run a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, which is why he was talking to me. As I listened to him outline plans, I told myself be neither dismissive nor overly eager to help. I had to go slowly and let this play out.
…The espionage business was all-consuming, and even when things were slow, I found it difficult to switch off. Occasionally, I took long drives into the countryside for a pint in a pub and a chat with ordinary people
Later, I called ‘Sunshine’, a vivacious woman in her early 30s who was one of my MI5 handlers. She met me in a Sainsbury’s car park near Birmingham and drove me to a large warehouse, one of MI5’s secret operations centres.
Andy, my chief handler, was waiting for me. I told him about Saheer. ‘He’s really dangerous, a total psycho. What the hell am I supposed to do?’ Andy replied: ‘You need to keep talking to him.’
Saheer was MI5’s worst nightmare — a savvy career criminal who was morphing into a jihadi with a death wish. And he was very security conscious. He only spoke to me when we were alone and outdoors, and each time he patted me down for any devices.
‘Just a precaution, brother,’ he’d say. But he was sharing his plans only with me. If he was arrested, not only would my cover be blown, but we would not get a conviction. It was all hearsay and I might be accused of entrapment.
I changed tack. I told him that a respected imam I’d met in Yemen had declared it permissible to sell drugs to raise money for jihad. And to find the cash for the weapons he needed, he did just that.
He asked me to join him on the Denmark attack, saying: ‘This is the best, Murad. We get to be shuhada [martyrs].’
‘I’m with you, brother. We are mujahideen and this is what we fight for. This is paradise,’ I replied, summoning up all the conviction I could manage. In my head I was thinking, how am I going to get out of this?
The day of our departure for Denmark loomed, but my MI5 handlers still kept me in the dark about what they were planning. I couldn’t sleep for worry as I contemplated what might happen.
A week before we were due to leave, British police arrested Saheer as he sold drugs on the streets of Birmingham. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. He later received a lengthy prison sentence.
For me, though, there were much bigger fish to fry. My principal target in all my years under cover was a highly dangerous radical on the run in the Yemen. The CIA were desperate to get him — and, as I will explain on Monday, they saw me as the one person who could hook him.