American-born al-Qaeda leader Anwar Al Awlaki was killed by US drone strikes in Yemen in September 2011.
It turns out that the CIA may have gotten help from a Danish double-agent to get to their target.
Journalist Orla Borg writes for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He’s one of the co-winners of the European Press Prize for his story on double-agent Morten Storm.
Before becoming a double-agent, Storm says he was a biker turned Jihadist, who eventually lost his faith in Islam.
Reporter Orla Borg says he and his co-writers interviewed Storm for 120 hours to check his extraordinary account.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. We’ve heard a lot about drone strikes recently. They were the subject of that leaked memo authorizing the killing of US citizens who become operational leaders within al Qaeda or its branches. The White House is under growing pressure to make that target selection process more transparent, especially when the target is an American. Such was the case with Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki. He was killed in September 2011 by a US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki was a US-born American citizen and an operational leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Turns out the CIA tracked him down with the help of a double agent with Denmark’s intelligent service, the PET. That’s according to the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Orla Borg is with the paper. He’s one of the co-winners of the European Press Prize for his story about the double agent Morten Storm. Borg says he received a call from Storm in October 2011 and later interviewed him for 120 hours to check out his extraordinary account.
Orla Borg: It appears that Morten Storm back in 1997 converted to Islam and traveled to Yemen to study Islam and study Arabic. And there he had become friends with Anwar Awlaki, whom he met in the capital of Yemen, Sana’a.
Werman: How do we know that’s true that in ’97 he had this conversion?
Borg: Well, we didn’t know and some of the other stories we didn’t know, but when we started to ask questions he showed us pictures from that time. He played recordings with conversations he would have had with Awlaki over the phone. He played videos with Awlaki. He showed us emails and the way they were decrypted when they were writing together over the internet, on Facebook or through USB sticks. So it was obvious that what he was telling us was the truth and that it was possible for us as newspaper to people to actually document it.
Werman: Now, according to Morten Storm’s narrative he had been a sympathizer of Anwar Awlaki, but he says it was a series of complicated events that prompted a crisis of faith and left him disillusioned with the cause of Jihad. Do you know what it was? What were those events?
Borg: Morten Storm is an extremist in every way. When he does something he does it to the extreme. Once he became a Muslim he went into Islam and became a jihadist and an extremist and he wanted so much to go and fight for Islam. This was in 2005 where in Somalia the Islamic courts had actually gained control of a quite large area of Somalia and they were trying to install the Sharia. Now, Morten Storm had friends there and he was prepared to fight Jihad there, but then he got a call from the friends in Somalia saying don’t come here. The Ethiopian troops have taken control, so if you land here they’ll arrest you right away. At that time in Morten Storm’s mind he was all dressed up, but had no where to go then. And he says that that started frustration inside him that actually made him doubt what he was about to do. And then he turned totally around and turned against Islam and started working for the Danish Intelligence Service.
Werman: You know, I assume it’s standard operating procedure that intelligence agencies like the CIA and MI6 and the Danish PET would not permit agents and double agents to talk about their activities. Isn’t he putting himself in danger doing this?
Borg: Yeah, definitely, because now the al Qaeda will know that he had helped the Americans locate Awlaki. And in this process we asked him several times, we would like to do your story, but we’d like to do it anonymously–give another name and so on, but he said no, I want my name out.
Werman: There is also something just driving him that’s kind of inexplicable to me. I mean he took a quarter million dollars in cash from the Danish Secret Service to keep quiet and yet he didn’t. He had something else driving him. Do you know what that was?
Borg: I think it’s some sort of pride. You have to remember that before Morten Storm became a Muslim he was a member of a biker’s gang and in that environment pride and acknowledgement really matters. We’ve asked him 10 times why you want to step forward with this when you can lead a quiet life, and his answer has always been I want people to know what I’ve done and who I am. My family and friends think that within the last six years I’ve been a total Islamist, whereas I’ve been helping fighting terrorism and I’m proud of that. The Danish intelligence offered him $250,000 to keep quiet. Now, if anybody gave anybody else an offer like that they would take the money and run. So why doesn’t he? I mean he wants some recognition for his actions.
Werman: I mean I would imagine that in a court of law if this were a trial, the prosecution would point to Morten Storm and say are you really gonna trust a guy like this?
Borg: Yes, and that’s what we asked ourselves the first couple of times we met him. So we’ve interviewed him over 120 hours and we’ve documented every single thing we have put in the paper. And we believe his story is true. The only place where we really can’t prove his story is that the CIA say yes, Morten Storm, you did work for us, you did help us, you did try to track down Awlaki for us…but it wasn’t your mission that actually lead to the tracking down and the killing of Awlaki. There was a different parallel mission that actually lead us, i.e. the Americans, to Awlaki. So we’ve never been able to prove that it was his mission that lead to Awlaki, but we have documented very strongly that he tried together with the CIA and the Danish intelligence to do so.
Werman: Orla Borg with the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Thank you very much indeed.
Borg: You’re welcome.
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