The American-born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki may have been targeted for a deadly drone strike by a Danish intelligence agent who has now spoken publicly on his role for the first time. The operation to eliminate the Yemeni terror threat to America apparently was an example of good cooperation between intelligence services of several countries to fight al Qaeda.
Awlaki died on Sept. 30, 2011, in a drone mission in a remote desert of Yemen. The New Mexico–born terrorist had established himself as both a key propagandist for al Qaeda and a key operational figure in its Yemeni franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki was a master of explaining al Qaeda’s narrative and ideology to potential recruits, especially those whose native language was not Arabic. He was the guiding hand behind AQAP’s English-language Web magazine, Inspire, which was full of his writings and interviews, as well as helpful tips such as how to make a bomb in your mother’s kitchen.
But Awlaki also was an operational leader. He persuaded the Nigerian terrorist Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalab to hide a bomb in his underwear, book a flight to America, and try to blow up himself and the plane. Al Qaeda’s Dec. 25, 2009, attack on Detroit, which failed only because the suicide bomber misfired his bomb, also was intended by Awlaki to provoke America into another Middle East war, this time in Yemen. Al Qaeda proudly said its goal was to snare America into “the final trap.” Awlaki tried again with two parcel bombs in October 2010 sent to addresses in Chicago. After the bombs were discovered, thanks to Saudi intelligence help, al Qaeda announced that the plot cost only $4,200 to pull off, and promised more to come to “hemorrhage” the American economy.
Now Danish television has broadcast an interview with a 36-year-old Danish citizen, Morten Storm, who says he provided the critical intelligence on Awlaki’s movements that set up the drone attack.
Storm grew up in Denmark with a troubled childhood, drifting into drugs and crime. In 1997, he says, he converted in jail to Islam, and then moved to Yemen to study the Quran. In 2000 he married a Yemeni who bore him a son two years later. They named him Osama. Storm adopted a nom de guerre, Murad Storm, and joined jihadist circles.
According to his story, in 2006 he changed his mind and approached the Danish intelligence service, PET, offering to spy on al Qaeda in Yemen. Five years later he had worked his way into AQAP’s top circles and to Awlaki. European and American converts to Islam are very valuable to al Qaeda, since they bring passports that allow them easy access to the West. This Dane claims he really was working as an informant for the Scandinavian country’s small but very effective intelligence service.
The interview has ignited a controversy in Denmark about whether the country’s intelligence service should be involved in helping with drone attacks. Awlaki’s death is, of course, controversial in the U.S. as well, since he was an American citizen.
The saga of Mr. Storm is important in another respect, however, because it shows that the war against al Qaeda is fought by a coalition of intelligence services pooling information to infiltrate the terror network’s ranks and target its leadership. Eleven years after 9/11, such international intelligence cooperation is more important than ever.