Man says he played al Qaeda matchmaker
05:41 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Danish newspaper says agent Morten Storm offered to help find al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

The plot involved finding the cleric a Western wife, putting a tracking device in her suitcase

The plot was apparently foiled when the woman left the suitcase behind

Al-Awlaki was later killed in a U.S. drone strike

CNN  — 

The story would not be out of place on the TV thriller “Homeland”: the Danish petty criminal turned double agent who receives $250,000 in cash for helping the CIA try to ensnare one of al Qaeda’s most wanted – by finding him a wife.

The wanted man was American-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who had become one of the most effective propagandists for the group. The bride-to-be was a pretty blonde from Croatia. The agent was Morten Storm, who had long moved in radical Islamist circles and had apparently won the trust of al-Awlaki during a stay in Yemen in 2006.

But unknown to his militant “brothers,” Storm had contacted Danish intelligence late in 2006 and offered his services. They had brought in the CIA. And when al-Awlaki fled the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, for a remote desert hide-out, Storm became one of the contacts the agency tried to use to pinpoint al-Awlaki and take him out of circulation.

The Danish biker and the trail that led to Al Qaeda’s most wanted

According to Storm’s account, in a series of lengthy interviews with the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, one of his many meetings with al-Awlaki took place at a desert camp in Shabwa province in September 2009.

“He asked if I knew a woman from the West he could marry. I think that he lacked someone who could better understand his Western mind-set,” Storm told Jyllands Posten.

Al-Awlaki, according to Storm, already had two Arab wives, but they lived in Sanaa. He wanted a white Muslim convert who could be his “companion in hiding” in remote tribal areas.

Neither the CIA nor the Danish intelligence agency PET has publicly commented on Storm’s account, and the story might seem implausible were it not for copious evidence shown by Storm to Jyllands Posten. The evidence includes video recordings exchanged by al-Awlaki and his bride-to-be, communications from al-Awlaki, travel receipts and a photograph of a briefcase stuffed with $250,000 in cash that Storm said he had received from the CIA.

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Storm said that two months after returning from Yemen, he stumbled across a Facebook group supportive of al-Awlaki, whose charismatic online sermons had earned him rock-star status in jihadist circles. Storm added a comment requesting support, and several days later, a Croatian woman replied, asking him what he needed.

Aminah, a pretty 33-year-old with long blond hair who worked with young disabled people in Zagreb, had recently converted to Islam and become a fan of al-Awlaki. After a series of exchanges with Storm through Facebook, she said she would be keen to marry the cleric, according to Storm.

He sent word back to al-Awlaki in Yemen, and on December 11, 2009, the cleric got in touch, asking for more information.

In a follow-up message three days later, according to Storm, al-Awlaki relayed this message to her:

“I will make a few things clear. Firstly, I don’t live in a fixed location, and therefore my living conditions are varied. Sometimes I live in a tent. Secondly, I sometimes have to live isolated from others, which means that I and my family cannot meet other people. If you can live in these difficult conditions, and do not mind solitude and restrictions in your communication with the outside world, it is excellent.”

Al-Awlaki may have expected his living conditions to deteriorate. A few days later – on Christmas Day 2009 – a Nigerian student recruited by al-Awlaki in Yemen tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear. The attack would bring new urgency to efforts to track down al-Awlaki.

Read more: ‘Underwear bomber’ moved to ‘Supermax’ prison

At some point, Storm told PET that he was in contact with a woman willing to marry al-Awlaki. The Danes, he told Jyllands Posten, contacted the CIA, which saw an opportunity to try to find the terrorist cleric.

The plan the CIA and PET settled on, according to Storm, was to plant a tracking device in Aminah’s suitcase.

“It was intended that she could lead us to Anwar. PET was there all along, and knew the consequences if the plan succeeded, namely that al-Awlaki likely would be killed, and that there was a risk that Aminah would also go up in smoke,” Storm told Jyllands Posten.

On February 17, 2010, al-Awlaki got in touch with Storm suggesting he meet Aminah:

“If you visit her, I can upload a video recording of myself as (an) encrypted file, and you can get her to hear it, so she is sure that (it) is me,” the cleric wrote.

In a follow-up message several days later, al-Awlaki told Storm to tell Aminah his living conditions had improved.

Read more: Security official for U.S. Embassy in Yemen killed

“I currently do not live in a tent, but in a house (that) belongs to a friend. I’m not leaving the house, and am in a situation for my wife to be with me all the time. I prefer this residence (to) a tent in the mountains, because it gives me ability to read, write and research.”

Storm says that after receiving that message, he met with his PET and CIA handlers in the Danish town of Helsingor. He says a longtime CIA contact in Denmark called Jed and a CIA official who had flown in from Washington and called himself Alex were present.

Storm told Jyllands Posten that with CIA operatives shadowing him, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, and on March 8, 2010, he met Aminah outside the international bus station in the city center.

Storm said he was left in little doubt about her devotion to al-Awlaki.

“Do you know the consequences?” he said he asked her. “Yes, I’m ready,” Aminah replied.

Storm said that at al-Awlaki’s request, he showed her how to send encrypted e-mail communications by downloading jihadist encryption software.

At a second meeting in Vienna, Storm showed Aminah a short video recording made by al-Awlaki, who was dressed in white robes in front of a pink background with a floral motif.

“This recording is done specifically for Sister Aminah at her request … I pray Allah guides to that which is best for you in this life and in the hereafter. And guides you to choose what is better for you regarding this proposal,” al-Awlaki said, in a section posted on the Jyllands Posten website.

Storm said Aminah burst into tears when she heard these words.

Read more about Al Qaeda on CNN’s Security Clearance blog

She then recorded two short videos for al-Awlaki. In the first video, she wore a full black veil with just her face visible. Speaking in heavily accented English, she said: “I will accept everything that is needed to do now this way that I have chosen and inshallah Allah will help us.”

In the second video, Aminah took off her veil and said: “Brother, it’s me without the scarf, so you can see my hair … I hope you are happy with me, inshallah,” according to Jyllands Posten.

At the same meeting, Storm handed Aminah a suitcase that had been rigged with a tracking device.

On May 18, 2010, Storm traveled to Vienna a third time to buy Aminah’s plane ticket to Yemen and hand over $3,000 in cash on behalf of al-Awlaki, he told Jyllands Posten. Aminah and the suitcase arrived in Sanaa at the beginning of June, and Storm’s work was done.

Two days later, one of his Danish intelligence handlers texted him: “Congratulations brother, you just got rich, very rich,” Jyllands Posten published the text Sunday on its website.

Storm said that on June 9, 2010, a CIA agent handed him a briefcase at a Crowne Plaza hotel near Copenhagen, Denmark. “What’s the code?” Storm asked. “Try 007,” the agent responded. Inside was $250,000.

But the plot didn’t work. Aminah spent several weeks in Sanaa, and then a messenger arrived to arrange her travel to meet al-Awlaki. For security reasons – among them concerns about tracking devices – she was told to leave her suitcase behind.

Aminah and al-Awlaki married shortly afterward. Al-Awlaki sent Storm a message