Sunday, September 28, 2014

Illustrating the value of HUMINT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, counterintelligence, spies, terrorism, memoirs

My first exposure to Muslims was in graduate school, where many classmates were from Iran and Saudi Arabia. I guess that makes sense for a graduate program in Geology. My collecting partner the first two years was an Alaskan who had married a woman from Iran and had converted to Islam. We didn't talk much about religion, mainly because the branch of Shi'a to which he belonged was not particularly evangelical. But I did observe him and his co-religionists, as I suppose he observed me, as it was known that I led a small church. One particular event has stuck with me.

We had returned from a day in the field, and happened to meet two Iranian men in the lab. He cheerfully greeted them, "As salamu alaykum!" One remained silent, and the other, almost shamefacedly, mumbled the standard Arabic response. I am familiar with such things. Converts to a faith are typically more ardent than "old hands" who have been brought up in it. Those guys would probably defend Islam to the death, but were only glancingly observant in their daily life. They were the Islamic version of "nominal Christians".

There is another characteristic of religious conversion. After a number of years, or a decade or two, one who was converted as an adult is somewhat likely to re-convert, either to a different faith, or back to the former one. While most converts retain their new faith their whole life, a significant number do not. Having been "elsewhere" for their formative years, they are more open to different ideas.

In the case of Morten Storm, his conversion to Islam at age 20 was rapid and almost a shattering experience. He'd been quite a troublemaker, in and out of jail in his native Denmark. But he developed a conscience and became disaffected with gang life. He read about Islam in a local library book and was entranced. He plunged into his new faith, and was soon radicalized, even traveling to Yemen, both to learn Arabic and to live among the most devoted Muslims he knew of. He initially followed Salafism, which is comparatively peaceable. His progress into fully radical Islam, and later disaffection with it, to the point of working for three Western intelligence agencies, are revealed in Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, written with Paul Cruikshank and Tim Lister.

Islam is not the monolithic entity Westerners tend to see. There are "denominations" that compete strongly with one another. The competition and even hatred within Islam got to Storm's conscience, and after ten years, shortly after being questioned by an agent of the Danish intelligence agency PET, he contacted them and began a near-decade of living a double life. He tells of his association with many radical leaders in Yemen, Denmark, London and elsewhere. The core of the drama is work that led to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011.

Morten Storm had considered Awlaki a friend, in spite of his disgust with Awlaki's plans to terrorize civilians, and felt guilty over his death. He was at that time working with both the CIA and PET and MI6. The Americans drove the assassination, against the objections of the Danish and British agents. They'd promised Storm quite a reward for his work, but cut him loose right afterward, claiming they had used other channels to reach Awlaki, not him. He had the documentation to prove them wrong, but they ignored him.

I have read a number of memoirs of former CIA "overseas assets", who were all treated shabbily. The CIA has a pattern of courting an "asset" very diligently (and expensively) but later dropping the ball, leaving him dangling. Such cavalier behavior has a lot to do with the CIA's poor reputation in the spy world.

However it happened, Storm had a third conversion, so to speak. He actually made one more go at helping PET against other al Qaeda leaders who still trusted him, so much so that MI6 and the CIA regained interest. But he was warned by another "asset" that the CIA was planning to allow him to be killed along with their next target. This may or may not have been true, but he was sufficiently distrustful that he decided to get out of the spy business. That is no easy task, and his last chapter is titled "A Spy in the Cold", indicating that neither CIA nor MI6 nor PET did anything to rehabilitate him or even offer him protection.

In the epilogue, we find that he had to rehabilitate himself. Somehow, he managed. The street kid from Denmark had the street smarts to record key conversations, which probably kept the various agencies at arms' length. All the spy agencies have been remarkably slow at recognizing the power of the phone in everyone's pocket. His co-authors simply state that he now lives in "an undisclosed location". May it remain undisclosed.

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