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The Danish agent, the Croatian blonde and the CIA plot to get al-Awlaki

By Paul Cruickshank, Tim Lister and Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 8:54 PM EDT, Wed October 24, 2012
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

Read a version of this story in Arabic

(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.

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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.

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"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.

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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 thanking him for arranging the marriage. She had not only lived up to expectations, al-Awlaki wrote in a message viewed by Jyllands Posten, but was ".... much better!"

Last year, when Storm returned to Yemen on what he described as another mission for Danish intelligence, he and al-Awlaki exchanged several messages. In one obtained by Jyllands Posten, al-Awlaki requested that Storm send products from Sanaa for his new wife, including hair conditioner.

Al-Awlaki was eventually tracked down and killed in a drone strike at the end of September of last year. Storm insists it was his work that finally tracked down al-Awlaki -- using a messenger carrying a USB memory stick that included a tracking device.

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But in a conversation taped by Storm at a Helsingor hotel late last year, an American called Michael insisted that a separate stream of intelligence had led to al-Awlaki.

Storm didn't believe him. "I am convinced that the CIA seized the messenger ... but the Americans apparently won't recognize that it was an agent of PET and the small country, Denmark, which led to the detection of Anwar," he told Jyllands Posten.

After al-Awlaki's death, Aminah continued to communicate with Storm through encrypted messages, unaware that he had been working with Western intelligence. A few months ago, she said she was working on Inspire, the online magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

She also suggested she wanted to be involved in a terrorist attack, according to Jyllands Posten.

"I would be making a martyr operation, but Sheikh Basir (al Wuhayshi, the emir of AQAP) said that the sisters so far (can) not carry out operations because it will mean a lot of problems for them ... so I can not perform operation. ... I want to be killed the same way as my husband was ... Insha'Allah," she wrote.

Aminah's whereabouts today are unknown. CNN has been in touch with Storm, who is in hiding after several death threats from militant Islamists who were once his comrades.

Read more: U.S. killing of al-Awlaki prompts moral, legal debate

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