.
F

ew books on the recent history of Iraq focus on Iraqis themselves, at least those published in the West. Look at any bookstore’s shelves and you will find countless books written by soldiers, statesmen, and spies from the various services and agencies of the United States. Some are powerful and poignant memoirs, others are “boys-own” action stories of SEALs (ever the quiet professionals) on raids taking down terrorists. There are even books about the heroics of the military working dogs who served alongside the soldiers and Marines on-the-ground.

The Spymaster of Baghdad | Margaret Coker | Dey Street Books | February 2021.

Very few, by contrast, focus on the Iraqis themselves. There are few books outside of academic studies on the contributions of Iraqis to the security of their country in the face of post-invasion chaos and, later, the horrific violence of the Islamic State. The Iraqis always seem to be in the background or on the sidelines, bit players in their own country’s tragedies and triumphs, alongside the Americans and Iranians, but not central players. Fewer still focus on those Iraqis who were involved in the shadows, the intelligence officers and spies who waged the secret war against terrorists and insurgents across the country.

That this is the case is not surprising, yet it is still a shortcoming. The United States had the preponderance of power on-the-ground until the withdrawal in 2012—and later return to combat the Islamic State. I suspect that there is also, and sadly, little appetite in the broader American public for stories of the Iraqi sacrifices in this conflict, except, perhaps for the occasional story of the heroic interpreters who served alongside the Tier One units.

Ms. Margaret Coker, the former Baghdad Bureau Chief of the New York Times, aims to and succeeds in her part rectifying this omission in her forthcoming book Spymaster of Baghdad. Ms. Coker weaves together a spy story worthy of John le Carré, a reflection on war and its consequences that evokes Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names, and a generational familial drama that is reminiscent of Karl Marlantes’ Deep River. Its constituent parts are riveting in and of themselves, but Ms. Coker brings them together in such a powerful way that it goes well beyond its “spy genre” label.

The Falcons of Iraq

It is, of course, at its core a story about Iraq’s spymaster—Abu Ali al-Basri—and his “Falcons”, an intelligence unit dedicated to taking down specific targets, so named as they targeted the top terrorist and insurgent targets, rather than groups as a whole. Abu Ali is almost an Iraqi George Smiley, quiet, reserved, and observant. He is in the background, but invaluable in his insights and ability to see data amidst the noise.

How Abu Ali came to this role is a fascinating story in and of itself. Having escaped Iraq first, fearing for his life at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat (and meeting his wife along the way), and joining Nouri al-Maliki and the Dawa Party before returning to the country after the 2003 invasion. His survival skills (honed whilst trying to survive Iraq before leaving), his powers of observation, and his consummate networking would serve him well in the politicking of post-invasion Baghdad.

Prime Minister al-Maliki came to rely upon him, especially as his intelligence services failed to provide unvarnished truth to power, seeing conspiracies where there were none and pushing a sectarian narrative. The U.S.-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service, headed by Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, was not up to the task, slowly losing the faith of the prime minister, especially after it suggested the bombing of the al-Askari mosque was a false flag operation run by the Iranians.

Abu Ali deftly navigates the minefield of competing security and intelligence services, operating in the shadows and achieving incredible successes. Ms. Coker rightly places him in the context of Iraq’s tumultuous politics, but only as necessary. It is enough to know where he sits and how he navigates those turbulent waters, without diving into the deep end of what was certainly a tempest at the best of times. Abu Ali reprises his role as Iraq’s intelligence director, for Haider al-Abadi, where he achieves his greatest successes against the Islamic State.

The Lives of Others

Ms. Coker offers readers a fascinating look into Iraqi daily life during the post-invasion chaos, the resulting violence, and the rise and terror of the Islamic State. There is a richness here that demands to be read. A consistent theme I try to find in the books I read, is understanding the world from different perspectives, from different views. Ms. Coker’s storytelling here takes the reader inside two Iraqi families, their tensions and dramas, the strains between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all of which are so familiar. Ms. Coker provides a much-needed human and Iraqi face to the conflict. It is so insightful into Iraqi familial hierarchies and community life, in both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, that one imagines the U.S. military would have wished this to be in print during the reconstruction period post-2003.

She charts the transformation of two brothers, one elder, Harith, and from whom much was expected, and the other younger, Munaf, who was largely overlooked. Harith became a black sheep, falling in love and failing out of college. With the help of his younger brother, he joins the Falcons and Abu Ali; he volunteers for an incredible mission to infiltrate the Islamic State and stops dozens of car and suicide bombings throughout his career. Munaf becomes an operations officer, running agents, supporting his brother, and stymying the Islamic State.

Ms. Coker also captures how one young middle-class Iraqi woman, Abrar, became radicalized, how she, like many, fell under the siren call of the Islamic State, charting a much different path than her family had hoped for her. Ms. Coker’s treatment of the journey of Abrar from a university student and researcher to the Islamic State is done with care and attention, so much so that it would be worth studying for its insights into the process of radicalization. How did this woman who wanted for little and for whom the world was open turn her back on everything and join one of, if not the most, violent Islamist terrorist groups?

The Art of Human Intelligence

Ms. Coker’s book would do John le Carré—and undoubtedly any number of Operations Officers—proud for her treatment of the role, value, and challenges of human intelligence and agent running. This book is not about the high-tech gadgetry of surveillance drones, signals intercepts, or cyber intelligence, though all three play a role in this story. It is about the unrivaled value of the man or woman on-the-ground or in the loop with access to the information. It is about the delicate art of handling a source, an agent, or an informant.

Human intelligence is about teasing out the key information not through fists—as some Iraqi intelligence and security organs prefer—but through the manipulation of cultural norms (such as one’s motherly love) and the establishment of personal relationships. It is about the endless waiting for a source to make contact, knowing that there is nothing the officer can do to make time go by faster or make the meeting happen sooner. Ms. Coker’s book is about human intelligence in action and knowing people and what makes them tick, and it is riveting.

Spymaster builds slowly, with the first act laying out the stories of the protagonists in rich detail. How Abu Ali left Iraq, connected with the Dawa Party and Nouri al-Maliki, and how he rose to his titular position. How the al-Sudani family dynamic shaped the brothers Harith and Munaf to become the men they would ultimately be. And how Arbar went from a promising young student and researcher, to develop chemical weapons for the Islamic State. The second act sees their stories mature and the plotlines begin to intersect, with the al-Sudani brothers joining Abu Ali, laying the foundation for the third act which races by better than any thriller on the market. With Netflix’s Mosul attracting a lot of attention, one hopes that one of the streaming services picks up Spymaster for the big-screen treatment. This story easily rivals Mosul, Tehran, or Fauda.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Spymaster of Baghdad

January 16, 2021

The Spymaster of Baghdad | Margaret Coker | Dey Street Books | February 2021.

F

ew books on the recent history of Iraq focus on Iraqis themselves, at least those published in the West. Look at any bookstore’s shelves and you will find countless books written by soldiers, statesmen, and spies from the various services and agencies of the United States. Some are powerful and poignant memoirs, others are “boys-own” action stories of SEALs (ever the quiet professionals) on raids taking down terrorists. There are even books about the heroics of the military working dogs who served alongside the soldiers and Marines on-the-ground.

The Spymaster of Baghdad | Margaret Coker | Dey Street Books | February 2021.

Very few, by contrast, focus on the Iraqis themselves. There are few books outside of academic studies on the contributions of Iraqis to the security of their country in the face of post-invasion chaos and, later, the horrific violence of the Islamic State. The Iraqis always seem to be in the background or on the sidelines, bit players in their own country’s tragedies and triumphs, alongside the Americans and Iranians, but not central players. Fewer still focus on those Iraqis who were involved in the shadows, the intelligence officers and spies who waged the secret war against terrorists and insurgents across the country.

That this is the case is not surprising, yet it is still a shortcoming. The United States had the preponderance of power on-the-ground until the withdrawal in 2012—and later return to combat the Islamic State. I suspect that there is also, and sadly, little appetite in the broader American public for stories of the Iraqi sacrifices in this conflict, except, perhaps for the occasional story of the heroic interpreters who served alongside the Tier One units.

Ms. Margaret Coker, the former Baghdad Bureau Chief of the New York Times, aims to and succeeds in her part rectifying this omission in her forthcoming book Spymaster of Baghdad. Ms. Coker weaves together a spy story worthy of John le Carré, a reflection on war and its consequences that evokes Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names, and a generational familial drama that is reminiscent of Karl Marlantes’ Deep River. Its constituent parts are riveting in and of themselves, but Ms. Coker brings them together in such a powerful way that it goes well beyond its “spy genre” label.

The Falcons of Iraq

It is, of course, at its core a story about Iraq’s spymaster—Abu Ali al-Basri—and his “Falcons”, an intelligence unit dedicated to taking down specific targets, so named as they targeted the top terrorist and insurgent targets, rather than groups as a whole. Abu Ali is almost an Iraqi George Smiley, quiet, reserved, and observant. He is in the background, but invaluable in his insights and ability to see data amidst the noise.

How Abu Ali came to this role is a fascinating story in and of itself. Having escaped Iraq first, fearing for his life at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat (and meeting his wife along the way), and joining Nouri al-Maliki and the Dawa Party before returning to the country after the 2003 invasion. His survival skills (honed whilst trying to survive Iraq before leaving), his powers of observation, and his consummate networking would serve him well in the politicking of post-invasion Baghdad.

Prime Minister al-Maliki came to rely upon him, especially as his intelligence services failed to provide unvarnished truth to power, seeing conspiracies where there were none and pushing a sectarian narrative. The U.S.-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service, headed by Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, was not up to the task, slowly losing the faith of the prime minister, especially after it suggested the bombing of the al-Askari mosque was a false flag operation run by the Iranians.

Abu Ali deftly navigates the minefield of competing security and intelligence services, operating in the shadows and achieving incredible successes. Ms. Coker rightly places him in the context of Iraq’s tumultuous politics, but only as necessary. It is enough to know where he sits and how he navigates those turbulent waters, without diving into the deep end of what was certainly a tempest at the best of times. Abu Ali reprises his role as Iraq’s intelligence director, for Haider al-Abadi, where he achieves his greatest successes against the Islamic State.

The Lives of Others

Ms. Coker offers readers a fascinating look into Iraqi daily life during the post-invasion chaos, the resulting violence, and the rise and terror of the Islamic State. There is a richness here that demands to be read. A consistent theme I try to find in the books I read, is understanding the world from different perspectives, from different views. Ms. Coker’s storytelling here takes the reader inside two Iraqi families, their tensions and dramas, the strains between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all of which are so familiar. Ms. Coker provides a much-needed human and Iraqi face to the conflict. It is so insightful into Iraqi familial hierarchies and community life, in both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, that one imagines the U.S. military would have wished this to be in print during the reconstruction period post-2003.

She charts the transformation of two brothers, one elder, Harith, and from whom much was expected, and the other younger, Munaf, who was largely overlooked. Harith became a black sheep, falling in love and failing out of college. With the help of his younger brother, he joins the Falcons and Abu Ali; he volunteers for an incredible mission to infiltrate the Islamic State and stops dozens of car and suicide bombings throughout his career. Munaf becomes an operations officer, running agents, supporting his brother, and stymying the Islamic State.

Ms. Coker also captures how one young middle-class Iraqi woman, Abrar, became radicalized, how she, like many, fell under the siren call of the Islamic State, charting a much different path than her family had hoped for her. Ms. Coker’s treatment of the journey of Abrar from a university student and researcher to the Islamic State is done with care and attention, so much so that it would be worth studying for its insights into the process of radicalization. How did this woman who wanted for little and for whom the world was open turn her back on everything and join one of, if not the most, violent Islamist terrorist groups?

The Art of Human Intelligence

Ms. Coker’s book would do John le Carré—and undoubtedly any number of Operations Officers—proud for her treatment of the role, value, and challenges of human intelligence and agent running. This book is not about the high-tech gadgetry of surveillance drones, signals intercepts, or cyber intelligence, though all three play a role in this story. It is about the unrivaled value of the man or woman on-the-ground or in the loop with access to the information. It is about the delicate art of handling a source, an agent, or an informant.

Human intelligence is about teasing out the key information not through fists—as some Iraqi intelligence and security organs prefer—but through the manipulation of cultural norms (such as one’s motherly love) and the establishment of personal relationships. It is about the endless waiting for a source to make contact, knowing that there is nothing the officer can do to make time go by faster or make the meeting happen sooner. Ms. Coker’s book is about human intelligence in action and knowing people and what makes them tick, and it is riveting.

Spymaster builds slowly, with the first act laying out the stories of the protagonists in rich detail. How Abu Ali left Iraq, connected with the Dawa Party and Nouri al-Maliki, and how he rose to his titular position. How the al-Sudani family dynamic shaped the brothers Harith and Munaf to become the men they would ultimately be. And how Arbar went from a promising young student and researcher, to develop chemical weapons for the Islamic State. The second act sees their stories mature and the plotlines begin to intersect, with the al-Sudani brothers joining Abu Ali, laying the foundation for the third act which races by better than any thriller on the market. With Netflix’s Mosul attracting a lot of attention, one hopes that one of the streaming services picks up Spymaster for the big-screen treatment. This story easily rivals Mosul, Tehran, or Fauda.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.