BOOK REVIEW: The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle Against ISIS
by Margaret Coker / Dey Street Books
Reviewed by Sonya Lim, former CIA Chief of Station
THE REVIEWER — Sonya Seunghye Lim is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. Before retiring from the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, she had a 24-year distinguished career in the Directorate of Operations, to include two assignments as Chief of Station. She served as Chief of Operations Iraq Operations Group at CIA Headquarters.
REVIEW — The shelves of bookstores and libraries abound with titles on America’s long and bloody involvement in Iraq. Almost all of these books—whether focused on military actions, intelligence operations, or diplomatic work—are written from the perspective of the outsider looking in. The outsider may be a keen and empathetic observer, but he or she is still an outsider.
While the author of The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle Against ISIS, Margaret Coker, is a renowned US journalist, she writes from the perspective of her Iraqi subject; she brings the reader into their houses and onto Baghdad’s restive streets. The reader becomes a fly on the wall in myriad clandestine meetings where the fates of Iraqis were decided by a handful of tenacious human beings —the Spymaster and the members of his intelligence unit, the Falcons.
The author stated that the aim of the book was to “illuminate the admirable role that Iraqis have played and the sacrifices they have made for their country and the world in the war on terror.” Coker achieved this and much more. Stitching together the discrete lives and motivations of the characters, the author elucidated the axioms of intelligence operations—protection of sources and methods and impeccable tradecraft—and the dire consequences of failing to uphold these axioms.
The situation in Iraq since the 1990s, has been tumultuous, chaotic, and violent. The author accurately depicts two divergent paths that some Iraqis took—one group that sought to save lives and another that strove only to kill everyone who disagreed with their intolerant worldview.
Iraq has suffered from inveterate mistrust, tribalism, and self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Absence of leadership, incompetence of security agencies, and rising sectarian terrorist attacks plagued the fledgling government of Iraq. Out of desperation, then-Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki entrusted Abu Ali al-Basri to do something to stem the flowing tide of violence, to help in the creation of a more stable environment in which other needed reforms could be instituted. Abu Ali al-Basri’s response was to create the Falcons, an intelligence unit dedicated to fight terrorist groups, to include Al-Qaida and later ISIS. Abu Ali al-Basri had decades of tradecraft experiences and skills that he honed while on the run from Saddam Hussein’s secret police.
In 2006, the spymaster assembled his team of officers, beginning with three and then expanding to 12 by 2010. The Falcons identified, developed, recruited, and ran informants who penetrated Al-Qaida and later ISIS networks; they fed critical intelligence to Iraqi and Western allied forces; and they played a key role in dismantling terror networks in Iraq. To paraphrase one of the Falcons’ members, Bassam, intelligence successes were built on brains, patience, and manipulation.
Two key members of the Falcons—Harith and Munaf al-Sudani—were brothers from Sadr City, known in Iraq as a Shiite ghetto. While telling their story, the author paints a vivid picture of the fetid living circumstances of Sadr City during and after Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The Al-Sudani brothers were born into a world where one’s fate is determined by one’s religion, tribal affiliation, and domicile. Nevertheless, the al-Sudani brothers found a rare way to change their fortunes and were determined to live for justice (in the case of Munaf) and for Iraq (in the case of Harith).
The author juxtaposes these individuals with Abrar al-Kubaisi, who was born into a well-respected Sunni family in the desirable Amariya neighborhood of Baghdad, only a few miles from Sadr City. Abrar’s favored education and pedigree, as well as her relatively secular Sunni upbringing, did nothing to dissuade her from dedicating herself to the murderous ways of ISIS. Triggered by the death of her beloved sister and brother-in-law at a checkpoint manned by US Forces, Abrar descended into fanaticism and madness. As Abrar’s hatred of “the others” grew, she began losing her humanity. Abrar’s tragic and all-to-familiar story serves as a sober reminder of how doctrines and rhetoric that stoke hate and revenge can be alluring and intoxicating.
The author evinces her appreciation for Abu Ali al-Basri’s uncompromising tenets of discretion, compartmentalization, and secrecy and his resolve to marshal these principles and practices to protect his agents. In the world of intelligence—and in journalism—protection of sources and methods is paramount. Case officers dealing with agents and prospective agents hence take painstaking measures in each and every encounter to protect the identities of their sources. They understand that behind the nameless assignations of agent codes are human beings, who would face torture or even death if compromised, whose kith and kin may well face a similar sad fate. The order of this jargon—sources and methods—is not happenstance: Protect the sources, and then see to the methods. Without the first, the second is inconsequential.
Abu Ali al-Basri and his Falcons fought against unequivocal evil that was determined to destroy Iraq as a nation-state. In such a binary world of good versus evil, patriotism emerges as an important ideological motivation for recruitment. In reading The Spymaster of Baghdad, one wonders just how Iraq may strive to nurture a sense of patriotism that transcends tribalism and decades of sectarian bloodshed. Whenever tribalism trumps patriotism, Iraq will continue to spiral down the well-trod path of sectarian violence.
The author’s detailed descriptions of the inception and execution of the Falcons’ undercover operations against ISIS highlighted a few grave counterintelligence missteps. The handling officer drove the undercover agent to the mosque for his first meeting with an ISIS operative. The undercover officer drove directly to see his family after leaving a secret ISIS location. Abu Ali al-Basri gave too much autonomy to the agent and the inexperienced handling officer. And the list of errors continued. Any of these missteps could have compromised the operation from the outset, but the Falcons managed to remain active and productive for more than a year and to foil a number of ISIS terrorist attacks.
Through the author’s third person point of view, The Spymaster of Baghdad exudes authenticity in its many voices and its atmospherics. Its perspective is almost anthropological, giving the reader a glimpse behind a previously closed door. The author’s meticulous research and interviews, as well as her experiences on the ground, make the book a compelling story, at once relevant to the art of intelligence in any country and to any period of history.
Seemingly unending violence—justified by sundry ideas and hallowed beliefs—continues to plague Iraq and other countries. The blood-letting and resultant societal instability cannot be thought of as distant or irrelevant problems. They will affect an entire country, then a region, and then the world. They will, as the adage declares, come home to roost. At its core, the tale is timeless; its lapses and lessons have myriad historical corollaries.
The Spymaster of Baghdad gives us rare insight into what it is really like to live in such places, what is at stake for those who work as informants and agents, and what our moral responsibilities are for those who risk their lives for good causes.
Those who have the daunting responsibility of carrying out intelligence operations and those who consume the intelligence collected from these agents should take to heart the human costs of doing this necessary but dangerous work. The Spymaster of Baghdad provides one such unsettling tally.
The Spymaster of Baghdad earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.
For further readings on the perils and rewards of such undercover operations motivated by ideology and affinity, suggested readings are The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War (Crown, New York, 2018) and The CASSIA Spy Ring in WWII Austria: A History of the OSS’s Maier-Messner Group (McFarland & Co., 2017).
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