Daniel Silva's The Black Widow: Eerily Reminiscent

By Michael Sulick

Michael Sulick is the former director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service and is currently a consultant on counterintelligence and global risk assessment.  Sulick also served as Chief of Counterintelligence and Chief of the Central Eurasia Division where he was responsible for intelligence collection operations and foreign liaison relationships in Russia, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union.  He is the author of Spying in America: Espionage From the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War and American Spies: Espionage Against the United States from the Cold War to the Present

Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow is the most relevant to contemporary events and most chillingly prescient of all his celebrated novels. Gabriel Allon, the art restorer and spy hero of Silva’s previous novels, is about to become head of Israeli intelligence. His promotion, however, is postponed when he is enlisted by the French government to find and neutralize Saladin, the shadowy Islamic State (ISIS) mastermind of terrorist attacks in Europe. The wave of attacks, among them bombings in Paris and Amsterdam, is eerily reminiscent of the real tragedies in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East in the past year. But, as Silva notes in a foreword, the similarities are coincidental – he began the novel prior to the Paris and Brussels attacks and “chose to complete it as originally conceived.”

Saladin’s threat of more attacks unnerves countries around the world, and Allon is soon collaborating with the intelligence services of the U.S., France, and Jordan as they struggle to find the elusive terrorist. Silva has an uncanny knack for portraying the complexities –- and suspicions -– involved in intelligence relationships among nations with varied interests, strengths, and shortcomings. As he notes in the novel, intelligence services are “like divorced parents of small children, they sometimes find it necessary to work together for the greater good.”

The Black Widow marks a transitional phase for Silva’s hero Allon. On the verge of leading Israeli intelligence, Allon is more the operations manager, the guiding hand mentally outwitting his terrorist adversaries, than the street operative outfighting and outshooting them. The main tactic he employs in this psychological game is the most riveting part of the novel, primarily because it is the most difficult challenge confronting any intelligence service: infiltrating a spy into the inner councils of a terrorist organization.

Allon’s insider spy is one of the most compelling characters in Silva’s novels. Natalie Mizrahi is a Jewish physician fluent in French and Arabic, whom Allon recruits to pose as a Palestinian radical, the fiancé of an ISIS martyr, eager to help ISIS defeat its enemies and avenge her people.

Silva portrays the recruitment and intensive training of Natalie with painstaking accuracy. Allon and his team pay meticulous attention to every detail of Natalie’s cover legend, from her alias passport to her French-made clothing. His new spy must not only memorize a wealth of detail about her assumed identity; she has to immerse herself fully in a jihadist persona that epitomizes all she loathes in the world. To convince Saladin, Natalie must believe herself that she is indeed the “black widow,” ready to sacrifice her life for the cause. Otherwise, the smallest mistake could result in her grisly beheading — and the loss of intelligence that could save thousands of lives.

Intelligence professionals reading this may appreciate the realistic details of Natalie’s gradual infiltration of ISIS, though skeptical of the outcome. Brilliant as Allon might be, they know from experience such a risky operation isn’t that easy in real life, though in this case it makes for great fiction.

In reality, Israeli intelligence has enjoyed tremendous success planting spies inside the enemy camp. The nation won the Six Day War with the help of intelligence from spies inserted into the military circles of its archenemies, Egypt and Syria, who were as obsessed with traitors in their midst as ISIS. The Israelis developed a detailed cover legend for one of their citizens, Wolfgang Lotz, who artfully played the role of a German owner of a riding school in Cairo where he ferreted out military secrets from Egyptian officers. Even more daring was Eliyahu Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew, trained over a year in espionage tradecraft and living in alias. Cohen posed as a wealthy Syrian playboy and lavishly entertained Syrian military officers to the point where they allowed him to photograph secret installations and weapons systems.

Allon dangles Natalie as jihadist bait so that ISIS will seek her out and give her direct access to Saladin. Silva draws his villains as masterfully as he does his heroes and heroines. Saladin is no stereotypical terrorist, fanatic and wildly ranting jihadist slogans; he is certainly ruthless, but also a cold, calculating political pragmatist and all the more terrifying as a result.

As in Silva’s other novels, the characters traverse cities around the globe, although the most electrifying scenes occur in and around Washington DC. No spoiler alerts here, but Gabriel’s mole in ISIS learns that Saladin has planned a devastating attack in the U.S.—but she doesn’t know the details. The final chapters of the novel proceed with relentless, heart-pounding suspense as Allon and his allies race to discover those details and prevent the attacks.

For those who like to be educated as well as entertained, Silva cleverly interweaves not only a wealth of information on current terrorist tactics, such as the use of encrypted communications and recruitment on the Internet, but also insights into ISIS ideology and the tortured history of the Middle East that spawned this barbaric scourge. One can only hope, as Silva notes, that the terror remains on the pages of this excellent novel and not recur in cities around the world.  

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