In one of the many deep and characteristically self-effacing passages of A Promised Land — Barack Obama’s celebrated memoir — soon-to-be Candidate Obama ruminates upon the significance of the political campaign he is about to launch. His election, he writes, “would mean that . . . the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak.” It could signal the dawn of a new era in which people weren’t always “lashing out against the unknown and huddling against the darkness.” Nay, an Obama presidency might even mean an end to “clans and tribes,” those ancient social organizations that we have known since the dawn of human history.
The memo, about the significance of President Obama’s coming, must not have made it to Iraq, the country whose fate he became substantially responsible for in January 2009. Margaret Coker, a veteran journalist with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, frequently seems to struggle for words to describe the violence that consumed Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Covering events in Baghdad over some 16 years, she watched a “kaleidoscope of horror” unfold in the city and surrounding countryside. From the urban insurgency and ethnic cleansing of 2004, through the sectarian civil war that followed the Samarra Shrine bombing in February 2006, to the intra-Shiite clashes of 2008 — Baghdad was a “synonym for murder and mayhem.” At one point the city’s morgues were stuffed with over 10,000 bodies that couldn’t be identified because they were so disfigured.
And yet the worst was still to come — after, not before, the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq in December 2011. While official Washington set about preening over yet another progressive political victory in ending the war in the Middle East, Iraqi society rapidly became (to borrow a phrase) “a colder and more unforgiving place” as its predatory, sectarian government carried out a vendetta against the country’s Sunni minority. The result was the rise of the Islamic State movement, which quickly set a new standard in modern barbarity, and the outbreak of a three-year war against their Caliphate, costing another hundred thousand Iraqi civilian lives.
Then Coker returned to Baghdad in mid 2017 and found a city transformed. Baghdad, she writes,
was safer than it had been since the U.S. invasion. New cafes were opening weekly. Families strolled through riverside parks dotted with repaired playgrounds without fear of a terrorist attack. Young men and women packed nightclubs to hear live rock music and flirt.
What happened? The answers to this question have been tied up in partisan political debates — over whether ISIS’s defeat was, for example, the achievement of the Trump administration’s revamped military strategy, or another of President Obama’s, delivered from beyond the grave, as it were. In The Spymaster of Baghdad, Coker gives us an account instead situated in Iraq’s history: in the untold story of a collection of heroic Iraqi security and intelligence officials, who infiltrated ISIS’s Caliphate and helped to turn the tide in the bloody war that was being fought out in the streets of its capital.
The “Spymaster of Baghdad” is Abu Ali al-Basri, an unassuming and smartly dressed bureaucrat who Coker tells us could have come out of a John Le Carré novel. The son of a father who had been “disappeared” under the Saddam Hussein regime, al-Basri was one of thousands of Iraqi exiles who returned to Iraq after 2003, hoping to contribute to the country’s transition. In Iraqi émigré circles in Damascus in the 1980s, he had met one Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the Shiite Dawa’ Party. Reacquainted with al-Maliki in Baghdad 20 years later, al-Basri quickly rose to become chief of the then prime minister’s personal security.
But al-Basri was a professional, not simply a sectarian appointee — and when the Iraqi capital was being rocked by a wave of al-Qaeda bombings in 2009, he was designated Iraq’s point-person with the U.S. Special Forces, given a handful of men, and tasked with scoring some kind of victory over the insurgents ahead of the 2010 elections. In just one month his new unit, “the Falcons,” through a combination of good luck and well-placed informants, managed to capture the country’s most-wanted al-Qaeda leader, Manaf al-Rawi. And al-Basri then managed to persuade al-Rawi to make a deal — all without resorting to the methods that were making the Maliki government notorious. The result was a massive haul of intelligence on al-Qaeda’s operations and networks in Iraq, which the Falcons were only too happy to share with their American allies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, al-Basri and his team viewed the subsequent U.S. departure bitterly as an “abandonment.” But the Falcons were expanded in the years that followed as an elite Iraqi counter-intelligence agency, and also managed to keep aloof from the sectarian security operations that contributed to Maliki’s downfall. So when the Islamic State burst onto the scene in June 2014 — beginning their blitzkrieg assault toward Baghdad, and unleashing a new campaign of mass terror attacks against the cities that they failed to conquer — a new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, naturally turned to the Falcons for solutions. Al-Basri’s answer was simple: They needed to get a mole inside ISIS.
Only one man came forward for this dangerous mission, “Operation Lion’s Den”: Harith al-Sudani. Hailing from Baghdad’s notorious Shiite slum, Sadr City, Harith had been recruited into the Falcons by his younger brother, Munaf (who became his handler) and volunteered for the mission after witnessing the horror of an ISIS market bombing near his home in early 2015. The assignment involved months of training: studying up on the Islamic State’s radical theology, acquiring the correct Baghdad Sunni accent, and perfecting a cover-story as “Abu Suhaib,” a disaffected Baghdad driver and Anbar Province native, captivated by the prospect of joining the jihad. The Falcons first plugged Harith into ISIS circles online, and then, after being accepted as a recruit in December, he moved into an ISIS training camp located at a farmhouse in Tarmiyya, 20 miles north of Baghdad.
The balance sheet for Operation Lion’s Den is certainly impressive. “Abu Suhaib” was first assigned the task of ferrying ISIS suicide bombers into Baghdad — which he did, directly into the arms of waiting teams of Falcons. The Iraqi government then issued press releases reporting successful “attacks” with appropriate casualties figures, leading Abu Suhaib’s ISIS commandos to view him as one of their most successful operatives. In the summer of 2016, he was promoted and made responsible for selecting targets in Baghdad for attacks — making it even easier for his colleagues to secure the scene, detain or kill the would-be attackers, and set off a decoy explosion. All this, moreover, was in addition to the stream of high-grade intelligence that was now being funneled from top ISIS masterminds — via Abu Ali al-Basri, soon appointed Iraq’s national security adviser — to the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
To be sure, the Falcons may not, as the book’s U.K. subtitle suggests, have “turned the tide against ISIS” — this was the result of overwhelming U.S. aerial power, supporting Iraqi army units, and militias slogging it out on the front lines. But their contribution to this effort should not be underestimated. In one year undercover, their agent is estimated to have prevented as many as 30 planned suicide attacks and 17 vehicle bombings in Baghdad.
In early 2017, however, communication from their mole went silent. Their last operation, in December, had involved a difficult decoy truck-bombing in central Baghdad, and Harith’s fellow Falcons feared the worst, especially after a raid on the ISIS farmhouse where he had been located found it abandoned. Indeed, six months passed before they saw Harith al-Sudani again, in interrogation and execution videos discovered on the mobile phone of a captured ISIS suspect.
What their courageous colleague must have been through in his final days, after having his cover blown, is a reminder why — as Coker stresses at the outset of the book — the triumph over ISIS and the final killing of its caliph was bittersweet for most Iraqis. The most moving part of the book is its pictures: photographs of the Falcons at work and play, of brothers Harith and Munaf on a holiday their team sent them on to Beirut before the mission commenced, and finally of his parents, his widow, and his children grouped around the portrait of the “hero and martyr,” which now holds pride of place in the al-Sudani family home.
Reviewers have praised The Spymaster of Baghdad for being “better than spy fiction” and reading like a novel. It’s true — and the point at which our leading journalists began aspiring to write like novelists (rather than, say, historians) will probably one day be identified as the moment that journalism entered its current heady decline.
In fact, the gripping account just related — namely, the “untold story of the elite Iraqi intelligence cell that turned the tide against ISIS” — makes up probably less than a quarter of The Spymaster of Baghdad. The remainder is given over to what one can only assume is Coker’s treatment for a Netflix serialization, in which we are taken at length through the psychological complexes, emotional lives, and family dramas of the main characters. These are packed with “real life” details that the author cannot possibly have known — and that contribute the dramatic effect and psychological insight of a soap opera. (“That thought spurred Um Harith to roll over on her sleeping mat and stand up slowly, testing her arthritic knees. . . .”; “Harith woke up feeling lost, the scent of sea in his nose. . . .”; “As he drew the tobacco smoke into his lungs, Munaf could see. . . .”; et cetera.)
Worse: Much of the dialogue is narrated in a pastiche Iraqi-style English — with everyone constantly calling each other “Brother” and repeating things for emphasis. God forbid that I should ever be found charging anyone with “Orientalism” — that last refuge of the intellectual scoundrel — but it is difficult to imagine anyone doing this sort of thing with a book about Italians and being taken very seriously.
A serious history of Iraq through the first quarter of the 21st century should be taught at high schools — if space can be found between sessions on CRT and the 1619 Project. It might offer an obvious lesson about, for example, the dangers of hubris — how an invasion sold in the name of utopian visions of democracy and freedom resulted in a state of raw anarchy and horrifying civil war. But there is another, more valuable lesson here, too — about the real meaning of the “diversity” of the societies of the world.
Coker’s portrait of modern-day Iraq reveals a society that, liberated from political dictatorship, remains crushed by the weight of social and religious custom. Harith al-Sudani volunteered for his near-suicidal assignment because his personal life had been ruined after his parents forbade his marriage to his university sweetheart because she was a Kurd — whom they described as something between a witch and an animal. Both men and women suffocate under authoritarian family patriarchies — which themselves are bound into broader structures of tribal kinship and hierarchy. Those able to escape through education and talent find their paths blocked by the openly sectarian division of the public services and employment. This was the path of the book’s anti-hero, Abrar al Kubaisi, a talented graduate and chemist who ends up becoming a would-be-ISIS-bombmaker. At the book’s end, we find the relations of those caught up in the misery and war of the past 20 years not declaiming how “Love Trumps Hate,” or worrying about “threats to their democracy,” but longing for the return of a dictator to punish their sectarian enemies. This is a political world in which bias is emphatically not “unconscious.”
The first of these lessons may lead young people to condemn their country — the second should help them to appreciate it.