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"The Spymaster of Baghdad,"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab

“The Spymaster of Baghdad” is a deftly presented account of the extraordinary role Iraqis played in securing their country in the face of al-Qaeda horror and ISIS brutality after the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.

At times, my pulse was racing as I read this electrifying story of the top-secret Iraqi intelligence unit that infiltrated al-Qaeda and, later, the Islamic State. The author reports on the unit’s clandestine efforts to retrieve information from the insurrectionists that would be key in developing plans to execute ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and restore hope to the war-torn nation.

Iraq had suffered from chronic mistrust, tribalism, and violence for many years. Inept leadership, incompetent security agencies, and sectarian terrorist attacks dogged the young government of Iraq.

President Nouri al-Malaki assigned Abu Ali al-Basri the task of stemming the tide of violence in order to create a more stable country in which reforms could be instituted. Al-Basri, the Spymaster, responded to the challenge by creating an intelligence unit solely dedicated to eradicating al Qaeda and ISIS. His struggle to establish the fledgling intelligence unit known as “the Falcons” is chronicled in gripping detail by the author.

Coker takes the reader inside the lives of two Iraqi families and examines their conflicts and crises, the strains between mothers and daughters, and the tensions between fathers and sons. In the process, she provides readers with an authentic Iraqi picture of the contemporary struggles associated with middle-eastern family hierarchies and community life in both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

The reader witnesses the conflicted relationship of the Shia’ al-Sudani brothers, Harith and Munaf in fetid, decimated Sadr City as they become operatives in The Falcons. The author juxtaposes the brothers’ attitudes with those of Abrar al-Kubaisi who was born into a well-respected middle-class Sunni family only a few miles from Sadr City.

Triggered by the death of her sister and brother-in-law at a checkpoint manned by U.S. forces, Abrar is radicalized by ISIS and uses her education in science to develop chemical weapons and bombs for the terrorist organization.

Coker’s presentation of her meticulous research challenges the standard conclusion that Western coalition forces defeated ISIS. Instead, she masterfully defends the human intelligence, ingenuity, courage, and heart-stopping spycraft of the Iraqi people and their part in putting down terrorist cells and restoring order to their country.

There are many books on the Iraqi War written by retired Western generals, politicians, and journalists who laud American heroes and Western military power. But Coker counters this view by emphasizing the daring contributions of Iraqis and skillfully achieves her aim to “illuminate the admirable role that Iraqis have played and the sacrifices they have made for their country in the war on terror.”

She depicts the motivations of her characters and the inner workings of intelligence operations. She gives readers a rare insight into what it is like to live in a nation-state in chronic upheaval, what is at risk for informants and intelligence officers, and what the moral responsibility of the reader is for those who risk their lives for noble causes. This book, which reads like a novel, is a dramatic and informative page-turner for espionage devotees as well as for anyone interested in Middle Eastern issues.

Buy the book.

Margaret Coker is a prize-winning investigative journalist who for more than 19 years has covered stories from 32 countries. She was the Turkey bureau chief for the “Wall Street Journal” and more currently was the “New York Times” bureau chief in Baghdad. This is her first book.

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