A plot wrapped in a con­spir­acy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roger Uren

DAVID Ig­natius’s novel Body of Lies tells a fas­ci­nat­ing tale of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal in­trigue, but it also pro­vides a com­pelling vi­sion of the prob­lems the US in par­tic­u­lar and the West in gen­eral face in the Mid­dle East. In­deed, Body of Lies is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of how a genre novel, in this case a spy story, can il­lu­mi­nate the dy­nam­ics of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics.

Body of Lies tells the story of a CIA of­fi­cer, Roger Fer­ris, who is posted to Iraq and then trans­ferred to the safer en­vi­ron­ment of Jor­dan to re­cover from in­juries re­ceived in a ter­ror­ist at­tack. Here he be­comes the of­fi­cial link be­tween the CIA and the Jor­da­nian intelligence ser­vice. The story cen­tres on Fer­ris’s elab­o­rate plan to sow dis­sen­sion within al- Qa’ida by run­ning a dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion. The plan is in­spired by a sub­terfuge the Bri­tish used be­fore the in­va­sion of Si­cily to de­ceive the Ger­mans into think­ing Greece was the al­lied tar­get.

Fer­ris’s scheme in­volves plant­ing a dead Amer­i­can — equipped with mo­bile phone cards and doc­u­ments that make him look like a CIA oper­a­tive — on the Afghan border. The in­ten­tion is to feed provoca­tive dis­in­for­ma­tion to al- Qa’ida about the mas­ter­mind be­hind a se­ries of its bomb­ings in Europe. But the op­er­a­tion is hi­jacked by the Jor­da­nian se­cret ser­vice, which con­verts the CIA plot into a ruth­less and bloody game.

Ig­natius is an opin­ion writer for The Wash­ing­ton Post and an author­ity on Mid­dle East­ern is­sues. In Body of Lies he il­lus­trates how frus­tra­tion over decades of vi­o­lent op­pres­sion by Is­rael and var­i­ous Arab regimes is at the root of the vir­u­lent anti- West­ern sen­ti­ment seething in Is­lamic com­mu­ni­ties. He per­sua­sively de­picts the way ran­dom vi­o­lence de­stroys in­di­vid­ual lives and dis­rupts com­mu­ni­ties, and how this breeds a mind­set that has few out­lets ex­cept anti- West­ern vi­o­lence.

Ig­natius is less au­thor­i­ta­tive when de­scrib­ing the CIA and its covert pro­ce­dures. He knows the first three dig­its, 482, of the CIA tele­phone ex­change and the gen­eral lay­out of its head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia. He also un­der­stands the role of mo­bile phones and the in­ter­net in the hands of ter­ror­ists: how vul­ner­a­ble the in­ter­net is to ma­nip­u­la­tion and how mo­bile phones are tar­gets for elec­tronic sur­veil­lance by or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency.

But he dis­plays a naive sense of how the CIA staffs em­bassies and who does what. Fer­ris heads the CIA sta­tion in Jor­dan and li­aises with the Jor­da­nian intelligence ser­vice. Ig­natius also has him un­der­tak­ing covert op­er­a­tions, even though he has al­ready been de­clared as an intelligence of­fi­cer to the lo­cal se­cu­rity ser­vice. In real life that would never hap­pen. Un­de­clared CIA of­fi­cers do the dirty work.

Ig­natius’s most amus­ing blun­der is to make the sta­tion’s op­er­a­tions chief, who would be un­de­clared to the host gov­ern­ment, re­spon­si­ble for brief­ing CODELS ( as con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tions are known in US for­eign ser­vice jar­gon) on intelligence is­sues. In fact few ac­tions would be more likely to blow a CIA oper­a­tive’s cover than talk­ing with con­gress­men. But such blem­ishes are far from fa­tal. Ig­natius knows much more about the mod­ern Mid­dle East than about the CIA, and this is where the strength of his novel lies.

The value of Ig­natius’s book is in the many in­trigu­ing ques­tions it trig­gers. For ex­am­ple, Fer­ris’s scheme to de­ceive al- Qa’ida in­volves a con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim ar­chi­tect meet­ing a CIA­con­trolled for­mer Afghan guerilla to cre­ate the mis­lead­ing im­pres­sion the two are part of a con­spir­acy. Such a ploy makes sense and un­der­scores the need to dis­tin­guish be­tween the ex­ter­nal ap­pear­ance of a sit­u­a­tion and the re­al­ity. Ac­cord­ing to press re­ports at the time, an al- Qa’ida rep­re­sen­ta­tive met an Iraqi intelligence of­fi­cer in Vi­enna be­fore the 9/ 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Body of Lies leads the reader to won­der whether this meet­ing was de­signed by Osama bin Laden to di­rect Amer­i­can sus­pi­cions to­wards Iraq, the main sec­u­lar state in the Arab world. If so, bin Laden’s plan worked per­fectly, and he must be laugh­ing wher­ever he is hid­ing. Roger Uren is the au­thor, un­der the pseu­do­nym John By­ron, of The Claws of the Dragon, a bi­og­ra­phy of the man who cre­ated the Chi­nese intelligence sys­tem, and of The China Lovers, a spy novel set in Bei­jing.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.