A plot wrapped in a conspiracy
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.