The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle against ISIS
(Dey Street Books, 336 pages, $29)
Following a three-week war in 2003, the United States tried to put Iraq on the road to recovery. The battered country soon was distracted by civil strife characterized by militia and terrorists targeting people at random as well as community, religious, and political leaders. This gave our forces cause to stay and help Iraq’s reorganized security agencies quell the violence.
By the time we declared victory and brought most of our forces home, in 2011, Iraq had perhaps not recovered, but at least it lowered its level of misery and despair as civil strife abated, economic life resumed, and a messy democracy worked at governing the country without recourse to murder and tyranny.
Some things, however, never change. Iraq’s sectarian divisions remained as deep and hate-filled as ever, and they were about to explode again through a terror movement calling itself the Islamic State.
The war against the self-proclaimed caliphate (the word means an Islamic theocracy) focused Iraqis’ attention on survival, because ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) dealt harshly with unbelievers and heretics, which meant almost everybody but its own warriors. It espoused a psychotic form of population control.
The U.S. paid scant attention to Iraq’s war against the Islamic State, since, compared to the previous wars, our military involvement, though crucial, was limited, consisting of specialized missions, aerial bombings, drone attacks, and electronic intelligence collection. The neglect is understandable but regrettable. The U.S. is not likely to put an end to its decades-long involvement in Iraq’s affairs anytime soon; having to rediscover the place every time we find it in our headlines is not conducive to clear thinking about what, if anything, our response should be to yet another crisis in this hard and ancient land.
Margaret Coker remedies this inattention in a book whose primary purpose is to give the Iraqi patriots who won the ISIS war their due. She succeeds admirably. The importance of The Spymaster of Baghdad goes beyond its value as a thrilling story of courage and sacrifice. She provides a window into the pathologies of Iraqi political culture while offering a sympathetic portrait of its more basic and enduring social structures — families, clans, tribes, religious sects. It is usually better to know people with whom you are fighting, on their side or against them. In one way or the other, we are likely to encounter Iraqis again.
The U.S., with help from its gallant British and French allies, won its first war in Iraq in 1991. The limited and clearly defined objective was to liberate Kuwait, coveted and recently conquered by the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
Led by President G. H. W. Bush, the Gulf War achieved its aim without overthrowing Hussein’s regime. But in an ugly instance of careless leadership, the U.S. encouraged Iraqis to overthrow their oppressive government and then failed to help them when the large Shia and Kurdish populations tried to do just that. Hussein’s regime, which was among other things a Sunni tyranny over the other groups, who called it “the republic of fear,” took his revenge against his own people with characteristic savagery.
The second war, 12 years later, was undertaken by G. W. Bush, G. H. W.’s son, with a less clear objective. This time, again with our gallant British allies but without the French (but with the Saudi and Kuwaiti footing some of the bills), we drove the tyrant out of Baghdad, dismantled his military and political cadres, and put in their place an occupation authority to pave the way for an elected government.
Yet what led the G. W. Bush administration to go to war against Hussein remains a contentious question. “Regime change” had been the official U.S. Iraq policy since 1998, and Hussein was reported to have weapons of mass destruction. (He boasted of them, and it was true we had given him some assistance in the 1980s during his war with Iran that he might have used to enhance his arsenals.) We justified war to prevent an apocalyptic breakout by a regime on which we and other countries had imposed onerous sanctions.
The weapons were never found, though some months after his forces were routed and he went into hiding, Hussein was. Tried by his Shia enemies, whom the U.S.-led transition allowed to take over the governmental institutions hollowed out by the purge of Hussein’s party loyalists, he was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged in 2006.
Judging by results, we went to war in order to see Saddam Hussein hanged and turn Iraq into a Shia-dominated country.
Without doomsday weapons to show for its efforts, and with no special brief for the Shia, who surely were the oppressed underdogs of Iraq but many of whose leaders were allies, and sometimes agents, of the Iranian theocracy, the Bush administration found a purpose in “democracy-building.” The idea was to set a new standard of governance in the Arab world, giving a peaceful political structure to replace governance by sectarian militia and secret police agencies.
To many Sunnis, who had lost power with the fall of Hussein, “democracy” was synonymous with Shia power. Without the patronage networks that the dictator’s Ba’ath party used to favor Sunnis in everything from housing to education and jobs, the Sunnis experienced a brutal loss of status and income. And security — Shia militias terrorized Sunni neighborhoods and assassinated their leaders.
Sunni resentment and fear allowed al-Qaeda to present itself as the national resistance to “Crusaders” from the despised West and the rampart against the ascendancy of the heretical Shia. As the Sunnis organized militias for self-defense and counter-attack, Baghdad became the new Beirut, torn apart by sectarian and inter-communal war in the 1970s when the old balance of power in Lebanon broke down.
The disorder caught us by surprise. Washington policy-makers evidently had not heard that there are sects in Islam who have hated each other for over a thousand years. Counter-terrorism on the ground, however, gave us yet another mission.
Many Iraqi terrorists were killed or captured in these years of G. W. Bush’s second term and Barack Obama’s first. Sunni tribal leaders were coaxed and subsidized to join the counter-terror campaign. We claimed victory in 2011 and told the Iraqis to fend for themselves. But veterans of al-Qaeda launched a new war. Dismissed as a “junior varsity” by President Obama, the Islamic State swept across the Sunni north and captured a third of the country, with control of such important cities as Mosul and Fallujah, which U.S. Marines had fought door-to-door to recapture from the senior varsity in 2004.
The Iraqis indeed fended for themselves. They defeated the “caliphate” proclaimed by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and freed the populations under his rule, which was, if possible, even more psychopathic and totalitarian than Saddam Hussein’s had been. American help was vital, but the lion’s share of credit belongs to the Iraqis whose war this was.
To explain this war and what it meant to live in its midst, Margaret Coker tells the stories of two Baghdad families, one Sunni and one Shiite, and one man, the spymaster of the title, whose role was indispensable in the fight against the ISIS.
Abu Ali al-Basri (“from Basra”) joined the outlawed Shia party (Islamic Democracy, Dawa) party as a teenager, when the Ba’ath mukhabarat (domestic intelligence, in practice political police) murdered his father for no known reason other than his sectarian allegiance. He spent the major part of the 1990s in clandestine work, eventually taking his family to exile in Sweden. He returned in 2003 to work for the Dawa leader Nouri al-Maliki. When the latter formed a government in 2006 to replace the transition authority, Abu Ali’s team, called the Falcons, became a spy agency reporting directly to the prime minister.
Abu Ali could have played the sectarian card, as Maliki did; he would have acquired more power and influence, but the fall would have been harder. Maliki was booted out and replaced by an ex-Dawa politician, Haider al-Abadi, who stayed on better terms with the Americans and the anti-ISIS Sunni. This paid off as he needed both to finish the war against ISIS, notably by keeping his nerve through the bloody fight to retake Mosul.
Abu Ali practiced old-school spycraft, endlessly maintaining and expanding networks of informers. He was non-partisan, or rather non-sectarian, and he opposed torturing suspects, though like any competent intelligence chief he was willing to bribe them. It was due to his skill in a very ancient trade that he stayed on good terms with our military and intelligence (which he required for electronic surveillance) as well as with the Iraqi generals from whom he might want to call in a favor, when, for example, he needed to rescue a compromised spy behind enemy lines or to target and destroy a terror cell his men had located.
The grim yet heroic story of Abu Ali and his Falcons, who were able to penetrate ISIS, locate its commanders, and block many of its missions of terror, forms the core of Coker’s narrative. By focusing on him and two brothers, Munaf and Harith al-Sudani, recruited out of the Shia slums of Baghdad known as Sadr City, she writes an extraordinarily insightful and humane story of what Iraq was, and is, all about. That is, she writes about Iraqis who chose to believe in a country that would work and would be fair and free. Like most patriots in other times and places, they did not renege on their personal beliefs or abandon their families, for all the stress within them, on whom they ultimately depended for their humanity. On the contrary, they saw a decent political order as the way to protect these fundamentals, which sectarian schism and sedition must destroy.
Next to her Shia protagonists, Margaret Coker takes her readers into the Baghdad home of the al-Kubaisi, a family related to a powerful Sunni tribe. The al-Kubaisi are academics and professionals whose brightest daughter, Abrar, was traumatized and disoriented by the violent changes to her world and the accidental death of her favorite sister that in grief could be blamed on Americans and Shia. Quitting her studies, she joined the caliphate and used her scientific training to bring mass murder to Sadr City, a plot the Falcons foiled.
If Abrar could be radicalized, who could not be? In fact, Coker’s story shows that this is a simplistic question. The al-Sudani brothers, kept on the other side of the tracks (of the Tigris River, rather) by dint of their family’s Shi’ism, could have gone in for “Shia power” militancy. Instead, they found a mentor who believed in, and practiced, something else — something that as boys, they had encountered and admired: honest police work to protect the defenseless against predators, criminal, political, sectarian, or any other.
Coker’s research, reporting, and interviewing are thorough, and her insights and perspective are based on two decades as a Mideast correspondent for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Spymaster of Baghdad breathes warmth, compassion, and deep respect for people tortured, from the beginning of modern Iraq in 1958, by political gangsters who were, it must be admitted, to some degree inadvertently aided by short-sighted or poorly conceived U.S. policies. She moves deftly from the family ties that, even when emotionally fraught, are often the Iraqis’s only refuge from the surrounding distrust and violence, into the paranoia of inter-communal hate that still defines political life for most Iraqis.
We cannot blame ourselves for underestimating, or perhaps missing entirely, the complexities that led the al-Sudani brothers down one road and Abrar al-Kubaisi down another. In fact, however, our men and women on the ground for the most part recognized the Iraqi demons and angels for what they were when they encountered them. But from that to draw policy-making conclusions about what our role should be in a place like this, perhaps not our best role but our least bad one, is one of those questions we can only hope to answer better next time. This book will help us do that.