Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘The Spymaster of Baghdad’

From ancient Mesopotamia to modern times, military commanders and political leaders have relied on the stealth, patience, and guile of spycraft to defend their homelands and achieve military victories. During the recent wars fought in Iraq against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, this conventional wisdom has never been more apt. By award-winning investigative journalist and former New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad Margaret Coker, “The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle against ISIS” is the dramatic yet intimate account of how a covert Iraqi intelligence unit called “the Falcons” came together against all odds to defeat ISIS. The Falcons, composed of ordinary men with little conventional espionage background, infiltrated the world’s most powerful terrorist organization, ultimately turning the tide of war against the terrorist group and bringing safety to millions of Iraqis and the broader world.

From ancient Mesopotamia to modern times, military commanders and political leaders have praised the stealth, patience, and guile of spy craft when used in defense of their homelands and to achieve military victories.

During the recent wars fought in Iraq against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, this conventional wisdom has never been more apt. In an era when national armies have the most technologically advanced weaponry in the world, killing terrorists is easy. Finding them is often the biggest challenge. Despite this, most of the books written about the disastrous U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 and its aftermath have been told through the lens of military officers, soldiers, and policy makers, and through their checkered attempts to stabilize the nation after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, reform the Iraqi political system, and fight the militants who terrorized the nation and its fragile new government. These tales, often gripping and powerful accounts of how individual Army and Marine units fought, died, or survived their deployments, end in a common theme: how the political and security chaos created by the U.S. invasion fueled the radical Islamist propaganda espoused by Al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, and the group’s first leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as his successors.

What most of these narratives leave out is the separate fight that raged in the shadows of the great military battles: the cloak-and-dagger work of spies to disrupt and dismantle the terror cells that were killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, and to capture the leaders who directed these evil acts. This omission is partially by design: many authors of books about the war on terror hail from military or policy backgrounds and understandably want to burnish their own reputations and histories. But this omission also has to do with the nature of the intelligence world itself, where the best, most effective counterintelligence work can only be accomplished out of the spotlight.

Few would describe Baghdad as glamorous as Casablanca was in the 1930s or Berlin during the Cold War, but since 2003, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, it became, like those two cities, a magnet for spies. Intelligence agents from around the world descended on the ancient city ravaged by decades of Saddam’s dictatorial misrule and security chaos, in part because of the rising international concern about the burgeoning Salafi jihadi menace posed by Al Qaeda, which by the mid-2000s had turned Iraq into its global terrorist headquarters.

Amid this intrigue, an unlikely man emerged among Iraq’s new security agencies as a key player in identifying and infiltrating Al Qaeda’s networks.

Abu Ali al-Basri had spent most of his adult life on the run from Saddam’s secret police as part of the political opposition that had worked to bring down his dictatorial regime. Like most Iraqis, he had grown up reading the legends about his nation’s glorious past as the cradle of civilizations. Ancient Arabs loved a thrilling spy tale, such as the legend of Gilgamesh, in which the heroic king kills his enemies thanks to ingenuity and espionage. Even the tales of the Prophet Muhammad describe how he sent undercover agents behind enemy lines to keep him and his followers safe from rival tribes. Abu Ali loved these stories of bravery and derring-do, but he never aspired to be a spy. His career as an intelligence professional began as a path to survival. During his years in the Iraqi underground, he honed an expertise in surveillance, cover stories, and dead drops, and especially for cultivating agents who might be in a position to relay lifesaving information. When al-Basri returned from a long exile to work for Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister after 2003, he had skills that could help counter the nation’s newest national security threat.

Quietly, and controversially, al-Basri used his authority within the Iraqi government to stitch together an elite intelligence unit called al-Suquor, or the Falcons. He and his men worked independently from the newly reestablished security agencies that the Americans had refashioned for Iraq after 2003, institutions that cost billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds but were failing in the fight against terrorism. The burgeoning spymaster worked, first, out of a makeshift office in a remote corner of the prime ministry complex in downtown Baghdad, and then, later, from a nondescript building along a pitted dirt road near Baghdad’s International Airport. From there he would launch missions to hunt the Sunni Islamist militants, and then work to turn those captured by the Falcons into high-level informants. The technique, unlike other Iraqi intelligence services who relied on brutality and torture, developed high-level, actionable intelligence, making him and his unit one of the U.S. military’s closest counterterrorism allies in the Middle East.

Not that anyone would know of the Iraqis’ reputation from the U.S. Army’s official history of the Iraq War—which covers the counterterrorism struggles from 2003 until the American forces withdrew in 2011—a time period during which the Al Qaeda threat exploded like a virulent plague across Iraq before being almost completely wiped out. The Falcons are absent from these annals, as they are from later newspaper reporting covering the period from 2011 to 2013, when Al Qaeda’s leaders regrouped under the helm of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into a new formidable force called the Islamic State in Iraq.

When al-Baghdadi launched his blitzkrieg across southern Syria and northern Iraq in June 2014, massacring thousands of Iraqis and seizing control of more than four million inhabitants, few world leaders had expected this catastrophic rampage, or even knew the name of the man who had declared this war on the Western world. That’s despite the multiple warnings that the Falcons’ spy chief had sent up his chain of command and to his international partners.

Yet even after his American partners withdrew from Iraq, abandoning their round-the-clock electronic surveillance over Iraq’s terrorist cells, Abu Ali al-Basri kept watch. He spent long days and nights in his unassuming, cramped office inside a converted five-room breeze-block building in the prime minister’s compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone, updating the files of the terrorist leaders who were still at large. Without the massive American network of telephone and internet data, the Iraqi spymaster had to rely on a growing network of human sources, both within the jihadi community and through extended family networks in Iraq. In the world of spies, HUMINT, or human intelligence, can yield as many rumors as high-grade intelligence. But in the early summer of 2014, one of these human agents told the Falcons that the Islamic State had set up training camps in the western Iraqi desert in advance of an ambitious operation to establish a religious state. Abu Ali had the war plan, but he didn’t know the exact launch date for the Islamic State’s military invasion.

When the Americans returned to Iraq as the lead partner in the international coalition working to defeat the Islamic State, the Falcons resumed their close counterterrorism partnership, but the Iraqis were also emboldened to act on their own.

From early 2003 to 2019 I reported from Iraq, chronicling long periods when Baghdad and its surrounding countryside was a kaleidoscope of horror. After years of sectarian fighting and terrorist bombs, the city had become a synonym for murder and mayhem. Unclaimed bodies stacked up in morgues, too disfigured to be identified; death squads roamed the streets; and terror attacks were so common that every day, when parents went to work, they could not be sure they would live long enough to return home in the evening and see their children again.

But the situation in Baghdad had never looked as dire as it did in the summer of 2014, after the Islamic State had seized one-third of Iraqi territory, decimated the armed forces, and advanced to a front line just fifty miles north of the capital. The city was in a panic, diplomats had initiated evacuation orders, and residents feared they would be left to a fate much like what occurred when the Mongols raped and pillaged their way through Baghdad in the thirteenth century.

I had known about Abu Ali al-Basri from reporting assignments in Iraq for the Wall Street Journal, both before and after the Islamic State blitzkrieg, but I had no inkling about his and the Falcons’ exploits until 2017. That year, I was back in Baghdad working for the New York Times and was amazed at the city’s transformation. In the north, the Iraqi army was still fighting the Islamic State and the terror group was continually threatening to launch waves of attacks inside the capital. But Baghdad 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 the fear of a terrorist attack. Young men and women packed nightclubs to hear live rock music and flirt. How, I wanted to know, had the city avoided spiraling back to its bloody past when, a decade earlier, Al Qaeda had made Baghdad synonymous with murder and mayhem?

For months I asked dozens of Iraqi and American officials who had succeeded in making the Iraqi capital so safe, but no one could give me an answer. The one man who might have an answer—Abu Ali al-Basri, who by then had been named the head of counterterrorism for the national intelligence agency—had ignored my long-standing request for an interview. But to paraphrase Sun Tzu, the revered Chinese military strategist, each secret should not be revealed before its appropriate time.

Out of the blue, on one blustery day in March, Abu Ali invited me to his secluded offices on the western outskirts of the city. We sat in an antechamber of his main office and sized each other up while sipping several cups of sugary black tea. Abu Ali met many of my preconceived notions of a spy chief that had been formed by my long-standing predilection for John le Carré over Tom Clancy novels. He wore a smartly tailored gray suit and button-down shirt without a necktie, the type of anonymous fashion that legions of accountants or bureaucrats wear every day. His dark brown eyes were alert, but he displayed little emotion as he spoke quietly yet confidently about Iraq’s security situation. Everything about his demeanor was self-contained; his hands remained in his lap or carefully clutching the tulip-shaped glass teacup, and he hesitated before answering my questions, cautiously choosing his words and giving them the full weight of his attention.

When the pleasantries were done, the spymaster got down to business. He had heard of my queries and wanted to set the record straight. “We have eyes inside,” he told me, using the Arabic slang for a spy. “We have penetrated Islamic State.”

That’s when I first heard one of the most amazing tales of wartime espionage, in which, over the course of sixteen months, thirty suicide bombers were stopped and eighteen separate massive terror attacks on the Iraqi capital were foiled, each of which would have had the equivalent destructive capacity of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Over the following two years, I held more than two dozen meetings with al-Basri and members of his Falcons intelligence team. They told me about classified missions that add a rich and important layer to modern Iraqi history. They revealed the role they played in locating and killing the reclusive former leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, men who killed U.S. forces before their withdrawal in 2012 and who preceded al-Baghdadi; the network of informers who helped the unit track the rise of the Islamic State; their undercover operations, which allowed them a direct tap of information against their enemies during the massive ground and air war to defeat the terrorist organization; and harrowing accounts of planned terror acts against Baghdad, including a chemical weapons attack, which they successfully foiled.

Ultimately, my aim with this book is to recalibrate Iraq’s history away from one that until now has centered on the Americans’ sins, suffering, and victories, and to illuminate the admirable role that Iraqis have played and the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their country and the world in the war on terror.

“The Spymaster of Baghdad” is available for purchase.

Margaret Coker is a prize-winning investigative journalist, who for the last 19 years has covered stories from 32 countries on four continents. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Coker has largely focused on the Middle East, writing on corruption, counterterrorism and cyber warfare. Her stories written during the 2011 Libyan uprising over Muammar Gadhafi for The Wall Street Journal won prizes for investigative journalism and diplomatic reporting. As Turkey bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, Coker contributed to a 2016 series that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. Most recently, Coker was the New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad. She now is the editor-in-chief of The Current, an investigative news startup in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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