(Osama Bin-Ladin’s al-Qaeda strong hold in Tora Bora, Afghanistan before US bombing is 2001)
Alex Berenson’s first novel, THE FAITHFUL SPY introduces us to a new type of operative in the war on terror. John Wells is a CIA agent who goes underground trying to infiltrate al-Qaeda before 9/11. He is successful in penetrating the terrorist organization and proves his metal in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While embedded inside al-Qaeda he develops an attraction to Islam as a way of life and converts. Wells, who originally hailed from Montana remains loyal to his country despite his conversion, but will disappear from CIA radar for over ten years creating doubts about his reliability. He finds many practices in America difficult to accept which in part, is why he turned to Islam. Despite his commitment to his new religion, he finds al-Qaeda to be abhorrent and he never entertains the idea that he will not protect his country.
The novel begins shortly after 9/11 on the Shamal plain north of Kabul. Wells is leading a group of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters into a trap, but at the same time he must avoid American F-15 bombers circling overhead. At the same time Jennifer Exley, Wells’ CIA handler is aboard the USS Starker off the coast of Virginia waiting to interrogate another American who has ”flipped” to the Taliban. Her goal is to learn more about Jalal, Wells’ Islamic name as she has not heard from him in two years. From this point on the novel evolves into a suspenseful story that is stunning in detail.
Berenson creates fascinating characters which are true to life. Omar Khadri, travels freely in the United States and has set up a number of hidden cells throughout the country. Farouk Kahn, a physicist who has possessed enough nuclear material to create a dirty bomb. Tourik Durant, a graduate student studying micro-biology at McGill University in Montreal is developing a strain of Y pestis to unleash pneumonic plague. We are also presented with various CIA characters apart from Exley; Ellis Shafer and Vincent Duto who disagree over Wells’ loyalty.
The author exhibits excellent command of historical events. Whether discussing operations in Afghanistan or the United States, the actions taken by his characters ring true. Whether describing the rendition of suspected terrorists and their subsequent interrogation, Berenson strikes an accurate chord. He integrates historical nuances of the war, particularly the internal factions within al-Qaeda, the role of the U.S. military, and the attitude of American politicians. His discussion of Osama Bin-Ladin, the actions of the Pashtun tribes, the Northern Alliance, and the Taliban are accurate and provide the reader a history lesson while they become immersed in the plot surrounding Wells. Legitimate historical figures permeate the storyline ranging from Ayman al-Zawaheri, al-Qaeda’s number two person to A.K. Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who exports his expertise.
Berenson’s opposition to American Iraqi policy is apparent. Throughout the book we are privy to his feelings about torture and other techniques employed to gain information from prisoners. As we read on American errors in Afghanistan become clear as the Bush administration drops the ball and invades Iraq under false pretenses. Overall, Berenson has created a credible scenario with a new type of character. John Wells believes he has failed his country by not warning his handlers about 9/11 and other events, and wants to make sure he does not fail again.
As a side bar to Berenson’s first effort, the New York Times reporter earned the Edgar Award for A FAITHFUL SPY and has written a number of sequels developing the character of John Wells in a number of interesting ways.