HOUSE OF SPIES by Daniel Silva

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Daniel Silva seems to reward his readers with a new Gabriel Allon tale each summer.  This July it is no exception with the appearance of HOUSE OF SPIES, a story that is very contemporary as Silva seems to have a knack for constructing a plot, unbeknownst to him that has a striking resemblance to what is occurring on the streets of England and Europe.  Silva’s new novel moves seamlessly from THE BLACK WIDOW to his latest iteration of the Allon character.  Last summer when THE BLACK WIDOW was published Allon was chasing an ISIS inspired master terrorist named, Saladin and it concluded with the fear that after his successful attack in Washington, D.C. he would soon strike again.  These fears came to fruition at the outset of the novel as Julian Isherwood, a London art dealer with strong ties to Allon and Israeli intelligence becomes a hero during a Saladin operation in West London.  Isherwood is able to save a number of lives, but the result of the attack on three separate sites is close to 1000 deaths and the most devastating London has suffered since the Nazi bombing during World War II.

A number of characters from THE BLACK WIDOW reappear in the HOUSE OF SPIES.  Christopher Kelly, a former M16 operative who returns to the British spy agency after an absence of twenty five years has a major role.  Graham Seymour, the head of MI6, Paul Rousseau head of France’s elite Alpha Unit, Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a physician turned Israeli agent who had saved Saladin’s life, Adrian Carter, the Chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, and numerous Israeli agents, and of course Ari Shamron, Allon’s mentor all appear.  Silva’s story is prescient as Saladin’s attack in West London follows on the heels of the real attack in London on the bridge across the Thames and the Borough Market in early June.

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In the current situation Allon finds himself as Chief of Israeli Intelligence having to take somewhat of a background role as the complex operation that has been prepared unfolds.  There are many moving parts and characters that Israeli agents and Kelly carry out with Allon offering instructions through ear pieces from afar.  The question is can Allon allow “younger” operatives to play the central role in carrying out the OP, which is totally against his nature. The novel itself is not as intense and gripping as previous episodes.  It seems to move at a more leisurely pace missing much of the drama that Silva’s readers have grown accustomed to.  Silva is still right on when it comes to the current world situation and does not shrink from commentary concerning politics, European-American relations, European society, and cooperation among allies.  There are numerous references to the questionable attitude put forth by the Trump administration, the problem of dealing with a “dirty bomb,” issues within the American intelligence community, the role of French society in creating jihadists, and a number of other pertinent problems.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Silva’s work is that allies need to work together; share intelligence and not create road blocks against each other, avoid demeaning the intelligence community, never publicly criticize one’s allies, and pursue a policy that can only be described as “chaotic,” as it is not conducive to maintaining the security of people in the fight against terrorism.  Perhaps certain individuals should read some of Silva’s novels as it may be easier to digest than intelligence briefings and other national security papers that are presented daily.  Silva’s latest work is a good read, but not one of his best.  But in true Daniel Silva style he leaves enough threads at the end of the book dealing with Iran, Syria, and ISIS that the next Allon caper must already be outlined in his mind.

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(Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)

After perpetrating the horror of 9/11 al-Qaeda leadership and its followers scattered with the expectation that they had provoked what would be a massive military response.  The path Osama Bin Laden and his family, al-Qaeda officials, and others took to escape the lethal American bombardment has been open to conjecture by historians and journalists for sixteen years.  The publication of THE EXILE: THE STUNNING INSIDE STORY OF OSAMA BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA IN FLIGHT by Cathy Scott- Clark and Adrian Levy goes a long way in filling the gaps in what happened to Bin Laden and his followers, concluding in 2017.  The authors employ their investigative journalistic prowess to write the most complete account of the years the United States hunted for Bin Laden, al-Qaeda leadership, and operatives until their final capture or death.  What sets their work apart is that they rely on the stories of al-Qaeda leaders, gunmen, planners, spiritual guides, fighters, and family members told to them through countless interviews.  We witness the failure of the Bush administration to take out Bin Laden as they immediately pivoted to the invasion of Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State, the truth of what occurred in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, and the individual stories of countless al-Qaeda and Taliban members as they sought to survive.

The narrative begins with Osama Bin Laden listening to a radio inside a cave north of Khost to what he hoped would be news of a successful attack on the World Trade Center.  What is interesting from the outside is that the authors report that the al-Qaeda Shura was actually divided as to the pursuit of the “plane operation” strategy.  Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed who Bin Laden relied upon to create religious justifications for his actions led the faction that opposed the attack.  El Waleed was also known as the “Mauritanian” served as Bin Laden’s go between with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and arranging for Bin Laden’s family to seek refuge in Iran.  The authors also focus in on Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric who prepared Bin Laden’s video reaction to the World Trade Center success and also accompanied the Bin Laden family to Iran.  Further, al-Qaeda kept the Taliban leadership in the dark over the 9/11 plan.

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(Osama Bin Laden)

The authors present exacting detail in all aspects of the narrative.  They even discuss Bin Laden family turmoil involving Osama’s four wives, two of which were extremely religious and committed to their husband’s policy of jihad.  The authors discuss Bin Laden’s treatment of his wives and children and he comes across as an insular figure who marries off his daughters to mujahedeen, and educates his children to carry out his jihad.  When certain sons and daughters do not measure up he has no problem dispatching them to other family members or acolytes.  The family’s plight is based on interviews and we see their terror when exposed to American drones and bombing.  The role of Iran in this process is very interesting in that Teheran is willing to provide sanctuary to many family members.  At the outset Iran, long disassociated from the United States offers intelligence and other assistance to Washington.  However, within the Iranian government there was a split between a reformist faction led by President Mohammad Khatami and Quds Force Leader Qassem Suleimani over whether to turn over Bin Laden family members to the United States.  However, President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech put an end to any improvement in Iranian-American relations and led to Suleimani’s dominance over policy.  Sadly, the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq led to the lost opportunity of possibly improving relations with Iran as both wanted to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The authors review the role of the ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA that has been told in a number of places.  They reach the same conclusions as previous authors and officials that the Pakistani government was not to be trusted and were in bed with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadi elements.  Under President Pervez Musharraf and those that succeeded he in office the Islamabad strategy was to milk the United States for as much military and domestic aid as possible, feigning support, which at times did include military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  The lack of Pakistani government control in the border areas of Waziristan allowed al-Qaeda, Taliban and other jihadi groups a sanctuary from American attack.  CIA frustration with ISI and Pakistani government duplicity dominate the narrative.

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The authors detail Bin Laden’s escape from the Tora Bora caves north of Khost.  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his men were also present in the area and along with al-Qaeda militants the authors describe how unnerved they were by the massive US bombing and the hundreds of people that were killed.  It appeared to CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier in Islamabad that al-Qaeda and Bin Laden would withdraw into Waziristan, Pakistan’s “no man’s land” and he had no faith that the Pakistani promise to interdict them would take place.  In fact the Mumbai attack in India took place at the same time, resulting in Pakistani troops moving to its border with India, a change that seems almost too coincidental.  Grenier asked general Tommy Franks for troops to keep al-Qaeda and Bin Laden boxed in, but he refused, almost guaranteeing their escape.  Franks’ argument was that he did not want to commit troops and make the same error as the Soviet Union.  This may have played a role in his thinking, but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had already turned to regime change in Iraq.

The authors dig into the evolution of US interrogation techniques paying special attention to Dr. James Mitchell, a clinical psychologist who had no practical experience with this type of interrogation, i.e., waterboarding, walling, diapers, insects, etc. a policy approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft in July, 2002.  The narrative presented is based on the diary prepared by Abu Zubayda, a Saudi born Palestinian logistical expert who sent recruits and funds to jihad training camps in Afghanistan from Peshawar.  This diary provides an amazing picture of “ghost detainees” in the CIA’s covert rendition program and was the first to undergo enhanced interrogation techniques.  Other sources include Justice Department documents, CIA tapes, and US Senate Reports.

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(Bin Laden’s fourth wife and their children)

The chronological approach chosen by the authors covers most aspects of the run up to the war in Iraq, the Sunni uprising led by Zarqawi until his death, events in Afghanistan, including the resurgence of the Taliban, the role of Iran, and US strategy to achieve its goals in the region.  Integrating the narrative with the plight of the Bin Laden family by concentrating on Osama’s journey that resulted in his five year residence in his compound in Abbottabad is extremely important in terms of the final capture.  The American raid is described in detail as is the role played by Bin Laden’s Pakistani allies.  Interestingly, according to the authors the Bin Laden family was about to move from the compound and travel to Peshawar.  At the time of his death Osama Bin Laden was buoyed by the developing Arab spring, the economic crisis in the United States, and the unrest in Pakistan.  His plan was to leave Abbottabad to “reinstate the rule of the Caliphate” in Peshawar.  However, differences with Ibrahim, aka Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, assigned to be Osama’s constant companion delayed his departure, resulting in the successful American raid.

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(US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)

Perhaps THE EXILES most important contribution to the growing source material on 9/11 and after is how they took the myriad of interviews of their subjects and formulated a clear and incisive narrative that explains how Osama Bin Laden and his family were able to escape to Pakistan, resulting in their claustrophobic life in Abbottabad as the US continued its search for years.  The book fills an important gap in the historiography of its subject, and though at times is very rigid in its reporting, it a major contribution for academics and general readers alike.

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(The Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)


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(The evacuation of the wounded from the Battle of Hue` in February, 1968)

For those who enjoyed Mark Bowden’s works such as BLACK HAWK DOWN, GUESTS OF THE AYYATOLLAH, and KILLING PABLO, his new book HUE`, 1968 should be prove to be just as satisfying, if not more.  Bowden relies on the same assiduous research, exemplified by his interviews with all sides of the conflict; American Marines and decision makers, North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders, in addition to civilians caught in the conflict.  Bowden’s fluid writing style along with his in depth knowledge of what transpired in Hue` has created the preeminent account of the 1968 Tet offensive, concentrating on the seizure of the ancient city of Hue`, and the American/ARVN (South Vietnamese) retaking of the city that came at an extremely high cost in terms of casualties and treasure.

Bowden zeroes in on the major players in the war as well as the ground troops who were the main combatants and the civilians who were caught in the crosshairs of the battle.  Bowden correctly excoriates General William Westmoreland, the American commander in charge of the war.  Westmoreland became obsessed with kill ratios and/or body counts to measure American progress.  By the end of 1967 he grew very encouraged that the war was close to an end and instead of taking into account the facts on the ground and cracks in American intelligence he continued to see battles in terms of numbers rather than the ability to maintain control of territory, and who the Vietnamese civilians actually supported.  Westmoreland was convinced that an attack was in the offering, but that it would come at Khe Sanh, and was caught completely by surprise at the strength of the offensive and the fact that Hue` had fallen to the enemy.  At the outset he had shifted US forces around depleting certain areas, thus facilitating the success of Tet.  Westmoreland suffered from the same tunnel vision that most American commanders and politicians, in that they equated indigenous nationalism with communism throughout the Cold War, resulting in the war in Southeast Asia.

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(Don McCullin, a shell shocked Marine at the Battle of Hue`

Personal stories abound be it Che The Mung; an eighteen year old girl whose sister was killed and father imprisoned by the ARVN who became a member of the Viet Cong at age twelve.  Her role was to help prepare for a general uprising in Hue once the offensive began and lead soldiers into the city which she knew like the back of her hand.  We become familiar with a number of American commanders and lesser officers in addition to the “grunts.”  Their personal stories are told and many stick out like Lt. Andrew Westin who enlisted after being married eleven months and found that his efforts to avoid Vietnam were dashed when he was ordered to join the 7th Cavalry.  Bowden makes good use of the daily letters he sent to his wife Mimi back in Ypsilanti, MI and they afford the reader a clear vision of what it was like for American troops.  Richard “Lefty” Leflar, an eighteen year old who grew up outside Philadelphia who had difficulties staying out of the courts, joined the Marines and was dropped into the battle to retake Hue` in mid-February 1968.  We witness the carnage and the brutality of the battle to retake Hue` through Leflar’s perspective and it is not pretty.  Commanders like Colonel Dick Sweet and Lt. Col. “Big” Ernie Cheatham who helped command “on the ground” the US effort to retake Hue will find their stories told in depth, as are reporters like New York Times Saigon bureau chief Gene Roberts whose writings were the first to educate the American people with what was actually happening in Hue.  CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visits the battlefield during the Tet Offensive and after learning the truth of what was occurring on the ground changes his view of the war – with the most trusted man in America reporting events President Johnson was shaken.

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(Hue` from the air)

Bowden has done a masterful job in recreating the North Vietnamese preparation and assault on Hue`.  The reader is provided an excellent assortment of maps to follow and understand troop movements.  His narrative is enhanced as he tells the story, in part, through the eyes of Nguyen Van Quang Ha and his team who lived in a hole with a thatched cover that made them invisible to US air assets.  As Hue` became the one place in South Vietnam that most directly contradicted Westmoreland’s assurances, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to question his commander’s conclusions.  Clark Clifford’s description in his memoir COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT aptly describes Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops in February 1968 and Johnson’s reaction that led to his withdrawal from his presidential reelection campaign at the end of March.  As a result Westmoreland would finally be fired by the president.

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(General William Westmoreland)

Bowden recreates American preparations to retake Hue` very carefully.  His analysis is based on interviews with the participants from both sides.  The difficulty in retaking the city was captured by the phrase, “learning by trial and tragically bloody error…..[as] they all grew accustomed to the smell of death,” civilians, enemy soldiers, and fellow Marines alike.  After reading Bowden’s account of the urban warfare in Hue one wonders about events in Mosul, Iraq today as American forces were not well trained or equipped for street to street warfare.  American Marines had not confronted this type of “room to room, hand to hand” combat since Seoul in 1950.  In fact Bowden is quite correct in stating that the American command was caught completely flatfooted as they believed that such “ a swift and cunning coup was unimaginable.” When confronted with the enormity of Tet, and how severely they underestimated what they were up against as they tried to retake the city with many Marines being sacrificed.  Bowden stresses the ignorance of American commanders who gave many orders without any real knowledge of the actual situation in Hue`  No matter the carnage to US troops many commanders, especially Westmoreland “seemed almost oblivious to the largest single battle of the Tet Offensive, if not of the entire war, underway in Hue`.”

What the Tet Offensive showed was the ability of the enemy to prepare a clandestine attack that was a remarkable feat of planning and coordination, and that the enemy could reach any part of the country it wished, but in the end the invaders made no lasting gains.  What they accomplished was providing fodder for the anti-war movement in the United States, creation of doubt in many Americans and their politicians as they achieved a psychological victory, not a military one as the expected “rise of South Vietnamese civilians” against the Diem regime never occurred.

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Bowden also explores the uglier aspects of war.  American atrocities are described as is the racism that existed by both sides.  Substance abuse is also discussed as for many soldiers it would have been difficult to survive without using drugs.  One of the most haunting aspects that Bowden addresses is the issue of grief, something that there was not time for in Hue.  Death hovered over each combatant and was a daily occurrence, and when one soldier went down, their compatriots did not have the time to deal with it properly – a price that would be paid on the battlefield, and if they were lucky enough to survive, when they returned home.

If there is one major criticism of Bowden’s work it is that the author is determined to include almost every experience the combatants were involved in.  The result is that at times the flow of the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed.  However, this should not detract from the overall quality of his work as he has produced a prodigious account of what occurred in Hue`, particularly in the context of the overall war itself.  Bowden has produced the most complete account of Tet and the Battle for Hue` that has been written and his approach should satisfy historians and the general reader alike.


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(The most iconic picture of the evacuation of US Marines from Hue` on February 17, 1968)