Alex Berenson’s espionage novels about American soldier-spy John Wells are timely and topical. They invariably give the reader an intimate, insider’s look at the U.S. intelligence establishment. And they reflect Berenson’s extensive travels as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well as his superior research skills. The author’s descriptions of the exotic settings where he places his novels are minutely detailed. They’re seemingly impossible to describe unless he has spent time on-site.
The Secret Soldier, the fifth book in the John Wells series, takes the reader behind the scenes inside the Saudi royal family, a radical Islamist organization bent on jihadi, and the complex web of decision-making in which the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, and the White House are all involved when foreign crises erupt.
The Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) by Alex Berenson (2011) 524 pages
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As The Secret Soldier opens, a Saudi jihadist cell massacres the young people at a popular bar in Bahrain. Simultaneously, two other sites, both inside Saudi Arabia, are attacked, with lethal consequences. These terrorist attacks represent a dangerous threat to the Saudi monarchy. King Abdullah must take action to forestall additional attacks—but he can’t trust his own security forces. Enter John Wells.
Now well into his forties and retired from the CIA, soldier-spy John Wells simply cannot resist any opportunity to chase after danger. Together with an old Special Forces colleague, Wells has gone off to chase a rogue CIA agent in Jamaica. Now a mysterious phone call draws him into the orbit of the Saudi royal family.
John Wells has years of experience both as a soldier and a spy. “He knew who he was,” Berenson writes, “what he’d done. After so much violence, killing came to him naturally. He’d always imagined that he could take off the killer’s mask as he wished. But he feared the mask had become his face.”
The scene shifts rapidly from Bahrain to Riyadh to North Conway New Hampshire to Montego Bay and on and on. Berenson’s story moves along all across the globe at a blistering pace.
The author writes at some length about the Saudi royal family and the divisions within it. The oil wealth the country’s fields generate is difficult to comprehend. As he explains, after all the expenses for running a country that covers almost as much territory as the United States east of the Mississippi, “at least fifty billion dollars remained every year for the family to divide. Every prince received a stipend. Third- and fourth-generation princelings got $20,000 to $100,000 a month. Senior princes received millions of dollars a year. At the top, Abdullah and the other sons of Abdul-Aziz had essentially unlimited budgets. Abdullah’s Red Sea palace complex in Jeddah had cost more than a billion dollars.” To put this information into perspective, note that the Saudi royal family consists of some 15,000 people, although most of the wealth goes to about 2,000 of them.
Berenson also offers a glimpse into the NSA, which in its early days was known as “No Such,” since its very existence was classified. “The NSA monitored phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, Facebook updates—a digital tidal wave. Tens of billions of messages, open and encrypted, were sent every day. The NSA spent massive energy just figuring out which ones to try to crack. At any time, one-third of its computers were deciding what the other two-thirds should do.”
For further reading
For reviews of other books on this topic, read 13 eye-opening books about terrorism.
For links to my reviews of all the John Wells novels, see The 12 novels of Alex Berenson’s thrilling John Wells spy series.
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