Tag Archives for " terrorism "

Islamic terrorism, from the inside and out

islamic terrorismThe Association of Small Bombs: A Novel, by Karan Mahajan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s 1996. Two brothers, ten and thirteen, walk into a busy Delhi market with their twelve-year-old friend. The brothers are Hindu, the friend, Muslim. As they arrive, a terrorist bomb explodes, instantly killing the two brothers but only slightly wounding their friend. Karan Mahajan’s novel, The Association of Small Bombs, explores the consequences of this attack from every perspective over the years that follow. He traces the lives of the brothers’ parents, the surviving boy and his parents, the bomber, and a circle of younger activists who fall into an association with the bomber many years later.

Mahajan deserves high marks for his insight into the ongoing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and into the motives of the Kashmir-based terrorists who bedevil Indian society to this day. It’s a pity that he doesn’t seem to like any of the characters he has created. Several are despicable human beings. The others are simply unpleasant.

The Association of Small Bombs was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. I can’t profess to be surprised: literary critics typically choose books that annoy me. My excuse for picking up and reading this one is that the subject matter is so compelling — and I read the book to the bitter end because it’s reasonably well written. I say reasonably, because the author uses far too many Hindi or Urdu words, the meaning of which is sometimes unclear even in context; a glossary might have helped for readers who don’t speak one of those languages. Unless you have a special interest either in contemporary Indian affairs or in Islamic terrorism, I do not recommend reading this book.

Money-laundering and the Russian mob

Money-launderingA review of Single & Single: A Novel, by John le Carre

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

John le Carre established his well-deserved fame in the early 1960s on the basis of the espionage fiction that reflected his career in Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Over the five decades since then, he has returned again and again to the world of spies. But to stay relevant in the years since the end of the Cold War, he has also ventured into other areas such as corporate crime, terrorism, and high-stakes finance. Single & Single, published in 1999, explores the dark recesses of international money-laundering.

Enter the “Russian mob”

In the 1990s, once the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia entered into a period with the trappings of democracy. The change did not run deep, however. Effective control of Russian society shifted from a Communist hierarchy to criminal gangs widely known as “mafias.” There was no “Russian mob” as such. (However, that term may apply to Coney Island — and it might even be an apt description of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.) With connections to Boris Yeltsin‘s government, the most entrepreneurial of the mafias made their fortunes by snapping up formerly state-owned companies at bargain-basement rates through privatization. Le Carre writes about one such well-connected gang in Single & Single.

The novel’s title is the name of a wealthy and powerful London-based financial services firm. As we learn early in the story, the Single fortune is built on money-laundering for Russian criminals. The firm’s founder, Tiger Single, is ruthless. But his son, Oliver, gradually develops a conscience after he joins the company. Oliver’s agreement to serve as an informant for Her Majesty’s Customs Service is the linchpin on which the novel hangs.

International criminals and corrupt financiers in a tale of betrayal

The story opens with the brutal execution of Tiger’s attorney on a field in Western Turkey. That murder reflects the Russian gang’s mistaken belief that Tiger has been stealing from them. Meanwhile, Oliver’s relationship has deepened with Brock, the veteran senior Customs agent who is handling him. To gather evidence against the Russians and his father, and to identify the corrupt British police officers who have sold out to Tiger, Oliver becomes deeply involved in dealings with the Russian gangsters and their families. The scene shifts from Turkey to England to Armenia, where the gangsters are based. The tale is fast-moving, suspenseful, and shocking. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that it’s dangerous to get involved with money-laundering for criminals. But some of us knew that already, right?


Inside the fight for Israeli independence

israeli independenceCity of Secrets: A Novel, by Stewart O’Nan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A Latvian Jew freed from imprisonment in World War II internment camps makes his way to Palestine in 1948 and joins the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that led the fight for Israeli independence. His new name is Jossi. He operates as a courier in Jerusalem, part of a small cell that includes an older woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Terrorism and the struggle for Israeli independence

Then the Haganah merges with the far more radical Irgun, and the stakes for Jossi rise dramatically. Jossi and others in his cell are quickly drawn into terrorism designed to kill British soldiers in the occupation force. Jossi is terrified. This is the picture that emerges early in Stewart O’Nan’s new thriller, City of Secrets.

“He wasn’t weak enough to kill himself,” O’Nan writes, “but wasn’t strong enough to stop wanting to. There was always the question of what to do with his old life, memory seething inside him like a disease.” Having lost his whole family in the Holocaust, Jossi is haunted by nightmares of the experience. Even his deepening love affair causes nightmares about his dead wife.

O’Nan skillfully portrays Jossi’s evolution from a frightened refugee into a terrorist. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the tactics of the Israeli independence movement. As history has recorded, the consequences were sometimes tragic. City of Secrets deals with the country’s most notorious act of terrorism. As historical fiction, City of Secrets contributes to our understanding about the road to the State of Israel.

About the author

Stewart O’Nan is the author of seventeen novels and a half-dozen other works. He is American.

Lucas Davenport takes on extremists

extremistsA review of Extreme Prey (Lucas Davenport #26), by John Sandford

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Lucas Davenport took his first bow on stage in 1989 with the publication of John Sandford’s second novel, Rules of Prey. Now, 27 years and 26 books later in the Prey series, Davenport has left behind the bureaucratic hassles of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, where he led a team of crack investigators in solving a litany of challenging cases.

Independently wealthy from the sale of a software firm many years earlier and married to a successful plastic surgeon, Davenport is by no means in need of money. It would appear, though, that he needs something more to do than refurbish his cabin. That’s why he is able to take off quickly for Iowa in response to a cry for help from his old friend and protector, Elmer Henderson, the governor of Minnesota. Henderson is campaigning for President in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses. Yes, it’s 2016, and the extremely progressive governor is running behind Michaela (“Mike”) Bowden, a former Cabinet Secretary who is, oddly, a woman and a moderate Democrat. Of course, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental!

An unusual species of extremists

It would have been all too easy for Sandford to build his plot around an extreme Right-Wing conspiracy. There’s an abundance of such nefarious doings afoot in America today. But Sandford chooses instead to describe a conspiracy to kill Secretary Bowden that comes from the Left, not the Right. In this thriller, the plot takes a bow not to Ruby Ridge but to the Weathermen of the 1960s.

Marlys Purdy “housed a rage that knew no bounds.” A refugee from the era of farm foreclosures in the 1980s, when she and her husband lost their farm, Purdy now works a small vegetable farm with her son Jesse. Jesse is a drinker and is suspicious of his mother’s crazy politics, in which she has involved her younger son, Cole. Cole, an Iraq veteran suffering from brain damage, is obsessed with guns and fantasizes about killing people. As Sandford explains, “The Purdys weren’t rich, but they did all right, not counting the possibly inherited tendency to psychosis.” Marlys and Cole’s particular brand of psychosis has come to center on Secretary Bowden, whom they are intent on murdering. In Extreme Prey, Sandford tells the tale of their attempt to do so — and of Davenport’s desperate (and inevitably successful) work to prevent it.

About the author

John Roswell Camp, aka John Sandford, has written a total of 43 novels to date in addition to a few other books. He is a former journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a series of articles in 1985 on the Midwest farm crisis. Sandford’s fiction is characterized by a combination of grisly violence and clever, often funny dialogue, a winning combination in today’s America.


An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher

Irish terroristsHigh Dive: A Novel, by Jonathan Lee

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Relative newcomers to the political scene may not recognize the name Margaret Thatcher, who served as Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990. A Conservative who represented the right wing of her party, she crushed the trade unions, deregulated the financial sector, privatized state-owned companies, humiliated the Argentine military in the Falkland Islands, and weakened her country’s social safety net to the detriment of millions of Britons. Ronald Reagan regarded her as an inspiration.

On October 24, 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Irish terrorists at the Brighton hotel where she was presiding over a Conservative Party conference. Now a young British novelist, Jonathan Lee, has brilliantly reimagined the event in the current bestseller, High Dive.

They didn’t consider themselves “Irish terrorists”

In High Dive, a young explosives expert named Dan, a promising soldier in the paramilitary Provisional IRA, the “Provos,” is a central character. Like others in the Irish independence movement, Dan thinks of himself as a freedom fighter. However, he’s motivated as much by a desire to wreak revenge against the British for their brutal occupation of Belfast as he is by any vision of a free and united Ireland. Dan would never consider himself a terrorist, though it’s difficult not to see him that way. Apparently, Jonathan Lee would agree. This novel isn’t likely to be popular in Ireland.

A latter-day tragedy

Two others join Dan as central figures in the story. Philip Finch, known as Moose, is deputy manager of the Grand Hotel, where the Conservative Party conference is scheduled to be held. Moose is an athlete, a champion diver, who now aspires to the top management post in the hotel. His clever, eighteen-year-old daughter, Freya, works at the hotel’s front desk, unconvinced that attending a university is right for her despite her high grades in school. The tale shifts from the perspective of one of these three to the other, with lengthy flashbacks along the way to tell their backstories. All three — Dan, Moose, and Freya — seem carried along by the strong current of events they can’t control. They are like characters in a Greek tragedy, under the sway of the gods.

Though Dan, Moose, and Freya are all products of the author’s imagination, the story of the hotel bombing is thoroughly grounded in facts. It’s a sobering condemnation of terrorism.

About the author

Jonathan Lee, just thirty-four years of age at this writing, is the author of three highly-regarded novels. Before High Dive, he wrote Who Is Mr. Satoshi? and Joy. Though British, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.



Reimagining Saddam Hussein’s role in history

Saddam HusseinA review of Eye of the Storm (Sean Dillon #1), by George Higgins

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Eye of the Storm, British thriller writer Jack Higgins reimagines the story behind the mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that took place in 1991 shortly after John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. The attack took place during the early days of the First Gulf War, when Baghdad was under attack from the air and a land invasion was imminently expected. The Provisional IRA engineered the attack, which mirrored its tactics in Northern Ireland. Instead, Higgins puts the blame on a former Provisional IRA hit man named Sean Dillon working as a mercenary for the KGB and its client, Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein gets the blame

Eye of the Storm reflects the historical record in many respects, including the details of the attack. The fanciful hinge on which the story turns is the role of Saddam Hussein, who appears as a minor character in the novel. The hardened mercenary Sean Dillon takes the honors at the center of the plot. Two other favorite characters from Higgins’ stable round out the cast: Martin Brosnan and even the now aging Liam Devlin, both of them reformed ex-IRA terrorists now reincarnated as university professors. The three-way relationship among Dillon, Brosnan, and Devlin is at the heart of the story. All three, and even the many lesser characters in the novel, are brilliantly drawn; their personalities leap off the page. Higgins tells the tale with supreme command of pacing and momentum, building suspense steadily to a crescendo. He makes terrorism credible.

About the author

British novelist Harry Patterson has written most of his 84 novels under the pseudonym Jack Higgins. Though he began writing in 1959, his breakthrough came only in 1975, with the publication of The Eagle Has Landed, which sold fifty million copies. The book introduced the Irish terrorist Liam Devlin and was followed years later by three additional novels about him. Clearly, Higgins was enamored of Irish terrorists. Following his first appearance in 1979 in The Judas Gate, the younger IRA gunman Sean Dillon was the central character in twenty-one subsequent novels. Eye of the Storm, published in 1992, was the first of those.


The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict

Corsican mobTouch the Devil (Liam Devlin #2), by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Liam Devlin, Martin Brosnan, and Frank Barry are ruthless, highly trained killers. All three are veterans of the IRA, but their paths have diverged widely by 1979. Devlin, now sixty-one years of age and still a believer in the cause of a united Irish nation, surfaces from time to time on university campuses in Ireland and the United States, where he is an occasional professor of English literature. Brosnan, convicted four years earlier in France in a near-successful attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, has been confined to a cell on Belle Isle in the Mediterranean, the successor to the notorious Devil’s Island. For his part, Barry has turned mercenary. His current employer is the KGB.

The IRA was yesterday’s ISIS

If you’re under the age of fifty or so, you may be unaware that, in the eyes of the British, the IRA in the 1960s and 70s was regarded with as much fear and disgust as ISIS is today. Earlier in 1979, an IRA bomb had killed Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Phillip, commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia in World War II, and the last Viceroy of India. If the IRA had assassinated the Queen, it’s unlikely that the furor would have been much greater. This is the “army” from which Devlin, Brosnan, and Barry have all emerged into their divergent careers. Now, when Barry murders the brilliant MI5 agent sent to end his life, Devlin and Brosnan are recruited to take out Barry — an assignment they cherish because of long-standing rivalry.

Enter the KGB and the Corsican mob

MI5 (called DI5 in the novel) approaches Devlin with a seemingly impossible challenge: to persuade Brosnan that MI5 can arrange for him to leave Belle Isle and join Devlin in pursuit of Barry. However, Brosnan isn’t easy to convince. Further compounding the problem, his cellmate is the aging former head of the Union Corse, the Corsican mob, and the two have grown close. Meanwhile, Barry has taken on a high-priority assignment for the KGB: to hijack a truck in England carrying an advanced weapon coveted by the USSR and the USA. To add glamour and love interest, a beautiful and courageous young French photojournalist gets involved as well as all sides come together in a spectacular series of collisions.

It’s all a glorious cockup, suspenseful and entertaining all the way.

About the author

Jack Higgins, a pseudonym of bestselling British author Harry Patterson, has been writing thrillers and novels of espionage since 1959. According to Wikipedia, “His 84 novels in total have sold over 150 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages.” Four of those novels have featured Liam Devlin, of which Touch the Devil is the second. A much longer running series features another Irish terrorist named Sean Dillon. To date there are twenty-one novels in that series.

27 great recent nonfiction books I’ve read in 2015

recent nonfictionBiography. Science. History. Current affairs. Business. Medicine. Espionage. Innovation. The 27 books listed below represent a wide range of topics — because I’m a really curious guy. They have three things in common: they were all published within the last year or two, I read and reviewed them all in 2015, and every one of them is a fine piece of work that helped me understand better the world we live in. The 27 are arranged below in alphabetical order by authors’ last names.

It’s daunting even to think about naming one among these books as my favorite, or “the best.” I won’t even try. However, if I have to pick the one that shocked me the most, it would be Annie Jacobsen’s The Pentagon’s Brain.

One of the virtues of nonfiction is that a book’s title is almost always a good guide to its contents. That’s true of all 27 of the books listed below. Pick one, or two, or ten: you’ll learn a lot.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, by Ed Conway

Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, by Bartow J. Elmore

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, by Moises Naim

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be wondering why I’ve listed so many of the nonfiction books I’ve reviewed this year. Truth to tell, this is most of them. However, I need to emphasize that (a) I’m very selective in picking books to read, and (b) if I am disappointed once I start a book, I put it down. I review only those books I’ve read from start to finish. Now you know.

December 15, 2015

A well-informed history of ISIS

ISISA review of Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

One thing is unmistakably clear nearly from the outset of this outstanding inquiry into the history of ISIS: the bombings, the beheadings, the execution of hundreds of people at a time — we brought it all on ourselves with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Black Flags, the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick, may not be the final word on today’s leading terrorist scourge but it’s a great start at understanding how the so-called Islamic State came into being.

Heroes and villains in the story of ISIS

There are heroes as well as villains in Black Flags. Jordan’s King, Abdullah II, is at the top of the list of heroes for his prescience in foreseeing the inevitable consequences of the Iraq invasion and his ongoing pleas to the U.S. government to avoid the great mistakes it made there. Joining the King on the list are a gifted CIA analyst named Nada Bakos; Robert Ford, a heroic former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and other countries;  and Abu Haytham, a senior Jordanian counter-terrorism official.

The villains stand out, too. Principal among them was the terrorist known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the uneducated street thug who founded what for a time was called Al Qaeda in Iraq and later morphed into ISIS. Along with Zarqawi near the top of the list of sociopaths is the self-appointed “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Makr al-Baghdadi, once an intellectual cleric who was radicalized by his experience in an Iraqi prison and rose to the leadership of the terrorist movement.

Given the author’s perspective on the root cause of the rise of ISIS, I would have to add Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush to the list of villains in this story. Cheney and Rumsfeld simply had to understand that they were acting on false intelligence, and Bush couldn’t possibly have been so ignorant as to be unaware of the enmity between Sunni and Shi’a. (Reportedly, Bush didn’t know there were “two kinds of Muslims.”) Together, these three and their many acolytes conspired to commit the greatest blunder in the history of U.S. foreign and military policy, and we’ve all been paying the price for that ever since.

About the author

Joby Warrick is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post who has covered  the intelligence community, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and other topics for the paper. Black Flags is his second book. The first, in 2011, was The Triple Agent, which recounted the story of the grisly attack on a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan in which six CIA officers were killed.

Exploring the boundary between terrorism and peaceful protest

terrorismA review of Consequence: A Novel, by Steve Masover

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Where is the line between peaceful and legitimate protest and terrorism? Though the answer to that question might seem obvious, it’s not — and Berkeley-based author Steve Masover’s debut novel, Consequence, explores that territory with skill and sophistication.

Consequence tells a tale dominated by three characters: Christopher, a brilliant writer and researcher who lives in a small San Francisco collective dedicated to peaceful action against genetic modification; “Romulus,” a computer hacker who is prepared to participate in a violent protest against GMOs; and “Chagall,” who clearly believes that nothing short of violence can turn the tide on this issue that all of them believe threatens the survival of the human race. The three have connected anonymously online to collaborate on a high-profile protest that they hope will break through the public’s apathy about GMOs. Apparently all men, the three are unaware of each other’s identities, and they go to great lengths to keep things that way. The codenames are Christopher’s shorthand for identifying his co-conspirators.

Masover sets his tale in late 2003 and early 2004, during the period when the American public is coming to recognize the disastrous consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The photos of American’s brutal mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib come to light in the course of this story. Against this backdrop, which illustrates the vast scope of officially condoned violence, Masover dramatizes the contrast between the three conspirators’ violent protest and the nonviolence of the Triangle, the collective of which Christopher is a member.

While Christopher, Romulus, and Chagall are exchanging secure communications online to plan their action, the members of the Triangle are making extensive preparations for a dramatic action of their own. During an upcoming conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for molecular biologists engaged in genetic research, the Triangle is getting set to stop traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge to hang an enormous banner high on its superstructure. Alternating chapters describe the two plans as they develop.

Consequence is a talky novel, with characters exchanging highly intellectual and well-edited remarks about the issues at the heart of the story. The author is also extremely well-informed, not just about the topic of GMOs and the technical aspects of cybersecurity but also about the mechanics of terrorism. It’s all a little frightening, really. If you’re inclined to discount the threat of GMOs, you probably shouldn’t read this book.

Steve Masover is a life-long activist. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and an employee of the University since 2007 in its information technology division, Masover has published short fiction and collaborated on a screenplay for a documentary about the anti-apartheid movement. This is his first novel.


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