Q&A with Margaret Coker about The Spymaster of Baghdad

Why did you decide to write a book about wartime espionage set in Baghdad?

Baghdad has never developed the glamor or mystic of other past wartime spy capitals—places like Paris, Casablanca, Berlin, or Saigon—in large part because unlike those other times and places, Americans who deployed and served there since 2003 have done it with a “shelter in place” ethos. Americans stayed behind embassy walls or within military bases and saw hostility in local neighborhoods and landscapes. Baghdad deserves a more nuanced and textured reputation in literature and history than it has had in the English-speaking world. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history. It has a strong identity as a place of Arab literature and learning. It has one of the world’s major rivers running through it. It has a geographically distinct cuisine. It has a vibrant if embattled diverse population. And for the last 17 years it has been ground zero for many intelligence battles in the war on terror.

Unlike other narratives, you focus on the role that Iraqis played in protecting their country and the world. Why was this important to you?

I grew up in a military family, where both parents and my uncles all served in the U.S. armed forces. As a child my family watched World War II movies and took trips to famous military battlegrounds, rituals that drove an appreciation for service and sacrifice. As a foreign correspondent, I became more interested in war stories from other, non-American points of view. I studied International Affairs and Russian in university, as well as Soviet history. I have lived in Moscow, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jerusalem, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, United Kingdom and Turkey, countries where I have had a frontline view of how the war on terror has been fought, as well as the people who have been its victims and its unsung heroes. Spymaster is an homage to the universal human qualities that I was raised with: patriotism, service, sacrifice and come-from-behind victories.

As a foreign correspondent who has lived and worked in Iraq since 2003, it has been a challenge to tell stories that put Iraqis front and center of their own national trials and tribulations. Iraqis largely have been portrayed as either victims or villains. Many of my Iraqi friends and acquaintences have more complex realities. I wanted to honor the patriots whose lives shifted in 2003, when the Americans invaded the country. Those who stepped up at a dire moment of history and have tried, against all odds to make a difference, no matter how fleeting those contributions might seem. Tens of thousands of Americans have served in Iraq. They face terror and danger, but they also have the option to leave, go home and move on with their lives. Iraqis, though, wake up each day facing existential threats and overwhelming challenges. My characters who chose to suit up and defend and reform their county are heroic for that commitment. They understand the monumental task they face, and it’s this underdog identity that humanizes and magnifies the Abu Alis and al-Sudanis of the world.

You speak in the book about American and Iraqi approaches to espionage. How would you describe the differences?

I spent a great deal of time as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal investigating the ways in which international intelligence agencies and militaries fought Islamic extremists, as well as the methods that extremists used to radicalize, recruit and create their own true believers. Both sides viewed Big Tech as an effective tool to achieve their ends. Just as the technology sector has pressured us to buy new iPhones and smart TVs, those companies have also convinced the American government that intelligence gathering should rely on high-tech sources and methods. As terrorism became the central national security threat to our governments, it became unfashionable and almost downright unpatriotic to focus on “slow intelligence,” the time-consuming yet highly effective methods of the Cold War era whereby agents cultivated human sources who delivered insightful intelligence. In less developed and less wealthy countries, places like Iraq without the consumer industry or funds to buy all the latest gadgets, the primacy of human intelligence never went out of style. It’s been part of the military culture clash between our two countries: the value that Iraqis place on personal interaction and face-to-face meetings as opposed to our more impersonal reliance on satellites, screens and data. But as my book shows, the true art of high-quality intelligence is not just having drone footage showing who is traveling on what road or going into what meeting or farmhouse, but what is said inside the room. That’s a philosophy that Abu Ali al-Basri imparted to me in one of our first meetings.

You write that the spymaster, Abu Ali al-Basri, and the Falcons were instrumental in restoring safety to Baghdad after the mayhem of previous decades. What are some of their biggest accomplishments?

MC: The book outlines several major counter-terrorism operations and successes in which the Falcons participated. Their exploits have been left out of the official U.S. Army history of the war, presumably for reasons of operational security. But they have been confirmed to me off the record by U.S. military officers familiar with their work. Back in the mid-2000s the Falcons helped find and track Iraq’s top two Al Qaeda leaders, men responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers. More recently, during the war against Islamic State, the operation to insert Harith Sudani undercover inside the terror group was instrumental in helping Iraq win that war. His access to Islamic State military commanders meant he and the Falcons foiled more approximately four dozen suicide bombers and vehicle bomb attacks planned for Baghdad. The fact that the Iraqi capital could remain safe and secure during the height of the brutal war against Islamic State kept the morale of the Iraqis high and supportive of the government. Instead of suffering daily or monthly bombings, Baghdad, where almost a quarter of the nation’s population lives, could focus on normal aspects of life. Small businesses opened, nightclubs flourished, families played soccer in the city parks after dark. Morale a crucial aspect of any wartime effort – not just for soldiers but for citizens too. If morale suffers, all could be lost.

The emotional center of the book is the relationship between brothers Harith and Munaf al-Sudani. Why did you choose to highlight their story in particular?

Good reporting is largely about access to exclusive information or officials. Good stories, however, combine facts with richly textured characters and drama. Spymaster combines all those elements. But if I’m honest, I didn’t so much choose the central drama for the book. The characters – these Iraqi men and women whose story this is – chose me as the vessel to tell their tale. The first time I met Abu Ali, Abu Harith, and Munaf together was in Abu Ali’s office complex. They had come at the bidding of the spymaster, who was eager for me to understand more about his officer who had sacrificed his life. But he also wanted me to understand the family who had raised this hero and why it was important to publicize their suffering. At the time, I was working for the New York Times and my goal was to write a story that illuminated the successes of the intelligence war from the Iraqi point of view. Abu Ali’s motivation, however, was different. He wanted the publicity of a newspaper story to help the alleviate the al-Sudani family’s suffering and expiate some of the guilt he felt about losing his first officer behind enemy lines. From our first meeting, the al-Sudanis and I developed immediate rapport. They revealed their pain and grief over losing a family member and beloved colleague. The raw emotion was overwhelming. We sat on uncomfortable chairs in a sterile bureaucratic office and cried together. Theirs is not a culture that values oversharing. There is no Iraqi Oprah or Ellen television program where people explore their feelings and address family disfunction. But they trusted me with these stories of their inner lives, as well as national security secrets. When people from different cultures and different generations can be that vulnerable together, it is a rare and remarkable event. I hope my efforts with Spymaster adequately reflect the respect and compassion that I have for the al-Sudanis and Abu Ali.

You also show the radicalization of Abrar al-Kubaisi, a young, female university student who plans an attack to poison Baghdad’s drinking water. Why did you choose to tell her story?

The Falcons have a long list of counterterrorism accomplishments – one book couldn’t fill them all. The operation that targeted Abrar was one that stood out to me because it illuminated an aspect of the larger war on terror that deserves more attention: the ways in which women become radicalized and their role in extremist organizations. My reporting about Abrar’s life began with her interrogation records, files kept by the Falcons and by the Americans, while she was in custody. I had several interviews with her interrogators as well and was stuck at the compassion and understanding that these professionals had for her, a person who officially was an enemy combatant but who had her own compelling backstory. It was their empathy that started me thinking that Abrar could be a strong character to include in Spymaster as well. She and her family reveal more layers of nuance about Baghdad, about Iraqi society before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and addresses a larger question that we as a society are mystified by: how can young adults from good families who are full of promise get seduced by radicalism and lies? As a reporter and as a woman, I get tired of reading superficial accounts of women jihadis, stories generally informed by a sexist view of women’s ability to formulate opinions and choose their own identities, or racist accounts that flatten a Muslim woman’s personality as a mere puppet who follows her husband’s or father’s lead in all matters. Abrar is a full-fledged person, someone who had hopes and dreams, who perhaps didn’t have the emotional tools or mentors to keep her from falling into the black hole of online radicalism. She is now someone who is now full of remorse.

You conducted a remarkable number of interviews; can you tell us about your research and the scope of who you spoke with when writing the book?

The book is a culmination of seventeen years of reporting about the war on terrorism, national security and intelligence matters, as well as my time living in the Middle East, Iraq and wider Islamic world. I drew a lot of information from longtime sources in all these spheres. I had access to Iraqi national security archives which are not in the public domain, as well as U.S. military archives that were published during my research, namely the U.S. Army history of the Iraq War. There are numerous current and retired intelligence officials who provided information and insight. And then, of course, there are the Iraqis themselves – the al-Sudani family and Harith and Munaf’s friends in Sadr City; the Falcons; the al-Kubaisi family and Iraq’s top politicians who were overseeing and managing events in their country since 2003. Much of my research was possible because of talented Iraqi friends and translators, my companions for months at a time who sat with me in Baghdad’s teashops and restaurants and made sure I understood the dialects of my source and the historical context of anecdotes, and tracked down hard-to-reach interview subjects.

What was the most difficult aspect of researching and writing this book?

As a first-time book author, I would say that almost everything about writing a book is hard! I didn’t have to worry (much) about finding sources to talk to me, thanks to my close relationship with the al-Sudanis and Abu Ali. However, after a long career spent working in a newsroom, a place full of buzz and activity, the solitary nature of book writing was a tough transition to make. I made nine reporting trips to Iraq over a period of 15 months for interviews and research, but I did most of my writing alone, holed up in my home in Savannah, Georgia, as my husband was working in Afghanistan. I am a very goal-oriented person, and I thought the best way to tackle the challenge of a book was to have a disciplined schedule. Cutting out social distractions was key to keeping to my writing schedule. I joke now that the hermit-like existence of a book author was good practice for sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Spymaster of Baghdad?

Newspaper journalists love to say that their stories are the first draft of history. I have written many of those first drafts over my career. I know that for most Americans the Iraqi War feels like ancient history. I hope that my book reminds Americans, however, that Iraqis are still living with the legacy and repercussions of the 2003 invasion and the war on terror. But more than that, I’d like readers to realize that heroes come in many shapes, sizes and ethnic groups. Their stories are vital. Their truths are important. Not just for our own entertainment as Americans, but for our deeper understanding of history.

Given recent events in the United States, do you have any insights for Americans about challenging extremism?

The Falcons’ work in Iraq shows that there are a lot of lessons from the war against Islamic terrorism to apply to America’s own domestic terror threat. The ideologies of the Islamic State and white supremacy may be different, but extremists of various backgrounds know by word of mouth or online chats the dark corners of the Internet they can gather on and exchange information. Munaf and Harith got their experience infiltrating extremist networks from monitoring online groups on Telegram and Signal. The FBI does the same thing in the United States. As importantly, the Falcons’ counterterrorism work should remind Americans of the importance of human intelligence in understanding the networks and relationships of extremist networks and movements. Having an insider, either a double agent or an undercover officer, feeding real-time information about plots and plans is vital to countering violence and perhaps for taking whole networks down for good. Finally, U.S. law enforcement should not underestimate the potential threat that women have in extremist movements, either as recruiters or lone wolf operators motivated by their own dreams of relevance, revenge or glory.