Inside Al-Qaeda and the TalibanM
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Pluto Press, 2011
260 pp., $39.95
Deadly Waters, The Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates
By Jan Bahadur
300 pp., $29.95
The Interrogator, A CIA Agent’s True Story
By Glenn Carle
321 pp., $32.95
The Wizard of Lies, Bernie Madoff & the Death of Trust
By Diana B. Henriques
419 pp., $35.00
There is a long tradition of writing, dating back as far as Marco Polo, where an adventurer leads the reader through exotic lands, fabled places of strange and weird beasts, where conventional reality turns on its head.
These four titles are modern installments of that “orientalist” tradition. Except, in our globalised world, what is most exotic and dangerous may be closer to home.
Pakistani independent journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad was certainly not a European wandering wide-eyed in a foreign locale.
His beat was where angels fear to tread: the outer regions of Pakistan where the Taliban and al-Qaeda are patiently winning their war against the US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Working as a journalist for the Asia Times Online, Shahzad interviewed Islamic militants of various stripes, becoming perhaps the best connected journalist with the shadowy world of al-Qaeda.
He is quite blunt about the chance of US victory in Afghanistan: zero. Al-Qaeda is simply too strategically and tactically flexible for the US to nail down.
He says that Al-Qaeda commands seemingly endless thousands of foreign fighters and simply moves operations to new fronts when the US attacks.
Shahzad’s credibility in this was gruesomely underlined in May when he was kidnapped and tortured to death, apparently by the Pakistani ISI.
However, it is difficult to credit some of his claims.
This book was clearly a rough draft rushed to print after his assassination. Whole paragraphs are repeated and sweeping claims are made without foundation.
Perhaps Shahzad is right that al-Qaeda is massing a huge army in Pakistan and that its strategy is to infiltrate Bangladesh and start a war with India. Or it could be that al-Qaeda operatives simply talked big.
One of Shahzad’s claims, that Somali pirates are operating on behalf of al-Qaeda to disrupt US supply lines to Afghanistan, is certainly not supported in Jay Bahadur’s swashbuckling account in Deadly Waters.
Bahadur interviewed pirates at all levels of the trade, chewing knat ― roughly equivalent to coca ― for hours with roughnecks toying with their Kalashnikovs.
He didn’t quite make friends with these somewhat less-than-charming rogues. But he certainly got to know what makes them tick and how they ply their trade.
Until 1991, Somalia was run by sometime Stalinist, Mohamed Siad Barre. When he turned to US patronage, he built the biggest army in Africa.
After his rule, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank helped Somalia slide into “failed state” territory, bristling with guns.
Warlords now operate separate states within Somalia. Piracy became the only source of income for many after foreign factory fishing boats destroyed the local fishing industry.
Somali pirates are not sophisticated. Using small, high powered boats with just enough supplies to survive a short period, they float in shipping lanes until a suitable freighter comes past.
If they don’t snare a prize, they starve to death. But millions of ransom dollars are the incentive.
Not that the millions go far. Fortunes get literally chewed up in knat, the effects of which, from Bahadur’s first-hand description, hardly seems worth the trouble.
In Bahadur's book, the pirates voice strong objection to the destruction brought by foreign fishing boats to their traditional fishing grounds. But they don’t say anything about Al-Qaeda or any other ideology.
Glenn Carle’s first person account of his life as a CIA interrogator also fails to make much clear about al-Qaeda or the CIA (except for clarifying United States' acronyms).
This isn’t his fault. The CIA exercised its right to censor his writing. This forced five redrafts and much of what survived is redacted ― there are pages with most lines blacked out.
Carle was a career operative, patriotically spying for the good ol’ US of A, when he was pressed into service as a GWOT (Global War on Terror) interrogator. He operated in the nether world of rendition.
His description of the major site of his work, in an unnamed country, reads like one of the inner circles of Hell ― and that was for him!
What it was like for the poor victim of his labours is largely spared our eyes.
The prison was high in the fog-bound mountains of central Asia, surreally cut off from all the surrounding inhabitants. The CIA staffers, working endlessly long shifts under inordinate pressure, demonstrated all the signs of personality disorder ―including Carle.
Carle was assigned a HVT (High Value Target) to break. The hapless HVT was kidnapped on the streets of some Middle Eastern country after extensive intelligence work by some back room operative in Washington.
Careers were on the line if the HVT turned out to be anything less than a major al-Qaeda operative with secrets to spill.
The poor man was not anything of the sort, as Carle soon realised.
But orders are orders: ratchet up the pressure, said Washington, and keep increasing it until the man says something justifying his mistreatment.
Carle experienced a crisis of conscience and would not “torture” the man.
He admits to, but does not describe in detail, certain practices designed to disorient, confuse and discomfort him ― probably sleep deprivation, loud noise and long term shackling in painful poses.
Carle’s conscience is malleable. Early in his account, he admits to being a junior member of the CIA post that operated the 1980s Central American “Contra war”.
I know a man who was horribly tortured by the US-trained Salvadoran army during that war. Was that on Glenn Carle’s orders, or at least to his knowledge, I wondered as I read this self-serving memoir.
What emerges from The Interrogator is a picture of the CIA as a monstrous, paranoid and bureaucratic torture machine, mechanically and ignorantly projecting its fears onto the world.
This machine exists to protect the likes of Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street financier whose Ponzie scheme fell apart during the 2008 global financial crisis.
Madoff was a total fraud. He conned people into giving him their money in return for guaranteed interest. He never invested a cent, but simply paid money out of the funds that he harvested in.
His was a life lived in Richistan, that sub-section of US society that luxuriates in gated communities, holidays in Bahamas mansions and flies in private jets.
Along the way he established the NASDAQ and was regarded as a wise elder of Wall Street.
How did he get away with it? Because US authorities methodically understaffed and interfered with regulatory bodies for decades.
Through Republican and Democrat administrations, US authorities facilitated fraud and encouraged speculators to rip off society like, well, like Somali pirates.
Except Somali pirates have the decency to personally confront their victims. Fraudsters like Madoff sit behind a wall of torturers, sipping Champagne.
If you want to know why the CIA tortures, why Somali fishing people suicidally take to the sea to eke out a living or why Syed Saleem Shahzad’s corpse was dumped in a drain, The Wizard of Lies is the travelogue that matters.