****Death in Shangri-La

India, dawn, village

By Yigal Zur, translated by Sara Kitai – Israeli thriller writer Yigal Zur skillfully uses both an exotic setting and ongoing political turmoil to create a high level of tension in this fast-paced thriller. Published in Israel in 2012, Death in Shangri-La is the first of Zur’s novels to be translated into English, and quite smoothly at that.

A trip to India after their military commitment has become rite of passage for many Israeli young adults. When one young Israeli seems bent on abandoning a future law career and immersing himself in the life of an ashram somewhere in Sikkim, his father, arms dealer Willy Mizrachi, is outraged. He complains about it to his acquaintance, former security agent Dotan Naor, familiar with India from his days working for Israeli state security.

While Dotan counsels him to accept his son for who he is, Willy is determined to bring him home. In an action that will have deadly consequences, Willy wagers that within a year, he’ll have his son happily back home, with a wife and baby.

A few months later, Dotan learns Willy has been murdered in Delhi, just as news reports are filled with stories of terrorist attacks on Israeli young people in north India—backpackers, guest house visitors, honeymooners. Most of the novel is told by Dotan in first-person. However, the attacks are told from the points of view of the Israelis and their would-be rescuers, which effectively conveys the situational chaos.

Shortly after Dotan learns about Willy, security agency agents visit his Tel Aviv apartment hoping he will cooperate in unraveling Willy’s murder. Dotan at first refuses, but when a posthumous letter from Willy arrives saying he’s being watched, the clues it contains convince him to take the job. The female agent, Maya Kfir, will accompany him. (You anticipate where that relationship is going.)

The action moves to India, and Zur wonderfully evokes a sense of place. His descriptions of the street life, the seedy hotels where Dotan and Maya stay, the markets, the food, are terrific. The elements of the setting are not just pasted on, they are well worked into the plot. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? Probably not.

In the course of trying to untangle Willy’s death, Dotan and Maya land in the heart of the current terrorist trouble spot and must draw on Dotan’s contacts with Indians on both sides of the law. The Muslim terrorists, drug runners, Tibetan freedom fighters, the Indian army—all have their agendas and guns manufactured in Israel. Are they Willy’s deadly legacy?

The main part of the story takes place in a highly compressed few days and the propulsive action keeps the pages turning. My only complaint is Dotan—a man in his forties, not a teenage boy—is obsessed with the sexual conquest, past, present, or future, of practically every woman in the story. When he quickly develops a supposedly sincere, if highly predictable, relationship with Maya, it’s hard to take seriously. This is the middle one of three thrillers about Dotan Naor. I hope the others will be translated too, and soon!

Photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

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****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

****The Terrorist’s Dilemma

laptops, soldiers

(photo: wikimedia)

By Jacob N. Shapiro – an academic’s look at the organizational constraints on traditional terrorist organizations—from those in pre-Revolution Russia to the Irish Republican Army to Al Qa’ida to Fatah and Hamas—and how groups manage these difficulties. Princeton professor Shapiro gave a fascinating talk about his research last December and resolved to read his book.

In part, his message is that terrorist organizations face many of the familiar challenges as do other organized human endeavors. They have resource management issues, they have personnel issues, they have issues related to achieving their goal. But operating as covert and violent organizations imposes a number of additional, unique security constraints.

A key factor is the extent to which “management”—the terrorist leaders at the top—and “line” personnel—the people carrying out day-to-day operations are in sync. Often, they are not. A terrorist organization’s leaders typically have a political agenda, which requires compromise, negotiation, a focus on long-term goals and, therefore—in an effort not to alienate national leaders or the populace of the host country—the need to keep a lid on violence, at least to some degree. This is because, as Shapiro says, “the groups that eventually win political power, or even major concessions, do so not on the strength of their violence, but on the back of large-scale political mobilization and participation in normal politics.”

By contrast, people drawn to the front lines of the same terrorist movement, to whom operational decisions may be delegated, are likely to be more extreme and to seek confrontation and heightened violence, “action in its own right,” Shapiro says. Disagreement in the ranks is common, as personal histories and captured documents amply demonstrate. Even Osama bin Laden counseled restraint among the rank-and-file.

However, controlling the troops requires a fair amount of communication, and every communication between underground organization leaders and the field entails a security risk. Thus, control is always imperfect. Similarly, it is the leaders of terrorist organizations who generally are the fundraisers and the people responsible for husbanding the organization’s resources. Closely managing who spends funds for what purposes again leads to security exposure. These two tradeoffs—operational security vs. tactical control and operational security vs. financial efficiency—play out in one underground terrorist organization after another, across time and geography.

Much has been learned about these organizations (via captured documents—and in one case reported here, which would be unbelievable if it were written into a political thriller, Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison purchased a used laptop in Kabul as a quickie replacement and discovered his new machine had been that of Al Qa’ida #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, turned in for resale without wiping the hard drive.)

Shapiro contends that understanding why terrorist organizations make the choices they do is an essential first step in designing counter-terror policies. For any number of reasons, ISIS may be different than these past organizations and not understanding those differences also will lead to tragedy.