For many of the years Margaret Coker reported from Baghdad, the city was, as she remembers it in The Spymaster of Baghdad, a “kaleidoscope of horror.” Years of sectarian fighting and terrorist bombs had burned violence into the city, feeding morgues with unclaimed bodies and colonizing almost every aspect of everyday life. But when she returned in 2017 as a bureau chief for the New York Times, Coker saw a living city: New cafés opening every week, families strolling in parks, kids playing in repaired playgrounds, nightclubs bumping at night. Baghdad was even safer than it had been before the US invasion in 2003. Coker asked numerous officials, US and Iraqi, how this happened, who’d led the change. No one could give her a satisfying explanation.
No one except Abu Ali al-Basri, the eponymous spymaster. Al-Basri heads al-Suquor (“The Falcons”), a little-known espionage unit that Coker calls “one of the US military’s closest counterterrorism allies in the Middle East.” Even as an active offensive continued in northern Iraq, the Falcons infiltrated the Islamic State and, with intelligence from within the Caliphate, shielded the Iraqi capital from one potential massacre after the other. Within one sixteen-month period, Al-Basri and his team of spies foiled thirty suicide bomb attacks and eighteen terror attacks targeted at Baghdad.
The Spymaster of Baghdad also traces the story of two brothers, Harith and Munaf al-Sudani, whom al-Basri personally recruited from an eastern Baghdadi slum. When Harith al-Sudani was killed during a covert mission behind enemy lines, his family was unable to receive recognition or benefits from the Iraqi government. It is Abu Ali al-Basri’s own remorse—and his vow to protect all of his spies and their families—that leads him to reveal the Falcons’ exploits to Coker.
The paradox of counterintelligence is that the best work remains invisible: The success story of espionage is the terrorist bomb that never detonated, the tragedy that never happened. Intelligence trades in the currency of secrets. So perhaps it makes sense that the Falcons, who were crucial in the fight against not only the Islamic State but also Al-Qaeda, are not mentioned at all in official accounts of the Iraqi War or in most reporting.
But another reason may be that when the US tells stories about its wars “abroad,” the protagonist is always American, the gaze painfully Western. In Coker’s documenting of this important chapter of modern Iraqi history, a story in which Iraqis have always been the main characters, the presence and voices of Americans are refreshingly absent.
—Lindsey Hilsum for Guernica
Guernica: How did you get this story to begin with, and when did you realize how much further it could go, beyond the original newspaper coverage?
Margaret Coker: I’m really an accidental war correspondent. I didn’t set off to do that with my life, but after the 9/11 attacks, my newspaper sent me to war zones. I started covering Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, living through the days when Baghdad was the murder capital of the world, with multiple terror attacks every day. Fast-forward through lots of different, horrendous chapters of Iraqi history, and when I returned to Baghdad as bureau chief for the New York Times in 2017, the city was going through a renaissance. There was a full-blown ground offensive in the north to rid the nation of the Islamic State, but in Baghdad, people were out at night and children were playing in playgrounds. Small businesses were reopening because people felt safe. I wanted to answer the very fundamental journalistic question: How did Baghdad become safe? Who had cracked that nut?
The road to finding that answer was very long and winding because a lot of people—American generals, Iraqi generals—didn’t know. But through my sourcing over the years, I had come to know about Abu Ali al-Basri, the spymaster of Baghdad. Together with his elite team called the Falcons, which hardly anyone had ever heard of, Abu Ali al-Basri had managed to put an undercover officer inside the Islamic State and, through his daring feats of bravery, had stopped nearly four dozen terror attacks aimed at Baghdad. That’s how the city had become safe.
For a long time, Abu Ali al-Basri didn’t want to take my calls and didn’t want to meet with me. Eventually, he decided to tell me these classified secrets because he had lost an officer behind enemy lines and felt a moral obligation to help the family. So when I wrote my first story for the New York Times, we brought into the open both these tales of bravery and also the fact that the family had not been able to get their government benefits because they couldn’t find the body to present to bureaucrats in Iraq. Within seventy-two hours of publishing my story, the government intervened to help the family. Abu Ali al-Basri decided that this verified his trust in me, so we continued working together to bring out all of their exploits into a book.
Guernica: Was it as simple as that? That your first story had an impact, so he trusted you? Or was there a bit more to it than that?
Coker: At heart, he is a decent man who cares a lot about his men. After all, he personally recruited them all. This was a very tight-knit group of men who did risk their lives for each other.
Another thing about Abu Ali al-Basri is that he is a consummate political survivor. In all of the turmoil that was Baghdad for so many years, including the political chaos that threatened many people’s careers, he managed to maneuver the corridors of power and survive three different prime ministers. This deft political handling also meant that he had to take some political risks, and I think one of those political risks was talking to me. There were loads of other units of the Iraqi military and intelligence getting credit for the wins on the ground against the Islamic State, and here was the spymaster, knowing he had this immense wind in his pocket. Yes, he wanted to brag a bit, I think. But it also raised his profile in political battles within the corridors of power.
Guernica: In your author’s notes, you write, “Ultimately, my aim with this book is to recalibrate Iraq’s history away from one that until now has centered on the Americans’ sins, suffering, and victories, and to illuminate the admirable role that Iraqis have played and the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their country and the world in the war on terror.” Do you feel that, in the reporting that we have done—and I have reported from Iraq as well—that we have given Iraqis a bum rap?
Coker: Throughout my career, I’ve always been told that the best way to interest Americans in foreign policy is to tell a story with an American in it. The book publishing world agrees, at least in the US, because for years all we really had on the shelves were books from the generals and soldiers and servicewomen—their stories of survival, of trauma, of military tactics. Now we’ve entered a new era in the world of American commercial publishing where the histories and truth of underserved communities are much more important than they were ten years ago.
I was very conscious about not putting any Americans in my book. Iraqis have agency. They have been the main characters in both some of the best and worst parts of the last fifteen years of their nation’s history. The official history of the Iraq War by the US Army was published by the US Army, and guess who’s not mentioned once? The Falcons.
Guernica: Why do you think that is? Is it because the American military didn’t recognize the role that they played, or is it because the role that they played was undercover and the Americans weren’t giving away secrets?
Coker: The answer differs depending on who you talk to. The most generous interpretation—and that which American officials have told me—is that they don’t want to endanger a very beneficial and important relationship; when the Americans start talking about their partners in the Middle East, that leaves those partners open to lots of criticism and danger. But other officials have said to me that the US Army’s history is about the US Army and nothing else.
I was raised in a military family. We watched films from World War II, and I read so much about those old “great wars.” We know a lot about the French Resistance and Polish partisans, our allies and our partners there, but for the current war on terror, we have not yet reached the point, in our telling of these wars, to really be able to talk about—to lionize, as well as criticize—our local partners. So this is a book that, for now, in this time and place, lionizes some of the partners that we couldn’t really do without.
Guernica: One of the things I also like about the book is its female villain. Female villains are a bit unusual, particularly when Westerners like us are writing about the Middle East. How did you uncover that story?
Coker: When I told Abu Ali al-Basri that I had a book contract, he helped me map out how we thought the book would be structured. Although we were going to focus a lot on Harith and his undercover operation, I wanted to know what else they had done, so we could make a list of “greatest hits” and I could then pick and choose which ones could make it into the book. This operation to stop a biological terror attack against Baghdad was among the greatest hits.
Abrar al-Kubaisi, a radicalized young woman, had become the mastermind behind a plan to poison Baghdad’s drinking water. When she was in jail, awaiting her trial, I tried for months to get access to her and nobody would allow that, so instead I started my reporting via her interrogators, from the Falcons and from the US government as well. I realized that these interrogators had an enormous amount of sympathy for her. I thought, “There we go. Like, this is actually an interesting story now.” I mean, they knew the gravity of their situation, but they spent so much time with her that they felt protective of her; they were full of sympathy about Abrar and her life. She isn’t a cartoon villain, some woman full of rage trying to do something terrible. Hers is actually a story about how someone who “has it all” on paper can go so wrong.
Tracking down Abrar’s family and speaking with them was also extraordinarily difficult. She is a convicted terrorist; nobody in Iraq or anywhere else in the world wants to be associated with a convicted terrorist.
For a family to grapple with that reality is very difficult: Their entire lives changed because of their daughter and her actions. They had to leave a very well-regarded neighborhood and flee from the censorious reactions of their neighbors. There was a real detective hunt underway in Baghdad for me to find them. When they agreed to meet me, I was actually on eggshells, thinking that they were just going to slam the door in my face and I’d never be able to tell their side of the story. So I’m most worried about how they are going to view the book, because there’s no real good spin for the fact that they have a daughter who is a terrorist.
Guernica: You’ve worked as an investigative journalist, uncovering money trails and all of that kind of intricate stuff, but here, what you’ve uncovered—particularly with the two brothers whom you feature—it’s an emotional trial . You really went into how they felt. That’s not easy. How did you get that?
Coker: I believe that one of my biggest journalistic successes in this book is getting people to speak to me about their interior lives. I spent a lot of time with men who sat and cried and talked about the things that they loved and the things that they missed and the ways in which they wish that life would have been different. It was extraordinary. I hadn’t ever experienced that in my time reporting in Arab countries.
Though part of getting people to open up emotionally requires skill, part of it too is just being at the right place at the right time. The Sudani family were so full of loss and remorse about losing their son that I became the vessel through which everybody could cry and come to terms with things that they never would have otherwise. I started off with this incredible trust because I had helped them in a very basic way, by getting their government benefits “unstuck” for them.
Guernica: Everybody’s version of events in any family is always different, isn’t it? People see things differently. Within the Sudani family, you have the eldest son who is angry and resentful and unsuccessful, and his father is beating him up, and his wife hates him, and he is treating her very badly. Meanwhile, he had become this martyr. How did you unlock those less glorious stories?
Coker: The fact is that, when you live cheek by jowl in an Arab household—with grown brothers, grown sons living with their wives and their children on the second and third floor of a family house—everybody knows everything that’s going on. From the get-go, Abu Harith, the patriarch of the Sudani family, wanted to tell me his stories, and he didn’t do this in secret. The absolute honesty that he showed me—and he was critical of himself too, his mistakes were out in the open, right in front of his family—that was the key that unlocked the door. Everyone else felt like they could be honest as well. It really did in a lot of ways write itself. I just hope that I’ve done justice to everybody’s stories. We all have such a strong bond, and there has been such an active back-and-forth through the process.