Book review: The Spymaster of Baghdad, by Margaret Coker

This eye-opening account of the Iraqi intelligence unit which infiltrated Islamic State may read like a thriller, yet it is also grounded in the experiences of everyday Iraqis, writes Vin Arthey

Margaret Coker PIC: Andrea DiCenzo
Margaret Coker PIC: Andrea DiCenzo

Margaret Coker is an investigative journalist who for 15 years delved into corruption, counterterrorism and cyber warfare across the Middle East, culminating in her appointment in 2018 as Bureau Chief for the New York Times in Baghdad.

The "spymaster” of her book’s title is Abu Ali al-Basri, an Iraqi intelligence operative who championed human intelligence (HUMINT), and founded the tiny, elite “Falcons” group of spies, their task being not to solve the war against terrorism, but “to be like a falcon, hunting its prey”. Their work helped turn the tide against the ISIS insurgency and made possible the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.

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We learn a little about Abu Ali’s background and childhood, but he remains in the shadows, our link between the Iraqi government, the US army, the CIA and the Falcons. The book itself can be read like a novel, a thriller, with the participants (the Falcons and the ISIS jihadis as the main players) hiding and re-emerging as the narrative progresses.

The Spymaster of Baghdad, by Margaret Coker

Coker’s great achievement is to set the horrors that Iraq has experienced as Al Qaeda morphed into the Islamic State (ISIS) as a backdrop to the lives and experiences of ordinary Iraqis. She reminds us that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim in a country where the majority are Shia Muslim. There was a logic, then, to the successor government being Shia, but the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was neither strong nor effective. Disaffected Sunnis, especially Saddam’s army and police, were keen to antagonise the new regime, to the point of fomenting civil strife or becoming jihadist terrorists with ISIS. Spymaster Abu Ali warned prime minister al-Maliki about the growth of ISIS, but his evidence of the imminent attack from the north was ignored by the military chiefs.

These great crises impact on ordinary Iraqis, be they Shia or Sunni, even spies or jihadis and it is particularly through the experience of women – sisters, wives and mothers – that the reader negotiates a way of seeing how appalling daily life can become. We meet them in the kitchens of homes in cities and suburbs that were just place names for us in the West. We get the names of the children sent to the market and the nature of the specific ingredients they are to buy. Then we wait in anguish with their families when news comes through that the market has been bombed and lives have been lost. These women and their families feature significantly in the dozen colour photographs the book includes.

The other side of these scenes is the Falcons’ courage, and their tradecraft. Abu Ali is a master of disinformation. Many of the reported ISIS attacks, truck bombs as well as suicide bombs, never happened. Cells had been penetrated, suicide bombers captured, interrogated and imprisoned. Bomb blasts were set up in safe areas, photographs taken at these sites, in hospitals too, and convincing press releases issued, fooling the Islamic State leadership. It is certain that Western news agencies often carried the reports.

Everything that we are shown and told is true, but The Spymaster of Baghdad’s style and structure are crafted like a novel. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear what is going to happen to the Falcon’s most important agent, but you will will it not to happen all the same.

This “untold story” is a unique masterpiece in the genres of espionage writing and spy biography. When I finished reading, I turned back to the front of the book, and to Margaret Coker’s first dedication: “To the Iraqis who work tenaciously and bravely to improve their homeland. May your sacrifices not be in vain.” Amen to that.

The Spymaster of Baghdad, by Margaret Coker, Viking, 336pp, £20

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