A Ticking Bomber

A Ticking Bomber

Mini Teaser: There is no simple answer to the causes of terrorism. But three books offer insight into the complexities of man and his motivation to kill. These explanations come not from academic tomes, nor expositions by the burgeoning cottage industry of ter

by Author(s): Raymond Bonner

Dan Fesperman, The Amateur Spy (New York: Knopf, 2008), 384 pp., $24.95.

Yasmina Khadra, The Attack (New York: Anchor, 2007), 272 pp., $13.95.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (New York: Harcourt, 2007), 208 pp., $14.00.


ON THE evening of June 29, 2007, two men parked two Mercedes-Benzes on the streets of central London, near a popular nightclub. They were loaded with gas canisters. The one closest to the nightclub was set to go off first, causing revelers to rush outside, when the other would explode, ratcheting up the death toll. They failed to ignite.

Less than forty-eight hours later, a green Jeep Cherokee loaded with similar canisters rammed through the glass-plate window of the arrivals hall at Glasgow International Airport and burst into flames. The driver and passenger were the same men who had left the cars in London.

These men were doctors. Men who vow to save lives. Who swear to do no harm. To heal the sick. To revere life. If doctors had become terrorists, was no one immune to the hatred and disillusionment that breeds such destruction? Conventional thinking about terrorism was set on its axis-that it was because of poverty, unemployment, alienated young men; that it was the product of religious zealotry, fueled by radical imams in the madrassas of Pakistan, the pesantras of Indonesia.

There is no simple answer to the causes of terrorism, as much as many politicians and journalists would have us believe that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda stand at the heart of it all. Three books offer some insights into the complexities of man and his motivation to kill, himself and innocent others. But, no, not three academic tomes, not more expositions by the burgeoning growth industry of terrorism "experts," rather, three novels: The Attack, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Amateur Spy.

Understandably, 9/11 has offered material for many writers, including some of the heavyweights of fiction-Don DeLillo, Falling Man; John Updike, Terrorist; Ian MacEwan, Saturday; Martin Amis, The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.

The authors of the three books under review here are not as prominent. The Attack is the work of a former Algerian army officer who writes under the female pen name Yasmina Khadra (he is also author of The Swallows of Kabul and, most recently, The Sirens of Baghdad). The Amateur Spy was written by an American journalist, Dan Fesperman (who also wrote The Prisoner of Guantánamo). And Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is from an elite Pakistani family, and was educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School. As most novelists do, these men draw on their backgrounds. The protagonist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is from an elite Pakistani family and went to Princeton and Harvard Business School. As a journalist, Fesperman was posted in Bosnia and Israel, and his knowledge of these places serves the reader well in this page-turning thriller, which is the equal to John le Carré at his best (a level at which he hasn't been for many books now). And as an Algerian army officer, Khadra, whose real name is Mohamed Moulessehoul, knows whereof about torture and the complex attitudes of many Arabs and Muslims. The strikingly different backgrounds of these men add to the power of these books, when taken collectively, to add to our understanding of the making of a terrorist.

As a journalist, I have been writing and reading about terrorism almost exclusively since 9/11; I was based in Indonesia at the time of the bombing of the nightclubs in Bali, in 2002, and the bombings of the restaurants there in 2004; I was in London at the time of the failed attacks mentioned above, and had earlier reported on the July 2005 attacks on the London Underground. After reading these novels-by chance one after the other-I came away thinking that they told me as much, if not more, about terrorism than the pontificating by politicians, journalists, academics and counterterrorism experts.

If you prefer novels that have a high degree of verisimilitude, these will more than satisfy. Reading Standard Operating Procedure, the account of Abu Ghraib hauntingly told by Philip Gourevitch, I thought, if I didn't know it was true, I would think this was fiction. These three works of fiction, by contrast, at times feel like nonfiction. So many of the events described by and happening to these characters have happened in reality. The torture inflicted in The Attack is similar to the torture meted out by the American military and CIA to suspected terrorists. The humiliation suffered by Dr. Abbas Rahim, and his family, in The Amateur Spy because of their name, because they are Muslim, has been felt by Muslims-in the United States, in Europe, in Australia-post-9/11.

In trying to explain terrorism, novelists have an advantage over journalists and academics: they can "look" into the deepest recesses of the mind. We will never know for certain, for instance, what motivated the doctors in the London-Glasgow plot-one of the men died of burns; the other is on trial, and has pled not guilty. Almost by definition a suicide bomber isn't going to tell us what drove him or her to the ultimate extreme of taking one's own life, which no religion sanctions. Even the prerecorded videos, with their expressions of a desire for martyrdom, or to go to "paradise" and be with the virgins, still leave the question of why. Why did they want to be martyrs? Why were they willing to die? Novelists can fill in the gaps with the literary license not available to the nonfiction chronicler.

Perhaps most importantly, it is also probably going to take this very fiction to get Americans to face the reality of terrorism and its causes. Who is going to read the Canadian government's damning 373-page "Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar"? Arar was detained by immigration officials in New York, on his way back to Canada from Europe. He was then secretly rendered to Syria, where his torture, detailed in the government report, included being kept in a rat-infested, dark room-much like Dr. Jaafari in The Attack. How many books have been written about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? As well as any of them, if not better, in only 257 pages, Khadra brings home the personal degradation that can drive a person to become a suicide bomber.


YOU DON'T blow yourself up in a public place on a whim,'" a colleague and former girlfriend says to Dr. Amin Jaafari.

Jaafari agrees. "‘I want to know why,'" he says in deep agony. His is not a dispassionate, academic or journalistic question, but an intensely personal one.

Jaafari is a surgeon at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, rarefied heights for the son of Bedouins. He is a naturalized Israeli, fully integrated into Israeli life. He and his wife, Sihem, live in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. They entertain in their splendid residence, and vacation from Paris and Barcelona to Miami and the Caribbean.

Jaafari is having lunch in the hospital canteen, talking with fellow doctors about buying a villa at the beach-Sihem loves the sea-when an explosion shakes the walls and shatters glass. "‘A suicide bomber blew himself up in a restaurant,'" a colleague tells Jaafari when he reaches the emergency room.

The hospital echoes with wailing and screaming, all the gurneys are loaded with bodies, broken, riddled with splinters and shards. After hours of trying to save lives, one man dies in his hands and another refuses to allow Dr. Jaafari to treat him. "‘I don't want any Arab touching me,'" the wounded man says. "‘I'd rather croak.'" Jaafari operates on him anyway.

On his way home, exhausted, Jaafari is stopped at a checkpoint. He shows his papers. Arab name. The police order him out of the car, make him stand spread-eagle and search him. He is eventually allowed to go. He is stopped three more times on his way. "It was no use showing my papers and announcing my profession," he says. "The cops had eyes only for my face."

Jaafari's wife isn't home when he gets there, but given what he's just been through, he doesn't worry too much; he takes a sleeping pill and climbs into bed. The phone rings-"resounds like a jackhammer in my brain." It's 3:20 AM. The caller, a senior police officer Jaafari knows, tells him he must return to the hospital. When he arrives, a policeman pulls back the sheet covering a victim.

"I've seen mutilated bodies in my life," Dr. Jaafari says. "But the shredded limbs on the table in front of me pass all understanding. This is horror in its most absolute ugliness."

It is his wife, Sihem.

The wounds fit those of a suicide bomber, the police report says. Jaafari won't believe it. Then a scribbled five-line note arrives, no salutation, no date. It is from Sihem.

With that, Jaafari's torment and search begin. Diogenes with his lantern. "All night long, I try to understand how Sihem arrived at the point she reached."

Essay Types: Book Review