Until not too long ago, the word ‘thriller’ was not associated with films and television shows as much as with books and novels. Books were as gripping as most television serials nowadays have become. Receding reading habits in general have been overwhelmed by video shows, and the memory of a riveting book or novel that keeps you up, captivated, the whole night, is becoming almost history. The Iraqi Deception by Charles Barker is a stark reminder of that vanishing phenomenon and the power of written fiction.
Against the backdrop of actual Iraq’s recent history and geopolitics from the late 1990s to 2003, Barker has woven a brilliant thriller and narrated it like a detailed newspaper report, albeit lucidly and convincingly, with a day-to-day progression and with remarkable specificity. The plot begins leisurely and unfolds gradually to a rising crescendo of suspense, but without letting the reader becoming distracted even for a moment. It is reminiscent somewhat of a high wired episode of the American television show Homeland. Without losing its momentum, the narrative culminates in an ending that is sensational and tied up gratifyingly neatly.
The author declares that “[t]his book is essentially a work of fiction, but is grounded in facts. It is a matter of record that the Iraqi Regime possessed and indeed used both chemical and biological weapons during the 12 years between the two Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003. It is also a fact that much of [Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s] stockpile was destroyed; but simple arithmetic clearly showed that there was more that remained undiscovered. However, many investigations and subsequent enquiries were to demonstrate that there were no [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq at the outbreak of the Second Gulf War, the fact that they were not found does not mean that the country did not possess them.”
However, the plot has little to do with politics and mostly revolves around the dramatic nitty-gritty of the search, procurement, transaction and transportation of a consignment of anthrax by the Iraqi government. In the second phase, five years later, a more elaborate operation is initiated, planned and executed for smuggling the anthrax out of Iraqi territory in order to hide it from the prying eyes of international inspectors. In the second mission, the governments of several countries become suspicious and involved in the conspiracy, along with many underground criminal outfits.
In the novel, in 1997, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein dispatches an emissary, his first cousin, to the director of the Biopreparat — a chemical and biological weapons research installation in Kazakhstan and a major centre for the Soviet ministry of defence — to express Iraq’s desire to procure biological weapons. A chain of events begins, leading to Moscow, and the undertaking of arrangements for illegal covert supply of the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) through the good offices of a major Russian mafia gang. The operation of lifting, transporting, delivering and receiving the money for the goods and services is illustrated with thorough detail through very short chapters (of one page, at times). Simultaneously, a decoy shipment is also cleverly engineered to divert attention from the actual consignment. This red herring is intercepted by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), complete with naval commando action. The actual WMD finally reaches Iraq successfully and is stored at a secret location.
A recent action-filled and gripping novel revolving around Iraq’s biological weapons is a stark reminder of the power of written fiction
By 2002, the global political situation in the aftermath of 9/11 creates new dynamics and challenges for the Iraqi government, necessitating the removal of the WMD far away from its country’s borders. Another larger operation is planned with the help of the same Russian mafia who originally supplied the contraband consignment to Iraq. However, unforeseen developments disrupt the execution of the mission. Consequently, the shipment falls into new hands and is diverted towards the South China Sea. Hong Kong becomes the operational theatre. Intriguing twists and turns follow that keep the reader engrossed while turning pages of the book.
These action-filled and gripping operations involve a wide range of intelligence agencies led by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6); Russian and Hong Kong mafias; rogue shipping services as well as Pakistani ISI and Naval Special Services Group (SSG); and the United States SEALS. Barker deserves credit for his scrupulous research and the authentic and convincing descriptions of the workings of these organisations — down to the make of weapons, aircrafts, maritime procedures and vessels that are used. The overall plot of the novel is complex, but meticulously drawn and clinically narrated in a straightforward, clear storyline. His characters are varied, lively and believable.
For readers familiar with Pakistan, the account of the escape of one of the villains from Afghanistan to the mountains of Chitral and then his onward escape to India, with the ISI on his tail, would be a particularly interesting read.
The Iraqi Deception is Barker’s second full-length novel. His first was a self-published work titled The Brown Envelope Club. In addition to this book — which was about the rulers of the oil-rich Arab countries and a disaffected group of military contract officers — he has written a collection of short stories titled Capital Tales and a children’s book called The Adventures of Godfrey and Oliver. Barker is a professional of the hotel industry and has worked in several countries, including Pakistan, Oman, Jordan, Hong Kong and Russia, and writes often about his experiences of the different cultures and regions.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-1978; and Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, in English and Urdu respectively
The Iraqi Deception
By Charles Barker
New Generation, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 22nd, 2020