This is a selection of books that have inspired Simon Conway and often acted as essential background reading to his novels.
Books that inspired 'A Loyal Spy'
It is a history of radical Islamism and the road to 9/11. It also explores the failure of the CIA to share vital information with the FBI that might have allowed them to unravel the plot. Certainly for the administration side of al Qaeda there was a lot of information in Yemen that was never properly shared in terms of links to satellite phones that might potentially have led the FBI to uncover the plot.
The Looming Tower explores how terrorism and crime can flourish despite our attempts to stop it. There is a fantastically flawed and divisive hero, John O’Neill, who led the FBI’s fight against bin Laden, but resigned in August 2001 to go and work at the World Trade Centre. He died on 9/11. It was O’Neill who understood that al Qaeda has four distinct arms: intelligence, administration, planning and execution.
The book also has a great title – it is taken from a videotaped speech by bin Laden that was found on the computer of one of the members of the Hamburg cell. The cell would go on to bring down the towers. It is a quote from the fourth Sura of the Koran – ‘Death will find you, even in the looming tower.’
This is a tale about diamond smuggling and what a curse diamonds have been to Sierra Leone and how diamond smuggling funded one of the most brutal rebel movements in modern history – the Revolutionary United Front.
I became particularly interested in it when I read the book and learnt to my astonishment that in July 2001, just two months before the 9/11 attack , a Lebanese diamond broker named Aziz Nassour arrived in Liberia with Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a 24-year-old from Tanzania, who was a member of the al Qaeda network.
Ghailani was accused by the FBI of buying the truck that destroyed the US embassy in Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. Nassour and Ghailani met up with the RUF rebels that controlled the diamond fields in neighbouring Sierra Leone and told them that they needed to convert large sums of cash into easily convertible, non-traceable commodities. They purchased 20 million dollars’ worth – enough to finance 40 attacks on the scale of 9/11. Nobody really knows what happened to those diamonds.
It is also interesting if you look at the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. If they had spent more time studying the administration of al Qaeda and following its financial links, it is possible that they could have prevented the attacks. Follow the money – I think that is the lesson.
This book provides a fascinating insight into the real nuances of political, religious and ethnic strife in Afghanistan through the period of the Afghan Civil War and the rise of the Taliban.
What is really interesting is how it describes how the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence Services) created and nurtured the Taliban to fill the vacuum created by the Afghan civil war,and how the organisation was fed by weapons and money from Saudi Arabia, foot soldiers from the Pakistani madrassas and revenue from the opium trade. It also highlights the blundering interventions, particularly from American and Argentine oil companies, and their dealings with the Taliban.
It looks at the extent to which the Americans allowed the Pakistanis to get away with creating the Taliban, and this sense that when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 somehow this was a good thing and although clearly women’s rights were out the window the feeling was at least there was this opportunity where they could run pipelines through the country!
Sadly, this book is now out of print but you can buy used copies. Look out for his new book "Islamic State - Rewriting History".
This book really leads you into the world of international crime, gang operations, sex slavery and money laundering, etc.
And it reveals how the global marketplace has really empowered criminals on a huge and terrifying scale. For instance, members of the Mumbai underworld assisted the Pakistani ISI to smuggle in the RDX explosives that were used in the Mumbai bombings in March 1993.
One area I find him very interesting on is what has become of the cold war spy agencies. He looks at how the Bulgarian DS created an arm called the Covert Transit Directorate whose primary role was to smuggle weapons to African rebel groups, but soon the channels were used for people-trafficking and for drugs. In the 1980s 80 per cent of the heroin destined for the European market would cross into Bulgaria from Turkey at the Kapetan Andreevo crossing point and into the hands of the Covert Transit Directorate. The DS established an economic monopoly after the fall of communism – DS members founded 90 per cent of the joint stock companies created after the opening of private enterprise in Bulgaria in 1986. All this is a chilling example of opportunism and how well qualified these groups are to carry it through.
This is a book that everybody should read, particularly anybody who cares about national security. I have been to various meetings at the Foreign Office and other places and every time I meet anyone who has anything to do with counter-terrorism I say, you must read this book. And, in the manner of civil servants, they usually nod and it is very clear they have no intention of reading it, which makes me more frightened.
John Robb who wrote it is a counter-terrorism expert and a former red team player. In other words, he is one of these guys who think up ways of how to destroy his own side. He plays the enemy. To follow on from what I was saying about McMafia, he shows how networks, be they criminal or terrorist, have linked up with each other to create a new type of terrorism.
He describes a future in which small ad-hoc bands of insurgents will identify and exploit gaps in vital systems and generate a huge return. The book also describes the growth of the terrorist marketplace and how it behaves like a bazaar. Terrorist networks now outsource to freelancers – for instance, they buy in a hollowed-out car from a chop shop to create a vehicle-borne IED (improvised explosive device), and stack of artillery shells from a local insurgent group. Their actions are designed to provoke copycat attacks, as other networks in the bazaar innovate and identify new weaknesses.