Adnan Awad, a Palestinian Arab from near Haifa, is the "highest-ranking Iraqi terrorist" of the title. Born in 1942, he lived in several Arab countries and engaged in a range of dubious enterprises before moving to Iraq in the late 1970s, where he prospered in the construction business. One sign of this was his winning the contract to build Saddam Hussein's nuclear-proof underground bunker. According to his detailed testimony to authors Steven Emerson and Cristina del Sesto, Awad had it made -- "more than two million dollars in the bank, five cars, a house, and a beautiful young girlfriend."
"Everything would have been fine," he goes on, "except that I met up with stupid people." And not just any stupid people. Befriended by Mohammed Rashid (currently in jail in Greece, awaiting trial for blowing up a Pan Am jetliner on its way to Hawaii in August 1982), he quickly fell into the clutches of Abu Ibrahim, the head of the 15 May Organization and one of Iraq's leading agents of terror. Needing someone respectable to carry out operations in the West, Abu Ibrahim pressured a reluctant Awad to work for him by demonstrating that he could close down Awad's construction business. Feeling trapped, Awad accepted Abu Ibrahim's orders. In August 1982, he set off for Geneva with a Semtex-lined suitcase. His mission: to blow up the Noga Hilton hotel because its owner was a Jewish supporter of Israel.
On reaching Switzerland, however, Awad turned himself over to the U.S. Embassy. During the next two years, he worked with Swiss intelligence. Then, in late 1984, he came to the United States to testify against Mohammed Rashid. As that case slowly wends it way through the Greek court system, Awad moves from one American city to another under the auspices of the federal Witness Protection Program.
Awad's account sounds suspiciously self-serving. Could he be such an innocent? Do ordinary businessmen, even in Iraq, find themselves compelled to bomb foreign hotels? The reader is given little (such as footnotes) to confirm Awad's account; instead, he basically must trust the authors' judgment that their own efforts and those of U.S. government officials prove his veracity.
The one thing a reader can do is check for factual mistakes, illogic and internal contradiction. Combing the book for such flaws, I found that "Terrorist" stands up well. Awad does make a few questionable assertions (for example, that the PLO's army permits half its students-in-training to be killed in the course of exercise) but nothing that discredits his testimony. Actual mistakes belong to the co-authors, who do make historical errors (the League of Nations had nothing to do with the 1920 San Remo Conference) and Arabic language mistakes (you can't shorten the name Abu Ibrahim, as they repeatedly do). But these are of minor importance.
On all key matters Awad's account of his personal history, even when sometimes implausible-sounding, does check out; and the impersonal portions of his testimony have stood up to serious scrutiny, both private and governmental.
Accordingly, Awad's sensational tale exposes much about Middle East terrorism. Take just one episode, his leaving Iraq with a wired suitcase: While Awad expected airport guards to search him, his handler, a man named Mikhail, skirted the security controls entirely. "Mikhail shouted to airport security-officer friends, who in turn waved hello. They smiled at him as he made a face, pointing to the bag Adnan was holding. Then Mikhail motioned with his hands how delicate the bag was, pantomiming the effects of an explosion. Adnan was flabbergasted. It was like one of the Jerry Lewis movies he so enjoyed ... The guards laughed and wished Adnan godspeed."
Steven Emerson is a leading investigative journalist dealing with intelligence matters; in "Terrorist" as in "The Fall of Pan Am 103," he is at his best, piecing together a complex and elusive story. But one drawback is stylistic: He tries too hard to write a thriller out of nonfictional material. Take the title. Can Adnan Awad be called a terrorist if he never carried out a violent operation? What does "highest ranking" refer to when Awad had no rank and no other Iraqi terrorist has defected? Emerson's motive is understandable; Villard Books would not have published a 350,000 first printing of dry prose. Still a fascinating story such as Awad's speaks for itself, without hype.
The authors also strain to relate their story to U.S. foreign policy. "Adnan Awad could have provided the spark that might have induced [U.S.] policymakers to rethink their tilt toward Iraq, a tilt that snowballed into a colossal mistake and eventually led to the Persian Gulf war." The testimony of a minor defector could have altered the course of history? Not likely.
But these cavils are secondary. "Terrorist" offers an exciting and original glimpse into the subterranean, both in the Middle East and here.