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Journalist Margaret Coker Retells The Story Of The Battle Against ISIS In New Book


A secret unit of spies and the intelligence officer who led them is at the center of a retelling of the battle against ISIS and terrorism in Iraq. Margaret Coker, former Baghdad Bureau chief of The New York Times, wanted to, as she writes, move the story of the war in Iraq away from the, quote, "sins, suffering and victories" of the Americans and show how Iraqis were central to their own salvation. Her book is called "The Spymaster Of Baghdad," and she joins us now from Savannah, Ga.

Welcome to the program.

MARGARET COKER: Thanks. It's so nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of characters in this story. But let's start, of course, with the spymaster himself, Abu Ali al-Basri. Tell me how you heard about him.

COKER: Well, I have been in and out of Iraq working as a journalist since 2003. And there's always been these people in the shadows of Iraq who have been working to help rebuild their own country and help defend their country against all of these waves of Islamic terrorism. And so I had known about Abu Ali al-Basri because he is in charge of what is probably the least-known elite spy unit in the Middle East.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also follow, in this story, two brothers, Harith and Munaf al-Sudani, who ultimately join al-Basri's unit, the Falcons. Explain to us where the al-Sudanis come from and what motivates them.

COKER: Yeah, the Sudanis are - they come from the wrong side of the tracks. They are, literally, from one of the worst neighborhoods in Baghdad. They have zero social status. They have zero cachet. And yet, they rose to become members of this elite spy unit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain to us what the Falcons actually did. What were their missions? What was their objective?

COKER: Well, we all probably remember, you know, from the mid-2000s, there was a lot of sectarian fighting and lots of terrorism. And they became a very key player, both with U.S. forces and U.S. intelligence officers, to trace and track down some of the worst of the al-Qaida leadership that was responsible for the bloodshed in Iraq and then, later on, to fight back against the Islamic State when they reared their ugly head in 2014.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's interesting about this book, of course, is that you also describe the other side of this. And you talk about the radicalization of Abrar al-Kubaisi. She was a promising young scholar from a well-respected family in Baghdad. Her sister is killed at an American checkpoint, a sort of very common story of the time. What does her story tell us about how people are radicalized in Iraq and elsewhere?

COKER: Right. There's so many individual stories to tell about the lives that were cut short, lives that were ruined and dreams that were fulfilled. And what really drew me to her as a character was not that she became a villain and someone who wanted to kill her own people, but it was really the hopes and dreams that she had that were dashed through the course of her young life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, the book centers around the homegrown efforts of Iraqis to save their country. But Americans, of course, had a huge, outsized role in Iraq and in the work of al-Basri and the Falcons at different moments.

COKER: Of course. And there's no doubt that the Americans were both partially responsible for the inflood (ph) of Islamic terrorism into Iraq but also in fighting back against it. I think one of the themes of my book for people who care about national security as America faces its own domestic terrorism threats is to figure out the ways in which the intelligence agencies can actually track and trace the people who mean to do them harm. And from Iraq's point of view, America got that wrong a lot. They were responsible for arresting dozens, hundreds, thousands of men who actually were patriots but happened to be from the wrong family or the wrong city. And when you go after threats with this really broad brush, it helps radicalize people. I think what the Falcons show us is that there needs to be a much more finer sensibility about going after threats.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I should say we were in Iraq at the same time, and wars are so complex. There are so many things happening underneath what is obvious. You spent years conducting interviews for this book, being let into the lives and homes of these families. How did that change your understanding, as a reporter, of the war's impact?

COKER: Yeah. There's so many Iraqis whose stories are unheralded - right? - I mean, not only here in America but also in Iraq. When I wrote my first story about the Sudani family and the sacrifice that Harith Sudani made on behalf of his nation, no one in Iraq had ever heard of this person, although he had helped to thwart more than four dozen terror attacks. So for all of the individual stories there are to tell, there's also some national heroes that Iraq should be proud of. And there's not enough of these good stories and stories about good people that either local media in Iraq focus in on or that foreign journalists focus in on, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to pivot slightly, I'd like to ask you about Rukmini Callimachi, who was a colleague of yours at The New York Times and whose journalism there is now in dispute after questions about the podcast Caliphate. She is, reportedly, a reason why you left The Times. I'd like your thoughts.

COKER: I enjoyed my time at the newspaper. I also know that there's life after The New York Times, and my journalism during that time speaks for itself. My original story about Harith Sudani and the Falcons appeared on the front pages there. Also, as the Baghdad Bureau chief, I raised uncomfortable questions about standards and ethics. And, you know, it's gratifying to see that The Times is finally addressing some of those concerns that I raised back then.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Margaret Coker. Her new book is called "The Spymaster Of Baghdad." Thank you very much.

COKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.