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Daniel Silva on Seeing His Thriller Plots Come True

gabriel allon

In 2017, reason and savvy—two qualities that have always been highly valued in the espionage trade—don’t often factor into world events, and so the authors of spy thrillers find themselves with something of a dilemma: how do you write about intelligence in a world gone mad? For Daniel Silva, the man behind the bestselling Gabriel Allon series, one part of the answer seems clear enough: you keep at it. Each July, punctual as a well-executed mission, Silva releases a new spy thriller, to the delight of his many, many readers. His hero, the man with the angelic name, is a master art restorer and one of Israel’s most experienced intelligence operatives. In the early days (the series began in 2000), Gabriel found himself called to battle against a coterie of regional extremists, Nazi fugitives, Russians, Vatican meddlers, and the occasional shadowy cabal of European businessmen. But as the series has evolved, so has the enemy. In House of Spies, Silva’s latest novel, Gabriel continues his battle against ISIS, which in this fictional world is led by a master tactician named Saladin, who has orchestrated a series of deadly attacks on Western cities.

I caught up with Silva just as House of Spies was released. That same morning, real-life events began to intrude, as they have a habit of doing when it comes to Silva’s work. Out of Syria, there were reports confirming the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the real-life leader of ISIS. In the US, the New York Times was reporting on emails showing that Donald Trump, Jr. had met with a Russian attorney who was offering up information about the Clinton campaign. It was as apt a time as any to discuss the fight against ISIS, Russia’s efforts to infiltrate and disrupt Western politics, and how spy fiction is changing to keep up with the tumult of world events.

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Dwyer Murphy: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the news today, but the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights is confirming al-Baghdadi’s death. Your new book is all about the hunt for the operational leader of ISIS, a terrorist mastermind. So, what does cutting off the head of an organization like this mean?

Daniel Silva: Unfortunately we’re dealing with a hydra at this point, and when you cut off one head two grow in its place. Someone will replace al-Baghdadi, and he is likely to be even more violent. The good news—this is awful to say, but this is the world in which we find ourselves—is that we’ve managed to kill off a great deal of the leadership of ISIS in the last year or so. We came to the party late, too late in my opinion, but we have made great strides. We’ve not only killed tens of thousands of low-level ISIS people, we’ve decapitated much of the leadership, and now we’re making strides towards taking away the physical caliphate. But we should not kid ourselves into thinking that the end of ISIS as an organization is at hand. Let’s remember that this entity was dead and buried in 2010 and it rose from the dead, moved to Syria, and came back into Iraq. It is likely that it will mutate into another form that involves both an insurgent operation and an international terrorist element.

DM: You’ve written about a range of different conspiracies, networks, and deadly plots over the years. Terrorism often factors in. Is writing about ISIS different?

DS: They are not an easy organization to write about. They are just so incredibly violent and awful. The passages in The Black Widow where I wrote about Raqqa were very challenging. At the same time, I was satisfied with how I handled the material. My technique for dealing with real violence and depravity is to write gracefully, to create a counterpoint. But the real challenge with ISIS is the level of violence they’re willing to resort to, and depicting their goals.

I’ve studied this material and these people going back to the 1980s, when I was a journalist in the Middle East. I worked in Egypt and reported on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. I also had occasion to interview guys from Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, who were part of this new group that didn’t really have a name yet but would go onto become Al-Qaeda, so I’ve been following this for a long time. ISIS has been willing to resort to violence that shocked even Al-Qaeda. That’s something to keep in mind—violence that even Al-Qaeda did not approve of. These are monsters, real life monsters. I try to depict that while not wallowing in the same level of violence they do.

DM: Let’s talk a little about Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, and the investigation into the Trump team’s possible involvement. I expect you’re following this stuff pretty closely. It’s an uncanny time to be a spy novelist.

DS: I wrote about Russian interference in western electoral politics a few years ago in The English Girl. This is KGB Playbook 101. They have been doing this for a very long time, to weaken and divide the West, to divide the Atlantic alliance, to weaken NATO. We have to investigate this administration and its campaign operatives to find out exactly what happened. But make no mistake, the Russians are sitting in Moscow enjoying every minute of this as we tear ourselves limb from limb politically. We are really in a position where we’ve paralyzed our political system and anything Trump does vis-à-vis the Russians is going to be viewed through the prism of this issue. Was there or was there not collusion between his campaign and the Russian government? I’m not going to comment on that. I want to see where the evidence takes us, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the Kremlin tried to muck around in our politics, just as they have mucked around in the politics of Great Britain, Greece, and France, and that they’re quite pleased with the results.

DM: Your name actually popped up during the Russia investigations last month. A senator asked Jeff Sessions if he was familiar with the work of John Le Carré or Daniel Silva. The point, I think, was to paint the allegations against Trump as having come out of a spy novel. It must have been a little surreal to hear that.

DS: I was editing this book and all of a sudden I’m inundated with emails and texts telling me to turn on the television. It wasn’t exactly Alexander Butterfield in the Watergate hearings, but it was nice to be included in a historic day in Washington.

DM: Can you tell me about the links between drug trafficking and terror groups like ISIS? That connection plays a role in your new book, and I’m not sure many people are aware of how it works.

DS: When Libya fell apart and ISIS took over a big chunk of Libya, not long after that, European police began seeing a huge change in the way hashish from Morocco was flowing from North Africa into Western Europe. It used to come across in small batches on jet skis and on the ferries, or overland all the way around the Mediterranean. All of a sudden these gigantic shipments of 20 tons of hashish were coming across on cargo ships that had called on Libyan ports. There developed a theory among the Europeans that ISIS had inserted itself into the drug trade. It was that kernel that I took and turned into this book. So, in House of Spies, Gabriel Allon recruits the biggest drug dealer in France to help him penetrate ISIS’s international network.

DM: This series has been going on for 17 years now. The first book was published in 2000, so you were writing before 9/11. I imagine the landscape for this kind of work has changed pretty significantly in that time.

DS: I think that 9/11 changed everyone’s approach to this type of fiction. It became, for many of us, day-to-day life. Back in the 70s, in the heyday of the big international thriller, writers had a great deal of license to create over-the-top plots and conspiracies. 9/11 forced us, at least from my perspective, to write about the world as it really is. The other thing is that people have very strong views about the war on terrorism and terrorism in general, both for and against, and our politics have influenced the way people view these types of novels. For three or four years after 9/11, I steadfastly refused to write a book that had anything to do with terrorism. It was just too close to home. It wasn’t until 2005, with Prince of Fire, that I wrote my first novel touching on terrorism, and that was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I didn’t write about anything that had to do with 9/11 and Al Qaeda until 2006. I needed space to think about what it really meant to us.

DM: Your hero is an Israeli spy. It seems to me the view of Israel, especially in Western Europe, has also changed significantly over these 17 years.

DS: When I created Gabriel he was supposed to appear in one book and one book only. I had to be talked into writing a second, because I was concerned about the viability of an Israeli hero as a mass-market continuing character. And again, I had to be talked into the third book, too, because of this very question, because of, I would say, the continuing and growing anti-Israeli sentiment in much of the world. So no one is more surprised by the fact that Gabriel Allon is a perennial New York Times bestseller than I am.

DM: In House of Spies, you have several different intelligence organizations coming together for an operation—most prominently, Israel, Great Britain, and the US. They have an interesting dynamic. Can you tell me a bit about the reputations of those countries’ agencies, and how they work together?

DS: In the real world, particularly on the Iranian issue, these three services—MI6, the CIA, and Mossad—work very carefully together. It’s always fraught when intelligence services work together. There’s always rivalry, and there are concerns about sharing secrets with others. But after 9/11, a lot of walls and barriers came down and these services began working hand-in-glove, because lives were at stake.

The CIA and the NSA—the Americans in general—have incredible technology; we own cyber, we own global communications, we can get basically anything. The British are considered the finest recruiters and runners of live agents. The Israelis have both enormous technical expertise and, as a country of the region, they have people who come from all over the world and speak lots of different languages and can pass as nationals from many different countries. Let’s not underestimate their Unit 8200, either. That’s their eavesdropping and cyber service—they are very good at what they do. So, the Israelis have technical expertise, human assets, and a great willingness to use both.

DM: When you talk about how your work has predicted real-world events, I think of The Black Widow, your last book, where the plot was set in motion by an ISIS attack in Paris. The Bataclan attack happened soon after you wrote those scenes. What’s it like watching terrible events play out so close to your fiction?

DS: It’s hard. You referred to the scenario in The Black Widow. The attack in that book was so close to the attacks of November 2015, it was akin to writing about airliners flying into the World Trade Center before 9/11. It was that close. I took a moment and really thought, do I need to rework this? Should I change the beginning of this novel? That affected me deeply. My approach was to put in a foreword explaining what had happened and offering my rationale to readers on how to proceed with the story. When I was writing this new book, a follow-up to The Black Widow, I decided Britain was going to be the beginning and end point, in part because I was convinced Britain was next. I knew from talking to people in the business that ISIS had set its sites on the United Kingdom and had quite literally painted a bull’s eye on it. The British had been very fortunate to stop about a dozen attacks, but unfortunately their luck ran out. I finished the first draft of House of Spies, and basically a week later was the first of three attacks in the UK. It was shocking and upsetting, and I mourned the loss of innocent life. And I must say I was not surprised.

DM: Does it make you at all skittish writing about certain subjects? Is there an instinct to go in a different direction, or to take on some other topic?

DS: I don’t want to get away from it, but I think that I have said my piece about the topic of ISIS. The first book chronicled the rise of ISIS and its transformation into an international terrorist group and in this case, the second book chronicles the loss of the caliphate and, without giving too much away, the effort to eliminate its terrorist mastermind. So the books fit perfectly into the backdrop of real world events. It mirrors what’s going on, quite shockingly actually.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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