- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

THE SECRET SERVANT

By Daniel Silva

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $25.95, 385 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

There is, astute observers like Paul Belien and Herbert E. Meyer argue, cultural warfare taking place in Western Europe these days, a battle in which Islamists are trying — and in many cases succeeding — in imposing their values on a Europe that for all intents and purposes is asleep at the switch. “Islamists in Britain,” Mr. Belien wrote recently, “have been allowed to introduce ‘Sharia swimming’ in public swimming baths, while in Norwegian kindergartens pigs are banned from fairy tales because the poor innocent creatures are ‘unclean’ in the eyes of Islamists.”

Mr. Meyer, who served as special assistant to Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, has created an eye-opening DVD entitled “The Siege of Western Civilization,” in which he takes the premise that “in radical Islam, we face attacks by people who believe they have God’s sanction to destroy us.” For three-quarters of an hour, Mr. Meyer goes on to give viewers spellbinding example after example of how jihadists both internal and external are currently attempting to do just that.

Mr. Meyer’s and Mr. Belien’s warnings form the theoretical roots of Daniel Silva’s latest novel, “The Secret Servant.” As Eli Lavon, a foot soldier for the Office, Mr. Silva’s fictional version of Israel’s Mossad, puts it: “The Europeans thought they could take in millions of immigrants from the poorest regions of the Muslim world and turn them into good little social democrats in a single generation. And look at the results. For the most part the Muslims of Europe are ghettoized and seething with anger.”

The fictional Mr. Lavon is correct, just as Islamist bombings in Madrid and London, and the rioting in France’s suburban ghettos, the banlieues, attest.

It is within this current tapestry of white-hot rage against Western civilization and radical Islamist didacticism that Mr. Silva weaves his current well-paced, intricate thriller. In Amsterdam, an outspoken critic of radical Islam is assassinated and beheaded on his way to a coffee shop. Suicide bombers simultaneously blow themselves up at airports in Zurich, Madrid and Vienna; hundreds die.

In London, a cell of the Sword of Allah, a particularly malevolent Islamist terrorist organization led by a shadowy figure known only as the Sphinx (so yclept because of his Egyptian roots) kidnaps the daughter of the American ambassador to the court of St. James as she jogs through Hyde Park with a group of embassy officials.

Picking his way through all this mayhem is Mr. Silva’s signature character, Gabriel Allon, the lethal, existential loose-cannon art restorer-cum-Israeli intelligence operative who has been the centerpiece of six of Mr. Silva’s previous books. Gabriel Allon has a long history with the Office.

He was recruited as a young art student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Institute in September of 1972 to become a part of the hit team that went after Black September in the wake of the Munich Olympics massacre. “Of the twelve members of Black September killed by the Office,” Mr. Silva writes, “six were dispatched by Gabriel at close range with a .22-caliber Beretta.”

And this is where Mr. Silva’s problems start. Let’s do the math. In Israel, you don’t go to college until you complete army service. In Gabriel Allon’s case, we must assume he was a member of one of Israel’s elite units — company clerks don’t get recruited as Mossad assassins — which means that his service was not the usual three years, but four (perhaps more if he was an officer). So in 1972, even if he was in his first year at Bezalel, Gabriel Allon would have been roughly 23 years old.

Which makes him 58 or 59 now. Yes, I know that 60 is the new 40. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that a body doesn’t take to force-on-force at 60 the way it did at 40. And in the course of this novel, Mr. Allon takes enough physical punishment to put a 25-year-old pro football player into intensive care. Indeed, Mr. Silva writes Gabriel Allon as if he’s a lot closer to “Mission: Impossible” than “Tinker, Tailor.”

I know, I know, you gotta suspend disbelief when you read these sorts of books. And let me add here that Mr. Silva’s a talented writer who knows how to move his novel along and tell an edge-of-the-seat story. But his apparent lack of knowledge about espionage and action-adventure tradecraft becomes irksome because he gets so many of his details wrong. For example, Marines do not guard the outsides of American embassies. That chore belongs to the host country.

Mr. Silva also has Mr. Allon constantly glancing around to see if he’s being followed — something that isn’t done in professional espionage circles. He’s also got his characters using obsolete equipment. In a safe house on Cyprus, for example, Mr. Allon bugs a conversation using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder.

These days, most agencies — even Mossad — prefer digital to analog. The tracking devices Mr. Silva uses are at least a generation old. And for some reason, he never makes use of London’s extensive CCTV system — hundreds of thousands of cameras — or of Britain’s first-rate counterterrorist operatives at SAS.

There is also some pretty inane dialog. Mr. Silva puts these words into the mouth of the CIA’s deputy director for operations: “The Office operates under a different set of standards than the Agency. You accept the occasional mistake if it occurs in the service of a noble cause. We don’t tolerate failure. Failure is not an option.”

This, from a spook whose agency bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by mistake, noticed nothing awry about Aldrich Ames for more than a decade and told the president of the United States that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were — and I quote — “a slam dunk.”

And tactically, Mr. Silva doesn’t have a clue. He has his heroes neutralize a pair of suicide bombers by walking up and shooting them in the face with 9 mm handguns before the shaheeds can press their detonators.

Could it be done as Mr. Silva wrote it? I checked with two police tactical instructors and a special operations source who has participated on operations that killed suicide bombers. Independently, all three said the answer is no.

“For an instant incapacitation,” I was told, “you will need to sever the brain stem (Medulla Oblongata), which will cease all neural activity as if someone flicked a switch.” That goal is best achieved by utilizing a sniper firing a big, lethal .308 round.

As another of my sources put it: “With a .308, [a no-reflex death] is very easy to obtain by striking center mass on the face from the bottom of the nose to the eyes, the side of the head at the ears, and the back of the head center mass just above the neck.” All three agreed that the main problem with 9 mm is that the smaller the round, the smaller the wound trauma, hence less chance to sever the brain stem, causing the bad guy to drop before he can react.

Do hiccups like these ultimately ruin “The Secret Servant”? No, they don’t. Because the problems Mr. Silva deals with are timely and provocative, and he is a talented storyteller. But they do get in the way. In novels like this one, details are all. And for a former journalist, Mr. Silva gets far too many of his details wrong.

John Weisman’s latest CIA novel, “Direct Action,” was released as a mass market paperback by Avon Books last year. He is currently researching a nonfiction book on terrorism. His email is blackops@johnweisman.com.

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