BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Spy in Exile‘ By Jonathan de Shalit

By Joseph C. Goulden – – Thursday, March 14, 2019



By Jonathan de Shalit

Atria, $27, 375 pages

Given that the author’s pseudonym conceals “a former high-ranking member of the Israeli intelligence community,” one reflexively wonders whether his novel is (1) a disguised account of an actual operation or (2) a wish-we-could scenario of actions that operatives long to take against terrorists.

No matter. Reality aside, at hand is an anti-terrorist thriller of the first rank, and a plot that surely reflects the thoughts of persons of many nationalities who are tasked with preventing terrorist attacks, only to be forced to work under tight strictures.

The central character is a woman named Ya’ara Stein, a cashiered member of the VIP Protection Unit of the Israeli Shin Bet security service. A year earlier, while working for Mossad, Ya’ara had disobeyed an order from a superior and killed a fleeing terrorist. She was booted for being “aggressive, undisciplined, unpredictable and prone to violence.”

Now she finds herself summoned to a meeting with the prime minister, who at the outset praises her for being “violent and wild,” the very reasons which got her fired. And he lays out an anti-terrorist mission: “I want you to set up a unit that’ll operate by a different set of rules You’ll pick your own people, and you’ll work completely detached from any and every government body.

“You’ll be ruthless and violent if necessary, but you’ll operate only against the targets I provide, in the name of the government of Israel.” Further, she must operate on her own; if she gets into trouble, no one will come to her help.

Ya’ara assembles a squad of eight like-minded persons — six men, two women — who have varied but valid reasons for hating terrorists, and the mission begins.

Here commences a section of the novel that could be labelled Tradecraft 101 — how hunters can discreetly enter another country (Germany) and set up cover occupations (a modest film production ) that shields their training. (And, of course, there is a bit of romancing.)

The team’s first assgned target is a man named Osama Hamdan, who is in prison in Brussels for a murder in a synagogue in that city. Given that Hamdan is already in jail, a team member asks, “Why do you want to kill him?”

Ya’ara replies, “I want all these pieces of filth to know that if they hurt us, they won’t die of old age. Plain and simple — they will be eliminated.” Thus, Hamdan is shot to death in a roadside ambush, despite an escort of Belgian policemen.

The next target is even more significant to Ya’ara and team: , “a Muslim preacher in London, as radical as they come.” Ya’ara explains his significance: “He’s worse than a hundred murderers. He drives hundreds of young Muslims to make pilgrimages to the sites of murders and jihadi attacks He says the most terrible things in such a soft and gentle and sanctimonious tone of voice.

“He’s asking for a bullet between the eyes, and we’re going to grant his request.”

The team rents a London apartment overlooking the doorway of ’s mosque, and two shots are fired. Disaster. One kills the preacher, but another accidentally kills a young girl who was walking beside him.

Disaster piles atop disaster. The child’s death, unsurprisingly, causes a public uproar. The British government has little doubt — but no proof — as to the nationality of the sniper. And there is the agreement with the Israeli government that their countries will not operate on one another’s territory.

The crowning blow: Despite his inflammatory oratory, was secretly working for MI5, Britain’s internal security service. He had been arrested three years ago as a threat to public security. During interrogation, he was “turned and recruited.” Indeed, an MI5 officer calls him “the most valuable agent among the Muslim extremists in London in fact, the most valuable asset in the entire United Kingdom.”

Yet, Mossad officials, at the highest level, can truthfully tell the British that they know of no Israeli involvement in ’s death. During a discussion of the affair, one officer does jest, “I’m guessing it wasn’t the Swiss intelligence service.” No one laughs.

In due course, Ya’ara secretly meets the prime minister, in a park far from his office. She’s uncertain as to the future of her secret unit.

He dashes her doubts. “I have no intention of giving up on you We’ll be the fiery hot storm that lays waste to whatever rises against us. Today, you are joining a long line of Hebrew warriors and we will play a part in the struggle to ensure the existence of our people and our country with the utmost dedication.”

Ya’ara is satisfied. She will continue.

Thus ends the novel. A fiction writer’s creation, or a medium through which an anti-terrorist warrior muses about what could be done?

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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