Here is a book project urgently crying out for US/UK English-language publisher. The book in question came out in French two weeks ago and swiftly made the bestseller lists over there. Amid a storm of media coverage, France’s top weekly newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur put it on the cover – something they never do. It’s a heart-stopping look at the country’s secret anti-terrorist squads from the inside, for which the writer got himself embedded with one such team of seven members, four of them Muslims. All sans the knowledge or permission of the top brass…until the very last moment which almost squashed the entire venture. But it couldn’t be halted and hit the stands just in time to coincide with the recent video of ISIS leader Al Baghdadi back from the dead. In case it needs saying, France sits squarely on the front line in the struggle against Islamist terror and any news from the front concerns us all.
You’d have to redo the book’s title, a mouthful in English, though rather effective in the original: “Les Guerres De L’Ombre de la DGSI” roughly meaning “the secret wars of the general directorate of internal security”. That’s the French equivalent of the FBI or Britain’s MI6. Alex Jordanov is the author, a fifty-something Bulgarian-French-American journalist of storied background. The more polyglot reader might remember that he was kidnapped in 2004 by Iraqi militants while covering that war as a French journalist and by a hair’s breadth was subsequently restored to freedom. Born to Bulgarian parents, Jordanov grew up in Sofia, Paris and ultimately Berkeley, California, where his father landed a post in academe as a scientist. At age 19, Alex rather improbably co-launched a nightclub in the 1980s there with Ice-T that midwived the west coast rap scene. Ultimately, he became a journalist, TV personality and all round protean renaissance man.
But I digress. He and I worked as colleagues on a documentary about ISIS for National Geographic Channel entitled “Hell On Earth: The Fall of Syria and Rise of ISIS” (2017), for which he mysteriously found hair-raising video clips of Islamists in the act of perpetrating murders in France. (Nat Geo cut most of them – they were pretty shocking.) One has to assume that he’d already formed DGSI connections by then. He told me in a recent phone chat that it took him several years to earn their trust, difficult years because they often ignored him or didn’t turn up to clandestine appointments while they kept a close watch on him to check his bona fides. He realizes now how close was the monitoring process, “they know everything about anyone they need to – they operate silently, meticulously and professionally. They put trackers in a car’s headrest or plastic door handles. They tap your phones and everyone around you”. He tells one story of the team operating in a largely Islamic immigrant ghetto trying to hack into the phone lines of a suspect’s building under everyone’s nose.
The book is all about stories. He holds back from editorializing too much: “Mostly I let the agents do the talking because there’s so much astonishing material without me getting in the way. It’s really a kind of verite chronicle of their work”. The book pulses along presenting unfettered, pungent exchanges with suspects or between the agents – all reproduced unfiltered as in a police procedural. The stories, similarly, come through pretty unfiltered. One relates the tribulations of a firebrand extremist imam of a mosque who gets no respect at home. It appears he suffers from impotence and the agents have to listen in to his wife berating him in the bedroom for his shortcomings. Another story tells of a talentless wannabe terrorist band resolving to finance their operations through armed robbery. They descend on the Bois de Boulogne where they shake down Muslim transvestites while lecturing them on their sinful lives. The agents catch up with the group swiftly enough chiefly battling their own laughter. The book even has outtake photos from surveillance videos of a Jihadi instructor in a park teaching pupils the ABCs of correct beheading techniques. They practice on rabbits.
I ask Jordanov what lessons the book holds for American readers. “You have to read what the agents say and decide for yourself,” he says, “they have hundreds of suspects on their lists and the lists keep growing despite all their efforts. They think of it as a long struggle. They will prevail but it will take decades with the predictable casualties in the interim. They constantly talk about how France needs a Guantanamo equivalent and how the U.S. has such a tremendous advantage. Owing to the EU, the laws in France have often hobbled their work, they believe. With all the transnational infiltration, the American approach of rounding up perps around the world and keeping them in Guantanamo seems the safest solution – this is from the team’s Muslim members.”
Nor, according to Jordanov, do they have much patience with the practice of releasing detainees or recanted ISIS volunteers. “My guys have decades of experience between them. They don’t believe in reformed Jihadis, just silent sleepers.” The book recounts examples of such. One who gets caught negligently dumping old boxes full of barely used cheap phones, inflammatory tapes and other incriminating material. He gets four years for incitement, comes out and immediately attacks a policeman’s home where he beheads the entire family. Jordanov is careful to deny any and all imputations of racism in the book. It’s as much about protecting Muslim citizens as everyone else, he insists. He tells the story of the ISIS volunteers in the famous video where they burn their Western passports. The DGSI team locate the house in France of one volunteer. There they find among the instructional ISIS documents a very clear guide to treating fellow Muslims. There are three kinds. 1)Clueless Muslims who can be useful idiots 2) Fellow Jihadists 3)All the rest must be treated as enemies.
One final sobering thought. When Al Baghdadi appeared in his recent video, the ISIS leader named the two top enemies as ‘the dirty French and the great devil’.” Jordanov says, “that means America”.