'I Was Living Fiction'
- From: "tony" <tony@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 5 Aug 2005 22:27:05 +0800
'I Was Living Fiction'
Wed, 3 Aug 2005 14:26:49 -0700
Robert Baer is about to be played by George Clooney in a movie tipped to win
an Oscar. He is also a leading expert on the psychology of suicide bombers.
The former CIA agent talks to Stephen Moss about what makes a terrorist.
Baer lives in a small high-mountain Colorado town, less than an hour drive
north of my own home town and current locale. He recently gave a lecture at
the liberal arts school where I currently study sociology, philosophy, and
history. Of course, I attended his talk.
[Posted By ShiftShapers]
By Stephen Moss
Republished from The Guardian/UK
A former CIA agent talks to Stephen Moss about what makes a terrorist.
Maybe things just happen to Robert Baer. I'd been due to do a quick
interview with him at 1pm at a hotel in central London. Four hours later, we
are standing in Dalgarno Gardens, pressed against the police "inner cordon"
(red tape, not blue), where Baer has been roped in by US network Fox News to
broadcast on the arrest of one of the men suspected of involvement in the
abortive bomb attacks of July 21.
Baer is in the UK to record the final sections of a two-part documentary on
suicide bombers that starts on Channel 4 tomorrow. The timing - they have
been shooting since January - shows terrifying prescience. The series traces
the history of suicide bombings from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when a
13-year-old Iranian "martyr" strapped explosives to himself and threw
himself under an Iraqi tank, to the carnage of July 7, when four
British-made bombers eviscerated their travelling companions.
The story is told logically and clearly, and Baer, who speaks both Arabic
and Farsi, has recorded some remarkable interviews - with the family of that
first suicide bomber, with the Syrian men, now growing old and sipping
coffee in cafes, who sent stunningly beautiful teenage female suicide
bombers to their deaths, and with the head of the Iranian army. Throughout
Baer is wearing the same battered white jacket he has on today in Dalgarno
Now 53, he was in the CIA for 20 years from 1976, running agents in the
Middle East. In 1995, he tried to orchestrate the overthrow of Saddam. He
left the agency two years later, complaining that it had become sclerotic
and out of touch. His devastating critique of his former employer, See No
Evil: the True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism,
appeared in 2002 and was leapt on by those seeking to explain why the
September 11 attacks had evaded the radar of US intelligence. A film of the
book called Syriana, in which George Clooney plays the baggy-jacketed Baer,
will be released in the autumn. Baer, his stock rising fast, can afford to
Baer the man - as opposed to what he really wants to be, which is a writer -
is not easy to read. In the first place, is he a commentator on the Middle
East or an entertainer? He plumps for entertainer. "I work at the margins,"
he says of his television appearances. "Fox don't ask me the hard questions
like 'What do we do in Iraq?' TV is essential for selling books."
I do ask him the hard question - what should we do in Iraq? He thinks the
situation is hopeless. "If it goes very badly in Iraq and we leave, the
Arabs and the Iranians will be pulled into the war one way or another,
either through surrogates or directly. If it stays chaotic, the chaos will
migrate to the other side of the Gulf." So what is the answer? "I don't
know. I've moved to Colorado and have a wood-burning stove."
Baer's book on the CIA was written out of genuine frustration as well as an
urgent need to make a living. And the analysis of what turns young men into
suicide bombers is vivid and heartfelt: "Every time you kill a Muslim,
whether it's an Israeli killing them or an American or a Brit, there is
humiliation, anger, reaction and bombs go off somewhere." He believes the
allied intervention in Iraq was a disaster and has triggered the bombing
campaign in London. "I was in Baghdad at the end of the [second Gulf] war.
You could see the US military had destroyed every piece of armour the Iraqis
owned. Not only armour but museums, too, cultural looting, the destruction
of all infrastructure. It was a war against the Iraqi state, against an Arab
country. That creates the humiliation and anger which fuel suicide bombing
attacks. If you keep it up, you're going to get hit. You can't go randomly
kill Muslims and not expect a reaction here."
Baer has been fascinated and appalled by suicide bombers since the
devastating attack in 1983 on the US embassy in Beirut, where he was
stationed. "I knew a lot of the people killed. I spent a lot of time at the
station, I'd sat in those offices, looked over the city. Beirut was a
fascinating place and there was so much hope which was shattered by one
His documentary traces the way suicide bombers mutated from resistance
fighters attacking military targets to terrorists slaughtering civilians. He
dates the change precisely - to the attack on a bus full of schoolchildren
in Israel in 1994. "It was originally a state policy authorised by Ayatollah
Khomeini and others, and it was very disciplined. Now it's become chaotic,
and 1994 was the key date. That was when it moved from a disciplined state
policy of martyrdom into chaos, which has ended up in London."
In 2003 Baer followed up his attack on the CIA with a book called Sleeping
with the Devil, a condemnation of the House of Saud and of America's cosy
relationship with the oil fiefdom of Saudi Arabia. He sees the latter as the
source of much of the poison seeping across the Middle East, and believes
Saudi money and personnel underpin terrorism in the region. For legal
reasons - CIA censorship means Baer cannot name his sources - the book was
never published in the UK.
His next book will be a novel, Blow the House Down, based on the September
11 attacks. He tells me about it in a cab; it sounds as complicated as the
Twin Towers conspiracy itself. It's his first attempt to write fiction but
probably comes naturally to someone who spent 20 years under cover. "I was
living fiction as a CIA agent," he says. "You got very good at lying. You'd
get on an airplane and make up a cover. To shut up conversations, I used to
tell people that I did actuary tables on cancer victims for a large
insurance company. End of conversation."
He is amusing about his dog days at the CIA in the mid 90s. "There were a
lot of people who had never served overseas running the place . The
surveillance teams didn't even speak the language. We had some ex-military
people who didn't speak a word of German but went to Berlin to do
surveillance. They were looking for a cheap hotel - probably to make
something extra on expenses - and saw this advert on the internet for Hund
Hotel. They showed up in the taxi to try to check in and of course it was a
kennel. These were the guys doing surveillance in Berlin?!"
Mediocrity is something he can't bear. He attacks CIA boss George Tenet for
saying "we don't know" about Iraqi WMD; he dislikes publishers that try to
get the book out rather than get it right; he even has a go at me for not
phoning in eyewitness accounts from residents evacuated from Dalgarno
Gardens. "There'll be a Guardian news man here," I assure him. "I'm doing a
feature." "You're as bad as the CIA," he says, reasonably insouciantly.
Baer likes to present himself as a hick from the Colorado mountains - a
skiing fanatic who stumbled into espionage, the "Forrest Gump of the CIA",
as he puts it. Accidental spy, accidental author, now accidental inspiration
for a movie that is already being tipped as a possible Oscar winner - the
makers have pushed the release date back to November 23 with the Academy in
mind. He may not be quite as insouciant as he seems. Do things happen to
him, or does he make them happen? As ever, the truth is elusive.
· The Cult of the Suicide Bomber is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm.
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