Circle of Fear: My Life as an Israeli and Iraqi Spy
by Hussein Sumaida, with Carole Jerome
Washington, D.C.:Brassey's, 1994. 304 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Editor of the Middle East Quarterly
Middle East Quarterly
All of twenty-six years old when he wrote his autobiography in 1991, Sumaida recounts a most remarkable story-and all the more so if true-interspersed with astute observations about Iraqi and Middle Eastern politics. The result is a compelling tale with useful information and an interesting analysis.
Here's what the author recounts: His father, Ali Mahmoud Sumaida (born 1935), is a Tunisian who moved to Iraq and joined with Saddam Husayn in about 1957, then rose with the future ruler to great political heights. From childhood, Hussein (born 1965) considered his father a psychotic tryant and hated him with a rare passion that inspired him to go to great lenghts to hurt his father. In the spring of 1984, while studying in Manchester, England, Hussein joined Da'wa, the Iraqi Shi'i fundamentalist movement. Unhappy with its program ("The essence of the Islamic fundamentalist movement is not religion, but rather power through hatred"), he also worked with Iraqi intelligence. This led to an odd but quintessentially Middle Eastern predicament: "by day I went around with the Da'wah putting up stickers that said Saddam was a new Hitler, and by night I went around with Saddam's agents taking them down."
Sumaida says he soon found it repellent to work for his father or "for the monster Saddam and his killing machine." Within a month or two, "a strange idea began to form in the clouds of my mind: Mossad." According to this accound, he took the unlikely and drastic step of walking cold into the Israel embassy in London and offering his services. His assignments for Mossad in Britian included scoping out an Iraqi school and a Palestinian leader. He then joined his father, now an ambassador in Brussels, and provided information about the embassy there as well as the local PLO man. He returned to England in the fall of 1984 and worked on two jobs involving Syria.
But then Mossad overreached and told Sumaida to get a job in Iraq's London embassy; his father immediately smelled a rat and began an inquiry. To preempt the inevitable, Sumaida went to an officer of the Mukhabarat (the top, most feared Iraqi intelligence force) on July 16, 1985, and confessed all about working for Israel-except that he had been a walk-in (he portrayed his serivce as a result of getting hooked on Israeli financial payoffs). In response, Sumaida was returned for five days to Baghdad, where he expected to be killed. But, thanks to his father's exalted status, a temporary reprieve came. He returned to England to begin serving as a double agent. Not wanting to play this role, however, Sumaida engaged in some petty theft and thereby got himself thrown out of the country.
In October 1985, thanks to no less than two presidential orders, Sumaida says he returned to Iraq and began studying at the University of Technology. There he met Ban, his wife-to-be (and the dedicatee of this book). Sometime after, the final verdict on his fate came, from Saddam himself; Sumaida was to live, but on condition that he join the Mukhabarat. The training for this career, described in some detail, began in the fall of 1986. He lived simultaneously as "a student and a junior agent for trivial affairs." By late 1987, he had proven himself adept enough to be given more serious duties, such as doing security checks on employees to be hired for confidential tasks. In October 1988, he had advanced to being part of the second layer of protection surrounding Saddam Husayn at a festival.
About this time, Sumaida began plotting ways for Ban and himself to escape Iraq. He made abortive efforts to flee to Beirut and Amman, only to make good, finally, in early 1990, on a trip to Yemen. There, for the second time in his young life, Sumaida walked into an embassy, this time that of the United States, and asked for political asylum. The American response was less than warm, the British was even cooler, so he ended up in Canada, where he now lives, with Ban, under an assumed identity.
Although parts of his account are inherently unbelievable (a member of the Iraqi elite voluteer to spy for Israel? a traitor pardoned in return for joining the Mukhabarat?), Sumaida's account is internally consistent, it jibes with known dates, and, to this non-Iraqi, it rings more true than false. The personal information about his own lying, stealing, smuggling, and womanizing also lends an air of authenticity. Put differently, it's hard to see why anyone would make all this up; there's a lot of dirt and no self-aggrandizement. Further, it is hard to imagine this tale's serving as anyone's disinformation. On the other hand, the odd discrepancy (such as his having played as a child with the sons of Michel 'Aflaq, a man twenty-five years older than his father) does raise questions about his credibiliby.
Sumaida offers information about Iraq that might be true. He reports learning that the core of the Osirak reactor survived Israel's 1981 raid and was rebuilt. He gives details about the deception pulled on inspectors visiting the factory of Munsha'at at Nasr, whereby innocuous containers replaced deadly missiles. He provides a secondhand account of the 1987 meeting at which Saddam decided an Iraqi jet should attack the U.S.S. Stark, a bid to involve Washington more closely in the Iraq-Iran War. (This event prompts Sumaida wryly to comment that "Only in the the Middle East would an attack on an American ship be considered a good way to end a war.") In the course of describing his training and activities, Sumaida reveals much about the inner workings if Iraqi intelligence. The chart detailing the structure of Iraqi security apparatus appears sound. And throwaway lines help make totalitarian Iraq come to life: "Normally an Iraqi [college] graduate is not given any document showing his degree. This policy helps to prevent educated skilled Iraqis from leaving the country."
No less interesting are Sumaida's alternately world-weary and idealisitc observations. Repeatedly, he tries to explain the Middle Eastern mentality to Westerners, even as he thinks this an impossibility ("The key to the Middle East is understanding that you can never really understand it"). One theme concerns Middle Eastern thinking:
In our unique system of logic, a theory believed is a fact. There is no intermediary analytical thought. My theory is my belief, therefore is a fact. . . . Our logic is not a straight line, but curled and twisting like our script. Our sense of life and death is not theirs [i.e., Americans']; we laugh where an American cries.
He contrasts the optimism of Westerners (they assume "that someone looking for someone is a friend, not an enemy") with the deep pessimism of Iraqis ("Living under the Ba'th regime, my father always assumed that whatever happened was for the worst"). Sumaida also offers thoughts on ways for Westerners to approach the Middle East;
There's an old cliché about the Mideast that I get very tired of hearing pronounced by "experts" on western news broadcasts. It goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." A fatuous over simplification. Instead I prefer, "The friend of my friend isn't necessarily my friend". . . . There are no such things as allies in the Middle East. There are only shifting sands.
Sumaida himself has escaped the Middle East and, with luck, has by now established a new life in Canada. He sums up his hopes, as well as his abiding anger, in one of the book's closing sentences: "the best revenge I can take on my father will be to love my children." Sumaida's tale confirms the possibility of good out of evil; and the superiority of Western political ways over those of the Middle East.
Related Topics: Iraq, Israel & Zionism, Middle East politics | Daniel Pipes | March 1996 MEQ
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