Le Carré’s War on Terror

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine


The best recent novel about terrorism was published in 1983, and its author was John le Carré, better known at the time as a crafter of cautionary tales about the intelligence battles of the cold war. The Little Drummer Girl, reissued this year in paperback, tells the story of an Israeli intelligence operation to foil a frighteningly effective Palestinian terror cell. The leader of the Palestinian group, an expert bomb-maker known only as Khalil, is obsessively security-conscious, and he has succeeded in wrapping himself so deeply in layers of deception and camouflage that the Israelis decide they can track him down only by resorting to the most unorthodox of scams. As their unlikely agent they choose Charlie, a small-time British actress of romantic left-wing politics whose interest in radical causes has brought her into brief contact with one of the terrorists. Kurtz, the mastermind behind the Israeli operation, explains himself to a colleague in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

“‘Put in an agent, Schulmann,’ Misha Gavron shrieks at me from halfway inside his desk. ‘Sure, General,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll find you an agent. I’ll train him, help him trail his coat, gain attention in the right places, feed him to the opposition. I’ll do whatever you ask. And you know the first thing they’ll do?’ I say to him. ‘They’ll invite him to authenticate himself. To go shoot a bank guard or an American soldier. Or bomb a restaurant. Or deliver a nice suitcase to someone. Blow him up. Is that what you want? Is that what you are inviting me to do, General—put in an agent, then sit back and watch him kill our people for the enemy?'” Once again, he cast Alexis the unhappy smile of someone who was also at the mercy of unreasonable superiors. “Terrorist organisations don’t carry passengers, Paul. I told Misha this. They don’t have secretaries, typists, coding clerks, or any of the people who would normally make natural agents without being in the front line. They require a special kind of penetration. ‘You want to crack the terror target these days,’ I told him, ‘you practically have to build yourself your own terrorist first.'”

In itself, of course, there is nothing new about the idea of creating a new identity (or a “legend,” in the jargon of the trade) for an intelligence operative. But Kurtz has something far more radical in mind—something commensurate with the ruthlessness of the opponent he is trying to infiltrate. He wants to “build his own terrorist,” and to do this he must graft an elaborately crafted “fiction,” as he calls it, onto Charlie’s life. (Ironically enough, it’s precisely her life they want—in stark contrast to the usual undercover agent, Charlie will keep her own name and address until the end.) To do this he creates a team that includes not only the…

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