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Le Carré’s War on Terror


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 usual case officers and surveillance experts but also psychologists, forgers, linguists, even a writer of potboiler novels.

The Israelis are happy to benefit from Charlie’s skills as an actress, naturally, but they have also taken care to provide themselves with some other powerful advantages over the enemy. For one thing, they have already managed to compromise one of the members of the cell, Khalil’s brother Michel. They have been keeping him under surveillance, and when the time is right, they kidnap, interrogate, and ultimately kill him—all of it carefully exploited and timed to serve the larger aim of creating an imaginary love affair between him and Charlie. How the Israelis manage to do this is too complicated to relate here, but suffice it to say that this “theater of the real,” as Kurtz calls it, is carefully fitted out with all the props, illusions, and supporting actors sufficient to fool anyone watching from the wings—so thoroughly that Charlie’s own sense of self begins to wobble. At one point her handlers present her with a diary that will document the story of her romance with Michel:

Since you do not keep a diary, we decided to keep one for you,”he explained. Gingerly, she accepted it and pulled away the cellophane. She took out the pencil. It was lightly dented with teethmarks, which was what she still did with pencils: chewed them. She leafed through half a dozen pages. Schwili’s entries were sparse but, with Leon’s flair and Miss Bach’s electronic memory, all her own. Over the Nottingham period, nothing: Michel had descended on her without warning. For York, a big “M,” with a question mark and a ring around it. In the corner of the same day, a long, contemplative doodle, the sort she did when she was daydreaming. Her car was featured: Fiat to Eustace, 9 a.m. Her mother also: 1 week to Mum’s birthday. Buy present now. So also was Alastair: A to Isle of Wight—Kellogg’s commercial? He hadn’t gone, she remembered; Kellogg’s found a better and more sober star. For her monthly periods, wavy lines, and once or twice the facetious entry off games. Turning forward to the Greek holiday, she found the name Mykonos, printed in large pensive capitals, and beside it the departure and arrival times of the charter. But when she came to the day of her arrival in Athens, the whole double page was illuminated with a flock of soaring birds, in blue and red ballpoint like a sailor’s tattoo. She dropped the diary into the handbag and closed the catch with a snap. It was too much. She felt dirty and invaded. She wanted new people she could still surprise—people who could not fake her feelings and her handwriting so that she could no longer distinguish them from the originals.

The diary, along with other corroborating evidence that includes a voluminous and completely fictionalized lovers’ correspondence, will be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy—and it is this proof of her relationship with Michel that will “authenticate” Charlie in the eyes of Khalil and enable her to be drawn deeply into the Palestinian terrorist underground.

The plan succeeds magnificently. Though it breaks down at the last moment, the “fiction” does manage to draw Khalil out from behind the scrim of intermediaries and fake identities that have hidden him from the sight of his hunters, and he is duly eliminated. But along the way Charlie has been plunged deep into the story of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in all of its unsparing intensity, and she will never be the same again. In part her transformation is the product of her personal experience of the violence and suffering on both sides of the divide, and her identification (ironically encouraged by the Israelis) with the dispossessed Palestinians of the refugee camps of Lebanon. More significantly, though, she is also a victim of her own formidable success at embracing and internalizing the role her handlers have presented to her. By the end of the story Kurtz’s inspired manipulation of Charlie’s weaknesses and strengths has culminated in a kind of identity theft, an Orwellian biography transplant. And that is only logical. The fanaticism of the terrorists can be countered only by the fanatical craftsmanship of the Israeli counterterrorism team. By the end of the story it is clear that the cost to her—and even some of her Israeli handlers—will be devastating. “Built” as a weapon in the war on terror, she ends up becoming one of its casualties.


At the time, needless to say, le Carré’s conceit was received by some readers and reviewers as a calculated provocation. Some, most innocently, took umbrage at le Carré’s departure from the familiar terrain of George Smiley’s Circus. The Little Drummer Girl was, of course, destined to be the first of a long series of le Carré works that looked beyond the cold war. Then there were the perhaps predictable accusations of anti-Semitism—more often than not predicated on what today seem like willful misreadings of a nuanced and complicated text.1

Anyone reading the novel from the present perspective will probably be hard put to see where the pro-Palestinian propaganda was supposed to have been. In le Carré’s telling, for example, all the revolutionary Marxist rhetoric spouted by Palestinians at the time is actually tragicomic ballast, ripe for jettisoning as soon as historical circumstances have changed; and he was right. The savage inventiveness of the methods used by both sides to inflict pain on each other are surely nothing new by now. And throughout the narrative lingers the suspicion that the Israeli secret warriors, whose lifetime study of their enemy often enables them to recite Palestinian arguments for self-determination as convincingly as the Palestinians themselves, know perfectly well that the ultimate solution to the conflict must involve some sort of political compromise. This seemed like heresy for many people at the time, but events have since borne it out. (As a result, The Little Drummer Girl invariably comes to mind whenever I see the latest headlines about retired Israeli intelligence officers supporting new negotiating initiatives with the Palestinians.)

Aside from politics, though, there were many critics who attacked the book on literary grounds. They concentrated on what they saw as its credibility gap—the improbability of its intricate plot or its perceived jumps in narrative logic. Surely a British left-wing radical, the doubters argued, would never have submitted to the blandishments of Israeli spies. There is a point here, to be sure, but to my own eye it is precisely the recruitment scene—a shrewdly conceived psychological duel that goes on for dozens of pages—that neatly captures the novel’s essential provocation. “He had appealed to the actress in her, to the martyr, to the adventurer; he had flattered the daughter and excited the aspirant,” writes le Carré of Kurtz.

He had granted her an early glimpse of the new family she might care to join, knowing that deep down, like most rebels, she was only looking for a better conformity. And most of all, by heaping such benefits upon her, he had made her rich: which, as Charlie herself had long preached to anyone who would hear her, was the beginning of subservience…. For that was another thing Kurtz counted on, which most intelligence professionals forget too soon: to the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive. Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its center.

Charlie, in short, is looking for a new, a more seductive, identity—and it will be bestowed on her, in equal measure, by Palestinians as well as Israelis, in the “theater” that is terrorism. “Terror is theatre,” says Khalil to her at one point, elaborating on a theme that runs through the book. “We inspire, we frighten, we awaken indignation, anger, love. We enlighten. The theatre also. The guerrilla is the great actor of the world.”

That is also, of course, why the death of innocents may actually serve the terrorist’s aim, rather than confounding it. I would argue, in fact, that it is precisely the radicalism of the book’s fundamental conceit that has enabled it to age so well. Today, among its many other levels, the book reads like a cautionary tale for post– September 11 planners. The devilishly clever mind games used by the Israelis in their interrogations of the captured Palestinian will explain a lot to readers scandalized by the treatment of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in “ghost facilities” in extraterritorial locations like Diego García and Thailand. The story also convincingly suggests the limits of military means as an antidote to terrorism. Even JDAMs or missile-armed drones, had they existed in the early 1980s, could not have reached Khalil without acquisition of the necessary intelligence beforehand. Charlie’s handlers succeed in penetrating their deeply conspiratorial enemy by employing an innovative strategy that implies vast reserves of cultural know-how; one suspects that Kurtz’s small team probably has more fluent Arabic speakers at work, with far more first-hand experience of life among their enemy, than large sections of the present-day US intelligence establishment. But these are merely technical issues. Of much more interest is le Carré’s nuanced exploration of the moral and ethical risks that face anyone who, like Charlie, must confront the radical challenge of terrorism. At its center stands a conundrum with far-reaching implications: to defeat a terrorist you must first—at least to some extent—become one yourself.2 Like Kurtz’s team, we might win the war on terror—only to lose ourselves in the process.

  1. 1

    George F. Will, for example, writing in The Washington Post (April 28, 1983), had this to say: “About the cause of the controversy, consider this. Readers are encouraged to take as journalism—as fact—the statement by one of le Carré’s Palestinian characters that a refugee camp filled with women, children and elderly was bombed 700 times in 12 years—an average of more than once a week—and that Israel routinely used US-built cluster bombs, and dropped booby traps designed as toys. A novelist whose speciality is supposed to be verisimilitude should not retail rubbish.” What Will failed to mention was the reaction of le Carré’s heroine, just a few lines down, to what the Palestinians were telling her: “Maybe, thought Charlie. Maybe not.”

  2. 2

    Incidentally, this is by no means a theoretical issue. In the late nineteenth century the secret police in tsarist Russia had a persistent problem with undercover operatives and agents provocateurs who ended up being co-opted by the terrorist groups they were supposed to be penetrating or sometimes simply losing track of which side was which.

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