Espionage: Spies, Terrorist Hunters and an Uneasy Reporter Try to Decode the Middle East

Lilith Magazine, Winter 2004, by Karen Propp

Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, by Tammy M. Proctor, New York University Press, 2003. $26.96

Shula: Code Name the Pearl, by Aviezer Goland & Danny Pinkas, Delacorte Press, 1980.

The Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America, by Anonymous, HarperCollins, 2003. $25.95

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern, HarperCollins, 2003. $27.95.

Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land, by Amira Hass, edited and translated by Rachel Leah Jones, MIT Press, 2003. $14.95.

Why is it that the women spy has long been cast in the role of trickster seductress? Think Delilah, 1100 B.C.E. Think La Femme Nikita in skimpy black leather.

Tammy Proctor, in Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, argues that the sexy, temptress spy taps into larger societal fears that accompany shifts in gender roles and the rise of female power. For example, when the iconic figure Mata Hari was executed in 1917, it was on the basis of very circumstantial information--in Proctor's view, Mata Hari's real threat to male authorities was her independence as a divorcee and self-definition as a successful dancer.

Indeed, spying, like ambulance driving, nursing, or munitions factory work in World War I, offered alternatives to women who wished to escape their traditional confining domestic roles. Proctor's larger project is to uncover the unknown history of women in intelligence (she estimates 6000) who worked for the British during World War I. Regrettably, Proctor, whose book reads like a reworked dissertation, omits Zionist Sarah Aaronsohn, a member of the NILI spy ring that worked for the British during World War One to spy on the Turkish rulers of Palestine. Sarah Aaronsohn was captured by the Turks and tortured for four days, but succeeded in committing suicide to avoid confession. Zionists later cited NILI activities as part of the service to Britain that earned them the right to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

For Shula Cohen, the heroine of Shula: Code Name Pearl, spying also offered an escape from a claustrophobic domestic life. Born in Jerusalem, seventeen-year old Shula was married off to a wealthy Beirut merchant, with whom she raised seven children. In 1947, on the eve of Israel's war of Independence, she stumbled on some military intelligence and sent it on to Israel. Immediately, the nascent intelligence services tapped her to smuggle Jewish refugees from Syria across the Lebanese border. In the 1950s, she organized a spy ring based in a Beirut nightclub, and obtained for the Mossad secret Lebanese and Syrian documents. Dubbed "The Mata Hari of the Middle East," when she was arrested and convicted by the Lebanese government in the late 1950s, Shula spent seven years in prison, and was released in 1967, following the Six Day War as part of a prisoner's exchange. Returning to Jerusalem, she settled into the innocuous role of a manager of an antique shop near the King David Hotel. As told by Golan and Pinkas, her story is rich in texture and page-turning power-and yes, even spy romance.

In contrast, The Terrorist Hunter reads like a scandalous spy memoir. The author is an Iraqi born Jew married to an Israeli, and living in the United States. A mother of four, she found her true calling when she responded to a help-wanted ad placed by a Middle East research institute. On the job, she discovered documents that made her suspect certain Muslim charities as fronts for Hamas. Soon she was attending rallies and conferences of Islamic radicals, where she wore a burqa to hide both her identity and a tape recorder. At once enacting traditional and nontraditional female roles, Anonymous gives us the striking image of a woman eight months pregnant who conceals recording equipment under her enormous belly!

The ability of Anonymous, later outed as Rita Katz, to infiltrate these meetings derived in part from her knowledge of Arabic and Muslim culture that she acquired while growing up. She says she is motivated in part by the Iraqis having hanged her father in 1969, in Baghdad's central square. Katz claims her work led the FBI to track how Islamic charities in the United States funneled money to international terrorist networks. Her intelligence, however, is contested. Several of the groups she pinpoints as terrorist fronts have sued her for libel. And, her primary associate in the counterterrorism industry was Steven Emerson, a journalist with slight credibility in government and academic circles. At present, Rita Katz is director of SITE (The Search for International Terrorist Entities www.siteinstitute.org)

Jessica Stern, faculty at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, distinguished terrorism expert, and author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, is not exactly a proper spy. Yet research for her highly readable book led Stern to dangerous places and dangerous people, who typically assumed she was working for the CIA or similar organization. For four years, often dressed in long sleeves, long skirts, and a head scarf, and armed only with a supply of Harvard pens for gifts, she interviewed extremist Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Although the information she uncovers from her travels to Pakistan, Gaza, Israel, and Texas is undoubtedly valuable, Stern's real intelligence lies in the sleuthing she does into terrorists' minds and motives. She writes:

"Religious terrorism arises from pain and loss and from impatience with a God who is slow to respond to our plight, who doesn't answer. Its converts often long for a simpler time, when right and wrong were clear, when there were heroes and martyrs, when the story was simple, when the neighborhood was small, when we knew one another. . . . It is about finding a clear purpose in confusing world with too many choices. . . . The way forward is clear: kill or be killed. Kill and be rewarded in heaven. Kill and the Messiah will come. It is about seeing the world in black and white. About projecting all one's fears and inadequacies on the Other."

Despite or because of her gift for empathy, Stern paints a frightening picture of the Muslim world's hatred of the West and the threat of future terrorist attacks. She does not call for military solutions-American violence invariably assists terrorists in mobilizing recruits--but for first world nations to study the psychological, spiritual, and material vulnerabilities in the Islamic world. In other words, we need more and culturally sensitive spies. Cultural intelligence, says Stern, can help to covertly dismantle powerful terrorist networks as well as to sow dissent among a Muslim population that is extremely vulnerable to the fervor of religious extremist leaders who promise clear solutions to poverty, alienation, and humiliation.

Like Jessica Stern, Amira Hass is aware of being deeply involved in an historical process, and this makes her work equally compelling. Hass, a Jewish Israeli journalist, has lived and reported from the Palestinian territories since 1993, when she moved to Gaza to report for Ha'aretz. Her book, Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land, which is a compilation of gritty columns published from 1997-2002, holds up a mirror to both Israeli and Palestinian societies. She describes roadblocks, destroyed buildings, curfews, and the amiseration of Palestinian life, by weaving her "intelligence" from Israeli soldiers, Palestinian ex-prisoners, people in refugee camps, restaurant owners, teenagers, and bereaved families. It is painful reading for ordinary Israelis and supporters of Israel.

Hass provocatively links her work to her mother's experience on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. Her mother recounted how the sick and doomed Jewish women on the train received only cold, dispassionate stares from the German women who saw them. This story made Hass dread being a mere, silent bystander, and nurtures her intense needs to know and tell. Her telling has made many Israelis brand her a traitor, but it has won her supporters in Israel, admirers throughout the world, and the UNESCO Guillermo Camo World Press Freedom Prize for 2003.