Reviewed for The New Podler Review of Books by David Drazul.
Steve Church, an American businessman, is visiting Dr. Ted Coogan, a friend of his father's, in Paris before a business trip to Morocco. Coogan and Steve's father were both in the CIA together. Although both are retired, Steve feels that Coogan would prove to be a great resource for the Arab world. Unknown to Steve at the time, Coogan is part of a research team charged with verifying the authenticity of a recently recovered copy of the Qur'an that differs from the established text. His work is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. As such, Coogan's home is ransacked and Coogan himself is attacked while away in Germany. Steve is asked to pick up Coogan at the airport, and the two are photographed together by a reporter.
This one photograph renders Steve guilty through association with Coogan. The Salafists, the organization behind the attacks on Coogan, assume that Steve is working with him and a CIA spy. They are led by Tariq al Khalil, who Steve knows of from graduate school. Tariq's organization seeks to restore the Caliphate, the political unification of all Muslims that, at its height, stretched from Spain to Pakistan. Tariq is willing to use any means necessary to accomplish his goal and any infidels who would undermine him must die.
Steve is ultimately recruited by the CIA and Mr. Le Gallo, a former CIA agent himself, introduces us to a far less glamorous organization than what we see in the movies. After his training, Steve is hampered by bean counters from the bureaucratic wing back home while being forced to recruit locals in the field to assist him with intelligence gathering.
From Paris to Morocco and from Mali to Israel, Steve and Tariq's paths cross time and time again. And as each grows more familiar with the other, so too does their enmity. I won't spoil the story's end, but there's a heated argument between the two men as they make the case for their respective causes. The verbal combat was, for me, more powerful than the action scenes.
Mr. Le Gallo draws upon his vast experience to show us not only what it's like to be a CIA operative but the villains he faced. 9/11 opened our eyes to the lengths that Islamic extremists will go to in order to achieve their objective. Mr. Le Gallo's terrorists are cut from that very same cloth. What's more, he brings the reader into the minds of the men that make up these organizations. While al Khalil is a megalomaniac, the rest of the men are far from being monolithic followers. Mr. Le Gallo reveals their conflicted psyches as they struggle to balance their conscience with the Salafist objectives.
My one complaint, and it's a minor one, is that the dialogue doesn't ring true at times. Character A would ask character B a series of questions all at once and continue talking without letting character B answer them. Finally, character B would be allowed to answer the questions in the order they were asked and then run on at length as well. It was as if they were conducting multiple conversation threads at once.
Mr. Le Gallo stated in the Acknowledgments for the book that "a novel allows the author to entertain as well as educate." I felt that sometimes he may have gone a bit too far in the education department. A few times a character would launch into an educational segment that may as well have started with "Did you know...." While some of the information was pertinent to the story, in a few instances it seemed more documentary than drama.
Overall, The Caliphate is an excellent story of international espionage and a welcome addition to the genre from someone who lived it. While we can rest easy that the more speculative elements are just fiction, the fact remains that the people Mr. Le Gallo writes about are very real, some frightfully so.
The book was (originally) published by Dorchester Publications and is available from them and Amazon.
Author site is at andrelegallo.com.
Update 12/10/15: The book has a new publisher, and Mr. Le Gallo's website is back.