Q: The Messenger is the sixth novel featuring Israeli intelligence agent and art restorer Gabriel Allon, a man who has been described as one of the most intriguing and original characters in today’s commercial fiction. He’s had a long and colorful career, to say the least, and now he’s found himself in a fight with a new enemy: Saudi Arabia. What attracted you to the material?
A: The Saudis are, quite simply, the perfect villains. They have a seemingly endless supply of money and hold the economic security of not only this country but the entire world in the palm of their hand. They have been described as one of our closest allies in the Middle East, yet at various times throughout their history, they have behaved more like enemies than friends. I also believe that Saudi Arabia bears a large responsibility for what happened to this country on 9/11 and have never truly been held accountant. The 9/11 Commission described them as “a problematic ally in the war against terrorism,” a stunning example of understatement. They are, to a large degree, the ideologues and financiers of global Islamic extremism. Indeed, I believe one can argue it was the House of Saud that started the fire of the global jihad movement in the first place. The Messenger gave me an opportunity to explore some of those themes.
Q: Without giving too much away of the plot, The Messenger deals with a terrorist conspiracy to attack the Vatican-a conspiracy financed and enabled by a Saudi billionaire and a former Saudi intelligence officer. All of your work has some foundation in fact. I assume this one does, too.
A: It does, indeed. In fact, the plot of The Messenger was inspired to a large degree by a report produced by German intelligence in 2004. They found that a pair of Saudi companies-one of them was a hundred-million-dollar-a-year holding company-were essentially front companies for the Saudi intelligence service, and that these companies had substantial ties to al-Qaeda cells operating in Germany and Indonesia. The report made me think. What if the holding company was owned and operated by a globe-trotting billionaire with close ties to Washington elite? What if he was using his company and his businesses to move men and materiel around the globe? What if a terrorist mastermind was hidden somewhere within his empire? It didn’t take long before I had a frighteningly plausible scenario.
Q: Is there evidence that the Saudi elite have contributed directly to al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists?
A: A great deal of evidence, unfortunately. In many cases wealthy Saudis have given money to Islamic charities that has found its way into the coffers of the terrorist organizations. In others they’ve given money directly to the terrorists. In 2002, police in Bosnia raided the offices of a Saudi charitable organization and discovered, among other things, a list of al-Qaeda’s earliest financial backers. There were twenty names. Six were Saudi bankers, twelve were businessmen, and of those twelve, two had served as Saudi government ministers.
Q: Can we assume individual Saudis are still involved in funding the global terrorist movement?
A: I asked that question of a very senior American official while researching the novel. He expressed confidence that the Saudi government had managed to stem the flow of money from the official Saudi charities to the terrorists, but he was less confident when it came to individual Saudi citizens. In fact, it was his assumption that individual Saudis were still giving money to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, even though bin Laden and his lieutenants now appear to have the House of Saud clearly in their sights. It’s one of the most intriguing aspects of Saudi Arabia and its ties to global terror. The House of Saud helped to inspire and nurture the terrorists with money and ideology, and now those terrorists are calling for its destruction. During a conversation with a senior CIA official, he compared the House of Saud to a man holding a tiger by the ears. The tiger is symbolic of the terrorists, of course, and if the man lets go, he’ll be devoured.
Q: Any chance you’ll tell us the name of the “very senior” government official to whom you spoke?
A: None at all.
Q: There’s a wonderful line in The Messenger, uttered by the deputy director of the CIA: “There’s a pipeline between Riyadh and Washington, and it flows green with cash.” You live in Washington, and before becoming a novelist, you were a journalist and television producer. Does this fictitious pipeline exist?
A: I’m afraid it does. Critics of Israel love to point out the legendary influence of “the Jewish lobby” in Washington, but the Jewish lobby has a rival, and that’s the Saudi lobby. Money talks in Washington, and the Saudis have petrodollars to burn. They pour money into the big law firms, and hire the most influential lobbyists, many of whom are former members of congress or former senior government officials. They give generously to American charities, and fund think tanks and Middle East policy centers that have a distinctly pro-Saudi tilt in their view of the world. Prince Alwaleed, the Saudi billionaire investor, recently gave twenty million dollars to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where many of tomorrow’s diplomats are being trained. Prince Bandar, the roguish former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, used to boast openly about the impact of Saudi money on Washington. He once told the Washington Post in an interview: “If the reputation, then, builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.” Now that’s chutzpah.
Q: There are a number of references in the book to Wahhabi Muslims. What is Wahhabism and what are its connections to Saudi terrorism?
A: Wahhabism, or Wahabbi Islam, is the form of Sunni Islam practiced by the majority of Saudi citizens. It’s puritanical and deeply intolerant of other faiths and even other sects of Islam itself, especially Shiism. The Saudis have spent billions of dollars propagating the faith across the Muslim world, in Europe, and even here in the United States. I’ve come to the conclusion, after a great deal of thought and research, that much of the Islamic extremism sweeping the Middle East and beyond flowed from the well of Saudi Wahhabism. It’s no accident that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, or that the majority of those held at Guantánamo Bay are Saudis. I think most Americans would be shocked at the sort of things that are said by extreme Wahhabi preachers during the average Friday sermon-or at the things that are taught about Christians and Jews in the average Saudi classroom. In the novel, Gabriel Allon tells his American counterpart that the war on terror can never be won unless something is done to stem the flow of hatred in Saudi mosques and schools. I truly believe this. Dore Gold said it best in his groundbreaking book, Hatred’s Kingdom: “Unless the ideological roots of the hatred that led to September 11 are addressed, the war on terrorism will not be won. It will be only a matter of time before the next Osama bin Laden emerges.”
Q: Gabriel Allon has been surrounded by a remarkable cast of characters from the outset of the series, and The Messengerfeatures many of them. But it also stars a new character. Tell me about Sarah Bancroft.
A: Sarah Bancroft is a curator working for a small museum in Washington who is recruited by Gabriel and his American counterparts for a covert operation. She’s young, very attractive, and lost someone close to her on 9/11. She actually tried to join the CIA after the attacks but was turned down because the CIA screeners thought she was too independent-minded. Now she’s going to be given a second chance, because she is exactly the sort of person Gabriel needs for the operation he has in mind. She’s a deeply symbolic character. In many ways, she’s representative of America itself. Wounded by 9/11, well-intentioned, but perhaps in a bit over her head.
Q: Do the Americans and Israelis really conduct joint operations?
A: I have it on very good authority that the CIA and Israeli intelligence operate jointly on a regular basis. I also have it on good authority that the Americans never come away from those operations without being impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of their Israeli counterparts. I only hope I’ve done justice to that spirit with the operation at the heart of The Messenger.
Q: It’s an operation that involves, of all things, a lost painting by Vincent van Gogh called Marguerite Gachet at her Dressing Table. Does the painting really exist?
A: No, I’m afraid this canvas exists only on the pages of The Messenger.
Q: It feels like it could exist, though. You must have done a lot of research to bring the painting to life.
A: I did actually, most of it focused on Vincent’s final days. Fortunately for me, there’s no shortage of great research and writing on the demise and suicide of Vincent van Gogh, and I have to admit to becoming a bit sidetracked for a few days as I wandered through his remarkable and tragic life. There are three known works depicting Marguerite Gachet. I worked hard to concoct a scenario by which there could have been a fourth painting-a painting that was sold not long after Vincent’s death and kept secret by its owners for a variety of reasons. I enjoy art and art history very much, and it’s one of the great guilty pleasures of the series. It allows me to indulge my own passions.
Q: It’s very convincing. I suspect it might encourage a few art detectives to start looking for a work just like it.
A: I’m afraid they’ll be searching in vain. But if they should find it, please call me!
Q: As with the best spy fiction, exotic locations abound in The Messenger. Rome, Venice, Tel Aviv, London, and the Caribbean islands. Did you spend time in each of the places while preparing to write the book, or do you create local color based on research from afar?
A: It can be a mixture of both, but for this novel I’ve really been to nearly every place described. There are a couple of exceptions. I’ve never actually been inside the private apartments of the Pope. Nor have I been beyond the entrance of the barracks of the Swiss Guards. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to get an invitation.
Q: Your last two novels, A Death in Vienna and Prince of Fire, were serious in their subject matter and somewhat somber in tone. Don’t take this the wrong way, but The Messenger is a bit more entertaining, if that’s the right word. Was it intentional?
A: Yes and no. Each novel tends to take on a life of its own, and if I’ve done my job correctly, the characters really do determine the tone and course of the story. That said, I’m being published in the summer for the first time this year instead of winter, and I wanted to make sure The Messenger was sort of book one would carry to the beach.
Q: Mission accomplished.
A: I’ll take that as a compliment.
Q: At the novel’s outset, Gabriel is wanted for questioning by the French government and more or less resigned himself to a life in hiding. By the end, he’s come face-to-face with the prime minister of Israel, the president of the United States, the Pope, and one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists in the world. Now that he’s the world’s most famous terrorist fighter, where else can he go?
A: I’ve learned many lessons in the decade I’ve been writing books, and one of them is that it is never wise to talk about the book you intend to write, because they never come out the way you think they will-at least mine don’t. Suffice it to say that we live in a dangerous world and Gabriel, for all his desire to spend his life quietly restoring paintings, is likely to be drawn back into the fight against global terrorism.