An Accidental American
By Alex Carr
(Random House Trade Paperbacks, Paperback, 9780812977080, 240pp.)
Publication Date: April 17, 2007
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Forced out of a self-imposed exile, one woman faces a lifetime’s worth of secrets and betrayal–all in the name of staying alive.
Nicole Blake had planned to leave her criminal life in the past. She had done her time in a dank prison in Marseille and relinquished the world of forgery and counterfeiting for an unassuming career as a freelance consultant. Now her world is a small farm in the French Pyrenees, with daily fresh eggs and the companionship of her devoted dog.
But when U.S. intelligence operative John Valsamis shows up at her door, Nicole is reminded that she’ll always be an ex-con. Valsamis is after Nicole’s former lover, Rahim Ali, and soon Nicole finds herself back in Lisbon, tracking down Rahim in all their old haunts. Except now Rahim isn’t just a document forger–he’s a suspected terrorist.
Unwittingly drawn into an international web of fundamentalism, crime, and corruption, Nicole discovers that its threads stretch from the cobbled streets of Lisbon to the once-beautiful city of her birth, Beirut, and to the top levels of the government that sent Valsamis to find her. And as with any good web, the harder Nicole fights to free herself, the tighter it closes around her.
“Thought-provoking . . . The gritty atmosphere is perfectly drawn, and complex layers of lies and betrayal keep the reader happily guessing up to the end.”
“Chilling and utterly believable, An Accidental American hurls the reader into the dark and forbidding world of espionage. Not to be missed.”
–Gayle Lynds, author of The Last Spymaster
THE MORTALIS DOSSIER- ALEX CARR’S NOTE ON THE BOMBING OF THE AMERICAN EMBASSY IN BEIRUT
On April 18, 1983, at one o’clock in the afternoon, a van carrying two
thousand pounds of explosives blew up outside the American embassy
in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. Among the victims were
seventeen Americans, eight of whom represented the Central Intelligence
Agency’s entire Middle East contingent. In the years preceding
the bombing, an increasing number of attacks on Western and
Israeli interests had been carried out by Palestinian and Muslim extremists,
but the Beirut bombing was widely seen as a watershed
event for American policies in the region. With the exception of the
seizure of the American embassy in Tehran four years earlier, an act
that was carried out within the framework of Iran’s Islamic revolution,
the embassy bombing represented the first time America had
been so directly and bloodily targeted by Islamic terrorists for its military
involvement in the Middle East.
It’s impossible to see why the United States was such an unwelcome
force without an understanding of the history of Lebanon and
the surrounding region, and of American and Western involvement
in the politics of the Middle East in general. Though Lebanon has
existed in one form or another since the ninth century b.c., the modern
country of Lebanon was not established until 1920, when it was
granted to the French as part of a system of mandates established for
the administration of former Turkish and German territories following
World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, almost
all of what we think of as the modern Middle East was shaped
by these mandates.
America’s first direct intervention in Lebanese politics came in
1946. During World War II, Lebanon had been declared a free state
in order to liberate it from Vichy control. But when, after the war,
Lebanon eventually moved toward full independence, the French
balked, and the United States, Britain, and several Arab governments
stepped in to support Lebanese independence. It was at this time
that Lebanon’s system of political power sharing was devised. Well
aware of the country’s shaky precolonial past and determined to keep
Lebanon intact, the fledgling nationalist government agreed to split
power along sectarian lines, based on the numbers of the 1932 census.
It was a well-intentioned plan, but one that inadvertently set the
stage for decades of strife and civil war.
The power-sharing government’s first major stumbling block came
with the partitioning of the British Mandate of Palestine in the wake
of World War II, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed. The
ensuing influx of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon
proved a strain on the carefully crafted power-sharing system. Tensions
were further exacerbated in 1956, when Egyptian president
Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, provoking the
United States, along with Britain, France, and Israel, to respond with
military force. While Lebanese Muslims wanted the government to
back the newly created United Arab Republic, Christians fought to
keep the nation allied with the West. In 1958, with the country teetering
on the brink of civil war, the United States sent marines into
Lebanon to support the government of President Camille Chamoun,
thus inextricably linking itself with Christian forces.
It was an alliance that would be tested when, nearly two decades
later, sectarian rivalries finally erupted into full-scale civil war. While
Lebanon had enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, tensions
between the United States and the Soviet Union, and between
the United States and Iran, had escalated significantly, as had tensions
between the Israelis and the Palestinians. By the spring of
1975–when gunmen from the Christian Phalange militia attacked a
bus in the suburbs of Beirut and massacred twenty-seven Palestinians
on board in what is widely agreed to have been the first act of the
civil war–the forces at work in Lebanon were not merely internal
ones. The Cold War, as well as the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, were
both being played out in Lebanon, and would be throughout the
course of the war, as international players funneled weapons and
money to the various Christian, Muslim, and Druze militias.
The United States was a major player in the civil war from the beginning,
providing mainly covert support for the Christian government,
with whom it had traditionally been allied. But it wasn’t until
1982, after the Israeli siege of Beirut, the assassination of Phalange
leader Bachir Gemayel, and the horrific massacres at the Palestinian
refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, that U.S. troops, along with
other members of a multinational peacekeeping force, formally intervened
in the conflict. The United Nations—backed coalition was
meant as a neutral presence, but the complications of Cold War allegiances
and the United States’ traditionally close ties to Israel and
Lebanon’s Christian government meant that the Americans were inevitably
viewed by Muslim and Druze factions as anything but impartial.
It was in this environment, less than six months after the
Americans arrived as peacekeepers, that the embassy bombing took
There can be no doubt that the main goal of the bombing was to
intimidate the United States into pulling its forces from Lebanon.
But there were other, less obvious but no less significant reasons behind
the attack. Responsibility for the bombing, and the subsequent
bombing of the marine barracks, was claimed by a radical wing of the
Iranian-backed Hezbollah. In the years leading up to these attacks,
Iran had taken an increasingly aggressive role in its support of
Lebanese Muslim militias, most of which were traditionally Shiite,
transforming what had once been a mainly political fight into a religious
and moral one. Not only did Muslim radicals want American
troops gone, but they wanted to rid the country of Western cultural
influence–which they saw as mainly American–as well. In the
bloody years to follow, the American University of Beirut, as well as
American and Western journalists, would be targets of a concerted
campaign of kidnapping and intimidation.
Under any other circumstances, the Islamicizing of the conflict
might have been yet another disturbing development in an already
wildly fractured situation. But in the hothouse of the Lebanese civil
war, Hezbollah’s fierce brand of anti-Americanism became not just a
Shia or Iranian cause but a Palestinian and therefore pan-Arab cause
as well. In the years since the embassy bombing, the cause has taken
on many faces, including that of the vast al-Qaeda network, but the
anger remains undiluted. Not only is anti-American thinking still
prevalent today in the Middle East, but it has become the uniting
force for radical Muslims the world over.
Former high-ranking members of the Reagan administration have
confirmed that how to respond to the embassy bombing and the
bombing of the marine barracks was a subject of debate at the time.
There was a clear split within the White House between those who
believed that force was the best response and those who argued that
the use of military power would only add to the problem by antagonizing
America’s remaining friends in the Arab world. The lessons of
Vietnam, along with the horrific loss of life in both attacks, no doubt
helped cement the decision to follow a policy of disengagement. In
the end, the choice was made to pull all American troops out of
It’s no coincidence that I chose to make the 1983 bombing of the
American embassy in Beirut central to the plot of An Accidental
American. This is a novel about U.S. involvement in the politics of
the Middle East, and the embassy bombing has shaped American
policy in that region as few other events have. Disengagement is no
longer the United States’ response of choice when dealing with Islamic
extremism. In light of the September 11 attacks, it comes as no
surprise that American foreign policy leans heavily on the swift use
of military might. But the effects of the decisions made in the wake
of the Beirut bombings are also at the root of this powerful policy
shift. Those in Washington who argue in favor of unilateral military
action can point to the message that the earlier withdrawal sent:
namely, that the United States could be intimidated by terrorists.
Writing about events in which real people lost their lives is always
a delicate undertaking. Sixty-three people were killed in the embassy
bombing, and it is not my intention to dishonor them. While I do aim
for historical accuracy, my main focus as a writer is on my characters.
Truthfulness for me means looking back on the events of history
through the flawed lens of human perception. This means creating
characters who are as real as possible, and whose motives are often
less than pure and always complicated. I strongly believe that I can
best respect the real inhabitants of history by struggling to portray my
fictional inhabitants as honestly as possible.
Most of my fictionalization of the embassy bombing in An Accidental
American adheres closely to the facts. The van used to transport
the explosives to the embassy had, in fact, been stolen from the
embassy pool the summer before the bombing. It is universally acknowledged
that the Syrians, as well as the Iranians under the guise
of Hezbollah, were behind the attacks. Among the people killed that
day were the CIA’s chief Middle East analyst, Robert C. Ames, and
station chief Kenneth Haas. Both Ames and Haas were brilliant men
and rising stars, and the consequences of their deaths are still being
felt within the intelligence community. But the idea that a rogue CIA
official was actually behind the bombing is entirely fabricated, as are
all the characters involved.
In recent years, there seems to be a growing uncertainty concerning
what, exactly, separates fiction from nonfiction. The meteoric rise
of the memoir and other forms of “creative nonfiction” has further
blurred an already fuzzy line between minor embellishment and outright
fabrication–while the popularity of a certain kind of fiction,
which claims to illuminate long-concealed truths, has led readers to
confuse clever fabrication with fact. In the wake of this uncertainty
has come outrage and even anger. I have to admit, I don’t see what all
the fuss is about. Stories are meant to transport–at its best, historical
fiction can even offer us a wise perspective on our own condition–
and if readers are denied the joy of suspending their disbelief,
they might as well not read at all.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should substitute the
watered-down truths of historical fiction for the real thing, or the
musings of a fiction writer, whose ultimate loyalty lies with his or her
story, for the more measured presentations of historians and journalists,
whose allegiances are with the truth. We live in a world in which
the costs of ignorance are simply too high.