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‘A Whole Lot More Of The Threat Was Known’

The former journalists with The Guar­dian and Sunday Times talk about their brand of writing

‘A Whole Lot More Of The Threat Was Known’
‘A Whole Lot More Of The Threat Was Known’

Their books read like bestselling thrillers. Except that the people in their stories, the bomb blasts and terrorists killing and maiming people are all real. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, former journalists with The Guar­dian and Sunday Times, talk about their brand of writing to Satish Padmanabhan.

First The Meadow, now The Siege: you seem to have hit upon a new genre, a sort of a non-fiction thriller.

Adrian Levy: We have carried out postmortems on ‘news’ events or social phenomena for more than 18 years, whether it be precious gems in Myanmar, or cultural relics like the Amber Room, in St Petersburg, and both of us identified with the philosophy of the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who was always last to the story but first to the truth. I am a great reader of novels but the truth can be far more exhilarating. And dangerous. Telling the truth in conflict zones or in places where people have considerable vested interests in living with the lies can be the most explosive thing a writer gets to do.

Cathy Scott-Clark: Nothing can be known right away. I watch people sprinting, cable news style, to the story and rolling all over it. People take breathless stabs at getting to the facts or are clamped down on by the authorities, or are lazy or corrupt and headed off before getting anywhere. I have always liked to wait, even now in the age of Twitter. And walk with a story, a real event, letting it settle so that finally something of the essence of it, something visceral, can be revealed. This can cost you jobs and enrage commissioners. It runs against the times in which we live now, where everything is hyphenated, expedited and précised. But then when you have a story to tell, the art of it is to strip it to the nub and make it march behind the characters.

It must be agonising work to get the detailing right, of real people both living and dead, and of an event so widely reported and watched.

Adrian: There are many truths in a sprawling complex event. The individual truths as perceived by the participants and the instigators. There are the truths perceived by observers and commentators. There are the polished truths produced by officials. There are the laminated truths told by governments and the security services. All one can hope to do is pin to the wall as many of these truths as possible and find a consensus of sorts. The sample has to be representative. And even then tessellating the truth, making it fit together, feels like being on your hands and knees with a giant jigsaw.

Cathy: You have to become a machine and absorb everything around you because it's not only the consensus of how things played out; it's the feel of how it happened. Who ate what and wore what and said what. Nowadays as people are glued to their smart devices, there is often a technical record that amplifies memories: text messages, mobile phone photos and voice records, CCTV, digitised police calls and intercepts, phone mast data – everything and anything you can imagine that can stand beside the truth and act as a ruler. Switching off when you start collecting is the hard part. And having an office big enough to throw the stories around until they fit.

Hotels like the Taj are theatres. They need to balance the desire for spectacle with the safety of their guests.”

How difficult was it for you, as writers, to sieve fact from fiction, when confronted with the secrecies and mysteries of ISI and RAW?

Adrian: This is what we have been doing for 18 years, finding people, and asking them to participate on a journey that might not always be comfortable but that aims to be moving and revelatory. At every stage, participants get to see what they have said and how they have said it. No one can wriggle out once they have committed their thoughts to the record, although most request anonymity. Key to it all is finding people whose own curiosity and sense of moral outrage has been peaked. Believe it or not, even in a pragmatic field like intelligence, and the military, there are always those – as we found in Deception, The Meadow and The Siege – who feel as if they have been pushed too far by an episode or operation, and want to rebalance the equation.

Cathy: You have to be straightforward and love the story, the events, the field as much as those who professionally play in it. It has to become you life – which has its downside if you want to have a life and see your children grow. Obsessives find other obsessives. Look at the writings of B Raman. His wonderful blog. He approached every unfolding event with numbered paragraphs that filleted the ‘known knowns’, to steal an awful phrase, and then dealt with the ‘known unknowns’. Raman’s desire was to strip away dogma and find the essence. We need to do the same with people like Raman, and then find characters and contributors to express these truths.

If the Taj authorities had responded to the multiple warnings of Bombay Police, do you think the 26/11 attack could have been warded off?

Adrian: It would be wrong to rewrite the truth but one thing is clear that a whole lot more of the threat was known than anyone let on. Incredible details were provided because, as we now know, the US intelligence community, was all over Lashkar-e-Toiba. Hotels, especially wonderful historic hotels, like the Taj, are theatres. They need to balance the desire for spectacle, being the House of Magic, with the safety of their guests. In this case, the hotel, the upper echelons of the police, and the intelligence services fought each other, and undermined the value of the early warnings they received. That is undeniable.

Cathy: No one, it seems, wanted to believe the truth, or put much store in it. The hotel was in high season and full and wanted to lavish hospitality on its guests, and stripped back security believing it was parasitic (needed feeding) and unsightly. The police command filed the truth away although two DCPs and their staff fought to be heard and did what they could. The intelligence community stove-piped the truth, fighting between themselves, foreign vs domestic, state vs national, Mumbai vs Delhi – and the guests and staff were the victims in all of this and ultimately the victors. A truth that emerges here is the police on the ground did what they could with the resources they were allocated. But in reality there were insufficient -- shoes, bullets, helmets, guns jackets and patrol boats -- to protect this one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, where private money builds sky scrapers and is not ploughed back into the municipality -- that teeters.

The Taj accepted and rejected warnings, as in the past there was no facility to involve the hotel in understanding the quality of the intelligence. The police had more intelligence than it could handle but not the facility to analyse or develop it adequately, and not the resources to implement a strategy to defeat the terror to come.

Has America explained David Headley's role convincingly to the world, or are there are still some loose strands?

Adrian: The US has explained nothing officially. However, we now know more than ever before, having talked to Lashkar, the intelligence communities in five countries, and countless diplomats and jihad outfits, what Headley's role was and the game he played. At that time Headley was moving away from Lashkar and towards Al Qaeda, as Lashkar began to split. That move, towards Ilyas Kashmiri and others, made Headley the nearest thing to a bridge to Osama. That was tantalizing for anyone in US and Western intelligence with an interest in tracking Osama. A terrible call was made, a narrow self interested one, to allow Headley to run on, with the promise that bin Laden might be captured and Mumbai was, in one sense, sacrificed along the way.

Cathy: The trail of complaints about Headley, and warnings, is incredible and stretches back to 1999. His own mother complained to the US authorities. His in-laws. His girlfriends and wives. His neighbours and friends in the US and Pakistan. And all of these were filed away so that the main job could continue, imbedding Headley inside the world of Islamism. The nature of being imbedded of course is that the imbed is not under anyone's real control, and can never be monitored sufficiently. The West lost control of its every manic and destructive conduit to Bin Laden and India lost Mumbai.

“It’s more than a case of Kasab & Co. It’s about adventurism, jealousy and chauvinism on both sides of the border.”

Do you foresee your graphic description of the training of Ajmal Kasab & Co in Hafiz Seed's lair ending up as evidence in India's case against Pakistan?

Adrian: So much more is known by the Indian intelligence community, but politics prevents it from airing its views. The insights we have provided hopefully show the multifarious pressures a state has to contend with. Pakistan is ever more complex, even as democracy takes hold more strongly and the PML becomes the dominant force.

Cathy: The ‘case’ is far more than Kasab and Co. It’s about adventurism, jealousy and chauvinism on both sides of the border. 26/11 showed how national interests cut across local with destructive and tragic consequences. How does the US and the West advance their security ‘needs’? How does the deep state in Pakistan evolve its 'needs'. America was hauling itself out of Iraq and still in need of a scalp within Al Qaeda. Pakistan was watching Lashkar fall to pieces as half wanted to fight for the Ummah and half just for Kashmir. The ‘case’ is as much about the failure to thwart 26/11, how the US and Pakistan chose to close an eye, as anything else.

Between Kashmir and Bombay, what are the common strands you found in India's response to terrorism?

Adrian: multiple games played by too many agencies that have no real oversight and insufficient resources – Kashmir and Bombay. The extraordinary efforts of individuals (in the police and the Taj) to overcome the lethargy and vested interests of the state and corporations – Kashmir and Bombay. A distaste for truth – Kashmir and Bombay. Naked acts of terrorism encased in naked politicking – Kashmir and Bombay. Political hucksters dressed up as popular saviours – Kashmir and Bombay.

How does the writing and researching process take place between the two of you?

Adrian: Lots of planning and then more planning and then creating a complex structure like a dinosaur skeleton to which we stick photos, facts and interviews.

Cathy: We argue a lot

Do both of you always hunt in a pair?

Adrian: We hunt singly for different things. Cathy is ruthlessly efficient and get to the nub of things but keeps her hand hidden.

Cathy: Adrian is a prevaricator and mulls stuff over endlessly but then never stops running. He is very secretive and competitive.

What’s coming next? 

Adrian: Only the NSA knows.

Cathy: We’ve stopped using email and cell phones.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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