Frontpage’s guest today is Ken Timmerman, author of several New York Times best-sellers and a frequent contributor to Frontpage. His new book is ISIS BEGINS, a novel of the Iraq War.
FP: Ken Timmerman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Timmerman: Thanks for having me, Jamie. It’s always a pleasure.
FP: Let’s begin with a quick glance at some of your books: Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Saddam, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, and your two books on Benghazi, Dark Forces, and Deception.
So here’s the first question: what compels an investigative reporter to write a novel, and especially one about persecuted Christians?
Timmerman: Great question, Jamie. Thank you.
I started going on reporting and mission trips to northern Iraq in 2007, and gathered so much material that I thought I should write a book about what my sources were calling the coming “religiocide” of Iraqi Christians. Already then, in 2007, 2008, Christians were leaving Iraq in huge numbers. Jihadi Muslim groups were bombing their churches, murdering their bishops. They kidnapped ordinary Christians, holding them for ransom, and then murdered them when their families couldn’t produce the exorbitant payments they demanded. I was thinking to call such a book, “Blood of the Iraqi Martyrs.” But my agent at the time couldn’t get a single major publisher interested. Not one.
The publishing world just didn’t want to hear about Christian persecution. Even before Obama, when the subject literally became taboo, the notion that Christians were being murdered by Muslims was not popular.
So during one of these trips, Father Keith Roderick, an Anglican priest who then worked for Christian Solidarity International, a terrific group, by the way, convinced me that I should recast this body of material as a novel.
Why? So that ordinary Americans could feel and smell and taste what it is like to be a persecuted Christian, chased by Muslims intent on murder. For that is the reality of Iraq – and of so many other places around the world, such as Nigeria, Sudan, or Iran. He felt a novel would a more emotional impact on readers than a non-fiction book would.
FP: And you’re not new to writing novels, right?
Timmerman: Right, I am not. I have had two novels published. I confess: I actually started my career writing fiction, and studied under avante-garde novelist John Hawkes at the Brown University graduate writing seminar in the early 1970s and went to Paris in 1975 with a novel in my suitcase. I eventually started an expat literary magazine, Paris Voices, that was the center of a whole expat literary scene. But that’s a whole other story.
FP: You may write a memoire on all of this one day?
Timmerman: Shhh! I’ve actually completed the first volume. It will deal with hostages, arms dealers, and the intelligence underworld as I lived it for 18 years in Europe, Lebanon, and Iraq.
FP: Sounds great, you’ll have to back to Frontpage Interview for that as well.
Timmerman: Oh, sure. But even in my non-fiction, I’ve always tried to include a few personal stories, because I think it’s more honest as a reporter to let my reader evaluate my biases, such as they are. I despise the hypocrisy of so-called “mainstream” reporters who claim to be straight-shooters, when in fact they are just left-wing hacks.
FP: True, true. So let’s begin. Is ISIS BEGINS a fictionalized version of reality?
Timmerman: Well, yes and no. There’s a huge amount of ground truth in the book. Anyone who has ever traveled the road from Erbil to Mosul will recognize my description of it, and of the dangers that lurk in the desert beyond. Some will recognize the corrupt former and current CIA officials who are key characters in ISIS BEGINS. And a truly observant eye might even identify a certain former U.S. ambassador, or a southern state governor, although that of course is mere conjecture.
I’ve also been very careful with my choice of weaponry. You’ll find that Glock 19s figure prominently in the book, as does the Barrett Light Fifty, a sniper rifle. I had several weapons “techs” advise me on these and the Kiowa helicopter, and of course fuel air explosives, which make an appearance in the final action scene of the book.
FP: You don’t depict Christians using all these weapons. How come?
Timmerman: Well, they use some of them, in self defense. Mainly the smaller caliber ones, I’m afraid. That’s of course part of the tragedy: while Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christians have been demanding for years to have their own police force so they can defend the towns and villages of their historic homeland in the Nineveh Plain, politically-correct members of the U.S. Senate have blocked them. Even the Iraqi government had approved the plan. Instead, when Isis finally swept into Mosul in June 2014, the Christians had to rely on the Kurds. And the Kurds, much as many Americans might love them, turned tail and ran.
FP: Your narrator in this story is an Iraqi interpreter who works for U.S. Special Forces. Why did you chose him to tell this story?
Timmerman: I met many people like him on my many trips to Iraq and Jordan, interviewing refugees. It seemed to me that Yohannes – “Johnny” –- was emblematic of the tragic failures of U.S. policy. He helped the United States, even put his life on the line for us; and we walked away from him when the jihadis put a price on his head and began stalking him and his family. But he also gave me a way of telling the broader picture of Iraq’s rich and variegated Christian community.
Along the way, you learn a bit about his family history. His great-grandmother gets chased out of Tabriz, Iran, during the anti-Christian genocide of 1916-1919 and settles in al Qosh, just north of Mosul, an Assyrian town that hosts an ancient monastery that plays a central role in my plot. The monastery was built by an Order of Christian fighting monks founded in the Arabian desert in the 7th century AD. They kept a diary of their interactions with a certain caravan boy, who later married a wealthy merchant, and later still, began having visions of the Angel Gabriel.
FP: Sounds like the prophet Mohammed.
Timmerman: That’s right, the so-called “prophet” of Islam. The Diary of these early monks gives us glimpses of their interaction, and is founded on a well-established tradition in the Middle East that parts of the Koran were actually dictated by a Christian monk named Bahira.
FP: In Islam, such stories would be considered blasphemy.
Timmerman: True, I’m sure that some Muslims will see them as such. But interestingly, the story itself is summarized in a hadith by the most reputable of hadith-compilers, Sahih Bukhara. I reproduce it at the end of the book.
FP: So the Diary plays a central role in the story.
Timmerman: Exactly. Johnny, the interpreter, discovers a photocopy of some of its pages when he accompanies a specops team to take down a jihadi terror cell. That’s how the book starts. The Americans think it’s some kind of code and send it off to Baghdad to be translated. But Johnny tells his supervisor it’s not a code. It’s just written in Aramaic—which, of course, he can read. It turns out that Johnny’s great uncle was initiated into the Secret Order of fighting monks, but subsequently betrayed them. But you’ll have to read the book to enjoy the intricacies of the plot. I had a lot of fun constructing it.
FP: So the key point here -- and there is no substantial spoiler in me saying this – is that the jihadis learn that the current abbot of the monastery plans to release the Diary and spill the secrets of Mohammad and the founding of Islam.
Timmerman: That’s right. And so they plot to attack the monastery – just when all my characters are assembled there together, including the beautiful young Assyrian woman from California who traveled to Iraq to help on the mission trip.
FP: Tell us her name.
Timmerman: Damreena. Dona, for short. I think the most fun I had was writing the dialogue. I think I got most of my characters just right. The bluster and bombast of the corrupt former CIA officer, the honeyed diplomacy of the southern governor, the flower fresh naiveté of Dona as she falls in love with Johnny while encountering the brutal reality of Iraq.
FP: I think you have an upcoming film here that will be an on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Timmerman: From your lips to God’s ears, Jamie.
FP: One last thing: when does Isis begin?
Timmerman: Simple. The jihadis and the Baathist stay-behind networks, whose alliance begat Isis, had been utterly defeated during the surge and went underground. But the day Obama announced a date certain for the U.S. pullout from Iraq, they began their preparations. Obama told them when they could begin operations. Good lord, he gave them an actual date. So in my book, Isis began the day of Obama’s announcement.
I went back to northern Iraq in the summer of 2017 to witness the utter devastation they wrought on these ancient Christian communities. It’s nothing short of criminal. I hope this book will awaken the conscience of my readers. Talk about this in church or your synagogue. Tell your neighbors. And think about joining the coalition to Save the Persecuted Christians.
FP: Ken Timmerman, thanks for joining us today and congrats on your new novel.
Timmerman: Thanks so much Jamie, it was a pleasure.