Friday, September 08, 2006

Review: The Third Terrorist, part one

I've finished reading Jayna Davis's The Third Terrorist. Now I'll begin to take it apart. I suspect I'll do this across several posts.

I'm not going to tell you I don't recommend the book, because I really do -- just not for the reasons that it was recommended to me.

I can't recommend it for the quality of writing, because the prose makes purple look beige. Davis can't resist having her alleged terrorists pause in the course of every alleged evil deed to "glower" at people or stare at them in "cold rage." Every datum, however pedestrian, is presented as Sherlock Jayna Davis Holmes, skinning the Speckled Band and stuffing it to hand out like a carnival prize. The book reads like one of those cheap thrillers you pick up at the airport when they're out of Grisham paperbacks ... and I shouldn't have to point out that a problem with suspension of disbelief in a non-fiction work is a bigger problem than it would be with a potboiler.

Of course, writing skill isn't everything. The book is allegedly non-fiction, so the real test of its quality is the strength of Davis's evidence and arguments. As to her theory -- that the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was carried out not just by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, but by a larger conspiracy backed by Iraq and/or al Qaeda -- whether or not it's correct I just can't say. Some pieces seem to raise real suspicions. On other fronts, the story tends to unravel upon examination -- and I've only just begun. For example:

Davis pseudonymizes most of her witnesses and many of her suspects, but a little web research quickly unmasks one of them ... and calls into question whether or not Davis observes the line between legitimate revelation and fact-challenged hyperbole.

To wit: Dr. Samir Khalil and Samara Properties are pseudonymized in the book as "Dr. Anwar Abdul" and "Salman Properties" (in a not very subtle attempt to forge a connection in the reader's mind between the latter and the Salman Pak camp in Iraq).

On page 67 of the paperback edition, Davis breathlessly informs us that

Dr. Abdul was paroled from prison [on an insurance fraud conviction] not long after the Gulf War ended. He immediately resumed operating his rental empire, but continued to run his business sub rosa. Scouring the company registrations with the Oklahoma Secretary of State, the Southwestern Bell phone book, and directory assistance, I found no official record of Salman Properties.

Now, the Internet is much more convenient, accessible and information-rich than it used to be, and it's always possible that things have changed, but it only took me a couple of minutes to find an "official record" of Samara Properties -- from the county assessor's office (a pretty obvious place to look when investigating a property management firm).

A few more minutes, and I had confirmation on my screen of an incorporation by Dr. Samir Khalil ... of Dr. Samir Khalil ... with the Secretary of State.

Since Davis doesn't bother to mention that Dr. Khalil went "legit" later (and her narrative runs up to 2005), either she wants us to believe that he's still operating, as she puts it, sub rosa or else she's hyping the story up beyond what the facts warrant with her claim that he was doing so in the first place (or, perhaps, she's just possessed of poor research and investigation skills). I'm not a lawyer, but it looks like the most Dr. Khalil could really be accused of here is neglecting to file a fictitious business name registration form, if even that.

And, frankly, her depiction doesn't hang together very well with her other descriptions of the company. On page 45, she describes it as a "multi-million dollar property management company" with "hundreds" of rental homes in play. She has her (pseudonymized) witnesses portray Khalil as disposing of large amounts of money (presumably in at least occasional support of a terror operation), buying cars for the Iraqi employees whom Davis believes were part of the team behind the Oklahoma City bombing and so forth. Then she turns around and tries to put the business and its owner on the shadowy fringe of the underground economy. Sorry -- it's one or the other.

A more disturbing alternative is the possibility that Davis intentionally obscured the man's identity and wrote off his business as "off the books" in order to keep a piece of information out of the narrative -- a fact which might call her case into question.

A major theme of the book is that Davis's prime suspect, Hussain al-Hussaini, can't satisfactorily (as Davis sees it) account for his whereabouts between 9 am and 10 am on the morning of the bombing. One of Davis's pseudonymized witnesses, "Larry Monroe," offers three different accounts of al-Hussaini's whereabouts (even though Davis publicly insists that none of her witnesses have ever changed "so much as a word" of their testimonies). The first is that al-Hussaini was nowhere to be seen on a job site that morning before 10 am. The second is that he was at one of Khalil's rental properties. The third is that "Monroe" doesn't know where he was.

In any case, two rental properties eventually enter the narrative as possible alibi sites -- a rental house on NW 31st Street, and another on NW 37th Street. To the best of my recollection, nowhere in The Third Terrorist does Davis mention the location of Samara Properties -- even though she recounts several visits to its office by herself and others, and even though she also produces accounts of the alleged getaway vehicle being parked outside that office before the bombing to strengthen the alleged connection.

Samara Properties is (at least now) located on NW 32nd Street in Oklahoma City -- smack in between the two alibi sites. Where was it located in 1995? If it hasn't moved, then that raises the possibility that al-Hussaini was at one or both of the rental properties in question, and at the office in between, getting his job assignments. Is that why Davis didn't mention its location? And is it possible that she obscured the record with respect to the business's legal status in order to keep that information out of the reader's sight and mind?

I used to work this kind of job myself -- and no, I wouldn't be able to reconstruct a coherent account of my travels back and forth between the office and various job sites on any given morning on demand. The fact that al-Hussaini can't convincingly (to Davis) do so is offered, over and over, as a major component of Davis's indictment of him.

Curiously, although Davis repeatedly portrays Khalil as a stateless Palestinian Arab, she slips once and casually mentions that he does, in fact, have a nationality. It's right there on his passport. Iraqi? Saudi? No ... he's an, um, Israeli. Understandably, she doesn't follow that thread anywhere. She's already picked her target -- Iraq -- and nothing is going to drag it out of her sights.

I could go on -- and I will -- but this post is getting a little long, so I'll take up the topic again later. For now, suffice it to say that The Third Terrorist is flawed as a work of fact from the very first page of the foreward, on which attorney David P. Schippers (of Clinton impeachment fame) mentions that he immediately suspected Middle Eastern involvement in the OKC bombing because its method conformed to that of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia -- an attack which hadn't occurred yet and which still lay a year in the future. And it just goes downhill from there.

I do, however, recommend the book. I wouldn't recommend it as a factual account of the OKC bombing, but it's top-shelf conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory is great fun.

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