All of twenty-six years old when he wrote his autobiography in 1991, Sumaida recounts a most remarkable story - and all the more so if true - interspersed with astute observations about Iraqi and Middle Eastern politics. The result is a compelling tale with useful information and an interesting analysis.
Here's what the author recounts: His father, Ali Mahmoud Sumaida (born 1935), is a Tunisian who moved to Iraq and joined with Saddam Husayn in about 1957, then rose with the future ruler to great political heights. From childhood, Hussein (born 1965) considered his father a psychotic tyrant and hated him with a rare passion that inspired him to go to great lengths to hurt him. In the spring of 1984, while studying in Manchester, England, Hussein joined Da'wa, the Iraqi Shi'i fundamentalist movement. Unhappy with its program ("The essence of the Islamic fundamentalist movement is not religion, but rather power through hatred"), he also worked with Iraqi intelligence. This led to an odd but quintessentially Middle Eastern predicament: "by day I went around with the Da'wah putting up stickers that said Saddam was a new Hitler, and by night I went around with Saddam's agents taking them down."
Sumaida says he soon found it repellent to work for his father or "for the monster Saddam and his killing machine." Within a month or two, "a strange idea began to form in the clouds of my mind: Mossad." According to this account, he took the unlikely and drastic step of walking cold into the Israel embassy in London and offering his services. His assignments for Mossad in Britain included scoping out an Iraqi school and a Palestinian leader. He then joined his father, now an ambassador in Brussels, and provided information about the embassy there as well as the local PLO man. He returned to England in the fall of 1984 and worked on two jobs involving Syria.
But then Mossad overreached and told Sumaida to get a job in Iraq's London embassy; his father immediately smelled a rat and began an inquiry. To preempt the inevitable, Sumaida went to an officer of the Mukhabarat (the top, most feared Iraqi intelligence force) on July 16, 1985, and confessed all about working for Israel-except that he had been a walk-in (he portrayed his service as a result of getting hooked on Israeli financial payoffs). In response, Sumaida was returned for five days to Baghdad, where he expected to be killed. But, thanks to his father's exalted status, a temporary reprieve came. He returned to England to begin serving as a double agent. Not wanting to play this role, however, Sumaida engaged in some petty theft and thereby got himself thrown out of the country
In October 1985, thanks to no less than two Iraqi presidential orders, Sumaida says he returned to Iraq and began studying at the University of Technology. There he met Ban, his wife-to-be (and the dedicatee of this book). Sometime after, the final verdict on his fate came, from Saddam himself: Sumaida was to live, but on condition that he join the Mukhabarat. The training for this career, described in some detail, began in the fall of 1986. He lived simultaneously as "a student and a junior agent for trivial affairs." By late 1987, he had proven himself adept enough to be given more serious duties, such as doing security checks on employees to be hired for confidential tasks. In October 1988, he had advanced to being part of the second layer of protection surrounding Saddam Husayn at a festival.
About this time, Sumaida began plotting ways for Ban and himself to escape Iraq. He made abortive efforts to flee to Beirut and Amman, only to make good, finally, in early 1990, on a trip to Yemen. There, for the second time in his young life, Sumaida walked into an enemy embassy, this time that of the United States, and asked for political asylum. The American response was less than warm, the British even cooler, so he ended up in Canada, where he now lives, with Ban, under an assumed identity.
Although parts of his account are inherently unbelievable (a member of the Iraqi elite volunteer to spy for Israel? a traitor pardoned in return for joining the Mukhabarat?), Sumaida's account is internally consistent, it jibes with known dates, and, to this non-Iraqi, it rings more true than false. The personal information about his own lying, stealing, smuggling, and womanizing also lends an air of authenticity. Put differently, it's hard to see why anyone would make all this up; there's a lot of dirt and no self-aggrandizement. Further, it is hard to imagine this tale's serving as anyone's disinformation. On the other hand, the odd discrepancy (such as his having played as a child with the sons of Michel 'Aflaq, a man twenty-five years older than his father) does raise questions about his credibility.
Sumaida offers information about Iraq that might be true. He reports learning that the core of the Osirak reactor survived Israel's 1981 raid and was rebuilt. He gives details about the deception pulled on inspectors visiting the factory of Munsha'at Nasr, whereby innocuous containers replaced deadly missiles. He provides a second-hand account of the 1987 meeting at which Saddam decided an Iraqi jet should attack the U.S.S. Stark, a bid to involve Washington more closely in the Iraq-Iran War. (This event prompts Sumaida wryly to comment that "Only in the Middle East would an attack on an American ship be considered a good way to end a war.") In the course of describing his training and activities, Sumaida reveals much about the inner workings of Iraqi intelligence. The chart detailing the structure of the Iraqi security apparatus appears sound. And throwaway lines help make totalitarian Iraq come to life: "Normally an Iraqi [college] graduate is not given any document showing his degree. This policy helps to prevent educated, skilled Iraqis from leaving the country."
No less interesting are Sumaida's alternately world-weary and idealistic observations. Repeatedly, he tries to explain the Middle Eastern mentality to Westerners, even as he thinks this an impossibility ("The key to the Middle East is understanding that you can never really understand it"). One theme concerns Middle Eastern thinking:
In our unique system of logic, a theory believed is a fact. There is no intermediary analytical thought. My theory is my belief, therefore is a fact. . . . Our logic is not a straight line, but curled and twisting like our script. Our sense of life and death is not theirs [i.e., Americans']; we laugh where an American cries.
He contrasts the optimism of Westerners (they assume "that someone looking for someone is a friend, not an enemy") with the deep pessimism of Iraqis ("Living under the Ba'th regime, my father always assumed that whatever happened was for the worst"). Sumaida also offers thoughts on ways for Westerners to approach the Middle East:
There's an old cliché about the Mideast that I get very tired of hearing pronounced by "experts" on western news broadcasts. It goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." A fatuous oversimplification. Instead I prefer, "The friend of my friend isn't necessarily my friend." . . . There are no such things as allies in the Middle East. There are only shifting sands.
Sumaida himself has escaped the Middle East and, with luck, has by now established a new life in Canada. He sums up his hopes, as well as his abiding anger, in one of the book's closing sentences: "the best revenge I can take on my father will be to love my children." Sumaida's tale confirms the possibility of good out of evil; and the superiority of Western political ways over those of the Middle East.
Feb. 22, 2017 update: Sumaida was 26 years old when he wrote his autobiography in 1991; now 26 years have passed and he is back in the news. Excerpts from an article in the Toronto Star:
Canadian officials have been trying to remove Sumaida ever since he arrived in Toronto in 1990 for asylum and was deemed inadmissible to the country a year later for his "espionage" activities that they said made him complicit in crimes against humanity.
In fact, Ottawa did deport him once to Tunisia — the birthplace of his Iraqi diplomat father, where he himself had never been — in 2005, but Sumaida assumed a false identity, "Brandon Timothy Casey," and returned on an emergency passport.
After living a low-profile life over the last decade, raising a family with a job in construction, Sumaida said he recently got a letter in the mail informing him that a pre-removal risk assessment had been initiated to determine if it's safe for him to be deported to Tunisia again.
"I just want to stay alive in Canada, even with no status. Just don't make me go back there and be tortured," Sumaida told the Star. "It is just not fair to leave somebody in limbo for 27 years. We are not animals." ...
He first arrived Canada in 1990 and sought asylum. The refugee board at the time concluded he had a well-founded fear of persecution in both Iraq and Tunisia, but the claim was denied. He then applied to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds but was also rejected.
In 2005, after years of appeals and challenges in courts and tribunals, Sumaida was deported to Tunisia, where he claimed he was tortured by local officials as soon as he got off his flight.
"Life in Tunisia was intolerable," said Sumaida. "I couldn't see what was going to happen one day to the next. By the summer of 2006, I made the decision to find a way to flee Tunisia."
Since he was on the "no fly" list, Sumaida said he drove to the Algerian border and walked across before making his way to Algiers to board a flight to Amsterdam. From there he said he "went to work using my old training," assuming a false identity and convincing Canada's embassy in The Hague to issue him an emergency passport. He returned Toronto on August 28, 2006.
After his return to Canada, Sumaida was convicted of using a fraudulently-obtained passport to circumvent the immigration law to enter the country, making him inadmissible for serious criminality.
Sumaida said his long battle against his deportation has taken a toll on his marriage. Now a father of three, he married his third wife in 2015. His mother and two sisters all were granted asylum in the United States based on his case, he said.
Due to his precarious status in Canada, Sumaida hasn't been able to leave the country, even to attend his mother's funeral in Detroit last July, which he watched online via a family member's smartphone feed.
"I couldn't go and say goodbye to my mother," lamented Sumaida. "It's like sitting in a prison in Canada, but it's still better than Tunisia. I'm 52 now. I can't take the beating and torture anymore."
In a lengthy letter to Sumaida in late January, the Immigration Department concluded it is possible he could be tried in Tunisia for crimes against the state, offences that are punishable by death. However, it said progress has been made in that country in terms of the dismantling of the old state security apparatus.
"The focus of the replacement organizations is on particular threats from Islamic terrorism. Historical concerns about the Israelis dating from the time when the Palestine Liberation Organization was based in Tunisia would no longer appear to be of significant interest or concern," the letter said.
"These developments bode well, should you be removed to Tunisia in future and would suggest that you would be unlikely to face risk of torture or ill treatment."
But Sumaida argued immigration officials don't understand the deep hatred Arab countries have against people who collaborate with Israel.
"The word 'Mossad' is the most feared and hated word. Throwing anyone in the street of any Arab city who is related to the Jewish state would result in nothing less than a lynching mob. How can I possibly get you to understand this from behind Canada's safe, loving multicultural borders?" asked Sumaida in an interview.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed Sumaida has made numerous attempts to remain in Canada, seeking asylum and twice applying unsuccessfully for permanent residency here on humanitarian grounds. He can be deported pending the outcome of the pre-removal risk assessment, said a spokesperson.
Sumaida was given until March 20 to respond to the Immigration Department's letter.
Feb. 24, 2017 update: An e-mail came today from Daniel Barnes with the following information:
I've just finished reading your review of Circle of Fear. I am writing you because there is much more to his story that has happened since the book.
I've actually worked for Hussein Sumaida. I found your review very true and thought I'd pass on some info to clear up of the questions in your closing thoughts on the author and book.
He is truly a resourceful and amazing person. He has three children; as you said, he planned to love them for the greatest revenge to his father, and he does. He's an amazing father and he very much helped me in my early 20s figure out being a man. He has his own construction company and lives a very quiet life with his wife he married in 2016.
Unfortunately, the Canadian government wants to deport him back to Tunisia.
This man has lead the most peaceful of lives here in Canada so that is why myself and a small group of others who know him are trying to find a way to keep him here.