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The Ragnarök Conspiracy by Erec Stebbins

The Ragnarök Conspiracy by Erec Stebbins (Seventh Street Books, 2012) is interesting because it’s a book written by an American after 9/11 which deals with international terrorism and the relationship between an aggrieved Christian country and Islam in all its shades of belief. I think it would be fair to characterise the American view of terrorists as bloodthirsty fanatics. This is problematic because the moment you stop thinking of any group of people as being rational and only see their actions as anarchic, the response is not to talk with relevant leaders but to strike out to destroy those you believe responsible for disrupting society. History shows that the use of violence reinforces a violent response as the families of people killed take up the fight and find increasing support in the communities around them. This is ironic because America was prepared to discuss peace with the “guerrillas” in Vietnam and subsequently to stand as honest brokers in British discussions with the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. A blanket policy towards those classified as terrorists is not constructive. I suppose it’s possible to justify an aggressive response to Al Qaeda because this group has a strong commitment to armed struggle. But it’s not a helpful approach to international diplomacy to stigmatise all the followers of Islam by pointing to one small group. About one-quarter of the Earth’s population is Islamic.

So what do we have here? As is always required, we have a very well-organised group out to provoke war between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Although this plan is to some extent a matter of revenge for the 9/11 attack, there’s a more general intention to burn down all the old structures so that new growth can occur. This is more interesting than usual. In most tired potboilers, the “terrorists” see their side as the probable winners. This group has adopted Norse mythology as their political philosophy. In this belief system, Ragnarök was intended to be the final battle between good and evil. But unlike other events foretold, this would see all the Norse Gods lose. In the resulting chaos, new societies would emerge to be enjoyed by others, i.e. assuming the Norse Gods were the good guys, they were deliberately sacrificing themselves because they believed the greater good would be served by destroying their own world order. This is almost pure anarchism in its intention to destroy leadership and social organisations, whether at state or lower levels.

Erec Stebbins growing a beard to look intellectual

Lining up against them is the usual dysfunctional combination of US government agencies who keep secrets from each other, are terrified of falsely accusing high-profile people, and are generally paper-pushers who hope it will all be over before anyone notices how ineffective they were. But, squatting in the midst of this morass of incompetence are one or two spectacular individuals who can save the world despite their bosses best efforts to stop them. The two key people, appropriately, are an FBI agent called John Savas and a CIA operative called Husaam Jordan. One is a wavering Christian and the other a devout Moslem. What better combination could there be to save the world?

In books like this, the question is not really whether the conspiracy and the attempts to stop it are credible. As is always the case, bombs will be detonated and bullets will kill. The body count will rise while the forces of good struggle to find a lead on who might be responsible. When the breakthrough comes, there will be a climatic battle, “good” will triumph, the world will draw back from the brink and all the survivors will heave a sigh of relief. This is the standard narrative for all counter-espionage or anti-terrorist thrillers. The key to success comes through creating credible characters and generating pace in the storytelling. Assuming no science fiction or supernatural elements, the heroes can have significantly better than average skills. Some will be allowed to fight or shoot better than average, some will have great IT skills (often being proficient hackers), some will be highly intuitive, and so on. Complete realism is not required so long as supersizing is not taken too far. Alternatively, a more satirical approach can permit the heroes to have absurd levels of skill(s).

In this instance, all the key players are talented and physically vulnerable. They are variously wounded and some are killed. This is as it should be if a highly professional group undertakes the assassination of all who pose a threat to the success of the conspiracy. However, I’m not very impressed by John Savas. The attempts to give depth to his character are clichéd and, if I were to meet him in the flesh, I would find him rather annoying. He’s one of these tightly-wound individuals, still suffering stress from the death of his son in 9/11, and reliant on intuitive, not to say speculative, leaps to connect apparently random events. The fact he proves correct does not make him credible. That would require him to be more coherent in rationalising how and why his suspicions are correct. In this respect, Husaam Jordan is a better character because he’s presented as a stereotypical agent with the usual noble and self-sacrificing approach to shooting his way out of trouble and, if required, breaking into secure buildings to access the information he needs. He’s not into the chain of command. He’s a doer without waiting for search warrants or rules of engagement on when to shoot.

The Ragnarök Conspiracy is a potentially excellent thriller. There are some good ideas underpinning the plot. But one of the two central characters is not terribly convincing and the prose itself is a little wooden. That said, it’s quite an impressive first novel and, with a little more guidance from the editorial staff, Erec Stebbins could become someone to watch. So read this if you enjoy a fast-moving thriller that gives a clear insight into how one American author is reacting to the trauma of the 9/11 attack.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. September 5, 2012 at 10:28 am

    “I think it would be fair to characterise the American view of terrorists as bloodthirsty fanatics. This is problematic because the moment you stop thinking of any group of people as being rational and only see their actions as anarchic, the response is not to talk with relevant leaders but to strike out to destroy those you believe responsible for disrupting society.”

    Not true–we Americans are mostly sophisticated enough to realize there are different types of terrorists; in the US we have some experience with eco-terrorists, although their brand of terrorism is more likely to be extreme property damage than anything else. On the other hand, while I’m sure some terrorists are cold-blooded calculators, it is hard to brand people who work hard to achieve a high body count–like the guy in Sweden–as anything other than bloodthirsty fanatics.

    The problem the US has with Islam, other than the fact that liberal democracy and Sharia Law don’t mix well, is purely a matter of deciding who rises to the level of Credible Threat. While statistically few Muslims are terrorists, the terrorists who have our attention today are Muslims, and the more fundamentalist religious strains of Islam (such as Wahabiism) condone terrorism as a valid means of jihad. While the US has its own militant fundamentalist Christian sects who worry the FBI with their preachings, they are isolated movements, insular, rejected by mainstream Christianity, and very poorly funded. This is not the case with groups like Al Qaeda, which enjoy tremendous popularity in some nations and are well funded indeed.

    Do Americans think most Muslims are terrorists or terror-enablers? No, but during the Cold War, when Russia’s leaders were promising to “bury the United States,” (mostly diplomatic posturing and propaganda for their own people), we worried about Communist Party members and other sympathetic fellow-travelers here in America. Today, when various Islamic terrorist organizations threaten to “slay the Great Satan,” many worry about American Muslims who may sympathize with and enable them. At least two known terrorist attacks–one successful, one not–have been perpetrated by American Muslims (the Fort Hood Massacre and the attempted New York van bomber).

    With this in mind, when today’s writers search for a credible villain for their story, Muslim terrorists loom as large as communists and Nazis did once upon a time. They are a credible threat, and not just to the US; England, Spain, Russia, and India have all experienced dramatic attacks. I used them myself in Wearing the Cape as part of the Ring, the international alliance of terrorist organizations striking back at America’s hegemony. Amazingly, although the biggest Bad Guy in WtC, the one responsible for 50,000+ deaths, was a twisted patriot trying to militarize American society, my inclusion of foreign terrorists AT ALL inspired two reviewers to denounce me as a racist.

    • September 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      According to the US Department of State, “Our strategy acts to create conditions for enemy collapse, by disaggregating the extremist networks through attacking enemy leadership, safe havens and the conditions that terrorists exploit with all elements of U.S. national power.” http://www.state.gov/j/ct/enemy/index.htm Although there does seem to be a move to talk to states alleged to be sponsoring terrorist groups, the general strategy is summed up by the Brooking Institute (yes, not always the most reliable source), “The tenets of official U.S. counterterrorist policy are: make no concessions or deals with terrorists; bring them to justice for their crimes; isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism; and bolster the counterterrorist capabilities of countries willing to work with the United States.” While I agree with you that a majority of thinking people will not classify all “foreigners” as a threat, they are not the vocal majority. You only have to look at the controversy over the Park 51 community centre in New York City. Had Mayor Bloomberg not intervened to influence public opinion, would it now be open? But the public anger in New York has been only one example of widespread opposition to mosques and Islamic centres across America. Existing and proposed mosque sites have been vandalised, and there are continuing efforts to block or deny necessary zoning permits for the construction and expansion of other facilities. I’m not saying the US is unique in this. There are tensions in other countries that have led to anti-foreigner sentiment. This is not targeted solely at Moslems. It’s politically convenient to scapegoat all immigrants for domestic difficulties.

  2. September 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    “It’s politically convenient to scapegoat all immigrants for domestic difficulties.”

    Actually at times it has been damn inconvenient, politically, but you’re right; we humans are tribal by nature, which means that in every society we distinguish between Us and Them. The dividing lines can be race, culture, class, sexual orientation, really anything that marks us as different, and in every generation upbringing and education must fight this tendency towards Otherisation.

    That said, and admitting that the policies outlined above will never fully eliminate international terrorism, I challenge any government to find a better one; in my opinion, the US government’s failings on the counterterrorism front have been in intelligence (correctly identifying state sponsors of terrorism) and operations (dealing with them effectively), not general policy.

    • September 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

      We can agree all intelligence gathering systems are inherently fallible. That makes the use of predator drones to kill those identified as terrorists a dangerous trend because it assumes the intelligence to hand is always correct. There’s no right of appeal against the death sentence as in the criminal trial process. Worse, there are clear examples of innocent civilians being killed yet this use of targeted assassination (including operations on the ground as in the death of Osama Bin Ladin at his Abbottabad compound in Pakistan) is growing more common. I suppose state-sanctioned assassination on foreign soil could be an effective tool if its use had the support of all the civilians at risk, whether directly as having been wrongly identified or as collateral damage because they happen to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that’s not the case.

      Dehumanising individuals and feeling it’s justifiable to kill them by remotely controlling a drone is morally dubious. It’s also strategically dubious because it cannot win the hearts and minds of people whose eyes now scan the skies in the vain hope of spotting drones. If ever anyone had to design the perfect weapon for spreading terror, the proliferation of predator drones armed with hellfire missiles would be it. So instead of adopting a policy which, in effect, exposes the entire population of a country like Afghanistan or the border areas of Pakistan to risk, I prefer policies which always include efforts to talk with as many interested parties as possible. I would also like to see a greater willingness to accept the possibility of error and hold accountable any individuals who break the rules of engagement. The implicit assumption that US forces are unaccountable adds to the problem of winning hearts and minds. Only when all possible avenues for talk have been exhausted should any military action be taken.

      • September 6, 2012 at 11:17 am

        I can’t agree more about the current use of predator drones–I believe they should be reserved for military targets like munitions and fuel depots, forward bases, etc., rather than targeting terrorists–and for just the reasons you’ve stated. The current administration is trying to fight a war on the cheap, and at the same time avoid the necessity of military trials of captured enemy by killing rather than capturing them.

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