Islamism and Democracy: Finding Models for the Middle East and Preserving Our Own | Episode 29

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East

In episode 29 Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East joins me to discuss the difficult relationship Islamist movements have with democracy and power at the state level in general. Years of research, and deep contacts, led Shadi to some unexpected findings about how Islamist movements navigate through political systems. We also discuss the state of affairs in the United States – primarily the apparent increase in, and acceptance of, anti-Muslim bigotry in the 2016 presidential campaign. It is a fascinating discussion that reflects the challenges inherent in democracy and serves as a reminder that the tensions balanced by democracy could also destroy it if society rejects or loses the shared value system that makes it all possible.

Related Links
Follow @shadihamid on Twitter
Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East
Brookings Institution: Shadi Hamid

Thanksgiving | Episode 28

Normally I’d spend this day surrounded by friends and family. I hope that’s what many of you are doing. But today I have some kind of bug. It’s nothing serious, just a minor cold, but I have relatives with compromised immune systems and I’m staying home so as not to put them at risk.

I did still manage a bit of a Thanksgiving feast thanks to my girlfriend, who I am very thankful for. She drove out to Chinatown and managed to secure an entire Peking Duck meal (not easy on a holiday) and brought it back to me earlier today. I’m definitely thankful for her.

I am also thankful for you. I appreciate those of you who listen. I managed to produce 8 episodes last month and the response has exceeded my expectations. I talk to some of you on Twitter but there are huge portions of the Covert Contact audience that I haven’t connected with. Please feel free to drop me a line at or via the contact form. I’d love to hear what you think of the show and what you’d like to hear in the future.

I don’t want to dwell on negatives today or get overly political so I’ll just say this. I am very thankful for those of you out there who are quiet. The vast majority of people on this planet are decent. You’re focused on your families and your communities. You move between the extremes and you are often the victims of, or shouted down by, those on the extremes. You mind your own business and you are quiet and decent. You don’t hate people who are different than you. You don’t try to force your beliefs on others, you don’t abandon your principals out of fear. I am thankful that most of you are like this. However, the world seems to have taken a darker turn recently. So, as we approach the new year I hope to see more decent people stand up and speak out when confronted hatred, bigotry, or ignorance wherever they see it. Decent people can’t be quiet in difficult times or extremists will be able to set the agenda.

Before I sign off I want to say thank you to those who have been on the show and those of you who have quietly supported me as I tried to create this podcast – people like William Tucker, Francesca Recchia, Phil Walter, Max Abrahms, Stilgherrian, Ty Mayfield, Andy Priest, Naveed Jamali, Howard Kaplan, Andy Yen, David Gomez, and many others. I am only able to do this with the support of good friends and smart people who willing to share their ideas with others.

I am also thankful for my friends around the world who, often in the face of terrible media reports and an uninformed public, are working around the clock to secure the safety of others. Your work is appreciated here.

I hope all of you have something to be thankful for today and can pause and reflect on that even if you’re not celebrating an American holiday.

Thanks for listening.

Turkey Shot Down a Russian Jet – Where Do We Go From Here? | Episode 27

Putin called today’s downing of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F16 a “stab in the back” but it this was certainly not an unproved attack. In fact it follows countless warnings from Turkey that violations of its airspace (and aggression against its interests on its border) will not go unchecked. Terrorism analyst and counterintelligence pro William J. Tucker joins me again for a look at this event, the circumstances that got us here, and where we might be going.

Related Links
All episodes featuring William J. Tucker
Follow William J. Tucker on Twitter

What You Are Getting Wrong About ISIS | Episode 26

Northeastern University professor and terrorism theorist Max Abrahms excels at poking holes in the conventional wisdom and he joins me again in episode 26 to do exactly that. I initially asked Max to discuss his recent piece in Harvard Business Review Why People Keep Saying, “That’s What the Terrorists Want” but we expanded the discussion to explore commonly accepted ideas about ISIS – their supposed strategic and tactical brilliance, the viability of their so-called caliphate, and the notion that legitimate governments somehow don’t have the tools to address the problem that ISIS represents.

You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxAbrahms and read his work at I also recommend reading “The Political Effectiveness of Terrorism Revisited” for a more comprehensive breakdown of Max’s research and arguments on this subject.

Catching Russian Spies with Former Double Agent Naveed Jamali | Episode 25

In episode 25 I’m talking to Naveed Jamali, former double agent, and co-author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.

Naveed seemed like an unlikely candidate for this sort of intrigue but Russian intelligence used his parent’s company to order U.S. government publications. The FBI, of course, wanted to know what the Russians were reading. He could have remained a low-level informant, notifying the FBI of the Russian’s reading habits and interests as his parents had, but Naveed wanted to take it further. He had access, some natural talent, and a lot interest in playing the game.

Our conversation focuses on Naveed’s unusual position and what it’s like to navigate this very confusing territory as a complete amateur.

Related Links
Follow Naveed on Twitter @CatchaRUSSpy

The Paris Attacks and Europe’s Security Challenges | Episode 24

William J. Tucker joins me again for a high level look at the Paris attacks and the impact that instability, chiefly in Syria, will have on the region. Failing states and the mass migration of refugees will continue to put immense pressure on dozens of governments. There is no framework, or level of response, that will allow intervening parties to resolve this problem anytime soon. So how do we cope with a security challenge that may persist for a decade – or multiple decades? This is the reality that we must face. The conflict in Syria and Iraq is not a crisis that can be “managed.” It is going to demand more of us, and our governments, than we would like. But as the saying goes – the enemy gets a vote.

Again, if you like what you’re hearing on Covert Contact please let me, and others, know. Your reviews and ratings help!

You can follow William J. Tucker on Twitter and read his guest posts on Blogs of War:

Everybody Spies – and for Good Reason
Hawaii a Priority Target for Foreign Espionage
Would the U.S. Really Kill Edward Snowden?
Snowden’s Snowjob?

Other Covert Contact Episodes Featuring William:
Episode 20: Government Email Problems, Wikileaks, Russia, Drone Leaks, NASA Security and Other Counterintelligence Nightmares
Episode 15: Hillary Clinton’s Email Server: Dissecting the Risks with William Tucker
Episode 12: Counterintelligence: William J. Tucker Breaks Down the Challenges

War and the New Normal: Phil Walter on Life After War | Episode 23

In episode 23 Phil Walter joins me to talk about his transition from the the battlefield, to home, and eventually into a role where he has the opportunity to work on national security policy.

I’m thankful to Phil for sharing his personal story because I think it might help others who are finding it difficult to adjust to life after war. But even if you aren’t a veteran, and even if you aren’t struggling, there’s something to learn here.

Phil has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. His written works are catalogued on Storify and archived at I highly recommend them if you are at all interested in national security issues. You can follow him on Twitter @philwalter1058 and he is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild.

Phil’s “War and the New Normal” series that was featured on this podcast was originally published on the blog Point of Decision.

If you are enjoying Covert Contact, and would like to see content like this continue to be produced, please subscribe and learn how you can support the show.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature.

Supporting Independent Art in Afghanistan: Francesca Recchia Updates from Kabul | Episode 22

Regular Covert Contact listeners will recognize Francesca from episodes 9 and 17. This episode follows the same general format. We discussed the mood in Kabul, the emergence of ISIS and AQIS, and I asked her about the perception of both Iran and Russia (which has been particularly vocal about Afghanistan lately). We then move on to discuss her work supporting established and emerging artists in the country.

This was a particularly enlightening conversation for me because Francesca pushed back hard (appropriately I think) against my tendency to view work like hers in the context of international aid or counter-extremism efforts. There may be a place for art sponsored to support social or political agendas but Francesca’s work comes from a different place. She makes a very strong case for putting the art, and the artists, first. Afghanistan has a rich cultural heritage spanning thousands of years and talented artists working today. We should be able to appreciate the work without forcing it into the context of the current conflict.

You can read some of Francesca’s work at, follow her on Twitter @kiccovich, read her blog, or support her work by buying her books – The Little Book of Kabul, Picnic in a Minefield, and Devices for Political Action: The Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Damascus Cover and the Psychology of Spies with Howard Kaplan | Episode 21

Howard Kaplan wrote his debut espionage novel, The Damascus Cover, nearly forty years ago. He joins me to discuss the book, the recently completed the film adaptation staring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt, his own experience serving as a courier for Israeli intelligence in the Soviet Union (where he was eventually detained for a short time), and the psychology of human intelligence.

Spies make for dramatic characters in books and in film but real intelligence professionals have to pay a price for that drama. It is a life that can take a toll on even the most committed practitioners. Kaplan leverages his limited (but no less dramatic) brush with the profession to explore that tension in his work. We look at these aspects of the business, not only in his own work, but also through examples such as the classic le Carré character Alec Leamus and the life of the Israeli hero Eli Cohen.

You can follow @kaplanhow on Twitter.