Over the last couple years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know John Cassara, a former covert intelligence officer and Treasury Special Agent, who now spends much of his time helping SAS understand the complexities of international underground crime and finance. Little did I know he was also an aspiring novelist.
Much of John’s career was spent overseas where he became an expert in anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing. Since his retirement, he has lectured in the United States and around the world on a variety of transnational crime issues.
He did me the honor of sharing an early manuscript of his debut novel, “Demons of Gadara,” which hit shelves last week. Written from the perspective of a criminal investigator, the thriller brings to life the challenge of combating underground terrorist financing, and the potential value of analytics.
I interviewed John via email about his book.
Me: John, congratulations on your new book, and thank you for letting me get an advance look. I really enjoyed it. Can you please give me a summary of the book?
John: Thanks, glad you liked it! Demons of Gadara is set against a backdrop of a complex Middle East crisis. A US Special Agent happens upon a terrorist plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” at an international economic summit in Europe that will be attended by the President of the United States. The agent simultaneously battles the bureaucracy while racing to intercept the attack. His only clue is to follow an underground “value trail.”
Why did you write it?
I’m very concerned about what the US military calls “asymmetric warfare” and “threat finance.” After my non-fiction books, I was searching for a new teaching medium. I have found that some relate better to stories. So I decided to write an entertaining novel and at the same time surface important issues that I feel must be confronted in our ongoing War on Terror.
Was it hard to write a novel?
They always say “write what you know.” I wanted to write something that was real and authentic. I know the subject matter and I’ve lived or worked in most of the locations described in the book; the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. Some of the events and characters are composites of those I’ve encountered. In fact, the heroes, villains and cultures, including cultures of the bureaucracies involved, are all too real.
But this book is fiction …
Yes. And initially, that was the hard part. During my career, I was trained to reports facts clearly, concisely, and in the first person. So, for example, writing dialog was a bit of a challenge at first. But when I decided to tell the story primarily from the vantage point of the Special Agent, the story began to flow. In fact, I found it was a lot of fun to develop the characters and plot.
During the story, the need for advanced analytics becomes apparent.
The book vividly describes real world challenges of proliferation and terror finance. I tried to combine knowledge gained by being a former “street” agent assigned overseas with some of the things I have learned during my association with SAS.
In the US, for example, approximately 20 million shipping containers enter this country every year, or about 650,000 every day. Most of that is legitimate commerce, but some of those shipments could involve trade-fraud, trade-based money laundering, the smuggling of contraband, or even hiding a weapon of mass destruction. The challenge for customs and law enforcement is to strike the right balance between facilitating commerce and enforcement. How do we assign red flags? With limited resources, which container do you physically inspect? Outside of human source information or other forms of intelligence, advanced analytics is the only viable answer.
You mentioned following the “value trail.” What do you mean by that?
We always talk about “following the money.” That’s true, but money takes different forms. For example, it’s easy to transfer value between a buyer and seller or an importer and an exporter by over-and-under invoicing. It’s simple invoice fraud. This is commonly done in business, tax and tariff evasion, and trade-based money laundering. In the area where the story takes place, value transfer is commonly used to provide “counter-valuation” in underground finance. Criminals and terrorist organizations commonly use this technique. Using intelligence, data and analytics we might be able to enter these underground financial networks through the back door of trade.
So you think analytics is the key for law enforcement in fighting this?
It has to be. Both law enforcement and the intelligence communities are struggling with being tasked to do more and more with fewer resources. Big data and sophisticated analytics, what SAS specializes in, are force multipliers. We need analytics just to keep our heads above water.
The story is a page-turner…very realistic and entertaining. Having worked with you I was able to appreciate it on a deeper level, though I still learned a lot.
Thank you! That was the idea.