Sunday, September 21, 2014


Operation Shakespeare is an engaging thriller that delves into the murky and dangerous underworld of the black market arms trade. It starts in the streets and alleys of a city near Baghdad, Iraq, where the members of Outkast Patrol confront the explosive proliferation of IEDs planted by Taliban insurgents. IEDs have killed or injured thousands of soldiers on patrol in Iraq; a troubling irony is that many of these devices are manufactured with control circuits containing US electronic parts, illegally sourced through intermediaries by Iran and smuggled into the field in Iraq.

Author John Shiffman has written a tightly interwoven and superbly crafted thriller that spans the globe. A complex web of entanglements stretches between Iran, Iraq, Germany, Switzerland Dubai, Georgia, Canada, the UK and the United States. Spies, government officials, bankers, brokers, shippers and warehousing firms conspire to enable rogue regimes to acquire classified military technology, weapons, electronics and whole vehicles, including airplanes, Humvees and helicopters. What is most astonishing about Operation Shakespeare, however, is that while it reads like the kind of thriller you would normally expect from Tom Clancy or John Le Carré, every word is true.

In 2009, John Shiffman was a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was one of the reporters who broke the story of an international sting that resulted in the arrest of an Iranian national lured to Georgia and subsequently deported to the United States to face charges of violating laws prohibiting the export of military technology. Amir Ardebili was one of hundreds of Iranian brokers actively engaged in circumventing export restrictions to procure technology on behalf of the Iranian military, negotiating for the purchase of millions of dollars of radar equipment, airplane parts, night vision technology, gyroscopes and computer chips. He leveraged money brokers to route funds through banks in Germany and Switzerland, and arranged transhipments through free ports like Dubai and Georgia, in a complex effort to circumvent trade embargoes and conceal Iran as the ultimate purchaser.

In writing Operation Shakespeare, John Shiffman has done a masterful job of researching the events that led up to the arrest of Ardebili. He conducted numerous interviews with virtually every major player, from US government sources to Ardebili himself. He takes the reader inside the investigation, the sting and the ultimate arrest of a major player in the black market arms trade. Shiffman does a masterful job of describing the shadow world of the black market as it actually exists, and illustrating how prohibited transactions leverage deception, duplicity, ignorance and a willing blind eye to fuel a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. What I most enjoyed is how Shiffman has leveraged extensive research and interviews to paint a vivid picture of actual events that is more complex and intriguing—and ultimately more disturbing because of it—than some of the best fictional thrillers. 

If you enjoy your thrillers with more than a grain of plausibility, or are curious about the extensive machinations involved in sustaining conflicts on the world stage, then Operation Shakespeare is definitely worth the read.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).

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