Inauguration Day: terrorism, espionage, romance, and global political intrigue

BEIRUT: Time was young men would run off to the circus for adventure; dreaming of glamour and fame, performing like heroes in the center ring to the roar of the crowds, replete with visions of pretty show girls dashing about.

For the now 60-something-year-old Claude Salhani, born in Cairo and raised in Beirut by a Lebanese father and a Polish mother, the circus of the Middle East was right outside his front door. He picked up a camera and pen to record it all, with his natural talent soon launching him to fame as a photojournalist and writer covering the Lebanese Civil War; and other strife throughout the region.

Throughout his career Salhani has met many interesting people of all ranks and file – from the members of various sectarian militias and their warlord commanders; U.S. Army and Marine officers and soldiers, French Foreign Legionnaires, politicians, kings, CEOs; and many “spooks” as those in the clandestine services are sometimes called — and in his espionage novel “Inauguration Day” he has brought all these types of characters together in a fictional thriller.

One that should make a top beach read, keeping you on the edge of your folding chair all day (and part of the night too), or a great page-turner for a long flight.

A short synopsis: Involving international political intrigue, the notorious Mexican narcotics cartels threatened by plans from the Republican president-elect to wage a much tougher war on drugs, opt to finance a radical Islamists group with the goal of assassinating the candidate once he becomes US Commander in Chief.

The radicals concoct a not so far-fetched plan to strike their target on Inauguration Day using deadly chemical agents, killing the new president, much of Congress, and the many thousands of the public assembled for the traditional Jan. 20 swearing in.

Characters Laura Atwood, a seductive CIA agent, teams up with veteran journalist Chris Clayborne to prevent the attack. They are constantly just one step behind (code name) Omar, the assassin, as both good-guys and bad-guys careen across various continents in this fast-paced book. Part thriller, part spook novel, “Inauguration Day” has as its only flaw the occasional stereotyping of various characters; a small sin in the thriller genre.

That said, the fictional stakes are serious, and could indeed happen in the brave new world of geopolitics and previously unconsidered mass-terror attack. As the jihadis, backed by the narco-traffickers, plan a biological-weapon strike on the president-elect, all that stands between this assassination is secret-agent Atwood and tough-guy writer Clayborne.

Without giving too much of a spoiler: the brave, risk-taking journalist and the beautiful, dangerous, CIA agent fall for each other, with no telling where this might go – into a sequel perhaps.

In addition to Clayborne and Atwood, “Inauguration Day” is replete with a dramatis personae of engaging characters. There is Paul Heinz, the Beirut CIA station chief, who feels like he has “used up his quota of luck,” Republican presidential candidate Richard Oren Wells, a conservative’s conservative; Paco, the shrewd Latino drug baron, brazen enough to form an assassination conspiracy with the U.S. president-elect as the target. And we meet Najah Mansour, Lebanese informant who is on the run after certain jihadists catch wind of his activities; Phil T. Monahan, deputy director of Operations, CIA; and Delphine Muller-Hoefts, a Pulitzer-winning Asian- French-German parentage, photojournalist, whose career has stretched from Vietnam to Moscow.

For anyone familiar with the Middle East, Claude Salhani’s writing shows a descriptive familiarity with locales ranging from Beirut to Cairo.

“The afternoon air carried abundant sounds and smells of Cairo, mingling them with the throngs of people who darted between dilapidated automobiles, donkey carts, and overcrowded buses that seemed as though they would collapse at any given moment. Gray clouds of exhaust fumes drifted slowly above the streets, adding to the decades of grime……. Drivers leaned furiously on their horns, adding to the cacophony of shouts emanating from street vendors trying to lure customers for a final sale of the day.”

Over a span of more than 30 years, Salhani has traveled to 87 countries, covered 12 wars and interviewed numerous world leaders, generals, warlords and spies. He has appeared on more than 40 networks including CNN, Fox, BBC, VOA, Al-Hurra (in Arabic), France 24 and Russia Today. His articles have been published in The New York Times, the Middle East Times, The Washington Post and the Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Times (London), Middle East Policy Journal,, The National, Khaleej Times, along with a long list of other news publications. He noted in this interview that his very first journalism job was for Annaha