Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

The ‘Queen of Cuba'
Jim Popkin • Washington Post Magazine

Ana Montes was a highly decorated U.S. intelligence analyst. She was also a Cuban spy.

Like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen before her, Ana Montes blindsided the intelligence community with brazen acts of treason. By day, she was a buttoned-down GS-14 in a Defense Intelligence Agency cubicle. By night, she was on the clock for Fidel Castro, listening to coded messages over shortwave radio, passing encrypted files to handlers in crowded restaurants and slipping undetected into Cuba wearing a wig and clutching a phony passport.

Montes spied for 17 years, patiently, methodically. She passed along so many secrets about her colleagues - and the advanced eavesdropping platforms that American spooks had covertly installed in Cuba - that intelligence experts consider her among the most harmful spies in recent memory. But Montes, now 56, did not deceive just her nation and her colleagues. She also betrayed her brother Tito, an FBI special agent; her former boyfriend Roger Corneretto, a Cuban-intelligence officer for the Pentagon; and her sister, Lucy, a 28-year veteran of the FBI who has won awards for helping to unmask Cuban spies.

Wikimedia Commons

Resort of Last Resort
Aubrey Belford • The Global Mail

An Indonesian town that's both a stopping point to Australia by boat and a hotspot for Saudi vice.

Across the bowl-shaped valley, dozens of mosques begin booming the call to prayer, all merging together into an asynchronous whine. In hillside villas, groups of men from Saudi Arabia - some in traditional white thawb robes, some in baggy track pants - load up on the evening's stock of alcohol, which is banned in their home country. On motorbikes and in cars, pimps begin ferrying in the men's other vice - Arabic-speaking Indonesian women.

In other rented houses, hundreds of asylum seekers sit with little to do. Many have become near-nocturnal out of sheer boredom, and are just starting their day. Over the past decade, the town has become the unofficial haven for asylum seekers heading to Australia. For some, it is a brief stopover before they jump on a smuggler's boat. For others, it is a limbo that can last for years.

Flickr/ Danumurthi Mahendra

Mrs. Ballarin's War
Mark Mazzetti • Foreign Policy

On the heiress from West Virginia contracted by the Pentagon to help overthrown Somalia's Islamist government.

Since 2006, Ballarin had been trying to organize a Sufi resistance to fight Wahhabi militant groups in Somalia. After several trips to the region in which she met with the leaders of the country's feckless Transitional Federal Government, the wealthy American heiress had developed something of a cult following in some sectors of the Somali political class. She claimed to train and breed Lipizzaner stallions -- the famous white horses that performed dressage -- and wore her wealth wherever she went. She traveled with Louis Vuitton bags, expensive jewelry, and Gucci clothing. If the idea was to dazzle the residents of one of the world's poorest countries, it had the intended effect. Somalis began referring to her by a one-word moniker, the Arabic word for "princess." They called her "Amira."

AFP/Getty Images

John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age
Dwight Garner • New York Times Magazine

The still-vital spy writer, profiled.

At the moment a new generation is stumbling upon his work, le Carré is still writing at something close to the top of his game. His 23rd novel, "A Delicate Truth," about a supposed counterterrorist operation on the British overseas territory of Gibraltar gone dismally wrong, will be out next month. The book is an elegant yet embittered indictment of extraordinary rendition, American right-wing evangelical excess and the corporatization of warfare. It has a gently flickering love story and a jangling ending. And le Carré has not lost his ability to sketch, in a line or two, an entire character.

Readers like myself, mostly allergic to spy stories and genre narratives, have long been drawn to le Carré's stuff because of the wit and incisiveness he manages to insert into pained understatement. His early books sketched, as he once put it about his Smiley novels, "a kind of ‘Comédie humaine' of the cold war, told in terms of mutual espionage."

Wikimedia Commons

The Martian Chroniclers
Burkhard Bilger • New Yorker

A new era in the search for life on Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Wikimedia Commons


Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

‘There's No Turning Back': My Interview with a Hunted American Jihadist

Spencer Ackerman • Wired

A conversation with Alabama native Omar Hammami, via Twitter.

Hammami isn't looking for an escape hatch. He's broken with al-Shebab, not jihad. "I believe in attacking u.s. Interests everywhere," he tells me, through Twitter's direct message function, the only means through which he consented to a week-long running interview. "No 2nd thoughts and no turning back." Sentiments like that make it likely that Hammami will be the next American killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Hammami is a complex figure. He's never attacked his fellow Americans. He reflects on his time in America with fondness. He jokes about porn and barbecue on Twitter with his unlikely buddies. And he's chipping away at the legitimacy of America's top adversary in east Africa one Tweet at the time, all while sunnily proclaiming his undying antagonism for his homeland. "A walking contradiction from massively different backgrounds" is how Hammami once described himself, "who is seriously passionate about what he believes in, but feels he has to go about doing it while laughing at almost everything along the way."


A Wild Country Grows in South Sudan

Patrick Symmes • Outside

Hiking through a new nation.

The newest country in the world is physically large-240,000 square miles, the size of France-and catastrophically ungoverned. It is a featureless grassland for most of its open, landlocked run. South Sudan is a landscape without clear divisions or functioning borders, touching Sudan and the Arab world to the north and the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic to the west, with East Africa pressing up from below. The waters of the Nile and thick seasonal rains drive a wedge of green grass across plains teeming with animals. National Geographic explorer Mike Fay made global headlines in 2007 when he completed the first aerial survey in 25 years and estimated that there were 1.3 million animals flowing across it, a great migratory river of white-eared kob and other antelope and gazelle dotted with a stash of elephants and a handful of species-including beisa oryx and Nile lechwe antelope-existing nowhere else on earth. Finding this many unknown animals anywhere was like finding El Dorado, Fay said at the time; finding them in war-torn Africa was even better.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States

Mark Mazetti • New York Times

On Raymond Davis -- the private U.S. contractor arrested in Pakistan for double homicide -- and his troubling ties to the C.I.A.

For many senior Pakistani spies, the man sitting in the jail cell represented solid proof of their suspicions that the C.I.A. had sent a vast secret army to Pakistan, men who sowed chaos and violence as part of the covert American war in the country. For the C.I.A., the eventual disclosure of Davis's role with the agency shed an unflattering light on a post-Sept. 11 reality: that the C.I.A. had farmed out some of its most sensitive jobs to outside contractors - many of them with neither the experience nor the temperament to work in the war zones of the Islamic world.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again: Margaret Thatcher

Christian Caryl • Foreign Policy

The former British prime minister was a transformative politician. But her public image as an unblinking Iron Lady fails to do justice to her complexity.

As a trip to any London newsstand this week will tell you, Margaret Thatcher's political mission was an inherently polarizing one. To her fans she remains the very embodiment of self-assured conservatism, the woman who unapologetically celebrated the values of patriotism and free enterprise. To her foes she remains Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, the sneering prima donna who slashed away at the British welfare state, spared little time for the poor, and opened the way to an era of excess and greed.

Both of these images are caricatures.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Toxic Legacies in the Land of Black and Yellow Gold

Lea Aschkenas • Los Angeles Review of Books

The lasting impact of Dole and Chevron-Texaco on the land and people of Ecuador.

"Today the Amazon is the Ecuadorian province with the most cases of cancer and birth defects," Marco says as we drive by a stretch of roadside oil-worker houses, many of them inhabited by native people who, like the Ecuadorian government, were lured by the wealth of the oil companies. These company houses are smaller, more ramshackle versions of Marco's house. Many of them have no windows, and those that do have only rectangular holes in the outer walls with no glass or even louvered blinds.

Soon we pass through Dureno, a village Marco describes as "an Indian pueblo without the Indians."

"Before the oil companies, there were nearly 10,000 Cofán people here, but today there are just over 100," he says. "They used to work in natural medicine, but, imagine, now their jungles are gone. So they've left to work for the oil companies."