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Forsyth's terrorist plot proves all too topical

In his latest thriller, the bestselling author diffuses a bombing scheme and turns the tables on Al Qaeda.

September 01, 2006|Sue Leeman | Associated Press

STAINES GREEN, England — Recent news that terrorists were planning to explode up to 10 trans-Atlantic jets has found an eerie echo in Frederick Forsyth's taut new thriller, "The Afghan," which details an Al Qaeda plot to bomb a meeting of world leaders aboard an ocean liner as it leaves New York.

"I have had my publishers on the phone, saying, 'Well done, you,' " says the author as he sits at the typewriter in his impressive wood-lined study. "But I planned this all two years ago."

The former journalist and bestselling author of the thrillers "The Day of the Jackal," "The Odessa File" and "The Dogs of War" is nevertheless quietly satisfied that his hours of laborious research into modern terrorism have helped him appear prescient. "If the terrorists can bomb aircraft, what's to stop them from trying to blow up boats?" he asked.

Preparing a novel is a long process for a writer who disdains such modern devices as the cellphone and the Internet.

Forsyth, 68, a confident figure who combines affability with straight talk, has been a regular on bestseller lists for more than 30 years, conducting hours of intense research by reading books and interviewing experts. He types his manuscripts on sheets of white paper and hands the bulky finished product to his publishers to input onto compact discs.

"I'd call myself a technopeasant," he says at his imposing 1712 house near Hertford, 30 miles north of London, where he lives with his wife, Sandy, and a menagerie of animals, including three goats and an amiable, elderly donkey called Shambles.

"I could work on the Internet if I wanted to, but I don't want to. There's so much inaccurate information out there."

"The Afghan," released by Penguin Group USA on Aug. 22, concerns an agent named Mike Martin, working for U.S. and British security services, who infiltrates Al Qaeda. It's a daring scheme in which Mike, a 25-year veteran of foreign war zones, subs in for Izmat Khan, a former Taliban commander who is a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Mike discovers that the terror group is planning to steal a small vessel, change its identity, then explode it near an ocean liner carrying world leaders on a summit.

Although some passages read like dry, potted history, much of the book demonstrates Forsyth's eye for pace and dramatic tension, strong on detail about modern weaponry, the war in Afghanistan and the growing scourge of marine piracy. Forgoing the Internet, he conducts his diligent research elsewhere.

"When I need to know something, I know who to go to," he says. "I have a network of contacts -- special forces and intelligence people" who provide the vital details.

In "The Afghan," he graphically describes the allied battle in November 2001 to recapture the fort of Qala-i-Jangi in northern Afghanistan, highlighting the role played by six soldiers from Britain's crack Special Boat Service. "I talked to the officers who had debriefed the SBS men," he says.

CIA operative Johnny Spann was killed in the fighting, and Spann's colleague, Dave Tyson, after escaping, re-entered the fort with a British TV crew and had to be rescued by the SBS -- an embarrassing incident that, according to Forsyth's research, Tyson and the crew "agreed never to mention again."

The novel also has much to say about Muslim views, about which Forsyth admits ignorance.

"There are Quranic scholars in London to match any in the world," he says. "The School of Oriental and African Studies [at the University of London] is always my first port of call for the Middle East. I spent hours asking, as a complete novice, 'Tell me about the Quran.' And I ran pages I had written back past them."

Thus, a young Muslim woman briefs Mike before he goes undercover: "True jihad [holy war] can only be declared by a legitimate Quranic authority of proven and accepted repute. [Al Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden and his acolytes are notorious for their lack of scholarship."

Forsyth's books are undeniably macho, with few female characters. He defends himself by saying he is writing about a world where women are rare.

To critics who call him a literary lightweight, his reply is: "Absolutely right. I use the word 'potboiler' with no shame. I am lightweight but popular. My books sell."

Transworld, owner of Bantam, says Forsyth has sold more than 70 million books and has been translated into more than 30 languages. More than a dozen have been made into films.

Forsyth bridles at those who label him right-wing -- "they mean that in a pejorative way." He prefers calling himself a "traditionalist" who espouses a strong work ethic and market economics.

He has called for the impeachment of British Prime Minister Tony Blair for plunging Britain into the war in Iraq. And he clashed with the British government in "The Deceiver" (1991) when he described how a British agent bugged an Irish Republican Army coffin to listen in to mourners' chatter, forcing authorities to acknowledge they had indeed once used this tactic.

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