Frederick Forsyth keeps it current

Posted Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth Putnam, $27.95

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When the Cold War ended in 1991, many people made the mistake of assuming that espionage novelists such as Frederick Forsyth were put out of business as well.

“[Mikhail] Gorbachev abolished communism and the Berlin Wall went down,” the author remembers, “and everyone said to me, ‘That’s it for you, old boy. There’s nothing left for you to write about.’

“I said, ‘Oh, come on. I’m spoiled for choice.’”

Unfortunately, as far as world peace is concerned, Forsyth was right.

“We got rid of communism after 43 years of trouble and strife and effort, only to land with terrorism,” he says. “It’s the new scourge.”

Forsyth — a legend of the genre, best known for The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Odessa File (1972) and The Fourth Protocol (1984) — is back with a story that’s as current as tomorrow’s headlines.

The Kill List, out Tuesday, introduces readers to the Preacher, an elusive Islamist radical who uses the Internet to motivate young Muslims to commit random assassinations in the U.S. and Britain.

Once the Preacher is placed on a classified “kill list,” the mission to get him is headed up by an agent from Technical Operations Support Activity, or TOSA, a super-secret U.S. agency that really exists. This man, who’s as relentless as he is resourceful, is known simply as the Tracker.

We talked with Forsyth, 74, last week about the new book.

A lot of spy fiction today has abandoned the old-school tradecraft of secret meetings and code words while embracing Special Forces operations. It’s a different style of storytelling. Yet you do a mixture of both, one foot firmly in the present and the other decidedly in the old ways. Why?

Because the old ways, as you put them, are still very much in use. It still goes on. Here in England, our counterintelligence experts reckon there are more Russian spies in London as there ever were. It’s not called KGB anymore; it’s now called the SVR, and their targets are primarily industrial secrets. But here they are, still beavering away.

So if you’re describing any covert operation now, yes, there are drones and paratroopers and units like SEAL Team 6. But there are also guys listening in — and that’s espionage.

What was the genesis of The Kill List and the Tracker?

Like a lot of people, I started seeing stories in my newspaper, two or three paragraphs, no more, saying that Abul Bin Somebody-or-Another, No. 3 in the al Qaeda network, was killed yesterday in a shack somewhere in the hills of Afghanistan by a drone missile. And I thought, “How did they find him there?”

These guys don’t walk around with “I’m with al Qaeda” Post-its stuck on their foreheads. They change their names, they change their appearances, they change locations. They do all sorts of things to avoid detection. Yet they are occasionally tracked down to lonely houses in some abandoned part of the world, like Anwar al-Awlaki, who was taken in northern Yemen.

I thought, “This is a fascinating idea. How do they track them down?” As I began to investigate, I learned from one of my contacts about this thing called the kill list and the high-value targets, the terrorists, who are on that list.

As for the character of the Tracker himself, as far as I know, he doesn’t exist. I invented him.

You once said fighting terrorism is like fighting fog. Do you still believe that?

It is a bit like that. Because as fast as the forces of law and order think they’ve clamped down, the cancer metastasizes from limb to limb and organ to organ.

We now have al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM; that’s the one fighting in Mali and South Algeria. We’ve got Boko Haram, the killer group in northern Nigeria. We have Al-Shabaab in Somalia. We have AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. And, of course, the old one that was led by Osama bin Laden is still based somewhere in the Pakistani hills.

So they’re spreading all over the world. American counterintelligence thinks there are about 11 or 12, some we’ve hardly even heard of, springing up in different parts of the Muslim world.

You have nothing still to prove to anyone as an author at this point in your life. So what drives you to keep writing books?

That’s a very fine question, because with each book, I think, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I want to retire and do more agreeable things.” But every couple of years or so, I get an idea, something that intrigues me.

At first I might think, “Oh, don’t bother. You’re retired.” But the thought keeps coming back to me and I wind up doing a bit of basic research, and before long the story just grabs me. Then I get deeper and deeper and deeper, until I think, “Well, maybe I should just sit down and write it.”

So then I do and everybody says, “Hey, I thought you retired,” and I say, “Yeah, so did I.”

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