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Forsyth takes on al-Qaida in ‘The Afghan’

Best-selling author put in hours of research on terrorism -- without Internet
British novelist Frederick Forsyth smiles during an interview with Reuters at his home near Hertford
British novelist Frederick Forsyth smiles during an interview with Reuters at his home near Hertford, England, July 26, 2006. Since the end of the Cold War thriller writers have been searching for a theme to replace it, and novelist Frederick Forsyth believes they may have found it in global terrorism. Picture taken July 26, 2006. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty (BRITAIN)Kieran Doherty / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

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-Qaida 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 best-selling 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 to appear prescient. "If the terrorists can bomb aircraft, what's to stop them trying to blow up boats?" he asked.

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

Forsyth, 68, a confident figure who combines affability with straight talking, has been a regular on best-seller 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 disks.

‘A technopeasant’
"I'd call myself a technopeasant," he says during an interview 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," published by the Penguin Group USA on Aug. 22 and by Bantam Books in Britain on Oct. 5, concerns an agent named Mike Martin, working for U.S. and British security services, who infiltrates al-Qaida. It's a daring scheme that involves substituting Martin, a 25-year veteran of foreign war zones, for Izmat Khan, a former Taliban commander who is a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Martin 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.

The book likely will be another big hit for Forsyth.

‘An instant best seller’
"We are buying 'The Afghan' for all our stores because we expect it to be an instant best seller," said Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble, Inc., the book superstore. "We will be promoting it up front and we expect that after the first week it will have entered our best seller list."

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. Without 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, the SBS. "I talked to the officers who had debriefed the SBS men," he says.

CIA man Johnny Spann was killed in the fighting, and after escaping, Spann's colleague, Dave Tyson, 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, an area for 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 London University ) 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 Martin before he goes under cover: "True jihad (holy war) can only be declared by a legitimate Quranic authority of proven and accepted repute. (al-Qaida leader Osama) Bin Laden and his acolytes are notorious for their lack of scholarship."

Forsyth's books are undeniably macho, with few female characters. But he defends himself by saying that 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."

"The Day of the Jackal" (1970) details a failed plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, while "The Odessa File" (1971) is about a hunt for missing Nazi killers, and "The Dogs of War" (1974) explores an attempted coup after the discovery of platinum in an African country. "The Fourth Protocol" (1984) has renegade Soviet agents trying to plant a nuclear bomb near an air base in Britain and "Fist of God" (1994) is set in the first Persian Gulf War.

In 2001, Forsyth produced "The Veteran," a collection of short stories, and in 2003 came "The Avenger" about a Canadian billionaire who hires a Vietnam veteran to find his grandson's killer. Transworld, owner of Bantam, says that Forsyth has sold more than 70 million books and has been translated into more than 30 languages. More than a dozen films have been made of his books, including "The Day of the Jackal," starring British actor Edward Fox.

Forsyth bridles at those who label him right wing — "they mean that in a perjorative 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 that they had indeed once used this tactic.

‘Very good at tapping into prevailing fears’
Forsyth's topicality is part of his appeal, said Thomas Jones, assistant editor on the London Review of Books.

"He is very good at tapping into prevailing fears in society — particularly British society — and working it up into a good yarn," said Jones.

"These are fears that are widespread but perhaps not clearly articulated. He does his homework and he brings a lot of technical details that add a strong sense of plausibility," even though his plots "go beyond the realm of the plausible, or sit right on the bounds of the possible."

Cathy Waterhouse of Waterstone's, Britain's leading bookseller, said readers have come to trust Forsyth's research. "These are cracking good stories — and he doesn't overpublish," she said, predicting that "The Afghan" will be another big seller.

Born in Ashford, southern England, Forsyth attended Tonbridge School and Spain's Granada University. At 19, he became one of the youngest pilots in the Royal Air Force, serving for two years until 1958. He later became a correspondent for Reuters, the British news agency, in Paris, then in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and worked as a reporter for British Broadcasting Corp. TV and radio, covering the 1967 Biafra-Nigerian war.

"I would still go back to journalism, but I don't want to be dodging bullets in Iraq at my age," Forsyth says. "There is a lot of excitement to war reporting, but there is also a casualty list.

"To the day I die I will simply be a journalist who has got too rich and too idle to go back."