September 23, 2001
By Raffique Shah
NOT being a fan of American fiction writer Tom Clancy, I have read few of his books-notably, The Hunt For Red October, probably one of his most popular novels that was made into a blockbuster movie. I did not read his 1994 book, Debt of Honor, in which he had painted a scenario not far removed from the September 11 multiple hijacked aircraft attacks on the towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In fact, within an hour of the carnage, Clancy was interviewed by journalists about the uncanny resemblance between the plot in his novel and the way the attacks were executed.
Clancy is among a select group of modern day novelists who use their writing skills to blend facts with fiction, and somewhere in the pages of their books cause the confused reader to question what exactly is fact and what is fiction. Too, writers like Clancy conduct extensive research into the operations of outfits like the intelligence agencies of various countries, as well as the affairs of other government agencies and so-called terrorist groups. As such, the discerning reader can learn a lot about these subjects, maybe more than he can garner from other sources.
In Clancy's Debt of Honor, the "enemy" is Japanese, and what reporters on the scene of the recent attacks found compelling was its climax. A Japanese pilot commandeers a jumbo jet from Canada (that's fuelled for a trans-Atlantic flight) using a steak knife and slams it into the Capitol, killing 900 people in the Senate Chamber, including the President. From the book: "The real damage took a second or two more, barely time for the roof to fall down on 900 people in the Senate Chamber: 100 tons of jet fuel emptying, vapourising. An immense fireball erupted, engulfing everything inside and outside of the building."
It couldn't get closer than that-to the real act on September 11. Yet, doomsday novels featuring terrorists, Arabs in the main ever since the Germans and Japanese were "enemies who became friends", have been around well before Clancy's Debt of Honor. World War II spawned scores of thrillers and more movies than any other event in the 20th Century. Ken Follet's Eye of the Needle and Key to Rebecca were as riveting as Frederick Forsyth's Odessa File, Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed, or Robert Ludlum's The Rhinemann Exchange, The Scarletti Inheritance and the Holcroft Covenant.
Being an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction works, I observed that most authors ended their novels before the "tyrant" or "terrorist" could end the world. And I often wondered how a writer would proceed if the "bad guy" actually achieved this end. Gore Vidal did it in Kalki (a male version of the Hindu Goddess of Destruction, Kali): he had a Vietnam veteran use germ warfare to end the world-save a handful of his friends. Life after doomsday proved to be interesting, sometimes comical. If readers can put their hands on that book, it's worth the read. And Stephen King's The Stand stands out for similar reasons. End time in that novel came about through an accident at the Atlanta Centre for Disease Control, where experiments on deadly biological and chemical agents of death are conducted.
Most thriller writers, though, found a treasure trove in the modern day "terrorist" and his nefarious acts of retribution against his enemies, perceived or real. Interestingly, these novels also served as virtual handbooks for those who harboured such intents, since they reveal so much information about the tools or destruction, about targets, and about the modus operandi of the various state defence agencies. From as far back as in 1978, Nelson De Mille, no doubt fired by the spate of aircraft hijackings that had characterised the Arabs' dramatic interventions during the 1970s, wrote By The Rivers Of Babylon. In it, Palestinians take control of a Concorde plane and bring it down near to the ancient city of Babylon: it was symbolic more than murderous, since the Concorde had come to represent the pride of the West in passenger aircraft. The details of how that endgame began in the expansive Aerospatiale plant in France (the firm that collaborated with Britain to build the supersonic plane) virtually pointed the way for those who were so inclined. Or, conversely, for the security forces to seal the loopholes pointed out in the novel.
The first novel that portrayed America's (and the world's) biggest nightmare, the "nuclear terrorist", was written by two journalists-turned-novelists, American Larry Collins and Frenchman Dominique Lapierre. This pair was enormously successful, having collaborated on several bestsellers-Is Paris Burning?, O Jerusalem! and Freedom at Midnight. In their 1980 book, The Fifth Horseman, Libyan trained terrorists have infiltrated the USA, armed with a miniature nuclear bomb with which Muammar Gadaffi threatens to level New York...unless!
An extract of communication between the President of the US and Gadaffi during the stand off (at which point neither the terrorists nor the bomb has been found): "Colonel Gadaffi, this if the President of the United States....The message you addressed to my government yesterday (the ultimatum, which included Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands) has been the object of a close and detailed study....No matter how strongly you feel about the issues that divide us in the Middle East or the injustices that have been inflicted on the Arab people of Palestine, your attempt to resolve the problem by threatening the lives of six million innocent Americans living in New York is totally irresponsible..."
Gadaffi: "Mr President, I have not called you to discuss my letter. Its terms are very clear. They require no discussion or amplification on my part-only action on your part..." The deadly impasse goes down to the wire, of course, and in the end Gadaffi's agents are captured before they could detonate the nuclear device. In the early part of the book, the authors explore how a group of French scientists succeeded in producing energy from fusion as a possible solution to the global energy crisis. But "heavy water" could be used for other purposes, too. A scientist tells the French president: "One kilogramme of the petroleum we now purchase releases 13 kilowatt hours of energy....One kilogramme of heavy hydrogen, properly fused, will release 91 million kilowatt hours of energy..."
Forsyth, one of the finest thriller writers ever (who can forget his Day of the Jackal?), and a pioneer in the field of well-researched novels (read The Devil's Alternative), crowned off an illustrious career with The Fist Of God. It's an enthralling novel that details how Saddam Hussein acquired the "super gun" that we heard much about during the 1991 Gulf War. The ultra-long-range piece of artillery was, according to the book, the brainchild of a Canada-born gun designer, Dr Gerald Vincent Bull (who, actually existed, although there is no proof that he had designed the "super gun" or that he had worked for Hussein). He was operating out of Belgium, and, having furnished the Iraqis with the blueprint for the gun, he was assassinated-by the Iraqis, of course-in Brussels.
Later in the book, Forsyth outlines how different parts of the weapon, in the form of huge lengths of steel pipes, were seized by customs officials in Britain, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Forsyth wrote how Bull's idea of a long-range gun that could launch a missile beyond 150 kilometres up in the sky would take it beyond the earth's gravitational pull, hence increase its range. The first stage of any rocket, besides being expensive, was destroyed after it had done its job. Bull was supposedly funded and set up in Barbados (!!) where his High Altitute Research Project was established. His aim was to put a payload of instruments into earth's orbit cheaper and faster than anyone else. What followed (in the book) were details of his experiments with 155mm howitzers (to increase their range), his fights with his US and Canadian financiers, and how he eventually fell into the arms of the Iraqis.
Last year, novelist DeMille returned to the terrorist theme in The Lion's Game-a chilling novel, really. Asad Khalil was "born" on the night the Americans chose to unleash its attack on Libya in 1986. During that bombing raid that failed, in the sense that the main target, Gadaffi, remained unscathed, many innocent Libyans were killed. Khalil suffered personal losses, including all of his family. He went on to become a highly trained assassin, and entered America in a most dramatic fashion: the plane that brought him to New York, under the pretext that he was willing to serve the Americans, landed at JFK with everyone on board dead.
Khalil (who had donned a gas mask before poisoning crew and passengers) eluded capture and went on to pursue his targets-the pilots and crews of the bombers and fighters that had struck at Libya that fateful night. His movements inside America, as he kept the police and intelligence agencies at bay, and struck target after target, exposed how easy it was to move by air, internally, in America. Indeed, on occasions he had to hire private planes, and that required only false identification papers. Air travel in commercial airlines, too, did not attract much security checks or attention. In the end, like all the "bad guys" in works of fiction, he bit the dust.
But The Lion's Game produced a virtual blueprint for terrorists wanting to move about in America. In fact, the books I have mentioned here, and many others, contain vital information on so many aspects of American non-security (as well as on its security agencies), they can be used as handbooks for those who want to harm Americans. Or enemies of that country who want to wreak havoc there. I won't be surprised if they were required reading for the men who were behind last week's reign of terror in the USA that saw the lumbering giant display its feet of clay. They might have been acting in accordance with the handbooks of terrorism-the modern day thriller.
Copyright © Raffique Shah