A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
A 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines, known as “the Tracker,” is the main character in best-selling writer Frederick Forsyth’s newest novel. The Tracker’s orders are to identify, locate and destroy an elusive preacher whose fiery online sermons are inspiring young Muslim men to become suicide assassins. Forsyth has been called the master of international intrigue. His books include “The Day of the Jackal,” “The Odessa File” and “The Dogs of War.” Diane talks with author Frederick Forsyth about his latest thriller, “The Kill List,” and his remarkably successful career as a writer.
- Frederick Forsyth best-selling novelist, previous books include "Day of the Jackal," The Odessa File" and "The Dogs of War."
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted from “The Kill List” by Frederick Forsyth by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2013 by Frederick Forsyth.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station visit to WESA in Pittsburgh. She'll be back on Monday. Frederick Forsyth is one of the most acclaimed writers of thrillers of our time. His first book, "The Day of the Jackal," was an immediate bestseller back in 1989. Since then, he's written 14 others, all in his signature suspenseful style, all involving international intrigue.
MR. TOM GJELTENHis latest book is "The Kill List." It's about a U.S. Marine officer who's on the hunt for a Muslim preacher whose sermons are turning young Muslim men into killers. It's fiction, mostly -- not all of it. Writer Frederick Forsyth joins me now from a BBC studio in London to talk about his latest book and how he became a master of the spy novel.
MR. TOM GJELTENI know a lot of you are Frederick Forsyth fans. After all, there are millions of Frederick Forsyth fans in the world. And here's your chance to talk to him. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Facebook. You can join us on Twitter. And, Frederick Forsyth, thanks so much for being there in London but with us here in Washington.
MR. FREDERICK FORSYTHAnd good to be with you, Tom.
GJELTENYeah. So "The Kill List" -- actually, there is a kill list, isn't there? I mean, we read about this a few months back in The New York Times, something that actually is drawn up with the participation of very high levels officials in the White House. Tell us first of all about what the real kill list is.
FORSYTHWell, when I started writing this book, I was going to call it "The Tracker."
FORSYTHAnd then I went into research, and I got deeper and deeper and deeper. And I discovered that there was a document called -- I still haven't changed the title. It was called the kill list. It's in a safe. It's in the Oval Office. And it is literally a list of terrorists that the U.S.A. has decided are so dangerous to the U.S.A. territorially and its interests and its citizens worldwide that these people are to be eliminated.
FORSYTHThere's no pretense at arrest or due process or seeing some kind of a trial someplace. These are people who are never going to be brought in any way in handcuffs. But they are going to be terminated. And this list is occasionally amended. I mean, just recently, Mr. Hakimullah Mehsud who was on it, who was the leader of the Afghan Taliban -- sorry, Pakistani Taliban, he was liquidated.
FORSYTHA drone got him outside a little town called Miranshah in North Waziristan and miles from anywhere. You wouldn't get near it on four wheels, but they got to him from the sky. And so he's now off the list. But I guess probably a newcomer is the head of Al-Shabaab. He's probably just gone on the list.
GJELTENBut as you say, Mr. Mehsud was killed by a drone. And I understand that the kill list is largely a list of people who are targeted for drone strikes. Your book is actually not so much about drone strikes. As you say, your initial idea for a title was "The Tracker." And I can actually understand how that in some ways might even be a more appropriate title for the book because you really do focus on this one individual, this Marine lieutenant colonel who is a tracker. He's a man hunter, isn't he?
FORSYTHWell, yes, he is. That's his job, and he has a background in combat. I mean, he's been a combat Marine. He's a scholar. He's a linguist, fluent Arabic. He chose to, as a young officer, take what's called an Olmsted scholarship, and his option was to go to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. And there he studied until he became perfect in Arabic.
FORSYTHAnd eventually, when -- after 9/11, there was a thing called the Scrub, which you may not have heard of, but a man called Hank Crumpton, who was a CIA officer, was tasked specifically to go through all the officers, enlisted men in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- it's a big number -- looking for Arab speakers because, right then, back in 2001, you had -- America had a considerable lack of Arab speakers.
FORSYTHAnd this guy jumped out the computer frame as -- with red stars flashing on and off. This guy is bilingual in Arabic. Well, he was secunded out of the Marines into covert work. And this is where we find him nine years later, in covert work, and now a man hunter of terrorists. But I have to say this about the...
GJELTENCan I interrupt you, Frederick?
GJELTENCan I interrupt you for one second? Because what's fascinating...
FORSYTH...about what you just said, you could have been talking about a real person there. I mean, the detail that you just laid out, the believability, the credibility, the historical accuracy -- you mentioned Henry Crumpton who actually was a real person, had precisely that job. You know, I think if a listener just heard what you just laid out, they would assume you were talking about a real life situation, a real life person instead of the hero of your novel.
FORSYTHWell, I guess that's my gentle confidence trick. I do try to mix up things that really happened or things that are really done, are real practices, the technology, how it really works, and then blend that in with the fiction so that, you know, maybe the reader gets a little puzzled as to whether what they're reading is true, half-true, or I just made it up.
FORSYTHAnd I don't mind if that puzzlement exists because it seems to amuse and entertain the reader not to be quite certain what they're reading.
GJELTENIn addition to Henry Crumpton, you mention Stanley McChrystal, used to be head of Special Operations Command. You talk about in the very sort of narrative of your book the idea of a Muslim preacher radicalizing young men is something that actually we had this character, Anwar al-Awlaki, who did precisely that. So, you know, I don't -- this may be not so true in some of your other novels, but in this particular novel, it seems like you've made a real effort here to sort of build the tale within a realistic nonfiction content.
FORSYTHWell, this is one of the extraordinary things about the age we live in, Tom, that there are things going down which are almost beyond fiction. And you don't have to invent a lot to cause a reader's eyebrows to rise right up way up there to the hairline because some of the things that are happening -- the performance, for example, of drones is so almost mystical. I mean, what they can do is weird, frightening.
FORSYTHAnd they can perch up there at 50,000 feet and look down at you and tell the number of the registration of your car. They can tell if you have a parting on the left or right side of your head. I mean, this is amazing technology, and yet it's true. So I thought, hey, why invent? I mean, this is weird stuff, but it's true. So I put it all in the way it happens.
GJELTENOkay. Let's go back to what I so rudely interrupted you before. You were telling us about this character, the tracker. He comes to the attention of Henry Crumpton who is looking for characters just like him. Take it from there.
FORSYTHWell, basically, he's had a period with the NCIS, the Naval...
GJELTENCriminal Investigative Service.
FORSYTH...police equivalent, yeah, the NCIS. And then he was again poached if you like to a very tiny unit that nobody ever seems to have heard of called TOSA or TOSA. And I was informed that this actually is the hunter unit. When you see in your newspapers, hey, this Abu bin-something has just been liquidated by a drone strike in some obscure track in the middle of Yemen, you might think, well, that's fine.
FORSYTHBut I got to thinking, yeah, okay, fine, good story. But how on Earth did they find him there? And I thought, behind this, hey, let's loose a couple of Brimstone missiles at this guy -- or Hellfires or whatever they use. But there has to be a story. I mean, they must have tracked him for weeks, months maybe. There must have been money changing hands.
FORSYTHThere must have been agents in on the ground because sooner or later someone said, hey, he -- the man you're looking for -- is over there in that house. And that's when the missile went in. But how'd you get to that point? So there's a story, I thought. And I went looking for that story, and there it was. Yes, there is indeed a specialist unit that does exactly that.
FORSYTHThey track down these wanted men who are not easy to find. They don't walk around with a post in their forehead, say, hey, I'm al-Qaeda. I mean, they hunt. They move from house to house. They rarely spend two nights in the same bed. They have a little cadre of friends and bodyguards around them. They're ruthless in wiping out anybody they suspect of being disloyal.
FORSYTHSo to get at them, to get a snitch, to get a stool pigeon, it's not easy. But eventually, it can be done, and then good old dollar can change hands in sufficient quantities to cause someone's tongue to get a little bit loose. And that's when the bomb goes in.
GJELTENWell, Frederick, you know, one of the dangers of blending fact into fiction is it may lead the reader, as we mentioned, unsure what's true and what's not. I've been covering military affairs for a long time. I have to tell you, I had not heard of this unit, TOSA -- and because this is a work of fiction, I had -- you know, it occurs to me, well, maybe he made that up. So how do we know when you're telling...
FORSYTHIt was -- it was TOSA who got Pablo Escobar.
FORSYTHThey've been around for some time. They tracked down Pablo Escobar, the missing cocaine drug lord, and they didn't total him. They gave him to the -- I think it was the Colombian special forces who did the job. But it was they who tracked him down. So that's what they do.
GJELTENSo they track him down. And in some cases, in the case of your -- in the case that you wrote about, the tracker actually physically goes after the quarry himself, goes into the field. But I'm guessing, from what you said, that sometimes TOSA just identifies the target and then gives the final information to the drone operator to actually take him out. Is that right?
FORSYTHWell, that's true. There is -- above TOSA is JSOC, J-SOC, Joint Special Ops Command. That is now under Adm. McRaven, but it used to be under Gen. McChrystal. And they have the drones -- well, and so does the CIA. They each have a fleet of drones.
FORSYTHBut in this particular case, the tracker himself, he had lost his father. And he took this very personally. And so for him, it wasn't just, of course, another mission. So I want this man dead. What do you -- when they wouldn't give him permission to use missiles because the man he was tracking was in the middle of a small Somali town surrounded by women and kids, and despite what your enemies say, actually enormous attempts are made to avoid ever, if at all possible, putting a drone strike into an area where there are women and kids.
FORSYTHSo he didn't get permission. So he said, okay, if I can't do it that way, I'm damn well going in to do it personally, up close and personal. And he did.
GJELTENUm-hum. He did. Frederick Forsyth is our guest this morning. He's the author of 16 novels. I'm sure you've heard of them, including "The Day of the Jackal," "The Odessa File," "The Dogs of War." His new book is "The Kill List." He's joining us from a studio at the BBC in London. We're going to take a short break here. We have people calling that want to talk to Frederick Forsyth because, Frederick, you do have a lot of fans out there. Remember, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest is Frederick Forsyth. He has a new book out, "The Kill List." He's the author of 15 other novels and short story collections. "The Day of the Jackal," "The Odessa File," "The Dogs of War." More recently, "The Afghan," "The Cobra." And, Frederick, we have fans lining up to talk to you. But I'm going to hog you for a little bit more first.
GJELTENSo, how do you come up with these stories? And what is, you know, what kind of advice do you have for aspiring writers out there? What makes a story really resonate with readers? I mean, "The Day of the Jackal," I think I read in the preparatory materials, you were turned down by the first publishers you offered it to. And then finally you got it published and, wham, you had millions of people buying it. What is the secret?
FORSYTHWell, if I could actually bottle it, I'd probably merchandise the bottle and make more money than I do writing the stuff. So, no, it's almost impossible to say exactly how because we're all different. We're all -- I mean, John le Carre writes differently from me, Jeffrey Archer, I know them both. They both write differently from me. We have different processes. To get from first idea to finished page, my own is just simply, well, look at my stuff, it's all topical.
FORSYTHI never gone back more than about seven, eight, nine years from the time of writing, I mean, from the period of the writing back to what I'm writing about. So it's all topical. And I just -- basically I keep an eye open. I read a lot about news, current affairs, who's doing what. And what's going on in the third world, you know, in the Arabian world and in Africa and so on. I just keep on reading the stuff.
FORSYTHAnd eventually something triggers in the back of my head -- and this is the old journalist because I am basically a journalist. This is the journalist, weakness or strength, whichever way -- the journalist should be insatiably curious and they should also be skeptical. A journalist who believes what he's told is a fool. And a journalist who has no curiosity shouldn't be in the job, should be a PRO or something like that.
FORSYTHSo something triggers in my head a question, why did that happen? How do they do that? Would it be possible to something, something, something? Is it maybe true that it really happened and the establishment covered it up for us maybe? And then I begin to go deeper and deeper and deeper into that idea. And sometimes come up with stuff that is weirder than fiction. Then I think, hey, I got something here.
FORSYTHThe establishment doesn't want us to know about this because, I don't know, whatever reason they have. But I'm not the establishment, so I'm going to describe it, write about and this I duly do. And it's like rather taking the guy with the rather boring desk job by the hand and say, hey, you want to see what really happens in this planet? Come with me. I'll take you backstage. I'll show you the actors with no grease paint on and have a sense they're made up and so on. And that is where I think people like to be taken, backstage.
GJELTENSo you were a reporter and to an extent you still are a reporter, as you just say. How far do you go with this Frederick? I mean, do you really sort of go back into the reporter persona at the beginning of a book and do you actually go out and visit places and do interviews and, you know, how far do you take that reporting aspect of your writing?
FORSYTHWell, if you talk to my wife, she'd say, you know, that I'm slightly insane. But I do like to get the facts right. It's a (word?). It's nearly an obsession. I don't like to pack it in until I've solved the last question that I want to ask them. So that applies to people. It applies to procedures. It applies to technology and it applies to locations. So if I wanted to describe, as I did in this book, Mogadishu, Somalia, then I thought, well, I'm not going to take this off the internet. What do they know?
FORSYTHAnd I'm not going to take it off some guy who's never even been there. So I got on a plane, I went into Mogadishu. So when I tell you about Mogadishu in "The Kill List," that's true. It's Mogadishu a few months ago.
GJELTENDid you meet in all your travels and in your research for this book, did you meet anyone like this Marine lieutenant colonel who's the star of your book? Did you -- is he based in any way on a real-life person?
FORSYTHI wouldn't say one, I tend to make amalgams, composite characters. Yes, I have to say, I had enormous help from officers of the U.S. Marine Corps, retired and still serving. Very open about the, you know, the family, as they call it, the Marine Corps. And I could have made it, you know, another unit I suppose, infantry or, you know, 10th mountain or rangers. But I just thought, you know, I'm going to make this man a recon Marine.
FORSYTHAnd the Marines helped me in all this. So they gave me his likely background, possible career, including things that I just trotted out like the -- I'd never heard of the Olmsted Scholarship, for example, but it's true. And Fort Huachuca where they study languages and this kind of thing. And so I spend a lot of time with them. And I'm trying to make it -- make this man as near possible as a Marine could be who had done all those things.
FORSYTHAnd they were all possible to do. Now, whether there is any recon Marine, about 45, who is smiling, only in Arabic, I really do not know. I suspect probably not, maybe one or two.
GJELTENYou call him, his name is Kit Carson. And of course that name means a lot to Americans and particularly those who are familiar with Western history. How did you happen to name him Kit Carson? Were you inspired in any way by those story of the real Kit Carson?
FORSYTHWell, I read it obviously. And it was a kind of in-joke. I don't know why the surname Carson, it could have been anybody. It could have been Smith or Jones or Wilkinson. I just hit upon Carson. For one thing, it's a nice short name that will translate into almost any language in the world and I have to say my stuff does get just about worldwide. So even a Japanese can say Carson. And then I thought what about his first name.
FORSYTHAnd I thought it could be Matthew, it could be Stanley, I called him Christopher. And then I thought, you know, the short for Christopher is Kit. Big joke. Okay, there was a pioneer, a frontiersman called Kit Carson. But so what? Christopher Carson will be called Kit, as Kit.
GJELTENWell, Kit Carson, the real Kit Carson was -- actually shared a lot in common with your character. I mean, he was a swash buckling kind of guy and a ferocious fighter and a very courageous and intrepid adventurer. So some of the elements there are quite relevant, aren't they?
FORSYTHWell, I hope so, yeah. Though I didn't base my man on him. It's a coincidence. Having chosen Carson and then Christopher, we ended up with Kit.
GJELTENAnother interesting character in your book is a young teenager by the name of Roger. Tell us about him.
FORSYTHYeah. This is -- this is based -- it is based on a character, based on a Brit who years ago made himself somewhat famous or infamous or whatever. He actually from the loft of his parents' house in the outskirts of London, working with store-bought technology, he managed to break straight through the firewalls of the Pentagon, CIA, and NASA. You'd think that their secret files are protected by some pretty tough firewalls that nobody's ever going to get through.
FORSYTHWell, this boy with Asperger's syndrome just went through them like a knife through butter. Since then, we've heard of other little teenagers, nerds they call them, geeks maybe, but they seem to be able to make a complete misery of stuff that guys who spend a lot of time in technology and money trying to make impregnable to outsiders breaking in. And they can do it. I don't know how they can do it, but they do it.
FORSYTHThis particular boy in the book, yes, he too has Asperger's syndrome and he's shy. He won't make eye contact with you. He virtually lives in the loft above his parents' home in Centreville which is just in Virginia. And he's a completely incapable of making contact in our world. But take him to his world and I say he's like a fighter ace. Just get him in front of that machine and he is a like a supersonic fighter ace. He's unmatchable.
GJELTENYou write pretty persuasively about how he's able to use his computer skills to find this -- the origin of the sermons that are put out on the internet and, you know, due to his kind of forensic skills and his ability to introduce a virus that helps him get the computer whiz who works for the preacher to divulge his whereabouts, as I say, you do this pretty persuasively, Frederick. But I'm looking at a -- the back cover of your book.
GJELTENAnd you are writing on a typewriter. Those papers sticking out of the roller. Do you really use a typewriter?
FORSYTHI do, yeah. I use the typewriter. What does that say about your mastery of computer skills?
FORSYTHBecause it's very, very basic. It's not very skilled. I'm more at home -- well, two things. Firstly, I mean, all this talk we have since Mr. Snowden decided to depart your shores and take up residence in Russia somewhere about all this -- anybody's computer can be penetrated and hacked. And a joke that I have used with other journalists, you want to hack into my typewriter, you go ahead because you can't get in there.
FORSYTHIt's private. It's just me. And I also like black words on white paper rolling up in front of my eyes rather than it littering the screen. And as journalist I took my little portable typewriter everywhere, worldwide, into the jungles, into the deserts and tapping with two forefingers. I never mastered 10 fingers. Tapping away with my two forefingers. I produced my dispatches. And in a way, I still do.
FORSYTHIt's just a, you know, I want to read a long, long dispatch, tapped out on a typewriter with two forefingers. And that's the way I prefer to work. So, yeah, as to my command of cyberspace, forget it. It isn't even there. It's a nonexistent quantity. So to get this stuff, I had to go to the guys who actually do our Ministry of Defense computer work. And they were very nice, very kind to me.
FORSYTHAnd they had me in and I said, this is what I need to know. And they started talking about computer jargon. And I said, whoa, just slow right down. Well, you can translate that back into English, please. And they looked at me and they said, well, what did we say that was a (word?) and well what are 30 gigs of RAM? And they said, don't you know? I said, no, I do not know. So we started right back there with ABC.
FORSYTHAnd I just took down what they told me. I don't understand it, I just copied it down. And then I passed it back, is that what you said? Yes, that's what we said. That makes sense to you, that makes perfect sense to us. I said, well, I hope to God it makes perfect sense to the reader because it doesn't make any sense to me. But nevertheless, that's the way it's going in and that's the way it's in.
GJELTENAnd do you even have a computer?
FORSYTHI have an iPad, which I use for maybe sending emails and receiving emails and where basic fact and figure research. But I don't like researching online. If I'm going to research something, I much prefer to find a guy who's spent his entire life steeped in that subject, maybe retired now, sit him down and say, hey, tell me, tell me about the way it's done, what you did. And, you know, most guys who are really expert in something, they love to talk about it. They really do.
FORSYTHSo two hours later, I get up, I got everything I need on that subject. And then other experts will say, hey, you got it right. You got it right. You got it right. I say, of course, I was talking to a man who spent his life doing it. Of course I got it right.
GJELTENAnd you don't like working on the internet, but then you wouldn't -- maybe you wouldn't even know how to work on the internet if you had to.
FORSYTHNo, my cyberspace research is pretty basic. It's like, what day is it and this thing will tell me.
GJELTENFrederick Forsyth. He is the author, his new book is "The Kill List." He's of course a famous suspense writer. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So speaking of kind of inside jokes, Frederick, and also the way that you authenticate the material that you're writing about, you have the tracker, Kit Carson, the Marine colonel who uses different pseudonyms when he's out in the field.
GJELTENAnd at one point, he poses as a reporter for the Washington Post by the name of Dan Priest. Why don't you tell us the story behind Dan Priest.
FORSYTHWell, there is a very lovely lady called Donna Priest.
GJELTENThere sure is.
FORSYTHAnd she's the defense correspondent of the Washington Post. And she wrote a brilliant book called, "Top Secret America." And she allowed me to take some material from it as they were factual anyway, but there we are. So I thought, listen, an in-house joke here. I knew that Pakistan probably the reporter wouldn't be a female. So Donna became Daniel, but the surname I retained.
FORSYTHAnd, yes, indeed this investigating Marine colonel goes into Pakistan knowing full well he'll be followed everywhere by the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service and his room will be bugged and he'll be filmed and everything. And he goes in posing as a Washington Post reporter called Daniel Priest. And that was why I chose Daniel Priest. Off the Washington Post, it could have been Charlie Fonsbonz of the Los Angeles Sun, but I just chose to have a little joke with Donna.
GJELTENRight. Now did you tell her that you were gonna this? Or did it come as a surprise to her?
FORSYTHOh, no, I like to spring surprises.
GJELTENSo the man -- I don't think we're giving away too much to say that the preacher that the tracker is after is in Somalia. But actually a good part of your book does take place in Pakistan, does it not? Why don't you tell us about that part of the story.
FORSYTHWell, eventually, he, the tracker, works out that the guy he's hunting clearly is not under his own name and he's rather intrigued to find out where he really came from, what he -- how did he get to be this manic killer, this torturer of men, women and children. How did the monster, you know, come out of what was presumably once a little boy? So he tracked him, his parentage down.
FORSYTHHe found that he was indeed the son of a Pakistanin army officer who, in his late teens, had got religion in a very big and fanatical way and left his house when his father disowned him virtually and went off into the mountains with the terrorists. And graduated from there. So that was why I had to get his background, his boyhood, his parentage and how he went wrong, so to speak, I needed Pakistan.
FORSYTHAnd so that's why we start with his father, an ordinary, order-obeying, line towing infantry officer in the Pakistani army who produced, unbeknownst to him, this son who became a monster, a killer and a terrorist.
GJELTENHave you ever been to Pakistan?
FORSYTHOh, yeah, yeah. And Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. Yeah, I do go there. My wife says she's fed up with it, but what I can say?
GJELTENI don't blame her.
FORSYTHI keep telling her, if she plays her cards right, she could be a wealthy widow. But she says she doesn't want to be a widow just yet.
GJELTENI don't blame her. So I want to -- we're going to have to take a break here in a minute or so. But I am curious about your own personal feelings about the existence of a kill list, about the use of drones to go after people, to target people for killing. As you clearly point out in your book without any kind of due process whatsoever, this has become a very controversial situation. I think it's fair to say that your character is very sympathetic.
GJELTENBriefly, can I ask you how you feel about that aspect of counterterrorism policy.
FORSYTHWell, I'm -- I think both a little bit hard line, but also logical because when one has to -- when one thinks back to, say, the First World War, okay, a long time out, 100 years ago. A little English biplane went over German lines with two guys in it. One is upfront driving, the other was in the back with a bit of metal. That bit of metal was a camera. And he leaned over the edge and he photographed the German trenches.
FORSYTHNow we then invented aerial surveillance. Okay? Fourteen years earlier, a Czech scientist, Nikola Tesla, working in America invented a boat that could go across the lake, which was controlled by a little gizmo in his hand. He had invented remote control. Put the two together and you have the drone. It's just aerial surveillance, which we used in World War I, World War II, Gary Powers was flying a U2, aerial surveillance again.
FORSYTHThe rockets in Cuba were discovered by aerial surveillance. Again, the U2 did the discovery and were just modernized. Now instead of having an aerial...
GJELTENThere we go. Hold that thought, Frederick. We're going to take a quick break. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And my guest is Frederick Forsyth, the famous author. His new book is "The Kill List." He's got a long list of other suspense, intriguing novels. And Frederick joins us from a BBC studio in London. And, Frederick, just before the break, I sort of cut you off.
GJELTENYou were talking about -- I wanted to know about your personal feelings about the use of drones for targeted killings and the whole idea of a kill list. You were, first of all, pointing out that aerial surveillance goes way, way back. There's nothing new about that. But what about targeted killing?
FORSYTHWell, in fact, if you think what -- usually the Second World War, yes, they had spy planes, meaning they had planes with cameras onboard. Cameras had to come back. They had to go to a studio where unexposed film was exposed, and then people with magnifying glasses studied the prints and eventually said, hey, that's a legitimate target.
FORSYTHThen they sent the bombers in, and the bombers, who did not have smart bombs, flattened the whole district, killing women and children. It was much, much more brutal then. We now have one machine that does all the jobs. It does the spying. It reports back without leaving its patrol path. Someone 6,000 miles away stares at the information, seeks permission, and, if it is a genuine, legitimate target, then it is hit with the authority of the senior officer commanding.
FORSYTHAnd broadly speaking -- and I'm going to take, you know, take up the country on behalf of American authorities, they do try very hard not to hit women and kids, or what they call collateral damage. The terrorists, by contrast, kill women and children the whole time in huge numbers with their bombs planted in fruit markets and stalls where people are buying, you know, ordinary things, like the 63 people they killed -- Al-Shabaab killed in Nairobi recently.
FORSYTHI do know, for example, that when they had tracked down Anwar al-Awlaki, the half-American, half-Yemeni, to a little village in North Yemen, they kept that Predator up there for three days and three nights because they wouldn't hit him inside the hamlet that would kill the women and kids. Only when he was in his Toyota Land Cruiser, 10 miles away from the hamlet on a lonely track, then they hit him.
FORSYTHAnd they only got him and the editor of Inspire magazine, which is the terrorist's magazine, and the four bodyguards who were with him, nobody else. So there is -- there are a lot of effort made, and it's expenditure obviously because to keep this thing moving up there in space costs money to not to hit women and children.
FORSYTHSo I tip my hat off to them for that.
GJELTENOkay. Well, it comes as no surprise to you that we've got a lot of people that want to talk to you. You have a lot of fans out there. And thank goodness for listeners because they call us out when we get something wrong. And one of our listeners noted that, for some reason, I said "The Day of the Jackal" came out in 1989. Of course, it came out way before that. You were too polite to correct me, Frederick.
GJELTENBut "The Day of the Jackal" came out in, what was it, 1971.
GJELTENSo tell us a little bit about that book. This is about a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. How did that idea occur to you? And, of course, that was a huge, huge bestseller. How many million copies of that have been sold?
FORSYTHWell, it's unknown exactly, but it's believed to be something, 12 through 14 million, just the one book. But nobody knows because, you know, the -- there are places where it's been pirated. No one's entirely certain how many millions are out there. Quite a few.
GJELTENUm-hum, um-hum. And how did that idea come to you?
FORSYTHWell, that was an oddity because I was a cub reporter. I was in the Reuters bureau in Paris in 1962, '63, which was when the attempts to assassinate Charles de Gaulle were actually going down. There was nothing fictional about that. That OAS, as it was called, was a unit of a renegade army officers who reckoned Charles de Gaulle had betrayed them over Algeria, and they were going to kill him.
FORSYTHAnd they were trying to assassinate him, and he had some pretty good bodyguards, some pretty good counterintelligence people around him keeping him alive. And I was the reporter on the spot. And so I was in a real up close to watch this stuff happening in front of me. And I thought, as I watched it, you know, they're not going to win. The -- they're often called terrorists, whatever, the rebels are not going to win.
FORSYTHHe's, you know, they're not as good as his guys, so to speak. But, hey, I was a reporter. It wasn't my job to tell him what to do or what not to do. But I kept in my mind that they would only succeed if they could bring in an outsider and someone unknown, somebody who wasn't even on file anywhere, someone who they didn't know his prints, didn't know his face, didn't know his name, didn't know anything.
FORSYTHHe might get through the rings of security around Charles de Gaulle. So I started the story. And then seven years later, out of work, back from an awful war -- some of your listeners may recall Nigeria-Biafran War, which I covered. I was two years in the jungle. I came back, and I was out of a job. I had no prospects for a job. I had no flat. I had no car. I had no savings. I had no -- I had nothing.
FORSYTHAnd I thought, well, what do you know? I know, write a novel. It was the most stupid idea. You don't write a novel to get out of trouble, in financial troubles. It's a long slow process, and chances are it won't work. But, whatever, innocence, you know, sometimes is quite a good weapon. I sat down, and in 35 days, I wrote "The Day of the Jackal."
GJELTENAnd it got you out of financial trouble, didn't it?
FORSYTHEventually, not immediately. I had to hawk it 'round, and then the publishers, quite logically, said, but he's still alive. So we know the outcome. I said, yeah, I know, but, you know, that's not what the book's about. They said, number one, not for us, old boy. Not for us. Number five took it. He was a decent guy. He actually read it, and then he said, interesting. Interesting idea, how close would the assassin get? By the by, said he, I like your style. Would you do me two more novels?
FORSYTHSo they became "The Odessa File" and "The Dogs of War."
GJELTENWell, I want to remind our listeners our phone number's 800-433-8850. And we got people that want to talk to you, Frederick. Let's go first to Jackson who's on the line from Miami, Fla. Good morning, Jackson. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
JACKSONWell, thank you. It's a true honor, and I'm really grateful to you for allowing me to speak to Mr. Forsyth. Mr. Forsyth, I was so intrigued by the work that you did on this novel, and in your description of having gone through Pakistan to learn, you know, a lot of the -- doing some of the research, in our -- weren't we all thrilled when President Obama delivered and got Osama bin Laden?
JACKSONI'd been waiting that -- 10 years 'cause it affects our economy in Miami of tourism, visas, all that kind of thing. There's one left to go. Ayman al-Zawahiri, you know, they're still, I imagine, you know, he's on the kill list. And I keep hoping that, you know, there'll be a breakthrough because he's really -- for Miami's economy, not that you care about that, but the day that Ayman al-Zawahiri is captured or killed, Miami's economy, I say will boost -- our tourism will go up by 30 percent because we can start issuing tourist visas 'cause there'll be no 9/11 terrorist capable of attacking our country alive or at liberty.
GJELTENWell, I have to tell you, Jackson -- I have to tell you that, you know, it seems like one of the lessons that we have learned in this counterterrorism fight is that when you kill one terrorist leader, there's -- seems like there's always somebody there to take his place. Wouldn't you agree with that, Frederick?
FORSYTHWell, I'm afraid I have to, yeah. Because al-Zawahiri is now late-middle-age, pretty much ineffective, an ineffectual. He's titular head of al-Qaeda, but he's long been superseded by younger and more often even more fanatical, even more brutal, and certainly much more hard to catch people. And so the ones that they're looking for now, the younger men who have taken up this bizarre cause of jihadism, and they don't think that, for example, that he, al-Zawahiri, will probably ever emerge from wherever little rock he's hiding under.
FORSYTHSo he's not going to be planting bombs and probably not even going to be planning bombs. He's not what his former master was, Osama bin Laden. So now the danger men are now are much younger, and they're probably the ones who have been actively hunted, like, for example, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He is a bomb maker. He's the man who made the underpants bomb that Abdulmutallab tried to explode over Detroit City.
GJELTENOh, so the printer cartridge bomb, he made that as well.
FORSYTHThe printer cartridge bomb, he did that. He actually also tried to kill the Saudi head of intelligence using his own brother, his own kid brother. And he put a bomb up his rectum, and the boy went in to the presence of the prince and blew himself up. So, I mean, he -- that's how ruthless he is. And he's the one they would really like. I think he's probably about top of the list at the moment. He's a very, very dangerous man.
GJELTENIndeed. Let's go now to Peter who's on the line from Scottsdale, Ariz. Good morning, Peter. Are you there, Peter?
PETERYes, I am. Good. Good morning. Good to speak with you. I'm just wondering if you have any interest in affairs with China as well. Back in February, there was an article in the USA Today about a gentleman named Shane Todd who was working for a Singapore company, apparently with semiconductors.
PETERThen they had a big going away party. He was going to move back to the States. He had told his family that he was -- he thought that there were some Chinese officials interested in his research. And apparently the next day they found him dead, like, you know, they told him he had hung himself. And his family, to this day, does not believe that that occurred. And I was just curious to know if you had an interest or if you had heard of that story and doing interest in that region.
GJELTENFrederick, are you ready to write a book based in Asia as opposed to the Middle East or Africa?
FORSYTHThat's a major challenge. And I'll tell you why it's a major challenge. Because, let's face it, I'm supposed to be trying to appeal to readers. The overwhelming majority of readers are in the Western world still, and they do have problems with this torrent of Chinese names. So it would be very hard -- it's a hard society for a Western to penetrate, to understand the motivations and, you know, why they do things this way.
FORSYTHSo I don't think I will be going to be going that way. But as to the rivalry in cyberspace, that is going to be a new front in the oncoming struggle. The struggle isn't over yet because we know that China alone is amounting about 1,000 cyberattacks a day on the U.S.A. But because it's all out there in cyberspace, it's above our heads.
FORSYTHI mean, you know, it bewilders most of us. But it is a covert war, so we now have two on our hands. We have a cyberwar, and we have a jihadist terror war. And the fact that they're undeclared war doesn't mean to say they're not lethal. They can be very lethal indeed.
GJELTENWell, Frederick, as an expert on what makes a thriller thrilling, can you imagine a novel, a thriller, that is based around a cyberconflict scenario, a cyberwar scenario? Or would that be a real challenge to write?
FORSYTHI think it'd be very challenging because, let's face it, we've been talking about an area which most people simply do not understand, even people who can work a laptop and send all their emails, and they have an iPhone and listen to all his music. And that's one thing. But the level of expertise and of obscurity that the real geeks penetrate leave most of us standing.
FORSYTHWe wouldn't, I think, be able to easily understand what they were doing or why they were doing it. So it'd be very hard to translate that into, hey, layman's language and layman's understanding level. Not to be patronizing, but it is a weird world.
GJELTENOkay. Let's go now to Brian who is on the line from Concord, N.H. Good morning, Brian.
BRIANGood morning, Mr. Gjelten and Mr. Forsyth, one of my favorite authors. I hate to call in another correction. But the Brits did not invent aerial surveillance. As much as I admire you guys and our British cousins, Mr. Lincoln's Army of the Potomac sent up telegraphers in balloons to report on the activities behind the Confederate lines during the Civil War. We invented it.
FORSYTHWell, I wouldn't deny that. If you say so, sir, I'll believe you. Well done. You did it before we did it. And...
BRIANThank you for your...
FORSYTHBut, yes, you're right. Balloons was the first way, and airplanes the second. So balloons preceded airplanes. And I will accept what you say. You invented it after all, so…
BRIANThank you for your wonderful adventures. I've enjoyed your writings over the years.
GJELTENWell, thank you for the call, Brian. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I'm Tom Gjelten. And my guest is Frederick Forsyth. And, Frederick, the hero in this case was a U.S. Marine. But he was assisted by a British Special Operations unit you call the Pathfinders. So you did find a way to get some British heroes in this book, didn't you?
FORSYTHWell, yeah, okay. Being just chauvinistic, he had to go in with some paratroopers. He had to go in from high altitude. Yes, there are several U.S. units that do exactly the same. And I just thought, well, I don't know. I had a mate who was in the Pathfinders, and he said, you know -- I said, can you describe it? He said, of course I can. So he described everything that could be done, and I thought it would be feasible that they were in theater at the time.
FORSYTHAnd he had a very, very limited time schedule, so guys flying -- team six flying out from the West Coast wouldn't have gotten there in time. It had to be done before dawn because the target was going to move around dawn. So he used the nearest unit, happened to be some British Pathfinders who were doing a desert climatization course in Oman, which is right next door. So I used them.
GJELTENSo, yeah, let me ask you about that. I mean, in real life, do we see this kind of collaboration? I mean, we're talking here about real black operations, ultra-secret, ultra-stealthy. As you say, Seal Team Six is probably the best known, also, the Delta Force in the U.S. Army. Are there examples of collaboration between British, for example, Special Operations units and U.S. Special Operations unit in missions like this one?
FORSYTHWell, all the time. I think if you would consult with any American commander in Afghanistan or Iraq, he would say exactly the same. Yes, they cooperate very closely all the time. That's the SAS, Special Air Services, the SBS, the Special Boat Service, probably the equivalent of your Seals. And the Delta Force, the D-Boys, they work with Brits. And there's a considerable mutual respect between the units.
FORSYTHThey're both extremely good and reckon themselves to be the best in the world and probably are. And when they're in theater, like Helmand Province, yes, they work very closely together and with complete trust in each other. Without that trust, you cannot cooperate on black ops. It has to be absolute and total trust, and they have it.
GJELTENWell, that was one of the things...
FORSYTHPoliticians don't, by the way, but never mind.
GJELTENRight. That was one of the things that struck me about your description of that final mission is that here are a bunch of guys that hadn't really met before, right, but they were kind of a fraternity. They had a kinship. And they seemed like they instinctively knew how to work together.
FORSYTHWell, there is this kinship. You find it among fighter pilots. You find it among airborne people. We call them the Paras. You call them the airborne, but, yes. Those who -- they will, you know, meet in a bar and see a pin in a guy's lapel, say, were you with so and so? Yeah, I was. Hey, let me buy you that next beer. And that is a kind of camaraderie. It wasn't a brotherhood, perhaps, but a camaraderie between guys who've been in harm's way for their country. And you can't really -- it's intangible, but it's there. And I appreciate it and admire it.
GJELTENFrederick Forsyth is the author of 16 novels. His newest one is called "The Kill List." What's your next one, Frederick?
FORSYTHOh, dear, no, no, no. I make a point of always trying to take a year off. And I delivered this last December. It's been gestating with the publishers until recently. Now we get what we're doing now, which is basically promoting the creature, and I will, after the New Year, take a deep, deep sigh of relief and relax for a while and then maybe get around to something else.
GJELTENOkay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Frederick Forsyth. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Thanks for listening.
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