SPIEGEL Interview With British Author Frederick Forsyth: "They Take The Mind, and What Emerges is Just Tapioca Pudding"

Frederick Forsyth talks about researching intelligence activities for his new novel, "The Afghan" -- as well as western torture methods in Afghanistan and who would have killed Litvinenko if he had written the plot.

An anti-Taliban soldier outside the ex-Soviet Bagram air base in Afghanistan, September 2001.
DPA

An anti-Taliban soldier outside the ex-Soviet Bagram air base in Afghanistan, September 2001.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Forsyth, at the beginning of your new thriller "The Afghan," an al-Qaida member is eliminated when he uses his cell phone and is immediately located by American intelligence services. Do you own a cell phone?

Forsyth: No, and I don't own a computer either. I'm obviously much mocked for being such a dinosaur, but I have my reasons. With my typewriter I've never sent seven chapters into cyberspace and lost them. Secondly, try hacking into my typewriter (Chuckles). I also don't use the Internet for searches, because frankly I don't trust it.

SPIEGEL: Despite all your skepticism you have used the Internet for marketing purposes. One year ago you auctioned off six names in your new book on eBay.

Forsyth: Yes, I got about 100,000 pounds (€149,000) for different charities. Cpt. Michael Linnett, the special forces officer in the race through the wilderness, is actually a businessman in Northamptonshire, for example.

SPIEGEL: In your book you write that the Internet has become an indispensable propaganda tool for terrorists.

Forsyth: It's damn dangerous, because at least half the recruiting is done that way. Particularly because you can now produce these pictorials which they concoct with very bloody scenes which purport to be the result of an American bomb or something. Then there's an unstoppable torrent of child pornography, straight pornography, instructions on how to build bombs, guns, how to kill, maim and cripple. Up to 50 percent of the Internet is actually malign to the human condition.

SPIEGEL: In your books the good guys are always a bit ahead of the bad guys, at least in terms of technology.

Forsyth: The technology of the bad guys advances unceasingly. Criminals are getting cleverer and cleverer. Each time that the establishment comes up with a new device like an identity card, then the criminal underworld comes up with a better way of forging it. The same with terror: Yes, you can track people, track the location of a particular call. What the Americans can do is actually jaw-dropping. I was over there at Fort Meade at the headquarters of the NSA (National Security Agency), which, people sometimes forget, is not just a listener, but also a decoder and a tracker. They can say this call came from within a certain room in Afghanistan. That's why senior al Qaeda people don't use mobile phones any longer. They operate with personal emissaries, whom they sometimes send around the world with a memorized message. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the biggest catch so far, was taken because of a mobile phone call, it was a fix. The spy technology of the Cold War looks like Sputnik compared to today's equipment.

SPIEGEL: Despite rapid progress in espionage technology, intelligence agencies have not managed to stop attacks like those of Sept. 11, partly because there has been a lack of cooperation between agencies.

Forsyth: We were all a bit asleep. But 9/11 was a global wakeup call for intelligence. We're all linked now, stuff coming to (British intelligence agency) GCHQ at Cheltenham goes straight to NSA in Washington. Most of their stuff comes to us also and we pass it to the Germans and the French. The only part of the Common Market that is really functioning is the counter-terrorism cooperation. Everybody else is fighting like cats in a sack. It took counter-terrorism to make us cooperate.

SPIEGEL: In "The Afghan," a British intelligence office Mike Martin passes himself off as a Pashtun and successfully infiltrates al-Qaida. Isn't it possible to imagine the opposite also happening? Or did the era of double agents and moles finish with the end of the Cold War?

Forsyth: You might find a communist, but probably not an Islamic fanatic. We are now more trustworthy because you're unlikely to find an al-Qaida member in the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst, the German intelligence agency) or French intelligence. The presumption is much easier to make that we're going to get loyalty and therefore reliability.

SPIEGEL: In your book, the undercover agent Martin is warned against clean-shaven Muslims who smoke, drink and sleep with women, westernized human chameleons who hide their hate. You don't believe that al-Qaida sympathizers could infiltrate Western intelligence agencies?

Forsyth: Well they could, but it would be very noticeable. In the 1930s we had a rise of dictators in Europe, and many young people came to the view that democracy was decadent and weak and cowardly. That was the propaganda of Communism, and the (British spies for the Soviets) Macleans, Burgesses and Philbys fell for it. I don't think many people are falling for al-Qaida. The re-establishment of the first caliphate? The reconquista of all southern Europe by Islamic forces? It would be hard to persuade a German that this is the future. Even if he did convert to Islam inside the BND, I think his colleagues would notice. Wahhabism is the core behind the anger and the rage and hatred that a lot of Muslim extremists feel towards us. I don't see how that would affect a middle-class European. In that sense, when we have intelligence conferences, there's now an absolute sense of collegiate trustability round the table. There is no (East German spymaster) Markus Wolf any longer, he's gone. Islamic terrorism is seen as a more common threat. The trouble with Communism was that young men didn't see it as a threat.

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