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.

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.

Part 2: "From now on, be very, very frightened"

SPIEGEL: Do you think it was wise of Gerhard Schröder not to support the war in Iraq?

Forsyth: As it turns out, I think it was. But I don't think he was in a position back then -- before the invasion -- to be able to predict the disaster that has come upon Iraq now. That, I think, was avoidable. The American conquest was textbook -- what happened after the conquest was incompetence of mind-numbing proportions, which the British were not aware of. Someone conned the White House into thinking that Saddam was part of the war on terror. We now know that whatever else he was guilty of, he loathed and despised Islamic fundamentalism and it hated him. So, at least 70 percent of the effort was diverted to the wrong target.

SPIEGEL: Why did Blair support Bush in Iraq?

Forsyth: I think he's basically a weak man. But the stubbornness of a weak man should never be underestimated. The weak tend to be very stubborn when they've decided on something. Blair was prepared to alienate Europe even though he did everything he could during the previous six years to inveigle himself into the good books of Europe. We have a lot of experts on the Middle East, and they all said to Blair, "This is going to be crazy." By a combination of vanity and stupidity he is now locked into a decision he couldn't reverse.

SPIEGEL: At one point in the novel you claim that the western allies commit torture at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. How did you arrive at this supposition?

Forsyth: Guantanamo is the bete noire of all left-wing and human rights journalists. They forget Bagram, which is as big as Berlin. It's huge, a vast ex-Soviet base which, when it was taken over in the winter of 2001, was just an echoing, shattered former Russian barracks and administration offices and huge hangars. It's not like that now, it's a city, and one part of it is detention. And in there nobody doesn't sing.

SPIEGEL: You really believe that the allies torture prisoners? Do you have proof?

Forsyth: We are not talking about the old days, pulling fingernails and flogging -- they don't use that any longer. It's a chemical cosh. It's either deep hypnosis -- it's beyond ("truth drugs") scopolamine or sodium amytol -- they take the mind now, and what emerges is just a tapioca pudding. I haven't seen a good article on what certain chemicals can do today to the human mind, basically in breaking down resistance. If a man like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn't last more than a week ... Nobody has lasted there. We got this high-powered guy, he's got a head full of secrets, we got his computer, his mobile. We can strip them down, but what's in his head we need without too much delay. They all go to Bagram.

SPIEGEL: What do you make of the revelation that Günter Grass was in the SS?

Forsyth: I wasn't surprised. Certainly here in Britain, the fact of SS membership is regarded as a bagatelle. It was perhaps because he pretended for 50 years. It is like, well, we have it now and again that the most outspoken champion of family values in parliament is found in bed with a rent boy (chuckles), and you think, this is the guy telling us all about family values.

SPIEGEL: Your critics accuse you of having no moral standpoint. You write in a very detached way about torture and killing. For example, you write about snipers and go into the smallest detail about weapons and ammunition, and in the process dehumanize the victim. One could almost say that you have made the sniper's perspective into a stylistic device.

Forsyth: I regard it as a journalistic perspective. Way back when I was a journalist I was taught: Keep the adjectives out. I'm saying: This is what a sniper does, and that's the way they do it. If you want to be shocked -- fine. If you want to be intrigued -- fine. If you want to be full of admiration -- fine.

SPIEGEL: Would you describe yourself rather as a journalist or as a novelist?

Forsyth: Both. I came to novel writing via journalism and I've never shaken off journalism. I'm just telling you: This is what happens as it was narrated to me by an expert who I believe was telling the truth. I'm not telling humanity how to run itself. I'm describing how a bit of humanity runs itself. You want to be surprised, be surprised. You want to be horrified, be horrified. It's your choice, not mine.

SPIEGEL: Talking about experts, how do you get your sources in intelligence circles?

Forsyth: One starts with a contact, who may even be in retirement. Before the conversation is concluded, he will probably say, "Give me 24 hours, I'll make a few phone calls." And then he comes back and says, "Look, there's a guy prepared to talk to you." For example, there's a passage in the book telling how Martin in his younger days was one of the very few SAS men who went behind Soviet lines in Afghanistan with a blowpipe missile to train the forces of Ahmed Shah Massud.

SPIEGEL: So the SAS officer Mike Martin really existed?

Forsyth: Yes, I went to someone who had been an SAS man all his career, an NCO. This guy ended up as a very senior sergeant and he had 30 years in the regiment and is a mate of mine. And he asked around and said, "There is a guy who is prepared to talk to you." And I had half a day with him and it was all there. Everything that happened to Mike Martin inside Afghanistan had happened to this guy. Even being attacked on an open mountainside by a helicopter gunship. Very frightening stuff.

SPIEGEL: The murder of the Russian ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko is a bizarre case which resembles something from a Cold War spy thriller. If you had written something like that, who would be the murderer?

Forsyth: It was a contract killer, coming from east of Frankfurt an der Oder (on the German-Polish border). East of Minsk. Maybe Putin didn't say, "I want that man." But he has people around him, particularly in the FSB, who, in the manner of Henry II, say "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

SPIEGEL: The high costs of polonium 210 have led many observers to infer a state source.

Forsyth: Look, if you happened to be running a state which happens to be running a pretty ruthless intelligence service which happens to have contacts with an equally ruthless criminal underworld, getting someone terminated is very easy. But why not a knife thrust through the heart? Why not a bullet through the face, or a mugging that went wrong in North London -- we have them all the time. The killer would be on the plane to Moscow by mid-morning and the body is still on the slabs somewhere, unidentified even, and when all you've done is take his wallet and his mobile -- it would go down as a street mugging. Why this bizarre method? The only reason I can think of, and it may be well off-beam, but 400 years ago sometimes a magistrate, having ordered that someone be hanged, would also order that the body remain hanging on the gibbet for several weeks to send a message to anybody passing by who might think of committing a crime: This magistrate is not to be trifled with. It could be someone out there in Moscow is saying: We've just about had enough. From now on be very, very frightened -- and be silent.

SPIEGEL: Mr Forsyth, thank you for the interview.

Interview conducted by Malte Herwig

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