I wanted to write an espionage novel about revenge and betrayal, about a friendship stretched to breaking point against the battered landscapes of Afghanistan and post-7/7 Britain.
I had the idea of setting the novel at a very specific time, the summer of 2005, when Iraq was on the brink of all out civil war and the city of New Orleans lay in ruins. When it seemed that we were all vulnerable to sudden and violent acts. I was also mindful of the four hundred year anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the bungled assassination attempt on King James I, and the parallels that it raised. It seems likely that the conspiracy was infiltrated from the very beginning, and the Seventeenth Century intelligence services used the unraveling of the plot as a pretext to consolidate their grip on the country. Terror was used as pretext for a power grab.
The genesis of the plot of A Loyal Spy came out of research trips that I took to Peshawar and the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2005 and to Afghanistan in the following year. I was interested in the intelligence failures that had led to 9/11 and the conduct of the so called War on Terror. In Bajaur in the tribal areas, the Government Agent Pir Wazir, whose brother had recently been killed by the Pakistan Army for sheltering Al Qaeda members, told me to pass a message to President George W Bush and Pope John Paul II - "stop bombing us with your drones". In Kabul I stayed with Chris Alexander the former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, then serving as the Deputy Special Representative to the UN Secretary General, and his wife Hedvig Boserup, an old friend from my landmine clearing days in Abkhazia. I stayed in their house in the Wazir Akhbar Khan neighbourhood. In my conversations with Afghans and expatriates I was struck by the extent to which Pakistan, in particular it's shadowy intelligence service the ISI, was blamed for Afghanistan's past and current woes.
The ISI was responsible for channeling billions of dollars of Saudi and American funds to the most unsavoury and extremist elements of the mujahedin during the Soviet occupation, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyr (blowback abounds in Afghanistan - Hekmatyr now runs the fastest growing insurgent group in the country). After the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahedin groups turned their ISI provided weapons on each other, unleashing a devastating civil war. They fought over the rubble of Kabul. They seeded the city with mines. Eventually the ISI abandoned them for a new, even more extreme Islamist movement rising in the south: The Taliban.
To reflect this I created the character Brigadier Javid Aslam Khan, known as ‘The Hidden Hand’, and made him head of the Afghan Bureau of the ISI. It was Khan who backed the 'islamopath' Hekmatyr against the Soviets, it was Khan who facilitated the carnage of the civil war, and it was Khan who created and nurtured the Taliban.
Gathering material and conducting interviews, I was surprised to learn of a rift between Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden in late 1998. Early the next year the Taliban confiscated Bin Laden's satellite phone and there was a shoot out between Bin Laden's bodyguards and the Taliban squad assigned to watch over them. Mullah Omar gave an interview with Newsweek in which he said of Bin Laden that 'contact with him has been broken.' It seemed possible that the Taliban were open to somebody ridding them of their embarrassing guest. I thought what if the British had a go? I learned that at that time Bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan, scouting the location of a new home for his family and followers at an old Soviet Collective farm.
In a Loyal Spy, a British military intelligence unit known as the Afghan Guides ambush a vehicle convoy in the Kabul River Gorge that they believe is Bin Laden’s. In the aftermath of the attack it becomes clear that they have been double-crossed. Instead they have killed a senior CIA officer. It was easy to imagine the cover-up that would follow and the lengths those who perpetrated it would have to go to keep it secret.
Trips to Liberia, Guinea Bissau and the ‘liberated zone’ of Western Sahara added further material and settings. I learned from Greg Campbell’s excellent book Blood Diamonds that al-Qaeda bought several million dollars worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone in the months leading up to 9/11. I had the location for the reunion of my central characters the British spy Jonah Said and the former school friend who betrayed him, the Jordanian double agent, Nor ed-Din. (There are interesting real-life parallels here – the double agent Human al-Balawi who killed 7 CIA agents in Afghanistan in December 2009 was, like Nor ed-Din, from Zarqa a small industrial town in Jordon).
Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s book Hubris provided details about the Anabasis Programme, a secret project based in the Nevada desert to train Iraqi defectors and eventually insert them behind enemy lines in the build up to the Iraq War. I imagined a secret buried within a secret – Eschatos - an elaborate charade by Nor to rob al-Qaeda of diamonds with Jonah as an unwitting dupe. The headlong rush towards war in Iraq was fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and millenarians - my villain, Richard Winthrop, is a classic American ‘neo-con’ with a grand vision for the world matched only by his rapacious greed.
The first chapters of A Loyal Spy that I wrote were in the section called Hijra:flight. It was July 2005 and I was stranded by the monsoon in the Sudanese town of Damazin in Blue Nile State. I began writing about Miranda. She was the woman that Jonah gave up spying for and had now abandoned. She is living on a remote Scottish island. When the police come looking for Jonah and it becomes clear that he is being framed as a terrorist she is prompted to go after him. I knew that the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder plot had been sheltered by several strong willed Catholic women as they travelled across Britain and I imagined a similar journey for Miranda. She seeks shelter on the Isle of Barra with Flora, the daughter of the spymaster Monteith, and in London with the journalist Saira, a former lover and Somali exile. I imagined the arc of her journey running parallel to Jonah’s and that their stories would converge and meet at the end in the Thames Estuary.
Nor’s trip to Peshawar and the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan is loosely based on my own experiences there in 2005. For the chapter set in Iraq I relied heavily on John Robb’s brilliant book Brave New War, which describes the terrorist “market place” and how the same technology that has enabled globalization also allows terrorists to join forces and carry out small, inexpensive actions – like sabotaging an oil pipeline – that generate a huge return.
The story of the SS Richard Montgomery, the second world war era freighter that is lying in shallow water in the Thames Estuary, with a couple of thousand tons of bombs on board was first told to me by a friend who was part of the dive crew contracted by the Ministry of Defence to conduct a survey of the wreck. Experts do not know what the size of the tidal wave would be if the explosives on the Montgomery mass-detonated at high tide during a storm surge but it would likely be catastrophic. As Winthrop says in A Loyal Spy, ‘Up to now the only thing that has stood between London and total annihilation is a failure of imagination on the part of the terrorists.’
In A Loyal Spy I have sought to highlight the current and historical vulnerability of modern cities to acts of mass destruction, and the increasing sophistication of modern terrorist cells, whilst at the same time warning that as long as the burgeoning security industry and their partners in the intelligence services are the main beneficiaries of the War on Terror there will be little incentive for it to come to an end.