Wednesday 20 September 2017

Why worst may yet be to come

Giles Whitterell

Glenn Meade's eerily realistic thriller foresaw the attacks on America. He tells GILES WHITTELL why he fears another, even dirtier, strike

Security was uppermost in the minds of many Americans this week as a nervous nation celebrated its first Independence Day since the horrors of September 11. Ordinary citizens showed their patriotic fervour at the thousands of parades and fireworks displays which symbolised the country's resolve to fight terrorism.

One man who knows more than most about the terror threat against the United States is Dublin author Glenn Meade, whose latest thriller, Resurrection Day, chillingly foresaw the September 11 attacks, though in a somewhat different form.

Meade is a former journalist who, in addition to being an internationally bestselling author, is a specialist in the field of pilot training. He has written Brandenburg, Snow Wolf - a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic - and The Sands of Sakkara.

The realisation that his latest work was more than just a meticulously-researched piece of fiction dawned on Meade 10 months ago when he turned on the TV in his hotel room in San Remo, Italy. He stared in horror. His legs began to shake.

He was watching CNN's coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but it was not the disasters themselves that forced him to sit down; it was the fact that he had just finished a 740-page novel about a frighteningly similar atrocity. In Meade's book it is Washington, not New York, that takes the brunt of the attack. The weapon is nerve gas, not hijacked airliners. But the terrorist network is al-Qa'ida. Its head is Osama bin Laden (renamed for the sake of post-September 11 sensitivities) and his operatives, like Mohammed Atta, favour the porous borders of New England as the best way to slip undetected into the US.

Four days after the real-life attacks, Meade was rung up by one of many American counter-terrorism experts who had helped with his book. The caller was a former member of the US Secret Service, which handles security for the First Family, who had resigned to become head of security for a bank with offices in the World Trade Centre, and had survived the attacks because he walked to work, arriving later than usual.

He had spent the next few days helping rescue workers at Ground Zero, stunned by the scale of the devastation, but always preoccupied.

"I just couldn't believe it," he told Meade when at last they spoke by phone. "What kept running through my mind was 'I've spent the past six weeks helping this author with this book that has such a similar scenario'."

Meade, who lives in Dublin, is the unapologetic sort of thriller writer whose name looms larger than his titles. He is not the only author to have spun a blockbuster out of nightmare scenarios involving Arab terror networks, vulnerable Western targets and weapons of mass destruction. (Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears, filmed months before the attacks, featured all three.) But no one else foresaw a massive al-Qa'ida attack on the US mainland so accurately, nor with such eerie timing.

That timing has become a publisher's dilemma. Hodder-Headline in the UK is using it to help plug Resurrection Day, but St Martin's Press in the US has declined to publish, despite its success with Meade's three previous titles. "Too close to the bone," he says.

This is hardly surprising. Resurrection Day is meticulously researched and reveals much - too much, perhaps - about the kind of al-Qa'ida attacks that US law enforcement feared and why it did not do more to stop them.

Six weeks ago the FBI announced that it was shifting its focus from traditional crime-fighting to chasing terrorists. The changes will involve reassigning thousands of agents, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and address some critical problems (even if it does not solve them). Robert Mueller, the bureau's penitent director, has admitted that September 11 and its aftermath revealed inter-departmental squabbles and yawning intelligence failures that left America a sitting duck.

But this does not mean that no one in the FBI knew the gravity of the threat. Plenty of agents, with plenty of evidence, suspected the worst and tried to raise the alarm. On the whole, their bosses did not listen.

Meade did and one of those to whom he listened was John O'Neill, who had resigned from law enforcement and gone to work in the World Trade Centre as head of security for the entire complex. He was well qualified for it: as a former head of the FBI's counter-terrorism unit in Washington, he had led the hunt for Ramzi Yousef, who was eventually convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

He went on to investigate the al-Qa'ida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and of the USS Cole. In his later years at the FBI, he was head of its key Manhattan counter-terrorism office and its top man on bin Laden.

Yet what was most remarkable about O'Neill was his manner.

"Your typical FBI guys have degree courses in law or accountancy," says Meade. "They are prim and proper: buttoned-down shirt, business suit, Mormon haircut. O'Neill was not typical. He was ebullient, larger than life, a gossip almost. But superb at his job. He got results."

After 25 years in the FBI the culture clash seems to have worn O'Neill down. "The feeling I got from him was 'This is a bigger danger than a lot of people in the FBI are prepared to admit; some are sticking their heads in the sand'. He was blowing whistles all the time."

He also made a stupid, uncharacteristic, mistake: leaving a briefcase full of highly sensitive information on US national security in a Florida hotel two years ago. He was investigated for the lapse, which may have hastened his departure from the bureau. In August 2001, he quit.

There is a story that O'Neill met up with a fellow counter-terrorism expert on the evening of September 10 last year and told him over drinks: "At least New York never suffered a terrorist attack on my watch." A day later, he was dead.

It took Meade several hours from the time he switched on the TV in San Remo to realise that there may have been people he knew in the twin towers. It took several days for his fears to be confirmed. Nearly a year on, the friends and relatives of those who died are still coming to terms with the loss; but so is Hollywood, and the O'Neills of that day have emerged as its most cinematically acceptable heroes the ones who knew, or sensed, what was coming, who tried but failed to warn those who might have prevented it, and died in the inferno.

O'Neill's story is in development with a big studio, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, the bureaucrats who missed the signals, or ignored them, have no place yet, even as villains; their negligence is still too raw. For now, their role is explaining themselves to the US Congress.

But they crop up in Meade's book, not least in a scene that actually took place in 1997, when Janet Reno, then the attorney-general, summoned to a conference representatives of every agency that would be involved in evacuating Washington if it came under a big terrorist attack.

"It was called Operation Poised Response, but the response was far from poised," says Meade. "The meeting ended in disarray, with Reno storming out because she couldn't get agreement from the agencies. We like to think the Secret Service, the CIA and the FBI work hand in glove; they don't.

"In the White House the Secret Service runs the show, but there is an FBI presence whose prime function is to run checks on people coming to work there. They hate each other."

They were also far less helpful to him than disenchanted former officers such as O'Neill. In a sense this is no surprise. How could it help US national security to divulge sensitive information to a thriller writer?

Even so, the FBI's response to his requests reveals something close to paranoia. First, the bureau demanded a full plot summary. He provided one. Then it invited him to Washington, only to cancel his meetings once he arrived. Throughout, it wanted to know if the FBI were to be 'the good guys', recalls Meade. "I tried to assure them I didn't want do a hatchet job."

September 11 shook Meade, but did not surprise him. "By the time I had completed my research, it was like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. It became quite obvious this was a very real danger. Bin Laden had already tried to bomb the twin towers. We had had the embassy bombs, the USS Cole, numerous other bombs and lots of threats. The guy had money, he had the means, he had the motive."

Meade's research also persuaded him "how easy it is to take down a city like Washington", and in doing so to bring the entire US to a juddering halt. "It's the big cog that keeps the country going," he says.

"Some 98pc of all US military communications traffic is routed through Washington; 60pc of the world's internet traffic is routed through the DC area. All it takes to create chaos is one al-Qa'ida supporter working for a phone company to take out the entire system. Emergency calls will no longer go through ..."

Hold on! Shouldn't we think twice before handing the terrorists our best ideas for toppling Western civilisation?

"You may say 'Why frighten people?' It's possible that such an attack (threatening all of Washington) could happen. In fact, I think it's going to be on this scale the next time it happens. But people should know the dangers involved and how susceptible we are. Terrorist plots are no longer the domain of thriller writers; it's going to get dirtier and dirtier, and you can't stick your head in the sand."

Fair enough. But what about the charge that the Meades and Clancys of this world are helping to inspire terrorists' fevered dreams? He admits that this may be true. Hollywood, at any rate, "may have influenced the terrorists to become more daring and inventive", he says. "But you're not going to control the film or book business by telling people what they can and can't write; you can't kill the imagination."

Resurrection Day by Glenn Meade, published by Hodder & Stoughton, ?18.99

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