Most of the world was stunned to learn that Osama bin Laden had been living not in a cave but in comfort when he was shot to death by secretive U.S. forces Sunday night.
Tom Clancy, though, had an idea.
In December, the author of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games published his first novel in seven years, Dead or Alive, this one with the help of a coauthor, Grant Blackwood. In it, Clancy’s version of bin Laden is finally caught—and when he is, he turns out not to be hiding in the lawless mountain regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, as most of the fictional intelligence community believes. Instead, he’s been biding his time in an upscale house (“must have set him back a million”) that is a shortish drive from a major city, and just a few miles from a major military institution. He works only with couriers and bodyguards. A super-elite Navy SEAL is on the team that takes him down. Oh, and one of the book’s rejected titles? In Plain Sight.
OK, so not every detail lines up. The nearby city is Las Vegas, not Islamabad. Bin Laden was not moments away from personally detonating a homemade nuclear bomb deep underneath a radioactive waste depository when he was shot in real life. And Jenna Bush was not the triggerman. (In Clancy’s world, Jack Ryan, the hero of The Hunt for Red October, eventually becomes president; it’s his son, Jack Jr., who fires the climactic bullet in Dead or Alive, under a subsequent liberal administration.) But the similarities that are present show that while Clancy has lost a lot of his game in recent years--you see his name in bookstores now mainly splashed across the covers of forgettable spinoffs written by “collaborators”—he still has an uncanny feel for the intersection of real-world intelligence, terrorism, and fiction.
In Clancy’s book, the bin Laden character has been biding his time in an upscale house a few miles from a major military outpost.
Never an English professor’s idea of a novelist, Clancy achieved bestseller status with a signature mix of weapons porn, spectacular action (Denver is nuked in The Sum of All Fears), diabolical international villains, and infallible steel-jawed American heroes. Implausible plots are studded with highly specific technical details. In Rainbow Six, Clancy’s clandestine spec ops men don’t just shoot guns; they shoot “the Hechler & Koch MP-10 submachine gun, the new version of the venerable MP-5, chambered instead for the 10-mm Smith & Wesson cartridge developed in the 1980s for the American FBI” with “superb diopter sights.” And they use them, naturally, to thwart a weaponized Ebola attack at the Olympics.
It’s escapist stuff, but some of Clancy’s work comes startlingly close to reality. In December’s bin Laden capture book, Dead or Alive, Clancy and Blackwood describe the terrorist’s choice of hideout this way: “The Emir might have chosen a better-defended dwelling, but that might well have attracted the interest of his neighbors, and been counterproductive in this age of helicopters and bomb-laden aircraft.” Communication would be an issue. “How, then, would the Emir get his messages out? Couriers were the most secure method…” Even Muammar Gaddafi makes an extended appearance, with a Western consortium taking military action in Libya.
Clancy has a track record of being ahead of the terror curve. Seven years before al Qaeda hijackers crashed jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and attempted to hit either the White House or the Capitol with another plane, Clancy ended his novel Debt of Honor with a 747 slamming into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress.
“People talk about ripped from the headlines. He’s kind of the opposite,” says Tom Colgan, an executive editor at Penguin, who edited Dead or Alive. (Clancy himself, who rarely speaks publicly, declined an interview.) “He has this weird ability to predict these things.”
Clancy’s legion of fans on Facebook have noticed. Wrote one Tuesday night: “Clancy’s prophetic Dead or Alive has (a) very quiet behind the scenes intelligence work, (b) follow the courier, (c) waterboarding, (d) kill them without Miranda, (e) the ‘emir’ (Osama) living in luxury right under our nose in a major city, (f) silent spec ops warriors who do the job without asking or getting credit. Along with airliners crashing into U.S. ‘high value targets’ (ie. the capital), bureaucrats & politicians who leave special ops guys stranded in the field—anything else prophet Clancy wants to warn us about (did I miss anything?)?”
Dead or Alive doesn’t tie off so neatly as the real-life raid on bin Laden that ended with no American casualties and the villain at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. “The Emir” is captured alive, and then tortured to death and revived, with the threat of a chemically induced perpetual heart attack leading him to talk to interrogators. Perhaps Obama really should release a photo of bin Laden’s corpse.
The next Clancy book, for what it’s worth, focuses on the infiltration of the Pakistani military by the Taliban.
Nick Summers is a senior writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Previously, he was the media columnist for The New York Observer, founded the blog IvyGate, and was editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator.