An Eminently Readable Thesis on Islamic Terrorism

Frankly, there are 2 ways to look at this book from Frederick Forsyth. One, as a thriller and two – as an informative fiction 

story. Your enjoyment of, and take-away from the book will largely depend upon your own perception and expectations. If you go in with pre-conceived notions, you will miss a good book – for despite my title, it is a good book, no doubt about that.

And The Afghan is a classic case of the above. My title says “An eminently readable thesis on Islamic terrorism” which is indeed my view on this, as I shall elaborate on it later on in the course of this article. But that does not mean that it is uninteresting. Note that I have rated it 4 stars overall. The question will occur to all of you – on a fiction book, how does the author of this article reconcile the overall rating with the title? And, you would be justified in asking that question.

The plot and the storyline are very simple: western intelligence gets wind of a major attack plan by Al Qaeda. Problem is, they are not aware of the when, the who, the where or the how. All they know is that AN attack is in the works. Problem: stop it. Problem 2: How do you stop something you know nothing about? Answer: Covert operations – meaning the infiltration of Al Qaeda by an intelligence agent. How does one get an agent so high that he is privy to even the top secrets – especially considering that the agent concerned has a very limited time frame? Answer: Impersonation! And it is that premise that makes the plot so promising – the infiltration of an agent into Al Qaeda by a westerner! They get their answer in the form of the Col Mike Martin – a man who can speak Arabic like an Arab, and can pass of as an Afghan, having been exposed to the eastern culture in his formative years.

That is the synopsis of the plot. As I said, a very simple plot. In true Forsyth fashion, there are no sub-plots, no romantic angles, no side-offs of any kind. One plot, simple in nature, meticulous in execution and brilliant in the narration. Any and all Forsyth fans would identify with that style of the author. But… the similarity ends there.

This part of the book is vintage Forsyth. The attention to detail, the meticulous planning are all there, and are a pleasure to read. The narration is such that it will keep you interested in the story, and keep you panting for more. As is usual, the writer of the book has excelled in building the plot by brilliant meticulous planning details being specified. This helps in transporting the reader to the midst of the story itself and enhances the experience of the book – a factor that is tellingly absent in most other contemporary writers of this age. The book stays with you even after you put it down – a factor which, for example, is absent in Crichton, as evidenced by my own personal reaction from the reading of Airframe.

And you will not be disappointed in this phase of the book – which in fact makes the whole book a good one, and is the frontispiece of the story, alongwith the superb research given on Islamic terrorism. Put these two factors together, and you have yourself an excellent book

As is the habit of Frederick Forsyth, his books are usually laid into distinctly identifiable parts – the introduction, the plot and the planning, the execution. This book is also along similar lines. An entire part of the book has devoted to the sceptre of Islamic Terrorism – its genesis, the tentacles, its growth and its factors – especially with regard to Afghanistan. The entire contemporary history of the troubled nation has been well covered and documented with fascinating detail, and makes for very interesting reading. No issues on that score.

The big question: why the detail on history? Why the history lesson? In order to understand that, it is essential for us to understand another aspect of Frederick Forsyth’s writing: Character development. This is one the hallmarks of the writer.

In this case, the history lesson was quite essential to build one character: The Afghan. The Afghan happens to be a terrorist in US custody – and is the person Col Martin impersonates. In order that you understand the character, building of the background was essential. It gives us a feel of the person, his motives, his thoughts, his style and his persona. This has been achieved by juxtaposing it against his environ and his culture, which are the formative aspects of any individual.

By the end of the history lesson, one almost can get into the shoes of The Afghan – and that is vintage Forsyth. Forsyth at his best! Avid Forsyth fans will note that almost all of his books have a very well developed antagonist, with a slightly less developed character in the hero’s role. Same is the case here: the book is all about The Afghan – from the first page to the last.

Yes, there are holes as well as major shifts from earlier styles. But the basic shell is the same, the style is unaltered. One major difference is that the quintessential fight between protagonist and antagonist - as shown in some other works by the same author – is notably missing. Also, one might conceivably argue that the author has dwelt for too much time on the history of the topic, which tends to take away from the book and the story

The holes are there- no doubt, and arguments. They are there in the form of coincidences – one too many at that. They are present in the story itself – can’t tell more, or it will spoil your fun. That is why the book rates 3.5 to 4 stars as opposed to 5.

But what must be kept in mind is that overall; the book holds your interest, is a page turner, moves at a decent pace and doesn’t slacken too much. The punch comes after you put it down – the story and character tend to stay in your mind.

And THAT is why I say “An Eminently Readable Thesis on Islamic Terrorism”! 

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This review was first written on consumer product review  website) several years ago


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