False Friends - Stephen Leather
The most wanted man in the world is dead. Now those loyal to him seek revenge. When Navy Seals track down and kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, it's obvious there was a traitor on the inside. After the false friends are revealed to be two British students - former Islamic fundamentalists recruited by MI5 - they become targets themselves. Dan 'Spider' Shepherd must teach the pair how to survive undercover with al-Qaeda closing in. But Spider is not used to playing the handler. And with the line between mentor and friend beginning to blur, and a terrorist plot putting thousands of lives at stake, can he protect everyone before it's too late?
Stephen Leather writes:
False Friends is the ninth book to feature Spider Shepherd, and it’s the first where he steps back from undercover work. In False Friends he is told to babysit two young Muslim students who have been persuaded to infiltrate an al-Qaeda cell. It’s a big step for Spider. He’s always been the one undercover but now he sees the job from a totally different perspective.
My life as writer changed when the planes smashed into the World Trade Center on 9-11. When I first started writing thrillers, the IRA were the natural villains. They were bombing and shooting civilians in the UK and their motives were easily understood. Once the Peace Process kicked in, it became harder to justify novels in which the IRA were the bad guys. There are still splinter groups around like Real IRA but the threat of an IRA atrocity is now so small that it doesn’t work as fiction.
For a while I used gangsters, armed robbers and drug dealers as villains, easy enough to do when Shepherd was working for the Serious Organised Crime Agency. But as I said, everything changed when al-Qaeda killed more than three thousand innocent people. Even before the twin towers collapsed I knew that I had a new villain, and most of my Shepherd books since have been about Islamic terrorism or at least been in some way connected to it. But what I wanted to do in False Friends was to show that not all Muslims are terrorists or sympathetic to them, that the vast majority are hard-working, decent citizens. The heroes of the book are two young British-born Muslims who are approached to join an al-Qaeda cell in North London. They contact MI5 who ask them to undertake a dangerous undercover mission. But as they are young and inexperienced, Charlotte Button asks Spider to babysit them. It turns out to be his toughest mission ever.
Much of the story takes place in Stoke Newington, an area I wasn’t familiar with so I had to spend quite a bit of time there researching. The ending takes place in the Westfield shopping Mall near the Olympic Village. I spent two days wandering around with a notepad and pen trying to figure out what a terrorist group would do to wreak havoc. Having written the book I send it to a friend in CO19, the Met’s armed police department, and coincidentally a few days before he received it his team had been at the same mall on a recce as it had been identified as a possible target during the Olympics. A big chunk of the book is about surveillance and counter-surveillance and I was lucky to have a SOCA surveillance expert walk me through the techniques. I also made contact with a couple of SAS guys who have become a great source of information. Names withheld for obvious reasons!