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  • Published: 6 August 2019
  • ISBN: 9780552175784
  • Imprint: Corgi
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $22.99

The Fox


Chapter One

No one saw them. No one heard them. They were not supposed to. The black-clad Special Forces soldiers slipped unseen through the pitch-dark night towards the target house.

In most town and city centres there is always a glimmer of light, even in deepest night, but this was the outer suburb of an English provincial town and all public lighting had ceased at one in the morning. This was the darkest hour, 2 a.m. A solitary fox watched them pass but instinct bade him not interfere with fellow hunters. No house lights broke the gloom.

They encountered two single humans, both on foot, both drunk after late-night partying with friends. The soldiers melted into gardens and shrubbery, disappearing black on black, until the wanderers had stumbled towards their homes.

They knew exactly where they were, having studied the streets and the target house in intimate detail for many hours. The pictures had been taken by cruising cars and overhead drones. Much enlarged and pinned to the wall of the briefing room at Stirling Lines, the headquarters of the SAS outside Hereford, the images had been memorized to the last stone and kerb. The soft-booted men did not trip or stumble.

There were a dozen of them, and they included two Americans, inserted at the insistence of the US team that had installed itself in the embassy in London. And there were two from the British SRR, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, a unit even more clandestine than the SAS and the SBS, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service respectively. The authorities had elected to use the SAS, known simply as ‘the Regiment’.

One of the two from the SRR was a woman. The Americans presumed this was to establish gender equality. It was the reverse. Observation had revealed that one of the inhabitants of the target house was female and even the British hard squads try to observe a little gallantry. The point of the presence of the SRR, sometimes referred to in the club as ‘Her Majesty’s burglars’, was to practise one of their many skill sets – covert entry.

The mission was not only to enter and subdue the target house and its denizens but to ensure they were not seen by any watcher inside and that no one escaped. They approached from all angles, appeared simultaneously around the garden fence, front, back and sides, crossed the garden and ringed the house, still unseen and unheard by neighbour or inhabitant.

No one heard the slight squeak of the diamond-tipped glass cutter as it described a neat circle in a kitchen window, nor the low crack as the disc was removed with a suction pad. A gloved hand came through the hole and unlatched the window. A black figure climbed over the sill into the sink, jumped quietly to the floor and opened the back door. The team slipped in.

Though they had all studied the architect’s plan, filed with the registry when the house was built, they still used head-mounted night-vision goggles (NVGs) in case of owner-installed obstructions or even booby-traps. They began with the ground floor, moving from room to room to confirm there were no sentries or sleeping figures, trip wires or silent alarms.

After ten minutes the team leader was satisfied and with a nod of his head led a single-file column of five up the narrow staircase of what was evidently a very ordinary detached four-bedroom family home. The two Americans, increasingly bewildered, remained below. This was not the way they would have subdued a thoroughly dangerous nest of terrorists. Such a house invasion back home would have involved several magazines of ammunition by now. Clearly, the Limeys were pretty weird.

Those below heard startled exclamations from above. These quickly ceased. After ten more minutes of muttered instructions the team leader uttered his first report. He did not use internet or cellphone – interceptible – but old-fashioned encrypted radio. ‘Target subdued,’ he said softly. ‘Inhabitants four. Await sunrise.’ Those who listened to him knew what would happen next. It had all been pre-planned and rehearsed.

The two Americans, both US Navy SEALs, also reported in to their embassy on the south side of the Thames in London.

The reason for the ‘hard’ takeover of the building was simple. Despite a week of covert surveillance, it was still possible, bearing in mind the amount of damage to the defences of the entire Western world that had come out of that harmless-looking suburban house, that it might contain armed men. There might be terrorists, fanatics, mercenaries hiding behind the innocent façade. That was why the Regiment had been told there was no alternative to a ‘worst case’ operation.

But an hour later the team leader communicated again.

‘You are not going to believe what we have found here.’

In the very early morning of 3 April 2019 a telephone rang in a modest bedroom under the eaves of the Special Forces Club in an anonymous townhouse in Knightsbridge, a wealthy district of London’s West End. At the third ring the bedside light came on. The sleeper was awake and fully functioning – the outcome of a lifetime of practice. He swung his feet to the floor and glanced at the illuminated panel before putting the apparatus to his ear. He also glanced at the clock beside the lamp. Four in the morning. Did this woman never sleep?

‘Yes, Prime Minister.’

The person at the other end clearly had not been to bed at all.

‘Adrian, sorry to wake you at this hour. Could you be with me at nine? I have to greet the Americans. I suspect they will be on the warpath and I would appreciate your assessment and advice. They are due at ten.’

Always the old-fashioned courtesy. She was giving an order, not making a request. For friendship she would use his given name. He would always call her by her title.

‘Of course, Prime Minister.’

There was nothing more to say, so the connection ended. Sir Adrian Weston rose and went into the small but sufficient bathroom to shower and shave. At half past four he went downstairs, past the black-framed portraits of all the agents who had gone into Nazi-occupied Europe so long ago and never come back, nodded to the night watch behind the lobby desk and let himself out. He knew a hotel on Sloane Street with an all-night café.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on a bright autumn morning, 11 September 2001, a twin-jet American airliner out of Boston for Los Angeles designated American Airlines 11 swerved out of the sky over Manhattan and slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It had been hijacked in mid-air by five Arabs in the service of terrorist group al-Qaeda. The man at the controls was an Egyptian. He was supported by four Saudis who, armed with box-cutter knives, had subdued the cabin staff and hustled him on to the flight deck.

Minutes later, another airliner, flying far too low, appeared over New York. It was United Airlines 175, also out of Boston for Los Angeles, also hijacked by five al-Qaeda terrorists.

America and, within moments, the entire world watched in disbelief as what had been presumed a tragic accident revealed it was nothing of the sort. The second Boeing 767 flew deliberately into the South Tower of the Trade Center. Both skyscrapers sustained terminal damage in the mid-sections. Aided by the fuel from the full tanks of the airliners, savage fires erupted and began to melt the steel girders that held the buildings rigid. A minute before 10 a.m. the South Tower collapsed into a mountain of red-hot rubble, followed by the North Tower half an hour later.

At 9.37 a.m. American Airlines flight 77 out of Washington Dulles International Airport, also bound for Los Angeles with full tanks, dived into the Pentagon, on the Virginia side of the Potomac. It had also been hijacked by five Arabs.

The fourth airliner, United Airlines 93, out of Newark for San Francisco, again hijacked in mid-air, was recaptured by a passenger revolt, but too late to save the aircraft, which, with its fanatical hijacker still at the controls, dived into farmland in Pennsylvania.

Before sundown that day, now known simply as 9/11, a fraction under 3,000 Americans and others were dead. They included the crews and passengers of all four airliners, almost all those in the World Trade Center’s two skyscraper towers and 125 in the Pentagon. Plus the nineteen terrorists who committed suicide. That single day left the USA not simply shocked but traumatized. She still is.

When an American government is wounded that badly, it does two things. It demands and exacts revenge, and it spends.

Over the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency and the first four years of that of Barack Obama, the USA spent a trillion dollars constructing the biggest, the most cumbersome, the most duplicated and possibly the most inefficient national security structure the world has ever seen.

If the nine inner US intelligence agencies and the seven outer agencies had been doing their jobs in 2001, 9/11 would never have occurred. There were signs, hints, reports, tip-offs, indications and oddities that were noted, reported, filed and ignored.

What followed 9/11 was an explosion of expenditure that is literally breathtaking. Something had to be done, and be seen to be done by the great American public, so it was. A raft of new agencies was created to duplicate and mirror the work of the existing ones. Thousands of new skyscrapers sprang up, entire cities of them, most owned and run by private-sector-contracted enterprises eager for the fathomless dollar harvest.

Government expenditure on the single pandemic word ‘security’ detonated like a nuke over Bikini Atoll, all uncomplainingly paid for by the ever-trusting, ever-hopeful, ever-gullible American taxpayer. The exercise generated an explosion of reports, on paper and online, so vast that only about ten per cent of them have ever been read. There simply is not the time or, despite the massive payroll, the staff to begin to cope with the information. And something else happened in those twelve years. The computer and its archive, the database, became rulers of the world.

When the Englishman seeking an early breakfast off Sloane Street was a young officer in the Paras, then in MI6, records were created on paper and stored on paper. It took time, and the storage of archives took space, but penetration, the copying or removal and theft of secret archives – that is, espionage – was hard and the quantity removable at any one time or from any one place was modest.

During the Cold War, which supposedly ended with the Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the great spies like Oleg Penkovsky could abstract only as many documents as they could carry about their persons. Then the Minox camera and its product microfilm enabled up to a hundred documents to be concealed in a small canister. The microdot made copied documents even smaller and more transportable. But the computer revolutionized the lot.

When defector and traitor Edward Snowden flew to Moscow it is believed he carried over one and a half million documents on a memory stick small enough to be inserted before a border check into the human anus. ‘Back in the day’, as the veterans put it, a column of trucks would have been needed, and a convoy moving through a gate tends to be noticeable.

So, as the computer took over from the human, the archives containing trillions of secrets came to be stored on databases. As the complexities of this mysterious dimension called cyberspace became more and more weird and increasingly complicated, fewer and fewer human brains could understand how they worked. Matching pace, crime also changed, gravitating from shoplifting through financial embezzlement to today’s daily computer fraud, which enables more wealth to be stolen than ever before in the history of finance. Thus the modern world has given rise to the concept of computerized hidden wealth but also to the computer hacker. The burglar of cyberspace.

But some hackers do not steal money; they steal secrets. Which is why a harmless-looking suburban house in a provincial English town was invaded in the night by an Anglo-American team of Special Forces soldiers and its inhabitants detained. And why one of those soldiers murmured into a radio-mic: ‘You are not going to believe what we have found here.’

Three months before the raid a team of American computer aces working at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, discovered what they also could not believe. The most secret database in the USA, probably in the world, had apparently been hacked.

Fort Meade, as the word ‘fort’ implies, is technically an army base. But it is a lot more than that. It is the home of the fearsome National Security Agency, or NSA. Heavily shielded from unwanted view by forests and forbidden access roads, it is the size of a city. But instead of a mayor it has a four-star army general as its commanding officer.

It is the home of that branch of all intelligence agencies known as ELINT, or electronic intelligence. Inside its perimeter, rank upon rank of computers eavesdrop the world. ELINT intercepts, it listens, it records, it stores. If something it intercepts is dangerous, it warns.

Because not everyone speaks English, it translates from every language, dialect and patois used on planet Earth. It encrypts and decodes. It hoards the secrets of the USA and it does this inside a range of super-computers which house the most clandestine databases in the country.

These databases are protected not by a few traps or pitfalls but by firewalls so complicated that those who constructed them and who monitor them on a daily basis were utterly convinced they were impenetrable. Then one day these guardians of the American cyber-soul stared in disbelief at the evidence before them.

They checked and checked again. It could not be. It was not possible. Finally, three of them were forced to seek an interview with the general and destroy his day. Their principal database had been hacked. In theory, the access codes were so opaque that no one without them could enter the heartland of the super-computer. No one could get through the protective device known simply as ‘the air gap’. But someone had.

Worldwide, there are thousands of hacker attacks per day. The vast bulk are attempts to steal money. There are endeavours to penetrate the bank accounts of citizens who have deposited their savings where they believed they would be safe. If the ‘hacks’ are successful, the swindler can pretend to be the account holder and instruct the bank’s computer to transfer assets to the thief’s account, many miles and often many countries away.

All banks, all financial institutions, now have to encircle their clients’ accounts with walls of protection, usually in the form of codes of personal identification which the hacker cannot know and without which the bank’s computer will not agree to transfer a penny or a cent. This is one of the prices the developed world now pays for its utter dependence on computers. It is extremely tiresome but better than impoverishment and is now an irreversible characteristic of modern life.

Other attacks involve attempts at sabotage stemming from pure malice. A penetrated database can be instructed to cause chaos and functional breakdown. This is generally done by the insertion of a sabotage instruction called ‘malware’ or a Trojan horse. Again, elaborate protections in the form of firewalls have to be wrapped around the database to frustrate the hacker and keep the computerized system safe from attack.

Some databases are so secret and so vital that the safety of an entire nation depends upon them remaining safe from cyber-attack. The firewalls are so complicated that those who devise them regard them as impossible to breach. They involve not just a jumble of letters and figures but hieroglyphs and symbols which, if not in exactly the right order, will forbid entry to anyone but an officially ‘cleared’ operator with the precise access codes.

Such a database was at the heart of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, housing trillions of secrets vital to the safety of the entire USA.

Of course, its penetration was covered up. It had to be. This sort of scandal destroys careers – and that is the good news. It can topple ministers, gut departments, shiver the timbers of entire governments. But though it may have been hidden from the public, and above all from the media and those wretches of the investigative press, the Oval Office had to know …

As the man in the Oval Office finally comprehended the enormity of what had been done to his country he became angry – spitting angry. He issued a presidential order. Find him. Close him down. In a supermax, somewhere far beneath the rocks of Arizona. For ever.

The Fox Frederick Forsyth

The master storyteller is back with a classic race-against-time thriller with a modern edge.

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