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New novel by former British spy chief looks at war on terror
LONDON -- Stella Rimington, who directed Britain's MI5 spy agency during a high point of IRA terrorism in the 1990s, has never liked the way that James Bond movies portray secret agents.
"It's funny and it's amusing, and everybody enjoys the films, but it's got no connection with the real world of intelligence," she says.
As far as she's concerned, John le Carre's spy novels and his famous hero, George Smiley, were much more realistic in their portrayal of international espionage during the Cold War.
But Rimington believes that the KGB were gentlemen compared to today's terrorists and suicide bombers.
So her new spy novel, "At Risk," released this week in the United States, focuses on today's war on terror. The book tells the story of a small terrorist cell that launches a deadly operation in England, and how Liz Carlyle, an MI5 agent, leads a huge effort to track it down and stop it.
U.S. military bases in England are one possible target of the cell, which has ties to Pakistan and Afghanistan. And as in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the British spies involved don't always cooperate with one another or share all their intelligence information.
The challenge that spy writers face today, Rimington says, is to accurately portray a world of terrorism that is much harder to understand than it was in the past.
"The terrorists I worked against as the MI5 director general wanted to escape. They didn't want to kill themselves. And so there was a limit to what they would do," Rimington says during an interview. "With suicide terrorists, there's no limit to the type of attack they're willing to engage in, be it biological or chemical, or even nuclear, because they're not trying to get away with their own lives."
Even more complicated, she says, is the difference between well-defined groups such as the IRA and faceless cells of anti-American terrorists with loose links to Osama bin Laden.
"We knew a lot about the IRA. We knew a lot about their people. We knew a lot about where they were and what they were trying to do. We knew their ultimate objective was to get Brits out of Ireland, and therefore we knew what kinds of targets they would have," Rimington says.
But when it comes to Islamic extremists, "I don't think we really know what they want. And a lot of them seem to be motivated by a general hatred of the United States and its allies. So it's difficult to foresee precisely what their targets might be."
Even terrorist cells that are affiliated with a central organization in South Asia or the Middle East are likely to plan their attacks locally and carry them out on their own initiative, she says.
Rimington, a well-known public figure in Britain, is no stranger to terrorism or to controversy. From 1992 to 1996, she served as the first-ever woman director-general of the MI5, Britain's domestic security service, which controls the country's counterterrorism efforts.
The MI5's nearest equivalent in the United States is the FBI. But the MI5 is a civilian intelligence organization with no police powers. Its main job is to develop intelligence designed to stop crime, not to investigate crimes that already have occurred.
Rimington's appointment was the first time Britain's secretive MI5 spy agency had ever publicly announced the name of its leader, and the British media and the public were shocked.
Photographers camped out on the doorstep of her home in London, where she had lived anonymously for years as an MI5 official. Some of her neighbors asked her to move, feeling that her presence could make their area a target for IRA terrorists. A year earlier, the Irish Republican Army had fired mortars at the prime minister's residence in London. Soon Rimington and her family had to move to an unidentified location and adopt false names.
During her time as the MI5 chief, the Cold War was waning, but the IRA hit London's financial district with three huge truck bombs, put a fourth in central Manchester, and routinely disrupted British rail services with small bombs and hoaxes.
After retiring, Rimington created headlines by writing a memoir, "Open Secret." Some Britons called her a whistle blower, others a violator of the country's Official Secrets Act, even though the book was censored by the government before publication, and it contains no revelations about specific MI5 operations.
During the long vetting process, someone leaked a copy of the book to The Sun tabloid newspaper, but the paper returned it to the government without revealing its contents.
Today, Rimington questions the wisdom of the Iraq war. She believes that the intelligence dossier the British government used to persuade the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction should have contained some of the vital caveats that the intelligence agents involved would have included. She also says that politicians in the West sometimes mislead the public about the war on terrorism.
"It isn't an '-ism' that you can defeat" by simply cracking down on terrorists with spies, soldiers and police, she says. Political and social solutions also must be found in an effort to eradicate the grievances that are causing the terrorism.
But for now, Rimington is focusing on writing realistic, page-turning fiction about the war on terror.
Liz Carlyle, the heroine of "At Risk," is no James Bond.
She's a single woman who has worked her way up to the MI5's counterterrorism division, while juggling a private life that includes everything from an unsatisfactory affair with a married man to a broken-down washing machine in her apartment.
As she tries repeatedly to track down the terrorist cell working its way across England, she can't help but wonder if she'll every be able to settle down and marry a man without being able to tell him what she does for a living.