Gerald Seymour knows about terror. ‘If you want to talk about white-knuckle fear,’ says the best-selling author and former ITN reporter, ‘try travelling at night from Beirut to Tripoli with a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English, passing through road blocks manned by 15-year-olds with AK-47s.’ The 77-year-old Englishman isn’t a standard-issue harbinger of doom, but he has been to some very dark places, including reporting from Northern Ireland during the bleakest stretches of the Troubles.
The experience led, in 1975, to his first book, Harry’s Game, a Troubles-set tale of undercover operations and betrayal in Ulster that was acclaimed by Frederick Forsyth as ‘like nothing else I have ever read’. Harry’s Game became a famous television series in 1982.
Now, with his 34th novel, Battle Sight Zero, Seymour addresses one of the security services’ deepest fears: an indiscriminate attack with an assault rifle on a UK shopping centre.
Nicholas Day and Ray Lonnen in the 1982 TV series Harry’s Game. The series was based on the book by Gerald Seymour
He still brings a correspondent’s curiosity to his writing and, while researching his latest book, visited the towns and estates where Britain’s jihadis have recruited. He was unimpressed by what he found in Derby, where the two British suicide bombers who attacked a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003 came from. ‘Nobody knew their names,’ he says. ‘Nobody remembered them or even seemed very interested. That’s why I think they are losers.’
Battle Sight Zero is a dual history: an attempt at mass murder and the journey of one particular AK-47, manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1956 and used in conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa. Eventually it arrives in Marseilles, where Zeinab, a radicalised young British Asian woman from West Yorkshire, is due to collect the rifle for a Jihadi network and then smuggle it back to Britain.
If she succeeds, a gunman will walk through a crowded mall in Manchester or Leeds with a weapon capable of firing 650 rounds a minute, causing unimaginable carnage. All that stands in her way is Andy Knight, a British undercover agent she believes is her boyfriend.
Seymour, who lives in the Chiltern Hills, knows the Middle East well. He covered the Lebanese civil war for ITN
We are only a mile downriver from the Thameside headquarters of MI5. The organisation is tasked, alongside the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist branch and other even more shadowy units, with preventing attacks within our borders. Ask Seymour if he talks to people at what he calls “the Five,” and he says, “I couldn’t answer that question.” But he is open in his admiration for Knight and operatives like him. ‘‘They’re very strange people,” Seymour says. ‘There is insecurity but also arrogance and bravado in being able to deceive everyone. What a twisted mind you must have, to have no true friend, no true relationship. But I feel very positive about what they do. We should remember what George Orwell said: “People sleep safe in their beds at night because rough men will visit violence on those who would do us harm”.’
Seymour believes there are many who would do us harm right now, not least Russia. ‘It is a brutal and amoral regime. Many years ago I met a young Russian former colonel in the KGB who’d done two tours in Chechnya. The next time I saw him it was 2006 and he was on his back with all these tubes coming out of him. That was Colonel Litvinenko.’
Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 by Russia’s secret service, the FSB, after claiming asylum in the UK. Seymour’s career and life are littered with such stark moments. In Northern Ireland he reported on bomb attacks where ‘the dead would include kids’. It left him with an abiding belief in accuracy. ‘Today television reporters use the word “tragedy”,’ he says. ‘We would never have done that, we were very straight. They talk about terrorists. We said gunmen and bombers.’
Gerald Seymour: ‘Many years ago I met a young Russian former colonel in the KGB who’d done two tours in Chechnya. The next time I saw him it was 2006 and he was on his back with all these tubes coming out of him. That was Colonel Litvinenko.’
With Brexit threatening the status quo on the Irish border, Seymour has been obliged to consider the Northern Irish conflict reigniting. ‘The director general of MI5 said, quite recently, that they have a lid on it at the moment, but not much more,’ he says. ‘There is a huge MI5 station on the outskirts of Belfast – and it’s not there for fun. Just walk around the Bogside in Londonderry and you see the murals, the banners and the pictures of AK-47s. I would hope that young people would have shifted on, but the pernicious influence of older generations on the young is still very damaging.’
How does he stay relevant in an era of mass surveillance and wars increasingly waged online? ‘Human intelligence is still big,’ he says. ‘Today we have multi-million-dollar systems, where chaps sit in a room in Lincolnshire sending signals to a drone in Iraq. They press some buttons, the drone fires its rocket and suddenly there are three boys from London fighting for Isis who aren’t going to slit anyone’s throat any more. That’s great, but there still has to be someone on the Turkey-Iraq border watching who comes and goes. There still has to be someone to bend down to fasten his sandal on his way to the mosque and, as he does so, place a bug underneath a car.’
Seymour, who lives in the Chiltern Hills, knows the Middle East well. He covered the Lebanese civil war for ITN, often rushing to beat the BBC’s Martin Bell to stories in what was, in retrospect, a golden age for British television reporting. Was he scared?
‘There are times when you are, but you have an extraordinary arrogance that makes you think it only happens to someone else. Alcohol is an enormous protection against fear, and the dull insensible sleep it brings is recommended in those circumstances.’
Today, as he states his book, there are dangers at home, as well as abroad. What if an AK-47 does get through? What if there are multiple casualties in a British city again? ‘It would be terrible,’ says Seymour. ‘But remember the Millwall season ticket holder during the 2017 London Bridge attack, who went after the attackers with a café chair? There are people like that. They aren’t trained. They don’t have time to think about what really is the sensible thing to do or put their specs in their pocket before they charge. There are some wonderful people in this country.’
‘Battle Sight Zero’ is out now, £18.99