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Art imitates life as terrorism becomes a theme

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat them.

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Terrorism as hot topic: "Syriana" star George Clooney looks over a shot with writer-director Stephen Gaghan.

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(CNN) -- Having trouble sorting fact from fiction in the debate about terrorism?

Consider where you get your information.

Terrorism is a hot topic in the entertainment world. You can go to the movies and watch "Syriana." Turn on the TV and choose from "24" on Fox, "E-Ring" on NBC and "Sleeper Cell" on Showtime.

Even a man who has advised four presidents on national security and intelligence issues, Richard Clarke -- who already wrote a best-selling nonfiction book after his testimony before the 9/11 Commission -- has gotten into the act by writing a novel called "The Scorpion's Gate."

"Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction," it says on the cover, in case you miss the point.

In Clarke's book, set five years in the future, Iran is America's real enemy. It's ready to grab oil-rich land from the fictional country of Islamyah, which used to be Saudi Arabia before more bad guys -- the Saudi royal family -- were deposed.

And a fictional U.S. secretary of defense, who is also a heavy, is ready to launch his own pre-emptive strike on Islamyah in the name of the war on terrorism.

"It's all extrapolated from things that have already begun to happen. And if we don't change those paths, we're going to end up with this kind of future, which I hope we don't," Clarke recently told CNN's "American Morning."

Flynn's take

Terrorism, or at least writing novels about it, has been a good deal for Vince Flynn.

The former marketing executive from Minnesota began his career as a self-published author, and now his books hit the best-seller lists.

His latest, "Consent to Kill," came out about the same time as Clarke's novel. Flynn's hero is a covert operator named Mitch Rapp. In various books he's gone head-to-head with terrorists inside the White House; averted a nuclear attack on Washington by Muslim terrorists; and fought off fictional bureaucrats and politicians who want to put an end to his activities.

"There is no doubt -- my first job is to entertain," Flynn says. "Most people don't know about covert ops. These books educate. I peel back these layers and show what is going on."

Flynn's books are certainly full of action and he prides himself on his meticulous research. He says it has earned him plenty of fans in the counterterrorism community, who relate to the Washington infighting he writes about.

"I put in a sense of frustration from the FBI, CIA and Special Forces -- with politicians and bureaucrats," Flynn says.

Entering the debate

Flynn comes at his novels with a certain point of view.

Torture, and the need for it, has been a strong theme in his recent novels. In "Memorial Day," Mitch Rapp begins shooting terrorists in the head while trying to locate a nuclear weapon about to blow away the U.S. capital.

It is the so-called "ticking time-bomb" scenario that enters the torture debate, which is at the center of the novel. Is torture justified in the face of an imminent attack?

Yes, Flynn says.

He's disappointed by the news that President Bush has accepted Sen. John McCain's proposed legislation to ban torture by U.S. interrogators. He says it does make his audience uncomfortable when he talks about torture during his book tour -- but that's OK, because he doesn't think people should feel comfortable discussing it.

Nevertheless, he says, when he asks people in the audience to shut their eyes and raise their hands if they feel his character was justified in shooting people to get information about a possible nuclear attack, most raise their hands.

Flynn is a busy man these days. He's already outlined his next novel; he worked with Fox on the upcoming season of "24"; he's pitched a series on counterterrorism to HBO; and he's hoping that one of his Mitch Rapp books will make it to the big screen.

By the way, he's critical of "Syriana," even as he says it helps people understand the indoctrination that goes into suicide bombers. "I just think at this current time, it's rather disturbing or disappointing, that with all that is going on that the movie made the villains to be the evil oil companies and CIA."

As for his own works, Flynn says, "I do think these books have helped educate readers what's at stake. While I do that, I feel it is my obligation to repeat over and over that 99 percent of Muslims are God-fearing and God-loving."

More on Osama

Back to the real world for a moment and Osama bin Laden.

Last week's column explained why U.S. officials still believe bin Laden is alive even though he hasn't been heard from in a year.

Now, it seems that the new mantra is that although bin Laden is alive, he isn't necessarily in charge of al Qaeda.

That was the line used by the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in a recent interview with journalists in that country. Ryan Crocker's contention was that if bin Laden is in a remote area of Pakistan, as experts believe, he couldn't easily communicate with his followers.

Crocker isn't the only one saying this. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the new Saudi ambassador to the United States, who was once head of Saudi intelligence and actually met bin Laden, says much the same thing.

Prince Turki al Faisal questioned why, if bin Laden is in charge, all the audio- and videotapes during the last year have come from al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Saudi ambassador raised the specter of a power struggle inside al Qaeda.

Nonsense, says CNN terrorism consultant Peter Bergen. "It doesn't matter if Osama bin Laden has operational control. Obviously, bin Laden is not on his satellite phone issuing orders. Instead, he and Ayman al-Zawahiri just get on [TV news outlets] al Jazeera, CNN, BBC and issue orders that way." Bergen, of course is referring to the taped statements, usually released to al Jazeera before being picked up and aired on the other two networks.

Incidentally, Bergen has a new book coming out next month, but he's sticking with nonfiction. The book documents the oral history of bin Laden and al Qaeda.

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