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Andy McNab: The hidden face of war

SAS icon turned top-selling UK thriller writer, Andy McNab talks to Robert Hanks about fighting, writing and anonymity

I have a little trouble recognising Andy McNab in the hotel lobby, which is not surprising since on every published photo, either his eyes are covered with a black bar or his face is in deep shadow. It turns out that the eyes are an incongruously innocent pale blue, and they contribute to a rather boyish air. My initial anxiety, that he might find some excuse to kill me with his bare hands, recedes.

I have a little trouble recognising Andy McNab in the hotel lobby, which is not surprising since on every published photo, either his eyes are covered with a black bar or his face is in deep shadow. It turns out that the eyes are an incongruously innocent pale blue, and they contribute to a rather boyish air. My initial anxiety, that he might find some excuse to kill me with his bare hands, recedes.

McNab's unrecognisability is quite an achievement, given his degree of media exposure in the decade since he published Bravo Two-Zero. That account of how he led an SAS patrol behind Iraqi lines just before the first Gulf War in 1991 was staggeringly successful: 1.7 million copies sold in the UK alone, translated into 16 languages, filmed by the BBC with Sean Bean. He parlayed that success into a new career as a writer of gritty contemporary thrillers, and last year was declared the top-selling UK thriller writer. He isn't sure about the precise figure, but he sold only something like 3,000 fewer than John Grisham.

While, clearly, he doesn't often do TV, he crops up in newspapers, offering an insider's view of military issues, and on the radio. A couple of weeks ago, there was a minor scandal when his appearance on Desert Island Discs was suddenly pulled, apparently because the BBC judged that a discussion with Sue Lawley about hostage-taking might be upsetting in the wake of the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan. The day we meet, he is off to TalkSport, Kelvin Mackenzie's mob, for a spot of technical training prior to standing in as presenter of the Friday night phone-in. He lectures for the army and security agencies; and he is happy to do interviews.

Given all the publicity, it does occur to me that perhaps anonymity - McNab is not his real name - has become obsolete. He has wondered about dropping it, but there are practical considerations: "The way it was portrayed - 'Oh, the Iraqis are after him' - it's a load of old crap. What it is, it's domestic terrorism."

As a 19-year-old infantryman in Northern Ireland, he shot dead a member of the IRA, an incident described in his second book, Immediate Action. Subsequently, while in the SAS, he served with 14 Intelligence Group, a clandestine outfit involved in identifying IRA active service units and material: on both counts, he is a potential target. Besides, these days he mixes with celebrities: "And actually the life isn't as good, it's shite because they can't go into supermarkets without people looking." In any case, he happily admits, Andy McNab is now a brand: "I've sold beer, watches."

His new book, Deep Black (Bantam, £17.99), is the seventh to feature his hero Nick Stone, a disillusioned ex-SAS man who has ended up working on "deniable operations" for an ultra-secret, ultra-ruthless American government agency. In this one, Stone goes searching for a charismatic Muslim leader; the quest takes him to American-occupied Baghdad, where he encounters an exotic cast of spooks, crooks, fanatics and old comrades - now working "the circuit" as security consultants" - and then on to Sarajevo, where, as usual, Stone ends up even more disillusioned than at the start.

The plot strains credibility, and the terse, slangy prose is sometimes repetitive (cannabis is invariably "waccy baccy"), but McNab's action sequences, the way that heroics are inflected with terror and self-preservation, do have an emotional conviction that few action writers manage. His characters aren't heroes or supermen, but they are good at staying alive and intent on doing just that.

This is what sells the books: the implicit promise that, though they may be fiction, they are at some level, in some way, real. At the start of the book - what would be the pre-credit sequence in a movie - Nick Stone is in Bosnia in 1994, staking out a cement works where a visit is expected from the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic. Stone's job is to aim the laser that will guide a smart bomb to the target.

McNab was, one assumes, never involved in an attempt to assassinate Mladic; but one also assumes that he has spent days on end lying flat in a camouflaged scrape in a padded sniper-suit, defecating into plastic bags and feeling his body-heat being sapped by the cold earth. He talks a lot about getting the sensory details right - smells, tastes, physical sensations. When he started writing Bravo Two-Zero, his agent advised him to read Touching the Void, Joe Simpson's gruelling tale of bare survival in the Andes, and that became "the template, the Bible". He says that "The things that come out for me from it, number one, it's as if he's talking to you, so he's in a pub and he's telling you a story... so it's at you. Number two, you have got the cold and pain, all those sensations."

To keep the first-person urgency (and because he found he can't just sit down at a computer and write), he dictates the books into a mini-cassette recorder, has his words transcribed, then messes around. He talks about the difficulty of getting the structure, the flow, the importance of Nick Stone's "story-arc". While a lot of the stuff comes straight out of his own experience, McNab also puts in a good deal of research. Parts of Deep Black are quite a good primer on the politics of the Muslim world, like Channel 4 News plus swearing.

If he's writing about a place, he goes there, or goes back. He was in Bosnia in the 1990s, doing reconnaissance and caching supplies and transmitters for downed aircrews to access; for this book, he returned to check details: "It's not only sort of the sense of the thing, it's, 'What's on the telly nowadays?... What's on the menu? Is it all Bosnians behind the counter now or is it a load of Turks?' "

For Firewall, set in the Baltic, he went to Estonia and Helsinki, where he met up with a number of Russian mafiosi: "They're great guys... They've all got the suits on. You know when you buy a suit you've got the little tag on" - he gestures at his cuffs - "whatever it may be, Hugo Boss. They wanna keep them on so you know what suit it is... no, they're good guys."

The authenticity is vouched for in a paradoxical way by the fact that all his books are vetted by the MoD and the intelligence services (which never happens to Frederick Forsyth) to ensure he doesn't give away too much about SAS methods. Negotiations can be protracted: "They normally start, 'Page 16 paragraph 2, to page 184 paragraph 4: Cut,' and from there it sort of narrows down over a couple of weeks".

The reasons for changes are sometimes obscure. For Liberation Day, he was asked to change a vehicle; he assumes that the one he had originally put in had been used in similar circumstances.

On the whole, McNab is happy to oblige: he still has friends in the SAS, and has no intention of putting them in danger. With Immediate Action, there was a very public fuss about leaking secrets, though the MoD had sight of the book months beforehand. He thinks the system works better now.

This is emblematic of his somewhat difficult relationship with the military. On the one hand, Andy McNab is a fantastic recruitment tool. He says that "I was responsible for 35 per cent of the infantry intake in the mid- to late Nineties," and the army has consulted him on recruitment and retention.

But they don't want to be look as if they actually encourage troops to write their memoirs. He recalls reading a piece in the press in which military sources expressed outrage at his indiscretion. At the time, he was sitting in the back of a staff car on his way to Catterick Camp to lecture to recruits.

The most topical part of Deep Black is the section set in Baghdad: McNab has been there several times this year, on behalf of the security company he has worked for since leaving the SAS in 1993, and spent time with American patrols. He portrays civilians being horribly injured by shrapnel, panicking soldiers shooting at anything that moves. He wrote an angry piece earlier this year about the degradation inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib; he himself was kept there for some weeks in 1991, being beaten up and humiliated by Iraqi troops in rather similar ways.

What riles him most is the incompetence that permits such situations (he doesn't believe it is ordered from above): the bad PR puts other troops in danger. But he is a realist when it comes to the politics of Iraq: "Nine out of ten times it's about commerce, always has been, always will be. 'Maintaining the UK's interest overseas'."

He cautions against the idea that the troops on the ground are simply pawns of the government. "These guys do understand the political implications, they do understand sometimes the political bollocks," he says.

"The vast majority certainly of the infantry, they're coming from areas of high unemployment, left-wing tendencies, they're more left-wing than right-wing." In Ireland, he recalls, a lot of his fellow-soldiers identified quite strongly with the nationalist cause: "However, tough shit. They're on the other side, we're on this side, and the job takes over. And it's a very interesting job."

Biography: Andy McNab

Andy McNab was found in a carrier bag outside Guy's Hospital in 1959. He joined the Royal Green Jackets in 1976, and became the youngest corporal in the army at 19. He served in Gibraltar, Germany and Northern Ireland. In 1984 he joined the SAS, taking part in conventional and covert operations around the world. Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, leading a mission behind Iraqi lines, he was captured and tortured; his account, Bravo Two-Zero (1993), became the bestselling war book ever. An autobiography, Immediate Action (1995), was followed by Remote Control (1997), his first thriller featuring ex-SAS man Nick Stone. The latest, out this month, is Deep Black (Bantam). He also works for a Hereford-based security company, and has acted as technical consultant on Hollywood films. He has one daughter and four ex-wives; he and his fifth wife divide their time between England and New York. His military honours include the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.