Bantam £17.99 354pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Extreme Risk, By Chris Hunter
The most chilling aspect of Major Chris Hunter's new book is not the deadly devices that he and his fellow Army "high threat operatives" risk life and limb to disable. It is the the international spider's web of terrorists willing to use such bombs against civilians and soldiers alike. As he retells a career as a bomb disposal officer, which included being part of the COBRA defence intelligence team in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, it becomes evident that the British public is blissfully unaware of much work behind the scenes to counteract bombers, from amateurs to sophisticated enemies.
For many years the work of the 11 EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) Regiment, particularly the soldiers of Alpha Troop, remained hidden in the shadows - largely because they were a prime target in Northern Ireland. But their heroic actions in Afghanistan, where they have lost four men in just over a year trying to disable the deadly IEDs (improvised explosive devices) responsible for most British deaths in Helmand, has captured the public imagination and been recognised with string of bravery awards.
Unlike Hunter's first bestseller Eight Lives Down, this is not an adrenaline-fuelled tale of having to make the "long walk" towards a deadly device in the high-speed, high-threat world of Iraq. While he touches on heart-pumping moments, Extreme Risk takes a broader look at the techniques to defeat the bomb-maker: the intelligence gathering, the secretive games of verbal chess to exchange information and the need to monitor the global network as well as the home-grown threat. It is unsurprising that getting chapters past the Ministry of Defence proved a battle for the author.
The EOD soldiers had been preparing for years before 2005 to deal with a potential suicide bomber on UK soil. Yet the national threat level, Hunter writes, had been lowered just five weeks before London was ripped apart by the attacks which claimed 52 innocent lives.
The book follows the author from his early days as an officer candidate at Sandhurst, through Northern Ireland, Colombia, Iraq and finally Afghanistan. It takes in his work at the sharp end as well as days in a desk job, deciphering intelligence. It is a compelling account by an insider of the counter-terrorism fight. Hunter reveals that prior to the invasion of Iraq, he and his men were initially training to parachute under fire into the southern oil fields after intelligence reports suggested Saddam Hussein's men had rigged up devices to the pumps. This plan, nicknamed Operation Certain Death, never came to fruition.
The art of the bomb disposal officer is not man against machine but man against man: to trap the bomb-maker with forensics and intelligence. While Eight Lives Down focused more on the former, his new book takes a closer look at the latter. With the success of The Hurt Locker, which focused on bomb disposal in Iraq, these camera-shy men have reluctantly become celebrity heroes. But Hunter's book offers a more realistic picture. Far from pandering to a macho portrayal, he offers a poignant view of the traumatic effects of losing friends or dealing with the bloody aftermath of explosions as well as the devastating impact on families back home. As he explains, revealing with candour the effect on his own marriage, EOD stands for Everyone's Divorced.
The officer, who left the army in 2007, admits that dredging up the unresolved memories of what drove him to seek such an extreme profession was a painful experience. But the result is a three-dimensional character, as flawed as he is courageous. Extreme Risk also gives its reader a beautifully descriptive fly-on-the-wall look at the daily work of the EOD men, including the wicked humour that keeps them sane and the peculiar caustic witticisms that abound among soldiers.
Finally, Hunter pulls no punches in accusing then Chancellor Gordon Brown of starving the military of funds or expressing his deep frustration at the people in positions of power who are "too arrogant or too ignorant" to see that those risking their lives need more resources. The book is dedicated to seven bomb disposal soldiers "whose time and luck ran out". For those with a fascination with international terrorism and the deadly IEDs that have become its weapon of choice, this books will offer a unique insight.
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