The Incredible Predictive Power of Tom Clancy’s Novels

Before Tom Clancy became an international publishing phenomenon, he was just another insurance salesman, working out of Baltimore and dreaming of a life as an author. With the arrival of his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, in 1984, that dream suddenly became a reality, establishing the man with the aviator sunglasses and the ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Before Tom Clancy became an international publishing phenomenon, he was just another insurance salesman, working out of Baltimore and dreaming of a life as an author. With the arrival of his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, in 1984, that dream suddenly became a reality, establishing the man with the aviator sunglasses and the Navy baseball hats as a perpetual presence on best-seller lists.

Drawing on his vast trove of technical military information, Clancy singlehandedly coined a new genre: the "techno-thriller." In Clancy’s novels, the reader becomes acquainted with such things as forward-looking infrared scanners and magnetic anomaly detectors (good for finding submarines), vertical temperature gradients and downwind toxic vapor hazards (for studying the effect of chemical weapons), and Russian T-80Us and Chinese M-90s (various types of tanks). Clancy’s enthusiasm for the endless advance of technology in warfare was only matched (or nearly matched, anyway) by the outrageous plots he dreamed up. But as Clancy’s novels have receded in the rear-view mirror of publishing history, those same plots have taken on an eerie quality, providing yet another spin on that old cliché: Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

On Wednesday, Clancy died at the age of 66. With his death, we look back on how the master spy novelist managed to predict some of the most far-fetched, surprising developments in geopolitics of the last two decades.

The 9/11 Attacks

In the U.S. government’s official accounting of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 — The 9/11 Commission Report — the assembled collection of experts and officials took U.S. national security officials to task for what they described as an incredible lack of imagination. How, they asked, could no one have predicted that terrorists might ram airplanes into major buildings and cause untold destruction, especially when none other than Clancy predicted exactly such a scenario? In Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor, Japan, led by a faction of hard-line nationalists and having acquired nuclear weapons, goes to war with the United States, aiming to re-establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Following Japan’s defeat at the hands of the United States — thanks, of course, in large part to the wiles of Clancy uber-hero Jack Ryan — the pilot of a Japan Air Lines 747 decides to fly his plane into the Capitol dome during a joint session of Congress, killing just about the entire American government. With this in mind, the 9/11 Report mournfully notes that "neither the intelligence community nor aviation security experts analyzed systemic defenses within an aircraft or against terrorist-controlled aircraft, suicidal or otherwise." As the report reveals, national security officials were reading Clancy and aware of his predictions but never took them particularly seriously: "[The Clinton administration counter-terror official] Richard Clarke told us that he was concerned about the danger posed by aircraft in the context of protecting the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, the White House complex, and the 2001 G-8 summit in Genoa. But he attributed his awareness more to Tom Clancy novels than to warnings from the intelligence community."

The Middle East-Latin America Connection

From the moment it became public in 2011, it was a plot that seemed straight out of a spy novel. Working with a Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, Iran hoped to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States while he dined at Café Milano, the tony Georgetown institution. To carry out the plot, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recruited an Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas, who approached a member of the cartel with the aim of recruiting the group to carry out the assassination. If the Zetas member approached by Mansour Arbabsiar, a naturalized citizen residing in Corpus Christi, Texas, had not been an informer for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the plot may well have gone ahead. Though such an alliance of convenience between one of America’s enemies in the Middle East and a Latin American drug cartel sounds unlikely, Clancy had already dreamed up such a scenario, albeit with some minor differences. In The Teeth of the Tiger, published in 2003, Islamic terrorists partner with a Mexican cartel to enter the United States and launch a series of attacks on shopping malls. In a meeting at a Vienna café between a cartel member and one of the terrorists, the two men begin to scheme against the United States. In exchange for access to the European markets via Islamist networks there, the cartel will help spirit terrorists into the United States. "There is a confluence of interests between us," Mohammed tells Pablo, the cartel representative. "We share enemies."

The Osama bin Laden Raid

When U.S. special forces finally located and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the world was shocked to find that the terrorist mastermind had in fact not spent his final years sequestered in a cave somewhere along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, he had been living in a posh compound a stone’s throw from a major military base. In the 2010 thriller Dead or Alive, Clancy chronicles the efforts to track down another terrorist mastermind — known as "the Emir" — with clear similarities to bin Laden. When U.S. forces finally find the man, he too has been hiding in plain sight near a major city. In Clancy’s rendering, that city was Las Vegas, not Abbottabad, but the spy novelist nonetheless had the good sense to realize that it is often easier for a terrorist mastermind to find shelter in the most unexpected of places.

The Russian-Georgian War

Though Clancy made his name through his novels, it was one of his Clancy-branded video games that made his most prescient prediction. Ghost Recon, which was released in 2001, is premised on a Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, when a group of hard-line nationalists in the Kremlin attempt to reconstitute the Soviet empire. That prediction turned out be eerily true — and only off by a few months. Ghost Recon had Soviet tanks rolling across the border in April; in the actual war, they arrived in August. Though Clancy’s involvement in his eponymous videogame franchise is said to be limited, the prediction is nonetheless an eerie one for a franchise inspired by the man who sought to lift the veil on high-stakes espionage and war.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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