Joel C. Rosenberg is a New York Times bestselling author with nearly 5 million copies sold among his seventeen novels and five nonfiction titles. He has been profiled by the New York Times, the Washington Times, and the Jerusalem Post and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV programs in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.
In this interview, Joel talks about his latest book, The Libyan Diversion.
FF: What inspired your story line for The Libyan Diversion?
In September 2021, I was in Washington, D.C., interviewing Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and secretary of state. I was asking him what keeps him up at night, what national security threats he worries about that don’t get talked about enough. Pompeo said he worries about “ungoverned spaces” in northern Mexico.
He said it’s not just the fact that millions of people from Central and South America are flooding into the United States illegally, violating American sovereignty and creating a serious economic and security crisis. It’s also that the Mexican government has essentially ceded sovereignty in large swaths of territory along America’s southern border to violent drug cartels, human traffickers, and other dangerous criminal enterprises. If this weren’t bad enough, Pompeo said, people from the Middle East are being arrested on the U.S. southern border that are on our terror watch list. How many on the watch list, then, have gotten into the U.S. that we don’t know about?
It was a chilling concept and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it ought to form the basis of my next political thriller, which became The Libyan Diversion.
FF: Without giving too much away, please tell us briefly about the story line.
Marcus Ryker is a decorated Marine combat veteran who served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, he works for the United States Secret Service, rising to serve on the elite Presidential Protective Detail. But then, through a series of major changes in his life that happen in previous novels, Ryker is now a clandestine officer in the Central Intelligence Agency.
As The Libyan Diversion begins, Ryker is tasked with hunting down the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. He believes he has successfully located Abu Nakba—the terrorist’s nom de guerre, which in Arabic means the “father of catastrophe”—in the deserts of Libya. But after Ryker advises the president to launch a massive air strike, it appears as if the intelligence was wrong. That Ryker has been suckered. Tricked. All part of an elaborate diversion by Abu Nakba to discredit Ryker inside the White House and National Security Council, even as terrorist teams smuggle nuclear weapons into the U.S. via Mexico.
Now, the question is whether Ryker can figure out exactly what is happening and get back to the States in time to stop Abu Nakba from triggering the biggest mass casualty event in American history, far worse than the attacks on 9/11.
FF: Your main character, Marcus Ryker, finds himself in a quandary regarding an action he recommended based on the available intelligence. How does this play into your story line?
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know three former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as a range of senior CIA officers and senior officials in Israeli and Arab intelligence agencies. One of the things I’ve learned from them is the critical need, sometimes, of making decisions based on incomplete and imperfect intelligence. It’s risky. You always want to gather more solid intelligence before you activate an operation. But there isn’t always time to wait. Sometimes you simply have to move with what you have.
That’s what Ryker is dealing with in The Libyan Diversion. Ryker is so determined to hunt down and capture or kill Abu Nakba—and so passionate about stopping Abu Nakba from killing more Americans, Israelis, and other allies—that sometimes he needs to move without all the facts. The question in the opening chapters of this new novel is whether Ryker has fallen for a trap that will not only divert his and America’s attention from the real threat that’s coming, but also discredit Ryker enough to stop him from being listened to within the CIA, NSC, and senior White House team.
FF: Your readers have grown to love Ryker. What about his character do you think resonates so well?
Of all the lead characters I’ve ever created, Marcus Ryker is certainly my favorite, and I’m encouraged to see how he’s resonating with so many readers. What makes him interesting to me is that he is complicated. As a former Marine and high-level Secret Service agent, he certainly has very impressive skill sets. He knows how to kill the enemy and he won’t hesitate for a moment if that’s the right thing to do. And yet Ryker is not an assassin. That’s not his personality. That’s not his training. Ryker is not James Bond or Jason Bourne or Mitch Rapp. At his core, he’s a protector. His primary mission isn’t to kill but to protect—protect his country, its people, its leaders, and its allies.
His main problem, however, is that while spending a lifetime protecting his country, he failed to protect the two people he loved most in the world—his wife and only son, both of whom were murdered in a convenience store robbery years earlier when he was traveling with the president as a Secret Service agent.
While Ryker has been severely wounded in combat in the past, what affects him most in the present is this deep psychological, emotional, and spiritual wound. He’s alone in the world and he feels guilty for having been such a workaholic that he was not there to protect his family.
Ryker is a man of faith. While he’s not very outspoken about his personal faith in Jesus Christ, it is the moral code that shapes his life, his actions, and his worldview. His faith has sustained him through this terrible loss of his wife and son, but he’s still wrestling with what God wants him to do with the rest of his life. Should he stay with the CIA or move on? How can he leave the Agency if terrorists are still hell-bent on wreaking havoc inside the United States? Should he get remarried or is that a betrayal of the memory of his childhood sweetheart? And even if he does get married again, won’t that distract him from the mission of protecting his country?
This, I think, is what makes Marcus Ryker so interesting. His skills, training, and vast experience have made him the CIA’s most valuable and trusted clandestine officer. But he’s not a superhero. He’s not a Marvel comic character. He’s not a superspy, assassinating enemies, drinking whatever he wants, and sleeping with whomever he’d wish. He’s a man of courage and a man of faith. But he’s also a wounded, troubled, and complicated man who is just trying to do the right thing as best he can in a crazy, dangerous, and chaotic world.
FF: Your novel reads like real-time headline news. What is your background that informs such accurate story lines in relation to the current geopolitical terrain and news cycle?
For nearly twenty-four years, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C., serving as an aide and advisor to a range of U.S. and Israeli political, business, and media leaders, and later as a journalist and author.
For nearly a decade now, I’ve lived in Israel as a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, where I continue to write books and work as a journalist. And because my novels and nonfiction books have been read by a wide range of world leaders, I’ve had the rare opportunity to spend hours upon hours with kings and crown princes, presidents and prime ministers, in Israel, the Arab Muslim world, and in the United States.
All this has given me a front-row seat and a backstage pass, of sorts, to see how leaders think, what they fear, and how they make decisions. I try to bring all of that to bear when I write my political thrillers to make them as terrifying yet realistic as humanly possible.
FF: How did you research terrorist organizations and activity for your novel? Is there a particular terrorist cell that you drew from in crafting The Libyan Diversion?
Several years ago, while writing The Persian Gamble—the second in the Marcus Ryker Series—I decided to create a terrorist organization from scratch, one that doesn’t really exist. Why? Because I needed to be able to craft something realistic but not real so that I could make it do what I wanted it to do, and I wasn’t completely tied to the headlines. For example, years ago I wrote the first set of political thrillers about ISIS before most people had even heard of ISIS. But eventually, thank God, ISIS was effectively destroyed and their Caliphate violently dismantled. So I can’t write about ISIS anymore. That’s why I need a fictitious terror group that I could manipulate throughout many novels. I came up with a group that calls itself “Kairos,” implying that it’s based in Greece, but only to throw world intelligence agencies off the scent, since none of the group’s operations are based in Greece at all.
Ian Fleming actually did the same thing in the 1950s and 1960s while he was writing the James Bond novels. Yes, Bond faced Soviet enemies and other spy agencies operating behind the Iron Curtain. But Fleming created a global terror organization called SPECTRE to give him more flexibility as an author, and it worked quite well. The producers of the James Bond films are still using SPECTRE as their central enemy to this day.
Thus, as I research each of my novels, I’m not necessarily trying to re-create actual terror organizations but create my own fictional one. That’s made it a bit easier.
FF: What research did you do to inform the story line of terrorists using nuclear dirty bombs?
The notion of terrorists building nuclear “dirty bombs” and smuggling them inside the United States terrifies me. For better or worse, there’s actually a great deal of open-source, unclassified material out there that I was able to study. And of course, I spoke to various sources of my own.
FF: In your novel, you demonstrate the danger of a porous border between the U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and Canada. Why do you feel it’s important to paint this picture in your novel?
There is an absolute hellish disaster underway on the U.S.-Mexican border. More than 2.7 million people illegally crossed into the U.S. in 2022 via Mexico. Many of them were on the terror watch list. This is madness. No country in the world should ever let this happen. And the fact that it’s happening in the world’s only superpower is insane. People in Washington should seriously go to prison for letting this disaster happen in the first place and for not plugging the holes and sealing that border immediately. I have no doubt that dreadful, ghastly terror attacks are going to unfold in the not-too-distant future because of the unwillingness of Washington to protect America’s southern border as one of our top national priorities. Many, many people are going to die because of this. And all of it was preventable. It sickens me. And that’s a big reason I wrote The Libyan Diversion.
FF: How can fiction be used to educate and inform readers regarding actual world events? Does that motivate you to craft realistic novels?
Most people don’t want to be educated. They want to be entertained. My goal is to do both. But the entertainment has to come first. If people don’t want to read the novel—or finish it—then it doesn’t matter what else you want to accomplish. First and foremost you have to hook them and hold them to the very last sentence on the very last page.
FF: What is your hope for this novel? How do you hope your story resonates with your readers?
I want readers to stay up all night reading The Libyan Diversion and then email me or tweet me—cursing me for keeping them up all night because they kept telling themselves, “Just one more chapter,” and suddenly the sun was coming up and they had to go to work or school and they were absolutely exhausted. That would mean I’m doing my job right.
The Libyan Diversion
Joel C. Rosenberg
Genres: Suspense, Military Thrillers
Release Date: May 16, 2023
The world’s most wanted terrorist is dead. Marcus Ryker recommended the air strike himself. The intelligence was rock-solid. But what if it was wrong?
Abu Nakba—the man responsible for lethal attacks in Washington, D.C., London, and Jerusalem—is finally dead. Marcus Ryker has been tasked with hunting down and destroying what’s left of the terror group Kairos.
But before Ryker can mobilize his team of CIA operatives with their new assignment, a disturbing report from Libya suggests all may not be as it seems. The U.S. bombing that should have taken out Nakba’s headquarters now appears to have been a disastrous mistake—and Ryker himself may be responsible.
With Kairos gearing up for a major retaliatory strike against the U.S., time is short, and terror cells may already be inside American borders. But Ryker won’t be able to stop this threat until he clears his own name, and his closest ally inside the White House can no longer help him.
The Libyan diversion threatens to leave Ryker on the sidelines just when his country needs him most.
Packed with action and intrigue, this thriller novel is everything Joel’s fans have come to expect.
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