New York Times best-selling author Joel C. Rosenberg just released a new novel about the genocidal, end-of-days vision of the Islamic State. It’s called The First Hostage and it’s at once heart-pounding and eerily prescient. Here’s an interview conducted with the novelist who in 2014 moved with his wife and kids to Israel.
Joel, you’ve written ten novels, all political thrillers, and all of them New York Times best-sellers with more than three million copies in print. Your books have been called “prophetic” and “ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.” How have you developed this reputation for writing novels that seem to foreshadow events that will soon happen?
ROSENBERG: I’m not trying to predict the future, per se. I’m not writing about events that I want to happen, or even those that I necessarily think will happen. I’m a novelist, not a clairvoyant. These are works of fiction and entertainment.
My goal is to try to hook readers with the first few sentences and get their pounding, their adrenaline surging. I want to keep them feverishly turning pages all night until they send me a Tweet at five or six in the morning, cursing me because they have to go to work in an hour and they haven’t gotten any sleep. That’s my objective.
But you do it by making readers feel like what they’re reading is about to come true. Your first novel, The Last Jihad, was about Radical Muslim terrorists hijacking a plane, flying a kamikaze mission into an American city, and then the U.S. launching a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And you wrote that all before any of it happened, right?
ROSENBERG: Mostly. I was actually writing one of the last chapters of The Last Jihad on the morning of September 11th, 2001. I was finishing the book in our townhouse where my wife and kids and I were living at the time, about fifteen minutes away from Washington Dulles International Airport.
Of course I didn’t know it would happen, but I’d worked as an aide to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and several other Israeli leaders. I’d studied in Israel and spent a lot of time talking with Middle East experts, and I had come to believe that Radical Islamists would try to pull off an attack inside the US.
As it turned out, my plot turned out to be much closer to reality than I could have imagined.
That’s been true about all of your novels, hasn’t it?
ROSENBERG: Well, quite a few of them, anyway.
Your latest novels – The Third Target (January 2015) and The First Hostage (December 2015)– feel ripped from the headlines as well. Tell us about them.
ROSENBERG: Well, The Third Target is about a New York Times foreign correspondent who hears a rumor that the forces of ISIS have seized chemical weapons in Syria and are planning an imminent genocidal attack of some kind. Collins (our correspondent) finds himself behind enemy lines, inside Syria and Iraq, trying to interview ISIS leaders and track down answers. The question in the novel is: What is the next target, what is the third target? Does ISIS plan to attack the U.S.? A European country? Israel? Some Arab ally?
And you wrote that all before most Americans had ever heard of ISIS, didn’t you?
ROSENBERG: I began doing the research in 2012, and started writing the book in 2013. During this time, President Obama dismissed ISIS as not that serious a threat - a “JV squad.”
During my research, I sat down with two former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former head of the Mossad, the Prime Minister of Jordan, and numerous other U.S., Israeli and Jordanian officials.
They suggested that if I was looking for a new enemy to write about that I might want to focus on how Al Qaeda in Iraq was morphing into something far more sinister and dangerous. Before The Third Target was published, ISIS had stormed across Iraq, captured Mosul, and was engaged in genocide. By the time my novel was released, everyone on the planet had heard of ISIS.
Your latest novel – The First Hostage – also focuses on ISIS, and as I understand it, your plot is literally ripped a front-page story in the New York Times, right?
ROSENBERG: Well, sort of. The First Hostage picks up six seconds after the ending of The Third Target. ISIS has launched a highly-coordinated plot to kill or capture the US President, the Israeli Prime Minister, and several other leaders.
As The First Hostage unfolds, ISIS leaders try to draw Western powers into a bloody ground war in Syria to fulfill Islamic prophecies of an apocalyptic end-times battle to establish a global Islamic kingdom, or caliphate.
And then on December 7th, just three weeks before your book was published, the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined, “U.S. Strategy Seeks To Avoid ISIS Prophecy.”
ROSENBERG: True, and it was an interesting article. I mean, here was an actual, real-life New York Times reporter trying to understand ISIS’s End Times theology. Until then, I’d seen very little in the mainstream media about the eschatological beliefs driving the Islamic State. The leaders of ISIS follow what I call “Apocalyptic Islam.” It is incredibly dangerous.
Yet I don’t believe President Obama truly understands how to defeat it. And I’m not convinced that enough of the presidential candidates on either the GOP or the Democrat side have given much thought to how Apocalyptic Islam is far more dangerous than Radical Islam.
In 2014, you and your wife and four sons moved from Washington, D.C., where you’d been for almost 25 years, to Israel. What’s that been like for a thriller writer?
ROSENBERG: A target-rich environment. Really, it’s been challenging, but fascinating. I actually wrote The First Hostage in the bomb shelter in our apartment. We now live about 2 ½ hours from ISIS forces in Syria, yet I believe the Israeli Prime Minister understands the magnitude of the threats we face. The IDF is doing a great job keeping us safe and we’re honored to be here. As an Evangelical Christian from a Jewish background, I love living in Israel. It’s the epicenter of the world. What’s not to love?
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