On 23 October 1983 – almost exactly 35 years ago– a massive truck bomb destroyed a barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US servicemen. Later in the day, 58 French soldiers died in an almost identical attack in the city.

The Little Drummer Girl, by John Le Carré, had been published seven months earlier to critical acclaim. The BBC adaptation, which starts on Sunday evening, is as gripping as the book, taking the viewer into a world of ambiguity, fear, fanatical commitment and moral ambivalence. This is a “theatre of the real”, as one protagonist describes it, and so classic Le Carré territory. The six-part series conjures it brilliantly.

One of the reasons for the book’s immediate success was its topicality. There were nearly 3,000 terrorist attacks across the world in the year of its publication. Hundreds were killed or wounded in Europe. More were wounded. The threat from such violence was woven through politics, journalism, popular culture, and the lives of ordinary people as it is today.

As with all such adaptations of books involving terrorism – including that of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent two years ago – there will be a temptation to see the BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl as showing how terrorism never changes in its essentials. It is true that some elements are familiar: there are young men who want to blow things up to advance a cause. There are other people trying to stop them.

To conclude that The Little Drummer Girl, or The Secret Agent, show us something that is timeless is no doubt reassuring when we face our own fears. We’ve beaten the threat once, twice, a dozen times and can do so again, the logic goes. Sadly, this isn’t true.

The book is set in 1979, and evoked a sort of distilled essence of the terrorism of the 1970s. This was perpetrated by an astonishing range of actors, ranging from anarchists in Latin America to neo-fascists in Italy, from Irish republicans to Japanese Maoists. Cornwell’s book explored the strand executed by Palestinian nationalists and their European sympathisers, which still appeared a live menace at the time. It also explored the violence of their enemies, notably the Mossad, Israel’s overseas security service.

In his recently published memoirs, The Pigeon Tunnel, Le Carré describes conducting extensive research for the book, talking to former and active spooks in Israel, and spending weeks in war-wracked Beirut, where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was then based.

The intrigue of the resulting novel follows agents of the Mossad as they try to stop a Palestinian master bomber (Khalil) planning an attack in Germany “to punish the Jews in their diaspora and declare [the Palestinians’] agony to the world”. They do this by recruiting Charlie, a frustrated young English actress on the fringes of left-wing circles in the UK, to infiltrate Khalil’s network.

Khalil and his brother, Salim, both bring to mind Ali Hassan Salameh, a flamboyant PLO security chief suspected of involvement in the attack which killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, who was hunted by the Mossad for years. The character of Charlie is influenced by the real-life example of an outspoken journalist who guided Le Carré through Beirut, as well as the author’s half-sister, a left-wing activist. Charlie’s actions also recall someone else who really existed: a young Englishwoman recruited by Mossad who triggered the bomb in Beirut that eventually killed Salameh in 1979. The service preferred women for such tasks because they were less prone to split-second hesitation.

Toby Jones in the BBC’s 2016 version of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
Toby Jones in the BBC’s 2016 version of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Photograph: Graeme Hunter/BBC/World Productions/Graeme Hunter

The 25-year wave of terrorism that began in the 1960s, and ended in the late 1980s, laid the foundations for that of later decades. The targeting of passenger airplanes, hijackings, the careful tailoring of violence to suit the new media technologies – all these became systematic during the period. And some obvious elements recognisable today are clear in The Little Drummer Girl, too: the role of family links in forming extremist networks, for example.

But an enormous amount has changed. By 1979 – the year in which the book and the adaptation are both set – seismic shifts were under way. The Iranian revolution saw Islamists overthrow a western-backed state with a powerful army and brutal security services. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, where rural rebels fighting under a banner of conservative Islam had destabilised a Marxist government. More obscure, but as important, the Grand Mosque at Mecca was seized by a fanatical cult of violent, reactionary and, largely, Saudi Arabian Muslims.

The contrast between men like Juhayman al’Otaiba, the former religious student who led the Mecca uprising, and Salameh is very stark. Salameh was a secular ideologue and a nationalist. He was a polyglot bon vivant who drank fine wines, wore a black leather jacket over a silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist, stayed in luxury hotels, drove fast cars and married a beauty queen. His famous red Mercedes has made it into the BBC adaptation, a nice touch of historical verisimilitude.

Al’Otaiba was a fanatically puritan, messianic zealot who believed he would usher in the regeneration of Islam in a welter of indiscriminate, apocalyptic bloodletting.

In 1973, a senior policeman told the Observer journalist Colin Smith that Arabs “don’t blow themselves up”, only the Japanese. In 1975, a leading US analyst of terrorism could say: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Less than a decade later, neither of these statements reflected the new reality.

The 1983 bombings in Beirut were the first attacks on international targets by Islamists. They involved huge trucks loaded with explosives driven by young fanatics whose death was an integral part of the act. They were mass-casualty martyrdom operations, motivated by a powerful faith-based ideology. They are what we face now.

The Little Drummer Girl is a powerful investigation of betrayal, loyalty, vanity, sacrifice, morality and suffering. But it shows us not how similar terrorism is today to that which we survived in the 1970s, but how far we have come from that time. This has been a bloody journey and one that we are unlikely to be able to retrace.

It shows us something else, too. Le Carré, for all his undoubted acuity, does not mention radical Islam in the novel. He was not alone in missing the rise of this new ideology. At the time, few policymakers, counterterrorism specialists or analysts in the burgeoning world of terrorist studies saw its significance either. This only became clear with the massive strikes against international targets that culminated in the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

Spies and novelists, like generals, tend to fight the last war. There are some fine recent books which portray the terrorism of the last few years. One cannot help but wonder what new threats their authors might be missing.

1970s terrorism on the screen

Victory at Entebbe (1976)

This TV feature came out within months of the spectacular rescue by Israeli special forces of hostages held in Kampala, Uganda, by Palestinian and German extremists who hijacked and diverted an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. The operation marked a turning point in the effort against international terrorism, and the film reflects that sense of triumph. Notable primarily for its stellar line-up: Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, et al.


Raid on Entebbe (1977)

Another portrayal of the raid, rushed out in the US, with a less stellar cast but filmed outdoors on a replica of the famous airport.

Munich (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s film focuses on the Israeli operation to find and kill those responsible for the 1972 attack by Palestinian gunmen that killed nine members of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics. The manhunt – codenamned Operation Wrath of God – was controversial and ended when the Mossad killed an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway. The film has been praised, and criticised, for its “moral equivalence”.

Carlos (2010)

A critically acclaimed French-German miniseries on the life of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, real name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who, from his prison cell, tried to stop its broadcast – then demanded royalties.

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in “Argo,” a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo. Photograph: Claire Folger/AP

Ben Affleck is the US exfiltration specialist in this thrilling dramatisation of a real operation to rescue US diplomatic staff stuck in Tehran after the seizure of their embassy, shortly after the Islamist overthrow of the Shah in 1979. While not strictly a portrayal of terrorism, the film captures the chaos of extraordinary events, and the fanaticism of Iran’s new rulers.

Entebbe (2018)

This updated film was described by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian as “the dampest of damp squibs thrown into a not especially flammable nest of 70s hairstyles and furniture”.


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Does 'The Little Drummer Girl' help us understand modern terrorism?