An image from The Hunt for Red October.
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 bestseller lists.
Drawing on his vast trove of technical military information, Clancy created 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 vapour hazards (for studying the effect of chemical weapons), and Russian T-80Us (a type of tank).
Clancy's enthusiasm for the endless advance of technology in warfare was only matched (or nearly matched) by the outrageous plots he dreamt 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 cliche: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Clancy died at the age of 66 last week. With his death, we look at how the master spy novelist managed to predict some of the most far-fetched, surprising developments in geopolitics of the past two decades.
The 9/11 attacks
In the US government's official account of what happened on September 11, 2001 - The 9/11 Commission Report - the assembled collection of experts and officials took US 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 aeroplanes into major buildings and cause untold destruction, especially when none other than Clancy had predicted exactly such a scenario?
In Clancy's 1994 novel Debt of Honor, Japan, led by a faction of hardline nationalists and having acquired nuclear weapons, goes to war with the US aiming to re-establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Following Japan's defeat, 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 US government.
With this in mind, the 9/11 report mournfully notes that ''neither the intelligence community nor aviation security experts analysed systemic defences 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 G8 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 US while he dined at Cafe Milano, the 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 naturalised 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 sounds unlikely, Clancy had already dreamt 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 US and launch a series of attacks on shopping malls. In a meeting at a Vienna cafe between a cartel member and one terrorist, the men begin to scheme against the US. In exchange for access to the European markets via Islamist networks there, the cartel will help spirit terrorists into the US.
''There is a confluence of interests between us,'' Mohammed tells Pablo, the cartel representative. ''We share enemies.''
The Osama bin Laden raid
When US special forces finally located and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the world was shocked to find the terrorist mastermind had not spent his final years in a cave on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, he had been living in a compound a stone's throw from a military base.
In the 2010 thriller Dead or Alive, Clancy chronicles the efforts to track down terrorist mastermind ''the Emir'' with clear similarities to bin Laden. When US 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.
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, released in 2001, is about a Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, when a group of hardline nationalists in the Kremlin attempt to reconstitute the Soviet empire.
That prediction turned out be eerily true. Ghost Recon had Soviet tanks rolling across the border in April; in the actual war, they arrived in August.
Though Clancy's involvement in the games is said to be limited, the prediction is 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 an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.