Andy McNab: Why we all need to be wary of being hacked, blackmailed and stolen from the web
It is almost 30 years since former SAS soldier Andy McNab became a best-selling author with his blockbuster Bravo Two Zero, based on his experience of being captured in the 1991 Gulf War.
“It feels really freaky,” says the cheerful Londoner, looking back on his career. “Up until eight or nine years ago, everything was a shot. There were no long book deals, it was literally book by book. I thought it would stop soon.
“I only realized I was doing it for a living when I became a ‘budget writer,’ when publishers could quantify what they were going to sell.”
Bravo Two Zero, the account of how he led an eight-man SAS patrol behind enemy lines in Iraq in a mission gone horribly wrong, became an instant bestseller and was adapted by the BBC with Sean Bean. It remains the best-selling military history book of all time.
Of the eight soldiers in the patrol, three died, four (including McNab) were captured and tortured, and one escaped. McNab, 63, says he did not suffer PTSD from being tortured, but later took part in a psychological study at Oxford University in 2010, which examined how people succeed in certain environments and how “good psychopathy” really helps.
The results? “I am known as a functioning psychopath. I called my wife and told her, and she said, ‘Yeah, what’s new?’
“The amygdala in your brain gives you fight or flight responses, and things like empathy,” he explains. “Basically my amygdala doesn’t work so I have no fight or flight response (no fear). I have every decoration in the British Army except the Victoria Cross and that’s why I have them.”
He also cannot feel empathy. “I can’t recognize facial expressions. People who look sad or happy all look the same to me. Years ago, my wife used to write out the emojis and say, ‘If a face looks like this [sad face]you buy flowers, but if it looks like this [smiling], they are happy’. I had them in my wallet for years. People on the autism spectrum have the same problem.
“At one point we still had 12 Nutribullets in their boxes because every time I sat down I thought I’d better buy something and because they were crazy I kept buying them.
“Nothing upsets me these days,” he continues. “It’s pretty easy for me to just cut away. There’s a bit of stoicism there too. If I’m in a traffic jam, I think, “Well, a lot of people want to go somewhere.”
When he reflects on larger issues, such as Russia’s war with Ukraine, he remains similarly detached.
“It’s part of the cycle. We will have major conflicts, on average every 10 years. Conflicts are ongoing, but with Ukraine it is on our doorstep and people look like us. But if you look at what is happening in South Yemen [a civil war, which began in 2014]it’s horrible.”
Famously, he has always written under a pen name and keeps his identity anonymous.
“Andy McNab was just a name that fit easily on the cover of Bravo Two Zero,” he reveals. “I thought it was just going to be the one book, but it’s become a brand. I’ve sold beer like Andy McNab and I don’t even drink!”
Today, he has a number of best-selling non-fiction titles and novels, children’s books, television adaptations and an advisory role in a Hollywood blockbuster (he was an advisor on technical weapons and tactics in the Robert De Niro film Heat) under his belt.
His latest novel, Shadow State, the first in a new series, breaks away from his other novels as readers enter a world of cyber-weapons and crypto-crime.
The hero, Nathan Pike, is a freelance hacker who entered the game after a difficult upbringing, and now finds himself involved in a plot to steal a country’s wealth on a USB stick. The action adventure moves from the central bank of El Salvador to a tantalum mine in Rwanda.
McNab, whose cheerful banter sounds about as far removed from dangerous covert operations as you can get, explains: “Over the last 15 years I’ve been involved in IT start-ups, trying to get that quick turnaround, where people have a start-up and sell it on in four or five years. I started learning the business.
“It’s just such a change now from the world of bank robbers. Why be a bank robber? If you know what you’re doing, you can steal a lot more from the comfort of your own home.
“There has been a dramatic change in the physics of nicking stuff. The fact is that people can buy, extort and steal literally from their own home. If these people were in another world, they would get entrepreneurial awards, instead of going to prison, he says, chuckling.
There are some similarities between the new character, Nathan Pike, and his creator. Both are from working-class upbringings and had difficult lives. Abandoned as a newborn baby, McNab was found on the steps of a London hospital in a Harrods carrier bag. He was fostered, and later adopted by the foster family.
Growing up on an estate in south London, he ended up committing petty crime, which led to him being jailed for youth. On his release he joined the army, where he received an education and a flourishing career, where he was awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and the Military Medal.
McNab hopes the Nathan Pike series will continue, plans to start his next novel in March, and would like his character to make it to the screen, but isn’t holding his breath.
“I’ve had so many lunches with producers over the years, talking about making a film. It happens all the time. They say it’s all good, but it’s all waffle. What it boils down to is how much it will cost and who will be involved.”
As is known, he remains anonymous. You won’t see his face depicted in the media or on TV, unless he’s in the shadows or behind a book. He even says his Wikipedia entry as Steven Billy Mitchell is wrong.
“A couple of years ago there were about seven of me on Twitter. But it’s not just cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
Undercover work in the SAS in Northern Ireland, during the height of the Troubles to gain intelligence on Provisional IRA members, made him a “high value target”, he says.
Surely, after all this time, enemies will have disappeared, but he doesn’t say, citing his last credible threat just before the pandemic. He also remains anonymous to protect the people he worked with, who remained in Northern Ireland.
“I’m just being reasonable, and I have a responsibility to my family as well.” McNab has been married for 20 years to his fifth wife and has a grown daughter (but remains vague about information about his relatives).
He and his wife live in Cornwall, where he surfs, keeps in touch with a few SAS buddies, and has taken up brick walls and offered himself as a worker to friends in the construction industry.
He also has a production company and is currently working on a documentary about the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, with the Ministry of Defence.
“I don’t have goals – everything is just a shot,” he insists. But he has surely learned that no matter what new feat he tries, the SAS mantra “Who Dares Wins” lives on.
Shadow State by Andy McNab is published by Welbeck, priced £16.99. Available now.