France, 1962. The OAS (Organisation de l’Armee Secrete, 1961) were a group of French extremists opposed to Charles De Gaulle’s policy of ending the war by granting independence to Algeria. The majority of OAS membership constituted Algerian settlers of French origin who considered Algeria to be sovereign French territory. They decided to keep Algeria under French control by assassinating De Gaulle.
As a reporter for Reuters covering Paris in 1962-63, Frederick Forsyth realised the main shortcomings of the OAS’ assassination attempts. Analysing the situation for himself, he based the premise of the story on what he considered the best chances of success for the OAS.
The story begins with a failed assassination attempt on De Gaulle at Petit-Clemart. The audacity of the OAS draws the fury of the French security forces. Their retaliation leaves the OAS a destabilized organisation with demoralized ranks and no recongnizable leader. The man who comes to the forefront is a former shadowy deputy - the little known but astute Lieutenant-Colonel Marc Rodin.
Rodin was a self-made military career officer with a lifetime of experience in the battlefield. His disillusionment with the politicians was the same as that of the rank and file of the OAS, but his resolve and intellect were considerably stronger. Rodin personally undertakes a mission to find the assassin who can successfully penetrate the forewarned French security establishment.
After narrowing down some possible candidates for the job Rodin returns to his hideout in Austria and discusses his plan with his top officers. The choice is clear and the man selected is an assassin by profession – a former mercenary, but virtually unknown and therefore difficult to trace. The meeting between the OAS commander and the anonymous assassin identified only as 'the Englishman' takes place shortly afterword and the mission to assassinate De Gaulle begins. The code name adopted by the assassin is the Jackal.
As a successful assassin the Jackal has a system. Common to all stages of operation is his obsession with anonymity. To that end he goes about procuring aliases for himself, and researches his mark thoroughly, reading every possible piece of information on De Gaulle. This in-depth analysis allows the Jackal to form a mental picture of De Gaulle’s habits and routines, and works out the specifics of the assassination.
Passports are stolen, papers are forged and false birth certificates are applied for. The Jackal uses these identities to cover his tracks while he scouts for an exact location for the kill. He needs to enter France undetected to succeed and to stay alive afterward. The weapon required for the job will have to be customized to his exact needs, not just for the kill but also to be smuggled into the country; and he arranges to meet such a supplier through an old friend.
The Jackal’s method to obtain a false identity took advantage of an actual flaw in the British system for passport applications. Frederick Forsyth’s research led him to uncover this flaw, which was a well kept trade secret among mercenaries and illegal immigrants. The loophole was eventually plugged in 2003. Arthur Hailey antagonist in the book – The Evening News, used the same method to procure a false identity (since then known as the ‘day of the jackal fraud’).
While the Jackal was making his arrangements, the French security forces suspect the OAS of regrouping. The events of the recent past had made them suspect something sinister and they lay a trap for Rodin’s personal guard. He is captured and tortured, and his incoherent confession gives the French forces a kernel to start uncovering the OAS plot.
Colonel Rolland of the French security service decodes the confession. His report of an anonymous foreign assassin engaged for an attempt on the life of the president sends the establishment into overdrive. Charles De Gaulle is informed of the threat by the Interior Minister, who treads cautiously knowing the President’s disdain for personal security measures.
A committee is formed to capture the Jackal before he can assassinate De Gaulle, and Commissaire Claude Lebel is appointed point-man. Claude Lebel looks unimpressive but is an ace-sleuth with solid credentials. The OAS however has a spy in bed with a committee member, and news that the assassination plot is known to French security services reaches Rodin. Rodin tries to contact the Jackal to call off the operation but his call is too late.
From then on the story becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between the Jackal who continues his mission despite being made aware of the newly alerted authorities, and detective Lebel who must decipher clues and navigate blind allies that the Jackal has left behind. Despite starting off with just a code name, Lebel tightens the noose around the Jackal. The climax of the story takes place at the Jackal's selected vantage point and at the appointed time of assassination as the Jackal and Lebel face off.
The Day of the Jackal is Frederick Forsyth’s most celebrated work and also what he is most associated with. Forsyth wrote only after thoroughly researching the topics involved in his stories because of his own disappointment with authors’ lack of knowledge in books he himself read. However the depth of research in The Day of the Jackal inspired at least one assassin and one would-be assassin. A Hebrew translation of the novel was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Police speculated that the book may have been used as a guide for the assassination by Amir. Vladimir Arutinian, who attempted to assassinate President George W. Bush in Georgia in 2005 was an obsessive reader of the book.
Carlos the Jackal: The nickname only stuck to the Illich Ramirez Sanchez because the book was found in a bag which was assumed to belong to him. The fictional Jackal is a meticulous planner, probably had real combat credentials and appreciated the benefits of anonymity. Carlos the Jackal on the other hand was a clumsy but extremely lucky playboy who got involved in terrorism after dabbling in communism. His personal insecurities drove him to attract attention to himself but his incredible good fortune kept him out of prison for long. Carlos was eventually apprehended in Sudan in 1994.