Off Long Island, New York
THEY MADE THE ATTEMPT on the third night. The first night was no good: heavy cloud cover, intermittent rain, windblown squalls. The second night was clear, with a good moon, but a bitter northwest wind made the seas too rough. Even the oceangoing motor yacht was buffeted about. It would be hell in the Boston Whaler. They needed a calm sea to carry it off from the Whaler, so they motored farther out and spent a seasick night waiting. That morning, the third morning, the marine forecast was promising: diminishing winds, gentle seas, a slow-moving front with clear weather behind it.
The forecast proved accurate. The third night was perfect.
HIS REAL NAME was Hassan Mahmoud, but he had always found it rather dull for an Islamic freedom fighter, so he had granted himself a more venturous nom de guerre, Abu Jihad. He was born in Gaza and raised by an uncle in a squalid refugee camp near Gaza City. His politics were forged by the stones and fire of the Intifada. He joined Hamas, fought Israelis in the streets, buried two brothers and more friends than he could remember. He was wounded once himself, his right shoulder shattered by an Israeli army bullet. The doctors said he would never regain full use of the arm. Hassan Mahmoud, alias Abu Jihad, learned to throw stones with his left.
THE YACHT WAS 110 FEET in length, with six staterooms, a large salon, and an aft deck large enough to accommodate a cocktail party of sixty people. The bridge was state of the art, with satellite navigation and communication systems. It was designed for a crew of three, but two good men could handle it easily. They had set out from the tiny port of Gustavia on the Caribbean island of Saint-Barthilemy eight days earlier and had taken their time moving up the east coast of the United States. They had stayed well outside American territorial waters, but still they had felt the gentle touch of U.S. surveillance along the way: the P-3 Orion aircraft that passed overhead each day,
the U.S. Coast Guard cutters slicing through the open sea in the distance. They had prepared a cover story in the event they were challenged. The vessel was registered in the name of a wealthy French investor, and they were moving it from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. There, the Frenchman would board the yacht, along with a party of twelve, for a month-long Caribbean cruise. There was no Frenchman--an officer in a friendly intelligence service had created him--and there most certainly was no party of twelve. As for Canada, they had no intention of going anywhere near it.
THAT NIGHT THEY OPERATED under blackout conditions. It was clear and quite cold. The bright half-moon provided enough light to move about the decks easily. The engine was shut down, just in case an infrared-equipped satellite or aircraft passed overhead. The yacht rocked gently on the flat sea. Hassan Mahmoud smoked nervously in the darkened salon. He wore jeans, Nike running shoes, and a fleece pullover from L.L. Bean. He looked up at the other man. They had been together ten days, but his companion had spoken only when necessary. One warm night, off the coast of Georgia,
Mahmoud tried to engage him in conversation. The man simply grunted and walked to his stateroom. On those rare occasions when he did communicate verbally, he spoke in the precise accent-less Arabic of someone who has studied the language diligently but not mastered its subtleties. When Mahmoud asked his name, the man ran his hand over his short black hair, pulled at his nose, and said if names were necessary he should be called Yassim. He most definitely was not a Yassim. Mahmoud had traveled well for a boy from the camps of Gaza; the trade of terror made that a necessity. He had been to Rome, and he had been to London. He had stayed many months in Athens and hidden with a Palestinian cell in Madrid for an entire winter. The man who wished to be called Yassim and spoke with a strange accent was no Arab. Mahmoud, watching him now, tried to assign geography and ethnicity to the cocktail of strange features possessed by his silent accomplice. He looked at the hair: nearly black and shot with gray at the temples. The eyes were a penetrating blue, the skin so pale as to be nearly white. The nose was long and narrow--a woman's nose, he thought--the lips full and sensuous, the cheekbones wide. Maybe Greek, he thought, maybe Italian or Spanish. Maybe a Turk or a Kurd. For a mad instant, he thought he might be an Israeli. Mahmoud watched as the man who wished to be called Yassim disappeared down the companionway and went belowdecks. He returned two minutes later, carrying a long, slender object. Mahmoud knew just one word for it: Stinger.
YASSIM, WHEN HE SPOKE, treated Mahmoud as though he knew nothing of Stingers. Mahmoud knew them quite well, however. He knew the shoulder-launched version was five feet long and weighed precisely thirty-four and a half pounds. He knew it possessed heat-seeking, passive infrared, and ultraviolet guidance systems. He knew its effective range was about three miles. He had never actually fired one--the things were too precious and too costly to waste on a test firing--but he had drilled for dozens of hours and knew exactly what to expect.
"It's already been preset to seek out a large four-engine aircraft," Yassim was saying. "The warhead has been set to penetrate the target before exploding." Mahmoud nodded and said nothing.
"Point the missile at the target," he said patiently, in his accentless Arabic. "When the guidance system has acquired its target and locked on, you will hear the tone in your ear. When you hear the tone, fire the missile."
Mahmoud tapped out another Marlboro and offered one to Yassim, who waved his hand and went on with his lecture. "When the missile is away, simply lay the empty launch tube in the Whaler and return to the yacht."
"I was told to throw the launch tube into the water," Mahmoud said. "And I'm telling you to bring it back here. When the airliner goes down, the Americans will scan the sea floor with sonar. There's a damned good chance they'll find your launch tube. So bring it back with you. We'll dispose of it farther out." Mahmoud nodded. He had been told to do it differently, but the explanation for the change in plans was reasonable. For twenty minutes, they said nothing. Mahmoud toyed with the grip stock of the Stinger. Yassim poured coffee and drank it on the aft deck in the cold night air. Then Yassim went to the bridge to listen to the radio. Mahmoud, still sitting in the salon, could hear the crisp commands of the air traffic controllers at JFK International Airport.
TWO SMALLER BOATS were secured to the stern of the motor yacht, a Zodiac and a twenty-foot Boston Whaler Dauntless. Mahmoud clambered down to the swim step, drew the Whaler closer to the yacht, and stepped over the rail into the forward seating area. Yassim followed him down the ladder and handed over the Stinger. The Whaler had a dual console, split by a passage connecting the forward and aft seating areas. Mahmoud laid the Stinger on the aft deck, sat in the cockpit, and fired the engine. Yassim untied the Whaler, tossed the line onto the deck, and pushed the smaller craft away with a quick movement of his foot. Mahmoud opened the throttle, and the Whaler sliced toward the shore of Long Island.
TRANSATLANTIC AIRLINES FLIGHT 002 departs JFK International Airport each evening at 7:00 and arrives the following morning in London at 6:55. Captain Frank Hollings had made the trip more times than he cared to remember, many times in the same Boeing 747 he would fly that night, N75639. The aircraft was the one hundred and fiftieth to roll off Boeing's 747 assembly line in Renton, Washington, and it had experienced few problems during its three decades in the air. The forecast called for clear weather most of the way and a rainy approach to Heathrow. Hollings expected a smooth flight. At 6:55, the first flight attendant informed Captain Hollings that all passengers were on board. At precisely 7:00 he ordered the cabin doors closed, and
TransAtlantic Flight 002 pushed back from the gate.
MARY NORTH TAUGHT ENGLISH at Bay Shore High School on Long Island and served as faculty adviser to the Drama Club. It had sounded like a good idea at the time--escorting club members to London for five days of theater and sightseeing. It had taken more effort than she could have imagined: endless bake sales, car washes, and raffles. Mary had paid her own way, but it meant leaving her husband and two children behind. John taught chemistry at Bay Shore, and jetting to London for a few days of theater was beyond their budget. The students were acting like animals. It had started in the van on the way to Kennedy: the shouting, the screaming, the rap music and Nirvana blasting from headphones. Her own children were four and six, and each night she prayed they would never reach puberty. Now the students were throwing popcorn at each other and making suggestive comments about the flight attendants. Mary North closed her eyes. Maybe they'll get tired soon, she thought. Maybe they'll sleep.
A popcorn kernel bounced off her nose. She thought, Maybe you've truly lost your mind, Mary.
AS FLIGHT 002 TAXIED toward the end of the runway, Hassan Mahmoud was aboard the Dauntless, racing toward the western tip of Fire Island, the slender barrier island on the southern shore of Long Island. The trip from the motor yacht had been uneventful. The low moon shone in the eastern sky, allowing him to navigate with no running lights. Ahead of him the borough of Queens glowed pale yellow on the horizon. Conditions were perfect: clear skies, calm seas, scarcely a wind. Mahmoud checked the depthometer and shut down the engine. The Dauntless glided to a stop. In the distance he could hear the grumble of a freighter leaving New York Harbor. He switched on the radio and tuned it to the proper frequency. Five minutes later, Mahmoud heard the air traffic controller give TransAtlantic Flight 002 final clearance for takeoff. He picked up the
Stinger and switched on its fire and guidance systems. Then he hoisted it onto his shoulder and peered through the sighting mechanism into the night sky. Mahmoud heard the jetliner before he could actually see it. Ten seconds later, he picked up the 747’s navigation lights and tracked it across the black sky. Then the tone sounded in his ear, alerting him that the Stinger had acquired a target. The Whaler rolled violently as the Stinger's solid rocket fuel ignited and the missile roared from the launch tube. "The Americans like to refer to their precious Stinger as a fire-and-forget weapon," his trainer had told him during one of their sessions. The trainer was an Afghan who had lost an eye and a hand killing Russians. Fire and forget, Mahmoud thought. Fire and forget. Simple as that. The launch tube, now empty, was considerably lighter than before. He dropped it onto the deck, as Yassim had instructed him to do. Then he fired the Whaler's engine and raced away from the coast, taking just one glance over his shoulder to watch the Stinger streaking at supersonic speed across the black canvas of the night.
CAPTAIN FRANK HOLLINGS had flown B-52s over North Vietnam, and he had seen surface-to-air missiles before. For a brief instant, he permitted himself to believe it might be something else--a small plane ablaze, a meteor, stray fireworks. Then, as the missile raced relentlessly toward them at lightning speed, he realized it could be nothing else. The nightmare scenario had come true. "Holy Mother of God," he murmured. He turned toward his copilot and opened his mouth to speak. The aircraft shuddered violently. An instant later it was ripped apart by a massive explosion, and fire rained down on the sea.
WHEN HE HEARD THE APPROACH of the Dauntless, the man called Yassim quickly flashed a powerful signal lamp three times. The smaller vessel came into view. Mahmoud reduced power, and the Dauntless glided toward the stern of the yacht. Even in the weak light of the moon he could see it on the boy's face: the crazed excitement, the fear, the rush. He could see it in the shining deep-brown Palestinian eyes, see it in the jittery hands fumbling over the controls of the Dauntless. Left to his own devices,
Mahmoud would be up all night and the next day too, reliving it, recounting every detail, explaining over and over how it felt the moment the plane burst into flames. Yassim detested ideologues, detested the way they all wore their suffering like armor and disguised their fear as valor. He distrusted anyone who would willingly lead a life such as this. He trusted only professionals. The Dauntless nudged against the stern of the yacht. The wind had picked up in the last few minutes. Gentle swells lapped against the sides of the boats. Yassim climbed down the ladder as Hassan Mahmoud shut down the engine and clambered into the forward seating area. He reached out a hand for Yassim to help him out of the boat, but Yassim simply drew a silenced 9mm Glock pistol from the waistband of his trousers and shot the Palestinian boy rapidly three times in the face.
THAT NIGHT HE SET THE YACHT on an easterly heading and engaged the automatic navigation systems. He lay awake in his stateroom. Even now, even after countless killings, he could not sleep the first night after an assassination. When he was making his escape, or still in public, he always managed to remain focused and operational cool. But at night the demons came. At night he saw the faces, one by one, like photographs in an album. First alive and vibrant; then contorted with the death mask or blown apart by his favorite method of killing, three bullets to the face. Then the guilt would come, and he would tell himself that he had not chosen this life; it had been chosen for him. At dawn, with the first gray light of morning leaking through his window, he finally slept.
HE ROSE AT MIDDAY and went about the routine of preparing for his departure. He shaved and showered, then dressed and packed the rest of his clothing into a small leather grip. He made coffee and drank it while watching CNN on the yacht's superb satellite television system. Such a pity: the grieving relatives at Kennedy and Heathrow, the vigil at a high school somewhere on Long Island, the reporters wildly speculating about the cause of the crash. He walked through the yacht room by room one last time to make certain he had left no trace of his presence. He checked the explosive charges.
At 6 p.m., the precise time he had been ordered, he retrieved a small black object from a cabinet in the galley. It was no larger than a cigar box and looked vaguely like a radio. He carried it outside onto the aft deck and pressed a single button. There was no sound, but he knew the message had been sent in a coded microburst. Even if the American NSA intercepted it, it would be meaningless gibberish. The yacht motored eastward for two more hours. It was now 8 p.m. He set each of the charges and then slipped on a canvas vest with a heavy metal clamp on the front. There was more wind tonight. It was colder and there were high clouds. The Zodiac, cleated at the stern, rose and fell rhythmically with the three-foot swells. He climbed into the craft, untied it, and pulled the starter cord. The engine came to life on the third pull. He turned away from the yacht and opened the throttle. He heard the helicopter twenty minutes later. He shut down the Zodiac's engine and shone a signal lamp into the sky. The helicopter hovered overhead, the night filled with the thump of its rotors. The cable fell from its belly. He attached it to his vest and pulled hard on it twice to signal that he was ready. A moment later he rose gently from the Zodiac.
He heard explosions in the distance. He turned his head in time to see the large motor yacht being lifted out of the water by the force of the blasts. Then it began its slow descent toward the bottom of the Atlantic.