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On the Lisbon Disaster
By Olen Steinhauer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Third State, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"Look, I understand the anger," says Jacob Keenan, and in the van's dim, dirty light his face looks convincing. "I mean, who doesn't? You toured Afghanistan; you know. Mud huts and ignorance. When you're born into that world, you might as well take the coward's way out. Lot easier than dealing with hope, thinking that one day you're going to get a color TV. And the mullahs, they know this. They have their special way of saying the same thing, over and over again, to a long line of teenaged no-hopers: If you're gonna off yourself, then why not add a big pile of kafir to the body count? We'll sing your praises and watch your martyrdom video while you, dear boy, are getting it three ways from Sunday with forty virgins in Paradise." He straightens, then stretches his neck on each side, the way muscular men do. "Yeah, I get the anger. You'd have to be a numbskull not to. What I don't get is why we don't have more people on the ground, convincing them that they actually can get the color TV, once they've worked for us a bit. Save everybody a lot of hassle."
"Maybe it's not about the color TV," I say.
Jake shoots me a look. "You're kidding, right? If there's one thing that unites all of humanity, it's that we can be bought off. Walk into the Swat Valley with ten Wii consoles, and you've bought the loyalty of the first ten kids you meet. Probably even their dads. It's always about the color TV."
As he talks, I find myself wishing we had our phones. But Andy made it clear this morning: No phones. No embassy passes. No IDs of any sort. Only Sam's allowed a driver's license, and that's under a different name. So for the past two hours Jake and I have been stuck in a humid van parked on tree-lined Carmo Square outside the Museu Arqueológico, Baixa neighborhood, empty-handed, nothing to distract us. With phones, we could play some games, read the Times, or catch up on correspondence. I've owed my kids an e-mail for at least a week. But no. I'm stuck with Jake Keenan's anxious conversation instead. Always so quiet at the embassy, he's turned out to be a talker once the lights go out. Operational anxiety does that to some.
He says, "They like you to think the only thing they care about is God, but that's just not how humans are made."
"Our literature," I say, "is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion."
"What?" Jake's eyes, just visible in the darkness, narrow.
I shake my head. "Nothing."
"You a philosopher now?"
"It's from Eliot."
"T. S. The poet."
As he struggles to understand, it strikes me that I don't really know anything about Jacob Keenan, despite nearly a year working alongside him. He's ex-marine CIA — unlike, say, Andy, who's civilian CIA. The shared military background is why we get along, if this can be called getting along. With his right hand, he taps each of his fingers with his thumb, index to pinkie and then back again, rapidly. It's the only blatant sign that he's wound up, and I wonder, watching his mood shift, if he's on something. I hope to hell not.
He says, "Poetry from a CIA contractor. What'll they think of next?"
"CIA agents with foreign languages, maybe?"
"No need to sass, homeboy."CHAPTER 2
There are six of us. Jake and I are in the van, sweating it out, while Sam Pepper loiters in the square, searching the open-air cafés and magazine kiosks for suspicious movements. Once Andy gives us the go, he'll jump into the driver's seat and get moving. Andy Remmer and Fiona Davis are inside the Archeological Museum, trailing the target, and Peter Benjamin is on the street just north of the museum, in the unlikely event that the target decides to walk in that direction.
The target, Mohammed el-Malik, flew in from London last night and is booked on a return flight in the morning. This two-block walk from the Hotel Borges to the Archeological Museum has been his only movement in Lisbon, and by now he's frittered away two hours wandering through the Gothic edifice of the Carmo Church and convent, or the pieces of it that survived the earthquake and tsunami that demolished Lisbon in 1755. It's a small museum, hardly deserving so much time, yet he remains, gazing glassy-eyed at exhibits, waiting for the unidentified male who called from a pay phone this morning. Perhaps, one theory goes, he's waiting for his brother, Salih, a ranking member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Of Mohammed, we know plenty. Forty-seven years old, born to an affluent Yemeni shipping family and raised in Saudi, educated in Riyadh and Cambridge. He struck out on his own early, becoming a specialist in medieval history. Ten years ago, he settled into a comfortable teaching post at King's College London. His trip to Lisbon is no secret — he mentioned it on his personal Twitter feed — nor is the ostensible reason for the visit: He's researching (according to his biographical blurb on the King's College Web site) the "Great Lisbon Earthquake that, in the space of one day in 1755, took the breath out of a nation's imperial aspirations and redirected European philosophical and social thought."
Of his younger brother, Salih, less is known. Also educated in Riyadh, he chose a different route, the madrassa pulling him gradually away from his moderate family's influence. Like me, Salih had a stint in Afghanistan, but working for the other side, and since then he's found his calling with the global jihad. He's been connected to a 2007 suicide attack on Spanish tourists in Yemen, as well as last year's attack on Korean tourists. He gave tips to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried and failed to set off bombs in his underwear on Christmas, also last year. And only weeks ago, Salih was linked to the cargo planes bomb plot, another failure, which attempted to blow up two planes over American cities, using about 700 grams of plastic explosive.
That Salih has failed as often as he's succeeded is beside the point. Even a bumbling terrorist — for most are precisely that — is bad news, and he's been high on the CIA's watch lists for the last three years. Occasional sightings have placed him in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and, two months ago, Lisbon. Given the fact that in a few weeks — November 19 and 20 — a NATO summit will bring the prime ministers and presidents of dozens of countries to the Portuguese capital, Langley feels that to treat Mohammed's Portuguese trip as a coincidence would be an unconscionable mistake.
There's one more detail, just discovered, and it's why Langley has approved the dispatch of a six-man team to lift Mohammed el-Malik off the streets of Lisbon and transport him to a waiting plane. It's why Jake and I are suffering the stale, hot air of each other's sweat. An e-mail to Mohammed, three days old, from "janeq920." The text has all the earmarks of spam — poor grammar, the use of Mohammed's e-mail address instead of his name, and an invitation to join the sender's LinkedIn network — but what drew Langley's attention was the attached photograph in the e-mail's footer, a rose petal. Late last night it was discovered to be rife with metadata that, among other things, spells out a simple Koranic verse, 8:57:
If you come upon them in the war, deal with them so as to strike fear in those who are behind them, that they may remember.
That was when Sam and Jake and I were brought in, and a simple surveillance op was abruptly restructured into an extraordinary rendition. We've watched over him for fifteen hours, the six of us circulating through the Hotel Borges lobby, restaurant, and corridors. We've each passed his third-floor room at least five times. A request to the NSA to listen in on his cell phone was denied for unknown reasons, but while Mohammed breakfasted Fiona smuggled a mic into his bedside phone. Through this, we listened to his side of a cell phone conversation with his lover, Lauren Singh, and another with Kyle Moore, a student he's mentoring through a particularly difficult thesis. He received no visitors. Then, at nine forty-eight that morning, on the hotel line, the call came in from the pay phone. Because of Fiona's efforts, we heard everything.
An accented male voice said, "Professor el-Malik, apologies for the delay. I've been terribly busy."
Without ever saying the name of his caller, Mohammed told him that it was no trouble at all, and that he looked forward to their meeting. The caller said that he would be at the museum but wasn't sure of the time. Mohammed promised to be there and thanked him for his attention.
The word "attention" seemed purposely vague to Andy, though to me it sounded like the awkwardness of someone who, despite decades, still struggles with English idiosyncrasies.
We have no idea who the caller was. Another academic, or one of Salih's representatives? There's no way to tell. Therefore, whatever follows now is a mystery.CHAPTER 3
"Contact," says a voice in my ear. It's Fiona, inside the museum, her familiar Newark cadences coming through. "Not Trapper." Trapper is our code for Salih. "A local."
Sam, waiting outside the van, says, "Describe."
"Five-seven. Maybe two hundred thirty pounds. Sixties."
Andy's voice: "Shaking hands, introducing themselves."
"Does he look relaxed?" asks Jake, touching the knob in his ear, focused on the dead space between us.
"Completely," says Fiona.
"It's Miguel Infante," says Andy. "I saw his sheet."
"Who?" I ask, noticing Jake's shoulders relax.
Andy ignores my question, but Jake kindly covers his mic and whispers, "He mentioned the guy on Twitter. Expert in seismology or something. Helping his research."
"Oh." I never imagined that I was being kept in the loop, but I've spent the last fifteen hours on edge, expecting a confrontation with a wild-eyed member of the Arabian Peninsula's deadliest terrorist group. It would've been nice to know that the appearance of an overweight Portuguese academic was a possibility.
"They're exiting," says Andy.
From where we sit, peering between the driver and passenger seats, we can only see a narrow slice of road. We listen to Andy and Fiona and Sam and Peter chart the two men's route out of the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, into the leafy square, and to an outdoor café table just meters away, where they order coffee and begin their conversation. Mohammed, we're told, is taking notes in a Moleskine notebook. Fiona, taking a nearby table, reports that they're discussing tsunamis.
I cover my mic and say to Jake, "This is all what he said he'd do. Right?"
He gives me that look again, yet I go on:
"He's a professor meeting a professor, and in the morning he's leaving. He hasn't done anything suspicious. We have no evidence his brother's in town. Okay, there was a coded message in his in-box, but we don't even know if he looked at it."
Jake stares at me for three beats, then leans closer, covers his mic, and says, "John, I know how much you were told, because I was in the room when you heard it. Therefore, I can tell you with great confidence that you don't know shit."
"Are you going to tell me?"
"Once you get your paychecks direct from Langley I'll consider it. In the meantime, be happy you're just a tool. Let the big kids do the thinking for you."
"So there's nothing that would lead to aborting this?"
"I'm sure there are plenty of things."
"Like what?" When he doesn't answer, I say, "What if I'm the one who has to pull the brake?"
Again, he looks at me in silence. Then he sighs. "You don't know shit — right? We're agreed on that."
"But all I know," Jake says, "is a single turd. If you want real intel you'll have to get it from Andy."
"You don't see, not really, but that's all right. You know who we're grabbing. You know the method. You know where the safe house is. And you know where the plane'll be waiting. Consider yourself informed."
"But I don't know where the plane is heading."
"You think any of us know that?"CHAPTER 4
Another hour in that sweltering van, the sweat tickling our backs and filling our belt lines. We're both big men, and though it's not really true it feels as if we have no elbow room. It makes us both irritable. So in the interests of peace I stop questioning this. Besides, my employer is Global Security LLC, not the Central Intelligence Agency — I suppose I'm lucky I'm trusted enough to know anything.
We talk, for what else is there to do? Despite his rough edges, Jake's all right. He works out of the embassy on Forças Armadas with some uninteresting cover having to do with press relations. Yet he never meets with reporters. I pretend to arrange travel for embassy employees and visiting dignitaries, though this is done entirely by Anna. I only need to know enough of my cover to carry me through dinner conversations or a police grilling. I've done well enough at parties, but I don't know how I would make out against Lisbon's finest.
We first complain about our host country. Portugal has a lot going for it — a gorgeous coast, friendly locals, food and music, and even poetry; I've grown to adore Fernando Pessoa, their great poet of many personalities. But over the last year, with a financial crisis and an angry populace, we've grown familiar with the underbelly of European recession. Nationalism is on the rise, and for foreigners the atmosphere is that much more tense. Last month, the government pushed through a new austerity package, raising taxes and cutting salaries for public servants, while the unemployment rate topped out at 11 percent. Anti-austerity demonstrations are a daily occurrence, and there's been talk in Lisbon of angry workers initiating the first general strike in twenty-two years, which would shut down the entire country. In some quarters — in Berlin and Brussels — there's even talk of kicking Portugal out of the Eurozone. Bad news all around.
Yet we've talked through all this before, in different venues but with many of the same words, so Jake changes the subject to women. At the moment he's juggling four, two of whom are locals. When he presses for my romantic intrigues, I stumble. Yes, there have been a handful over the last year, but I haven't juggled anything. Months of celibacy lead to anxious bar trolling, then a one- or two-night stand.
"Months?" he asks, incredulous. "I'd die."
"You'd make do."
"Must be something wrong with your junk."
"You've never been divorced, have you?"
He holds up his hands, palms out. "Right. But still ..."
"The professor's leaving," Andy says in our ears. "Positions."
We both jerk when the driver's door opens and Sam climbs in behind the wheel. The mood changes instantly, our quiet sexual reflections broken by this small, wired, sunburned man who's been standing for hours under the hot Portuguese sun. "It's on," Sam says as he starts the engine.
Jake rubs his hands together. "All right."
I don't say anything. They've already covered the bases.CHAPTER 5
Due to Baixa's one-way streets, we first have to drive away from Mohammed, north to Rua da Trindade, then circle around to Nova da Trindade and park at the intersection with Travessa Trindade. Sam accomplishes this in less than two minutes while, in our ears, Andy chronicles Mohammed's actions: shaking hands and saying good-bye to his Portuguese professor, counting out euros for the bill, and packing away his notebook. Then he walks south in the only direction we expect him to go, down Rua Serpa Pinto toward his hotel. Within a minute, he'll cross the opposite end of Travessa Trindade, a mere fifty meters from us. There's nothing else for us to do but put on our ski masks, sweat, and wait.
After thirty seconds, Andy says, "Go," and then we hear Fiona's lilting voice, no longer Jersey but posh English, saying, "Professor el-Malik! Is it really you?"
"Uh, yes," he says. "I'm sorry, but I —"
"Sarah Bramble, Medieval Lit. Winter term. I won't pretend I was your brightest student, but you certainly made an impression. You're on vacation?"
"No," he says, and we can all hear that his voice has relaxed. "It's a research trip."
"Really? Do tell."
Excerpted from On the Lisbon Disaster by Olen Steinhauer. Copyright © 2014 Third State, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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