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The Pirate Hunters
By Mack Maloney, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
December 16, 2001
THREE SMALL FLAGS flew above Team Whiskey's base camp.
One bore the insignia of the New York City Police Department; another, the Fire Department of New York. The third was the American flag. They fluttered in the stiff breeze blowing down from the nearby mountains, their makeshift flagpoles bending but not breaking in the cold Afghani wind.
Huddled inside a tent nearby was Delta Force Unit 606, code-named Team Whiskey. They were wearing oxygen masks and struggling to keep warm.
Their tiny camp was situated about 500 feet up the side of Hill 3434A. In the valley below, three T-55 tanks belonging to the Eastern Alliance were lazily firing at al Qaeda positions on the opposite side of the next mountain over. A half-mile to the north, another squad of Delta operators, Team India, was climbing Hill 3438 in a convoy of lime-green Toyota pickups. Two larger trucks carrying more Eastern Alliance fighters trailed behind.
High above them all, a B-52 Stratofortress circled endlessly, leaving doughnut-ring contrails across the blue winter sky.
Team Whiskey, one of the most experienced Delta Force units in the Afghanistan theater, was part of the final push in the two-week battle to destroy the nearby al Qaeda stronghold at Tora Bora.
Yet they remained in place, crowded together in their Black Diamond mountain tent, sucking in oxygen and waiting.
* * *
THEY WERE TYPICAL Delta, tough guys with comic-book names — Twitch, Batman, Crash, Gunner and Snake. They were a tight-knit group, closer than brothers and unrelenting in their dedication to team and country. They'd fought together in Croatia and Kosovo, and in the rout of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan a month earlier. They'd made a dozen forays into Tora Bora in the past two weeks, performing behind-the-lines interdiction raids and guiding in air-support missions.
But today, the fifteenth day of the battle, they were sitting tight, waiting for a local contact code-named "Real Deal." His nickname was a little dubious, because like most of the Eastern Alliance fighters, he was a liar, a thief, and had close relatives fighting for the enemy on the other side of the mountain.
Yet he claimed to have a piece of information so explosive that it would not only win the battle of Tora Bora, but could turn the whole world upside down.
REAL DEAL ARRIVED at the base camp at 0710 hours. He was of indeterminate age, skinny and perpetually dirty. He squeezed into the tent, taking a seat among the uneasy Delta operators. He reeked of hashish.
He was dressed as they were — or more accurately, they were dressed like him. Each team member wore a mix of Afghani clothing and American-made North Face gear. They didn't look much different from Real Deal, either. They were all bearded and unkempt, with long hair and faces darkened either by heritage or bronzing cream. This was Whiskey's way of fitting in.
In working with Real Deal, the team was going against the conventional wisdom of how to win at Tora Bora. The Eastern Alliance mujahedeen, their ranks so highly touted after beating the Russians back in the 1980s, were actually more looters than soldiers. They fought ineffectively during the day and went home before nightfall, giving back any territory they'd won to the hundreds of al Qaeda fighters trapped inside the notorious ten-square-mile valley, allowing the terrorists to fight on.
That was the dirty little secret of Tora Bora. Instead of committing conventional forces to the battle, the politicians in Washington had decided to outsource the job to the local Afghani warlords, to avoid taking too many American casualties. But what had worked with the Northern Alliance in sweeping the Taliban from most of Afghanistan a month before was not working here with the Eastern Alliance. The problem was, from the White House on down, everyone was convinced Osama bin Laden was going to fight to the death at Tora Bora, cementing his status as a martyr. So the strategy was to use B-52s to bomb the crap out of him and then send in the Eastern Alliance and the Delta operators to look for his body. The battle plan was no more complicated than that.
But Team Whiskey thought otherwise. They believed bin Laden was a coward and would run the first chance he got. So they bought information, not from the warlords and their fighters, but from local civilians — the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, moneychangers and shepherds. People who'd done business with the al Qaeda fighters before the Americans arrived and, due to the porous frontlines, were doing business with some of them still.
This had led Whiskey to Real Deal. He drove a taxi; his father ran a spice shop. One of his uncles was a shepherd and another uncle a moneychanger, and they all lived in villages within five miles of Tora Bora. No one had an ear to the ground as much as these guys did.
For $500, Real Deal was going to lead Team Whiskey to a place they'd dubbed Looking Glass. Supposedly it was a secret tunnel that led to a blind canyon that bin Laden and his entourage would use this very morning to make their escape. Looking Glass was located on the side of Hill 3014, an unlikely place as it was far south of the current fighting. But it also made sense. While everyone was concentrating on battles to the north, the al Qaeda leadership would go out the back door to the south.
In other words, with Real Deal's help, Team Whiskey was going to do what all the Afghani fighters and other Delta teams could not: They were going to find Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Before he got away.
* * *
MAJOR PHILLIP "SNAKE" Nolan was Whiskey's commanding officer. West Point, 82nd Airborne, Green Berets and now Delta, at just thirty-three years old, he'd done so many black ops, he'd lost count. Rugged and smart, with hard eyes and a jaw to match, he was nicknamed for his ability to fly below the radar, stay invisible, and get things done with a minimum of bullshit from above. Conversely, he was so photogenic that when he was a junior officer, the Army had used his image on its recruitment posters, something his team never let him forget. But in many ways, the poster-boy image fit.
Nolan took off his oxygen mask now and checked the time. It was 0715. He pulled out a small transistor radio.
According to Real Deal, the signal that bin Laden's escape was imminent would come in code during his daily radio broadcast to his fighters.
The radio crackled to life. A voice came on, one they all knew by now. Strangely calm. Clear. Articulate. It was the Sheik himself.
"Here we go," Nolan said. "Showtime. ..."
"Batman" Bob Graves was Whiskey's air combat controller. He was a captain in the Air Force, a fighter pilot, well-trained, well-educated, a no-nonsense guy with the slicked-back look of a card shark. A bat had bitten him during basic training, earning him a nickname that would stick forever. Graves's job within the team was to call in air strikes. He also spoke Pashto and Dari, the languages of the region, as well as Arabic. So when the broadcast started, he translated.
"Things are not well, my friends ..." the voice began. "Our world might have been different if our Muslim brothers in other countries had helped us in our time of need, but our prayers have not been answered."
"That's it," Real Deal said excitedly, tapping his chest in triumph. " 'Our prayers have not been answered.' That is the code phrase. He is escaping today."
Nolan eyed the other team members. They all questioned Real Deal's trustworthiness. His price had gone up twice since they'd first met him, and he seemed stoned pretty much all the time. But at this point, he was the only game in town.
Nolan flipped open his satellite phone and called their division commanding officer up at Bagram Air Base. He told the DCO what they'd just heard. The DCO already knew what Whiskey was planning. All they needed now was his clearance to move out.
The superior officer responded in such a booming voice, everyone in the tent could hear him. "I don't know how you talked me into this, but you've got exactly two hours. What you're doing is so against the grain, I've bypassed everyone right on up to CENTCOM itself — and if it doesn't work out I'm disavowing any knowledge of it, which means you'll all be looking for new jobs."
"What about air support?" Nolan asked him.
"Just as long as they don't declare this party over today, there'll be a Buff in your general area at all times. Tell your air controller his code sign will be Nail 22."
Nolan asked, "Will the blocking force be in place when we need them?" This was the most important question.
"They're already loaded onto TF-160's Chinooks," was the reply. "They should be in place in time."
"Will there be enough of them?" Nolan pressed. But the DCO was running out of patience.
"You said you needed two companies of Marines and that's what you're getting," came the terse reply. "I don't know how big this pass is that you want them to seal, but they're on the way. Now get going while I still have my commission — and remember, for this one, you're on your own. So don't let the other teams see you."
End of phone call.
TORA BORA WAS one of the toughest battlefields Delta Force had ever faced. Nestled in the towering White Mountains close to the Pakistan border, it was a dizzying complex of tunnels and caves, some natural, some built during the war against the Soviets and now taken over by al Qaeda. Thick with weapons bunkers, antiaircraft positions and ammo dumps, it was not far from parts of Pakistan where bin Laden was considered a hero. With peaks as high as 14,000 feet and lots of fir trees, dry creeks and blind canyons, it also had an abundance of places to hide.
It snowed in Tora Bora every day, usually in the morning. Fortunately these mini-storms rarely lasted more than fifteen minutes, because it was when the sky was clear that the alliance forces felt most secure on the ground. That's when the doughnut rings could be seen overhead, contrails of big B-52 bombers — the Buffs — constantly circling, their bomb bays full of JDAMs, laser-guided weapons that could be dropped on the head of a dime.
But whenever the contrails weren't there, the al Qaeda fighters came out of their holes and started firing huge 122mm Chinese mortars. And if there was one thing bin Laden's fighters were good at, it was firing mortars.
They could put a mortar round down your shorts from just about anywhere.
BOARDING THEIR PAIR of Toyota trucks, Whiskey drove at top speed up the steep face of Hill 3434A.
Kenny "Twitch" Kapula, the team's demolition man, was behind the wheel of the first truck. Small and muscular, he was a kanaka, a native Hawaiian. His dark skin and Polynesian features allowed him to blend-in in many parts of the world, a great asset for the team. It made him perfect for extended undercover missions, too, of which he'd done many. A man of few words, he'd been an elementary school teacher before joining the military, which was funny because when it came to combat, he was absolutely cold and ruthless. He had a distinctive head twitch that grew worse the angrier he got, thus his nickname. He also routinely fired off twice as much ammunition as anyone else in the squad during combat. No one could imagine him molding young minds.
Driving the second Toyota was Huey "Gunner" Lapook, Whiskey's weapons expert. A product of the Louisiana bayous, at 6'3", 260, Gunner took up a lot of space. He carried the team's Striker Street Sweeper, a massive shotgun that fired like an automatic weapon. He was also the squad's door-kicker. During forced entries, Gunner always went in first.
It was a tough climb up 3434A and the air grew thin rapidly, which is why the team had been taking in oxygen before they left. They carried no rucksacks, no food, no Kevlar helmets, body armor or heavy clothing. They had to move fast and travel light. Weapons, ammo, their sat phones and their three lucky flags. Just about everything else stayed behind.
They had to reach the opposite end of Tora Bora quickly, but the higher they drove, the more enemy positions they could see arrayed across the nearby mountains. Dozens of gun emplacements, dugouts and bunkers, some with smoke coming out of them, others displaying the telltale flash of weapons fire. In the thinning air, the noise was deafening. So far, at least, no one was shooting in their direction.
It took thirty minutes, but they finally reached the pass between Hill 3434A and 3433. Real Deal directed them across a ridgeline that served as a bridge all the way over to Hill 3014. It was in a small valley next to this mountain that he claimed Looking Glass could be found.
They reached a frozen stream that ran down the side of Hill 3013, the next mountain over. Here they found four burned-out al Qaeda T-62 tanks, each victim of a direct hit from a JDAM earlier in the fighting. There was little left of them or their crews; still, it was amazing that bin Laden's fighters had somehow gotten the four tanks up to such a high elevation.
Nolan ordered the trucks to stop and called out: "Crash, front and center. ..."
Jack "Crash" Stacks was the team's SEAL sniper. A surfer dude from LA, he was also known as "Nun Killer," because shortly before making Delta, he'd been involved in a car accident with a minivan full of nuns. Crash was an outstanding marksman. He rated at an astounding 6,800 meters on the Barrett M107 sniper rifle, meaning he could shoot out someone's eyeball from almost four miles away. He was also the team's medic.
Crash was quickly beside Nolan. The team CO pointed to the area below and said, "Take a look."
Crash adjusted the high-powered scope on his weapon and scanned the terrain at the bottom of the hill. He saw lots of bomb craters, lots of ice, lots of trees blown apart, but no signs of life.
"I doubt anything is breathing down there," he told Nolan. "My guess is the battle passed this place by at least a week ago."
The team left the trucks and, one by one, slid down the frozen streambed to the foot of 3013. Once at the bottom, they took cover in a tree line on the stream's eastern bank. Real Deal pointed to a cave opening on the side of the next mountain over, Hill 3014. From their position 100 yards away, the opening didn't look any different from the dozens of similar caves that dotted Tora Bora, except this one had bales of hay stacked around its entrance.
But Real Deal was insistent.
"That is it," he told Nolan. "Your Looking Glass."
Real Deal already had his hand out — he was expecting Whiskey to pay him on the spot. But just as Nolan was reaching for the money, the air erupted with heavy-weapons fire. The team hit the ground as a long, noisy fusillade went over their heads and crashed into the ice sheets behind them, shattering them like panes of glass.
The barrage was coming from the entrance of the cave; some weapon normally used to shoot down aircraft or destroy armored vehicles was firing on them. Nolan didn't have to yell any orders. The team immediately returned fire, trying to zero in on the cave's entrance. But it was like shooting BBs at a battleship. This was a huge gun they were up against, and they were absolutely pinned down.
Nolan had taken cover behind a large boulder. Twitch was jammed in beside him; Real Deal was on Nolan's other side. Twitch wasn't firing his weapon, but instead was looking directly at Nolan and making the knife-across-the-throat gesture. Nolan got the message: Real Deal had set them up, walked them into an ambush — and Twitch was going to make him pay, here and now.
But Nolan waved him off. Real Deal was so badly shaken by the gunfire he'd wet himself. He'd been as surprised as they were.
"This is a good thing," Nolan told Twitch instead, yelling to be heard above the noise. "No one else around — but someone operating a big gun like that? Someone high profile must be nearby."
Twitch finally opened up with his M4, firing madly as usual. "Always the optimist," he yelled back at Nolan.
The one-sided battle was frightening — for about thirty seconds. Then the gunfire from the cave mouth suddenly stopped. Whiskey hadn't killed any of their attackers; instead, the enemy had mysteriously abandoned its big weapon. Through the smoke and swirling snow they saw a handful of al Qaeda fighters rush to the cave opening and disappear inside. They were all wearing black clothes.
"Fucking Egyptians!" Nolan exclaimed.
Excerpted from The Pirate Hunters by Mack Maloney, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2010 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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