The driving rain was unrelenting, whipped into a frenzy by howling winds, and the waves surged and crashed against the coast, a maelstrom in the black night. In the shallow waters just offshore, a dozen or so dark figures bobbed, clinging to their buoyant, waterproof haversacks like survivors of a shipwreck. The freak storm had caught the men unawares by was good; it provided better cover than they could have hoped for.
From the beach, a pinpoint of red light flashed on and off twice, a signal from the advance team that it was safe to land. Safe! What did that mean? That this particular stretch of Tunisian coastline was left undefended by the Garde Nationale? Nature's assault seemed far more punishing than anything the Tunisian coast guard could attempt.
Tossed and buffeted about by the heaving swells, the men made their way toward the beach, and in one coordinated movement clambered silently onto the sand by the ruins of the ancient Punic ports. Stripping off their black rubber dry suits to reveal dark clothing and blackened faces, they removed their weapons from their haversacks and began distributing their arsenal: Heckler & Koch MP-10 submachine guns, Kalashnikovs, and sniper rifles. Behind them, others now came ashore in waves.
Everything was precisely orchestrated by the man who had trained them so exhaustively, so tirelessly, for the last months. They were Al-Nahda freedom fighters, natives of Tunisia come to free their country from the oppressors. But their leaders were foreignersskilled terrorists who also shared their faith in Allah, a small, elite cell of freedom fighters drawn from the most radical wing of Hezbollah.
The leader of this cell, and of the fifty or so Tunisians, was the master terrorist known only as Abu. Occasionally his full nom de guerre was used: Abu Intiquab. The father of revenge.
Elusive, secretive, and ferocious, Abu had trained the Al-Nadha fighters at the Libyan camp outside of Zuwarah. He refined their strategy on a full-scale model of the presidential palace and instructed them in tactics both more violent and more devious than anything they were used to.
Barely thirty hours ago, at the port of Zuwarah, the men had boarded a five-thousand-ton, Russian-built break-bulk freighter, a cargo ship that normally hauled Tunisian textiles and Libyan manufactured goods between Tripoli and Bizerte in Tunisia. The powerful old freighter, now battered and decrepit, had traveled north-northwest along the Tunisian coast, past the port cities of Sfax and Sousse, then swung around Cap Bon and entered the Golfe de Tunis, just past the naval base at La Goulette. Alerted to the schedule of the coast guard patrol boats, the men had dropped anchor five miles from the Carthage coast and swiftly launched their rigid-hulled inflatables, equipped with powerful outboard motors. Within minutes, they had entered the turbulent waters of Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city so powerful in the fifth century B.C. that it was considered Rome's great rival. If anyone in the Tunisian coast guard happened to be monitoring the ship on radar, he would see only a freighter pausing momentarily, then heading on toward Bizerte.
On the shore, the man who had flashed the red signal was hissing orders and cursing in a low voice with unquestioned authority. He was a bearded man in a military-issue rain anorak worn over a keffiyeh. Abu.
"Quiet! Keep it down! What do you want, to bring out the whole godforsaken Tunisian Garde? Quickly, now. Let's move it, move it! Clumsy fools! Your leader rots in jail while you dawdle! The trucks are waiting!"
Next to him stood a man wearing night-vision goggles and silently scanning the terrain. The Tunisians knew him only as the Technician. One of Hezbollah's top munitions experts, he was a handsome, olive-skinned man with heavy brows and flashing brown eyes. As little as the men knew about Abu, they knew even less about the Technician, Abu's trusted advisor. According to rumor, he was born to wealthy Syrian parents and raised in Damascus and London, where he was schooled in the intricacies of arms and explosives.
Finally the Technician spoke, quietly and calmly. He pulled his black, hooded waterproof garment tight against the torrential rain.
"I hesitate to say it, my brother, but the operation is going smoothly. The trucks loaded with matériel were concealed just as we had arranged and the soldiers encountered no resistance on the short drive along the Avenue Habib Borguiga. Now we have just received the radio signal from the first menthey have reached the presidential palace. The coup d'etat has begun." As he spoke he consulted his wristwatch.
Abu nodded imperiously. He was a man who expected nothing less than success. A distant series of explosions told Abu and his adviser that the battle was underway. The presidential palace would be seized imminently, and in a matter of hours, the Islamic militants would control Tunis. "Let us not congratulate ourselves prematurely," Abu said in a low, tense voice. The rain was letting up now, and in a moment the storm passed just as suddenly as it had appeared.
Suddenly the silence on the beach was shattered by voices shouting at them in strident, high-pitched Arabic. Dark figures raced across the sand. Abu and the Technician tensed and reached for their weapons, but then saw it was their Hezbollah brethren.
"My God! Mighty Allah, they're surrounded!"
Four Arab men approached, looking frightened and out of breath. "A zero-one distress signal," panted the one carrying a PRC-117 field radio on his back. "They were able to transmit only that they were surrounded by the security forces at the palace and taken captive. Then the transmission was killed! They say they were set up!"
Abu turned to his adviser in alarm. "How can this be?"
The youngest of the four young men who stood before them said, "The materiel left for the menthe antitank weapons, the ammunition, the C-4all of it was defective! Nothing worked! And the government forces were lying in wait for them! Our men were set up from the beginning!"
Abu looked visibly pained, his customary serenity vanished. He beckoned his number-one adviser. "Ya sahbee, I need your wise counsel."
The technician adjusted his wristwatch as he came close to the master terrorist. Abu put one arm around his adviser's shoulders. He spoke in a low, calm voice. "There must be a traitor in our ranks, an infiltrator. Our plans were leaked."
Abu made a subtle, almost undetectable gesture with a finger and thumb. It was a cue, and his followers immediately grabbed the Technician by the arms, legs, and shoulders. The Technician struggled mightily, but he was no match for the trained terrorists who held him. Swiftly, Abu's right hand shot out. There was a flash of metal and Abu plunged a serrated, hooked knife into the Technician's abdomen, yanking the blade down and then out to inflict the maximum damage. Abu's eyes were blazing. "The traitor is you!" he spat out.
The Technician gasped. The pain was obviously excruciating, but his face remained a stolid mask. "No, Abu!" he protested.
"Pig!" spat Abu, lunging at him again, his serrated knife aimed at the Technician's groin. "No one else knew the timing, the exact plans! No one! And you were the one who certified the materiel. It can be no one else."
Suddenly the beach was flooded with blindingly bright carbon-arc light. Abu turned and realized that they were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by dozens upon dozens of soldiers in khaki uniforms. The Groupement de Commando of the Tunisian Garde Nationale, machine guns pointed, had abruptly appeared from over the horizon; a thundering racket from above announced the arrival of several attack helicopters.
Bursts of automatic gunfire hit Abu's men, turning them into jerking marionettes. Their bloodcurdling screams were abruptly silenced, and their bodies toppled to the ground in strange and awkward positions. Another burst of gunfire, and then it stopped. The unexpected silence that followed was eerie. Only the master terrorist and his munitions specialist had not been fired upon.
But Abu seemed to have only one focus of attention, and he spun back around to the man he had branded a traitor, positioning his scimitar-shaped blade for another attack. Badly wounded, the Technician tried to ward off his assailant, but instead began to sink to the ground. The loss of blood was too great. Just as Abu lunged forward to finish him off, powerful hands grabbed the bearded Hezbollah leader from behind, slamming him down and pinning him to the sand.
Abu's eyes burned with defiance as the two were taken into custody by the government soldiers. He did not fear any government. Governments were cowards, he had often said; governments would release him under some pretext of international law and extradition and repatriation. Deals would be struck behind the scenes, and Abu would be quietly released, his presence in the country a carefully kept secret. No government wanted to bring on itself the full fury of a Hezbollah terror campaign.
The terrorist master did not struggle, but instead caused his body to go slack, forcing the soldiers to drag him away. As he was dragged past the Technician, he spat full in his face and hissed, "You are not long for this world, traitor! Pig! You will die for your treachery!"
Once Abu was taken away, the several men who had grabbed the Technician gently released him, easing him down onto a waiting stretcher. Obeying the instructions of the battalion captain, they backed away as the captain approached. The Tunisian knelt beside the Technician and examined his wound. The Technician winced but uttered not a sound.
"My God, it's a wonder you're still conscious!" said the captain in heavily accented English. "You have been badly injured. You have lost a great deal of blood."
The man who had been known as the Technician replied, "If your men had responded to my signal a little more speedily, this wouldn't have happened." He instinctively touched his wristwatch, which was equipped with a miniaturized high-frequency transmitter.
The captain ignored the barb. "That SA-341 up there," he said, pointing up to the sky, where a helicopter hovered, "will take you to a high-security government medical facility in Morocco. I'm not permitted to know your real identity, nor who your real employers are, so I won't ask," the Tunisian began, "but I think I have a good idea-"
Just then the Technician whispered harshly, "Get down!" He quickly pulled a semiautomatic pistol from the holster concealed under his arms and fired off five quick shots. There was a cry from a copse of palm trees, and a dead man toppled to the ground, his sniper rifle clutched in his hand. Somehow an Al-Nahda soldier had escaped the massacre.
"Mighty Allah!" exclaimed the frightened captain of the battalion as he slowly raised his head and looked around. "I think we're even now, you and I."
"Listen," the Arab-who-was-not-an-arab said weakly, "tell your president his minister of the interior is a secret Al-Nahda sympathizer and collaborator who conspires to take his place. He's in league with the deputy minister of defense. There are others...."
But the loss of blood had been too great. Before the Technician could finish his sentence, he passed out.