CIA agent Jake Keller and his partner, Curt Roach, are in Yemen on an important mission. They've been tipped off to a secret meeting of top al Qaeda leaders. The plan is to interrupt the meeting with a few unexpected visitors—a pair of Hellfire missiles from an orbiting drone. But the drone stops responding to their signals and soon disappears over the horizon. When next seen, the drone is attacking innocent pilgrims in Mecca.
Jake and Curt are staggered. The U.S. government is desperate to disavow this atrocity. Who better to blame than a couple of rogue CIA agents? With all the governments of the Middle East looking for them and no help from their own side, they are in a desperate race to stay ahead of the mob and find out who's actually behind the crime.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 David Ricciardi
The two men in the bed of the old pickup told the driver to step on it—they could survive a rough ride.
They might not survive being late.
Two days earlier, a signals intercept had revealed an upcoming meeting involving the number one target on the U.S. government’s disposition matrix. Known as Mullah Muktar, he was a quasi-religious leader who’d helped plan the September 11th attacks, then risen to become the leader of a violent extremist organization known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
And it was time to send him to Paradise.
A wake of dust rose behind the pickup truck as it pounded over the dirt road. The monsoon rains usually turned the Wadi Bana into a flowing river that made life in Southern Yemen almost tolerable for a few months each year, but the rains had been light this season. The land was hard and dry.
The driver switched on his lights as he turned onto a paved road. The town of Zinjibar loomed in the cracked windshield. Most of its buildings had been destroyed in the war. The air smelled of smoke and a fine dust that never quite settled to the ground.
The senior CIA officer slapped the roof twice as they passed an open-air market. The pickup turned into an alley and slowed. He threw a goatskin satchel over his shoulder and jumped down to the street.
Two blocks away, the second officer hopped out. He was dressed in a mishmash of loose-fitting pants and a faded wool coat that was popular with the locals. He stooped over and feigned a slight limp, hoping that darkness and distance would make him look like one of the many old men who carried their wares to the market each morning.
Game time, Zac, he thought to himself.
Then he grimaced.
He was known as Jake Keller now, and on his first mission as part of the Agency’s elite Special Activities Center. He walked back to the main boulevard and climbed a pile of rubble to enter an abandoned apartment building. His partner was already there, standing in the dark with a scruffy beard, a scarf wrapped around his head, and a stubby AKS-74U rifle in his hands.
Curt Roach, a thirty-eight year old former special operations marine, was nine years older than Jake and had worked in the military or CIA his entire adult life. He hid a battery-powered motion detector in the lobby and motioned to the stairway. Jake unclipped his own rifle from a harness under his jacket and unfolded the wire stock. The two men ascended the concrete stairs in silence and cleared each room in the five-story building.
“Let’s get set up,” Roach said. “This thing could go down any minute.”
Jake hung camouflage netting from the ceiling, five feet back from the outside wall. Roach set up a tripod behind the net.
“Pass me the designator.”
Jake handed him what looked like a high-tech pair of binoculars. The device would bounce a beam of invisible infrared light off whatever it was pointed at. It could determine the target’s coordinates or guide a missile onto it from an aircraft circling above.
“Run the antennas?” Jake said as he scratched his beard.
Roach nodded. “Just be sure they can’t be seen from the ground.”
Jake disappeared up the stairs, trailing a thin cable behind him. He returned a few minutes later.
“SATCOM and GPS are up. I’ll check in,” he said.
“Mustang, Mustang, this is Cobra.”
From a top-secret facility halfway across the Arabian Peninsula, the CIA mission control element responded.
“Cobra, go for Mustang.”
“Mustang, Cobra at position Alpha.”
“Copy position Alpha. Strike package is two ships. Drifter-71 and Drifter-72 are hard altitude eighteen thousand feet and orbiting your position with fifteen hours till bingo.”
High overhead, two unmanned combat aerial vehicles flew racetrack patterns around the city. From a distance, the stealthy, bat-winged UCAVs resembled miniature B-2 bombers. They each carried fifteen hours of fuel and a pair of air-to-ground missiles in an internal weapons bay.
The two CIA officers watched the streets for hours until a battered Nissan pickup truck arrived, spewing black smoke from its diesel engine. Six men with rifles hopped down. After suffering through decades of a multiparty civil war, nearly everyone in Yemen had a gun, but these men positioned themselves around the intersection with overlapping fields of fire on all of the approaches.
Curt reached for the SATCOM. He whispered despite being two hundred meters away.
“Mustang, we have six military-age males in the open at Alpha. Definite weapons and tactical movement.”
“Roger that, Cobra,” said the radio. “Be advised we are tracking three vehicles westbound to your position.”
A heavily muscled man in fatigue pants and a black T-shirt stared up at the nearby buildings. His gaze shifted methodically, right to left, top to bottom, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Despite having the early morning sun in his eyes, he paused at the floor where Jake and Curt were holed up. He started walking toward the Americans’ building when three identical SUVs stopped in the intersection.
Mullah Muktar emerged from the third vehicle.
“Mustang, we have Jupiter at Alpha,” Roach said. “He’s linking up with the six dismounts.”
“Roger, Cobra,” said mission control. “Facial recognition confirms positive ID on Jupiter. Drifter-72 in range. Ten hours till bingo. Mustang standing by.”
The man in the fatigue pants escorted Muktar into the building across the street.
Twenty minutes later, a tan Yemeni government Land Rover arrived and four soldiers climbed out. A civilian wearing an open-necked suit emerged from the passenger seat.
“Dammit,” Jake said. “There goes our operation.”
Roach scowled. The Agency’s rules of engagement prohibited any action that jeopardized the safety of Yemeni government personnel. He picked up the radio.
“Mustang, we have Saturn in a tan government truck with a four-man security detail.”
“Why would government forces drive that truck into al-Qaeda territory?” Jake said. “Those two have been at each other’s throats for years.”
“Because those aren’t government forces,” Roach said. “These guys know our ROE and they’re using them against us. Look at Saturn’s security detail. They’re looking for external threats. Legitimate government forces would be watching Muktar’s men. The truck is a hoax.”
Roach looked through the laser designator’s magnified optics as the man in the open-necked suit entered the building.
“Jupiter and Saturn are inside the target,” Roach said.
“Cobra, government personnel are outside the ROE. Drifter-71 will target Jupiter’s vehicle once he clears the area.”
“Negative, Mustang. The truck is a ruse,” Roach said. “These bastards killed three thousand Americans and now it’s payback time. Spin up your missiles.”
The man in the fatigue pants returned to the street and linked up with another man. They started walking toward Jake and Roach’s building.
“You see this?” Jake said as he picked up his rifle.
“Why don’t you want to hit Muktar’s truck after he leaves?” Jake asked. “Just in case.”
“First, there’s zero chance that those are government troops. They never made it past the al-Qaeda checkpoints. Second, the mullah has been dodging drone strikes for years. As soon as those vehicles start rolling, his goons will play a shell game with them. The odds of a successful mission go down by two-thirds the second he gets in that truck.”
The radio chirped again. “Roger, Cobra. Drifter-72 is in range and holding on station. Prepare to provide terminal guidance.”
“Negative on the terminal guidance,” Roach said. “We’ve got hostiles inbound. We’re going to transmit coordinates instead.”
In terminal guidance mode, the designator would send coded pulses of laser light that would guide the drone’s missiles to the target, but Roach and Jake would have to stay in position for the duration of the operation, and Roach was worried about the man in the camo pants.
Roach pressed several buttons on the designator and keyed the SATCOM.
“Cobra transmitting coordinates now,” he said. “You are cleared hot.”
“Good copy on coordinates, Cobra. Missile launch in three . . . two . . . one . . .”
Roach’s watch vibrated. “Somebody just triggered the motion detector in the lobby.”
Jake took his rifle to the stairs and listened for the intruders. He glanced at Roach.
Shouldn’t the missiles have hit by now?
Roach was thinking the same thing.
“Mustang, repeat, cleared hot. Execute.”
“Stand by, Cobra,” said the voice on the SATCOM. “We are, uh, negative contact with Drifter-72 at this time. Drifter-71 is being retargeted now.”
“What the hell just happened?” Jake said.
“Cobra, be advised Drifter-71 will be in range in one-six minutes. Maintain position.”
Down in the street below, the two principals exited the meeting.
Roach keyed the SATCOM. “Mustang, we’re about to lose both targets.”
The radio was silent as Jupiter and Saturn spoke on the street.
Jake heard footsteps a few floors below them. He put his rifle to his shoulder and aimed down the stairway.
Jupiter and Saturn looked like old friends as they exchanged hugs and kisses on both cheeks.
Jake heard men speaking one floor down and Roach cupped the microphone in his hand.
“Mustang, Mustang . . . Repeat, we are losing both targets.”
The voices stopped. Roach picked up his rifle.
Two minutes later, the man in the fatigue pants and his partner appeared on the street next to Mullah Muktar.
“We’ve been chasing that sonofabitch for almost twenty years and he’s going to walk again,” Roach said. He practically shouted into the mic. “Mustang, this is Cobra. Jupiter and Saturn are bugging out. Does Drifter-71 have eyes on target yet?”
The men on the street entered their vehicles. Roach hammered the SATCOM with his fist.
“Mustang, this is Cobra, how copy?” he said as the terrorists drove away.
He switched off the designator and sat back against the wall. He kicked the SATCOM across the floor and looked at Jake.
“We’ll call for extraction once it’s dark.”
The cameraman usually covered soccer matches for the Al-Arabiya television network, but the equipment today was the same, the best that money could buy. He could capture a million people in the frame or zoom in on a single face. Ultra-high-definition sensors rendered flawless images of whatever he’d selected. The control booth would occasionally tell him to take an artistic shot and on a clear night he would zoom in on the moon and fill viewers’ screens with images of craters, ridges, and shadows that most people never knew existed. It was an awesome piece of technology.
From high atop one of the hotels, he panned right to catch the buses, cars, and pedestrians that were clogging the highway from Mina. They were latecomers making their way back to the Masjid al-Haram, the enormous outdoor mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It was the last day of the Hajj, and they were obligated to enter the mosque and complete the final tawaf, seven laps around the black building in the center known as the Kaaba. Only then would Allah erase their sins and their pilgrimage be complete.
Covering the Hajj was easy work for the cameraman, except for the heat, which could run to 130 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the roof. He downed another bottle of water and zoomed in on the profile of a single pilgrim, prostrate before the Kaaba with his hands pressed up against its stone side. Tears of joy streamed down the man’s face as the song of the muezzin appeared to be directed only to him. It was one of the cameraman’s favorite shots. He focused on the individual for several seconds.
The tearful man raised his head and the cameraman began to zoom out. He widened the frame until it included the dozen or so people closest to the pilgrim, symbolizing the man’s family. He kept widening the picture until perhaps a hundred people were in the shot, representing the pilgrim’s community. The cameraman kept zooming out until viewers could see the tawaf, rotating counterclockwise like a great galaxy of Islam. The final shot encompassed the entire Grand Mosque with the Kaaba drawing the viewer’s eyes to the center. It was breathtaking. The booth usually held it for twenty or thirty seconds before cutting to a different angle. The cameraman lifted his eyes from his viewfinder and looked out over the scene, savoring the moment.
There was an explosion in the crowd, followed by a cloud of smoke rising into the air near the Kaaba. The crying man was gone, vaporized along with at least a thousand people around him.
Oh, no, thought the cameraman. Some madman snuck in a bomb. Is nowhere sacred?
There was a second explosion and more smoke on the other side of the Kaaba. There was more smoke. And then he heard the sound, the whoosh of two objects flying rapidly through the air, followed by the noise of the explosions.
Delayed by the speed of sound, he realized. Not a madman on the ground, but a madman in the air . . .
The cameraman instinctively spun the camera toward the action. Its powerful lens picked up faint trails of smoke. He followed them into the sky and zoomed in until he spotted a dot in the distance. He zoomed as fast and as far as he could until the dot took form, the form of an aircraft turning away. The image was grainy on the hot and hazy summer day, but the cameraman had no doubts about what it was. The distinctive, bat-winged aircraft was possessed by only one nation on earth, and millions of people had just seen it attack the holiest site in all of Islam.
“What the hell does ‘negative contact’ mean? Did the UCAV crash?” Jake said.
Roach just scowled. He’d been wondering the same thing and the CIA mission control element wasn’t responding.
“I’m going to check the east side of the building,” Jake said, more out of frustration than anything else. He took his rifle.
It was early afternoon, the Yemeni equivalent of a siesta, when much of the male population was out on the street. Despite the heat, most were dressed in baggy trousers, blousy shirts, and camel hair coats, often with loose turbans wrapped around their heads. Many carried a curved dagger, known locally as a jambiya, tucked in their waists. Once a fearsome weapon, the jambiya had become largely ceremonial over the last few decades. For serious work, nearly everyone had a Kalashnikov in his hand, on his shoulder, or leaning against a nearby wall.
Most of the idlers were chewing a locally grown stimulant called qat and visiting with their neighbors, but there were others, groups of men with long beards and unblinking eyes. They were al-Qaeda soldiers, and the locals usually gave them a wide berth.
But something was different today. The qat chewers were agitated. Jake raised his binoculars. A quarter mile away, a group of men were walking down the street, shouting and waving weapons around. Someone fired into the air.
“Curt, check this out,” Jake said across the hallway. He didn’t bother whispering.
Roach had heard the gunfire.
“Sounds like a Middle Eastern wedding,” he said as he walked over. The two men stood back from the window to stay in the shadows.
“They don’t look very happy.”
“Sounds like my wedding,” Roach said. “Let’s stick with the plan and exfil after dark.”
Jake shook his head. “I don’t like it. When was the last time you saw the locals walking arm in arm with al-Qaeda?”
Roach watched the action on the street for a few minutes before he walked to the other room and tried the SATCOM again.
“Mustang, this is Cobra. Come in, Mustang . . . Mustang, Mustang, this is Cobra. How copy?”
Jake stared through the binoculars. The mob was maybe seventy-five men now. There was more gunfire.
Roach came back scowling. “Comms are still down. This is starting to feel like a Ted Graves Special.”
“What’s a Ted Graves Special?” Jake asked, although he already had a pretty good idea.
“Just an expression . . .”
“Well, something is bringing the two groups together,” Jake said. “Maybe a common enemy?”
“If it’s the Saudis, they’ll soften up the target with airstrikes before any ground offensive. We don’t want to be in the tallest building around if we’re looking at Saudi airstrikes. They aren’t known for precision bombing.”
Jake packed up the rest of their gear while Roach used a cell phone to text their driver. The gunfire on the street grew closer. Individual voices could be heard among the din. Chants of “Death to America” and “Allah is the greatest” echoed through the streets.
Gunshots rang out just below the windows and the two Americans prepared to defend the stairs. Roach thumbed his rifle’s selector switch. Jake closed his eyes and listened. The shouting and the gunfire shifted around the building and began to move away. A car drove past on the boulevard.
“Our ride should have been here by now,” Jake said. He wiped the sweat from his brow.
The plan was for their driver to stay inside the city limits to avoid any issues at the checkpoints.
Curt’s watch started vibrating again.
“Motion detector . . .” he said.
“Maybe it’s our driver.”
Roach grimaced. “Maybe.”
He slung his satchel over his back and put the rifle to his shoulder. He descended the stairs silently, his head and rifle moving as one, methodically clearing the open space as a series of arcs. Jake followed behind, covering the opposing doorways and hallways, until the two men reached the second floor. A diesel truck passed by in low gear. Roach shook his wrist in the air to signal that the watch was still vibrating. Whoever had entered the lobby was still there.
Roach descended the next step, his rifle moving left. The arc was clear. He continued down several more stairs, scrutinizing everything, with Jake right behind him. An old Bongo truck backfired at the intersection, but their trained minds filtered it out.
They continued down the steps with the muzzles of their rifles probing the air for trouble. Sunlight streamed in through the doorway to the street, flooding the ground floor with light. They were five stairs from the bottom when Jake saw a shadow move against the back wall.
He reached down and squeezed Roach’s shoulder. The two Americans began to back up the stairs, but the man in the lobby was walking toward the doorway. He had a thick beard and a well-used Kalashnikov at his side.
He spotted the two men on the stairs.
Roach instantly realized what had transpired. The man was part of the street mob. He was using the abandoned building as a toilet, a common practice in the war-ravaged city. Roach lowered his rifle and continued down the last few steps to the lobby floor.
The man spoke to Roach and he responded, but the Yemeni dialect of Arabic was nearly impossible for a foreigner to master.
The man went for his gun.
In a lush, mountainous region of eastern Mexico, a group of men in their twenties ran up a steep dirt trail. Each had thought himself a specimen of fitness before he’d arrived six weeks earlier but, despite the shade provided by the thick forest canopy, the summer heat and thin mountain air had humbled them all. In the first week, groans and the sound of vomiting were common as they jogged up the mountainside in long pants and hiking boots, but their times had declined steadily for the daily ten-kilometer run. Now, they leapt over fallen trees and dodged boulders underfoot. The only sounds were of steady breathing and boots pounding out a brutal pace.
As usual, the one known as Señor Paraíso was the last man in the line, but he was far from the slowest runner. It was his leadership style. He would run alongside those who were struggling, speaking words of encouragement. In their runs, and in their training, he pushed his men to accomplish what they’d never thought possible. At the finish line, only the slowest man’s time went onto the board. In case anyone missed the implication, the message was written in Spanish and English over the entrance to the dining facility.
The success of each of us depends on the success of all of us.
After the morning run, the men spent the first half of the day refining their Spanish and English skills. The speaking of other languages was strictly forbidden, for it could betray their true identities once their mission had begun.
There were no buildings in the compound and classes were held in underground rooms. The men found it cooler, but more importantly, the federal police aircraft and the American satellites couldn’t find it at all. A regional drug cartel had given Señor Paraíso’s sponsor use of the camp. The three-month lease and assorted other arrangements had been provided in exchange for the one thing the drug producers valued above all else, cash.
Afternoons were divided between mission planning, cultural instruction, and weapons training. All were important, but it was the weapons training that the men most enjoyed. Russian RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades were fired with dummy warheads until the men had become proficient with the deadly weapon. Inert 81mm mortar rounds were launched until the team developed a feel for the effects of the heat and wind on their trajectories. Underground laboratories, normally used to process drugs, became workrooms where common chemicals were made into high explosives. Finally, marksmanship training, done with the ubiquitous and reliable Kalashnikov AK-47, was done with suppressors—for despite the size and seclusion of the facility, the time for the world to note their skills was not yet upon them.
It was at the end of a particularly long and hot day that one of the men turned his ankle and cursed in his native tongue. He was a star student, with language and weapon skills among the best in the group, yet a chill spread throughout the camp. Señor Paraíso dealt sharply with transgressors, and the man had been warned twice before.
The man limped over to Paraíso and said in Spanish, “Señor, please forgive my temper. Know that I will always do what is best for the mission.”
Paraíso loved his men, but there was no room for mistakes. As quick as lightning and as loud as thunder, he drew his pistol and fired a single shot into the man’s face.
“That is what is best for the mission.”
Roach lunged forward and smashed the muzzle of his rifle into the man’s sternum. He cried out in pain and fell backward onto the ground. When he looked up, Roach’s weapon was still pointed at his chest.
A man who’d been out on the street heard the scream and looked inside. He saw Roach holding his friend at gunpoint and raised his own rifle, but Jake dropped him with three shots to the chest. A third man, six-foot-five and at least two hundred fifty pounds, stepped into the entryway, blocking it entirely. He held his rifle at his waist and began to rake the lobby on full auto. Jake put three rounds into his torso and two more into his head before the giant fell backward onto the street.
The man lying on the floor lunged for Roach’s rifle but the former marine special-operations sergeant anchored him with two 5.45mm bullets in his heart.
Roach motioned Jake toward the door. They moved along opposite walls, weapons up, looking through the doorway to clear as much of the exterior as they could from the relative safety of the interior. Roach signaled that he would go through first and clear right, and that Jake should follow and clear left.
Roach stepped through the doorway with Jake barely a second behind. A man with an AK-47 was hidden across the street behind the hood of a burned-out car. He fired wildly, stitching a line of bullet holes over Jake’s head and up the side of the building. Roach skipped half a dozen rounds under the old car and dropped the shooter.
The two Americans scanned the boulevard with their weapons up. The man behind the car was out of commission, but their ride was nowhere to be seen and they’d just made a hell of a lot of noise, even for Zinjibar. They folded the wire stocks on their stubby rifles, tucked them under their jackets, and hustled around the street corner.
Roach dialed their driver. “No answer.”
They took a circuitous route to their alternate extraction point, watching carefully for any surveillance they might have picked up. The driver wasn’t there either.
“First Drifter-72 disappears, then the SATCOM goes down, now this,” Jake said. “It feels like this op just got rolled up.”
Three teenage boys with guns rode by on a motor scooter, eyeing the two Americans as they passed.
“We need to boost some wheels and get out of here,” said Roach. “Let’s try the old taxi lot.”
Roach gripped his Glock 19 pistol in his pocket while Jake held his rifle under his jacket. The two men spoke to each other in Arabic and gestured with their free hands as they walked down the sidewalk carrying their satchels and trying their hardest to look utterly unremarkable. Both had deep tans and had dyed their hair black. They would never pass for Yemenis, but the disguises gave them some breathing room, and they needed every inch of it. Several times, they crossed the street to avoid contact with the locals.
“There’s the lot,” Roach said.
Most of the taxis had been abandoned because few people in Zinjibar had anywhere to go and none could afford a taxi. Roach took a multitool from his belt and started one of the old vans. Jake tossed their satchels in back and jumped in the passenger seat with his rifle across his lap.
The streets were empty as they drove through town. Jake tuned the AM radio until he picked up an Arabic-language station in Aden, forty miles away. The broadcaster spoke of an American airstrike, but that was not uncommon in Yemen. CIA and the U.S. military had made it the epicenter of U.S. drone strikes over the last five years.
Roach turned north over the broken pavement, toward the dirt road they’d taken into the city that morning. The radio announcer mentioned thousands of civilian casualties. Like it was with any military action, the death of noncombatants was a tragic by-product of the drone campaign, but one that was often exaggerated or fabricated by the enemy to generate ill will toward America.
Not even the harshest critic of the drone program had suggested civilian deaths in the thousands.
Jake and Roach glanced at each other.
“Did he say where?” Jake asked. There was static on the airwaves and Roach’s Arabic was better than his.
Roach shook his head slowly.
A minute later the announcer solved the mystery.
Thousands dead at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The distinctive shape of an American B-2 bomber was filmed turning away.
Roach coasted to a stop in the middle of the road. The two CIA officers felt as if they’d had the wind knocked out of them.
Jake stared at the radio. “Drifter-72?”
The math worked. There had been enough time for the drone to fly from Zinjibar to Mecca. Two missiles had struck the mosque, one on either side of the Kaaba. To an amateur observer, Drifter-72 would have looked like a B-2, and the big bomber had the capability to launch missiles, not the kind that were used in the strike, but that didn’t matter. It was a U.S. aircraft and the court of world opinion had already rendered its verdict.
Roach shook his head again. “I uploaded the right coordinates.”
“This is what you meant by a ‘Ted Graves Special,’ isn’t it?” Jake asked.
“First Drifter-72 disappears, then we lose the SATCOM, then our exfil goes dark. I’m a big believer in Murphy’s Law, but I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“I have my issues with Ted. He’s a cold, calculating sonofabitch, but he’s not a madman.”
Roach started driving again, keeping his eyes on a sedan with faded black paint and mirrored windows all around. He’d seen it twice since they’d taken the van and it was behind them again.
“Ted isn’t crazy,” he said, “but he is aggressive. He was an operations trainee the first time the U.S. missed bin Laden. The president had authorized a cruise missile strike, but there was a high probability of civilian casualties, so they aborted the strike and UBL went into the wind for another three years.”
“Until he and Muktar launched the 9/11 attacks,” Jake said.
“Ted felt we weren’t aggressive enough, early enough. Think about how many lives have been lost and how many trillions of dollars have been spent because of 9/11. What if we’d sent a special operations team into Kandahar in the middle of the night, or launched the missiles anyway?”
The sedan with the mirrored windows pulled around them and kept driving. Roach checked for a backup car, but the road was deserted as sunset approached.
“You really think Ted would attack the Hajj to take out one guy?” Jake said.
“This isn’t about one guy. This is about driving a wedge between the Muslim world and the U.S., a wedge that can’t be removed. It’s about shattering all hope for reconciliation. There will be retaliations against the U.S., which will convince people back home to transform the war on terror into a war on Islam. And who takes the fall? A couple of CIA pukes from Ground Branch. We’re just collateral damage.”
“They can’t blame us for this,” Jake said. “We never had control of the drone.”
“Graves has been chief of Special Activities for less than a year. He’s not going to take the fall for this if he can find someone else to pin it on.”
A dusty pickup truck approached with four men and a box-fed light machine gun in its bed. The four fighters stared at Jake and Roach as they passed.
“We need to get out of Zinjibar,” Roach said as he turned down a side street, “and we can’t go back to the safe house in case our driver was compromised. Let’s hit Tall Mohammed’s shop. He’ll know where the checkpoints are.”
With his commanding height and hooded eyes, Tall Mohammed bore more than a passing likeness to the late Osama bin Laden, whose family had also been from Yemen. The resemblance had been an asset in establishing Mohammed’s arms dealing business, until it had become a liability, and it was how he’d initially come to the attention of CIA.
“You think we can trust him?” Jake said.
“Definitely not, but we can buy him.”
They drove west toward the city’s commercial center. The surviving entrepreneurs in Zinjibar were mostly drug dealers and weapons smugglers, classes of people that rarely let ideology interfere with business.
They passed an old man leading a donkey cart filled with all of his possessions and turned down another side street. Two guards with AK-47s and bandoliers across their chests were outside Mohammed’s building. Roach pulled to the curb a hundred feet from the entrance. He took a short stack of euros from a pouch strapped to his waist while Jake press-checked his pistol to confirm that a round was chambered.
They stepped out of the van and slung their rifles across their backs. Entering the shop unarmed would be seen as a sign of weakness. The two Americans traded hostile stares with the guards as they approached the front door, but entered without incident.
Mohammed was sitting sidesaddle on cushions on the floor, watching the television coverage from Mecca and smoking a hookah with three other men. A cloud of sweet shisha tobacco smoke hung in the air. Along the walls were well over a thousand well-used weapons: Kalashnikovs in a dozen configurations, American M-4s and M-16s, light and heavy machine guns, close to a hundred Makarov and Glock pistols, and a stack of RPG-7s propped in a corner. Mohammed grimaced when he saw the two Americans and motioned them to a back room. They spoke in English across a wooden table.
“You are either very arrogant or very foolish to come here today,” he said.
“It wasn’t us, Mohammed,” Roach said.
“The television shows otherwise. There is no stepping back from the line America has just crossed. There were many in the Muslim world who hated the armed men more than the Americans, but that time has passed. Blood was literally spilled on the Black Stone today. There could be no greater affront to the memory of the Prophet, peace be unto him, and to mankind. Even the moderates will turn against you.”
“That’s why we need to get out of Zinjibar and straighten this out,” Roach said. He pulled the bills from his pocket. “Which of your trading routes are still open?”
“We have done much business together,” said Mohammed. “I am a merchant, and the conflict has been good for me, but I am also a Muslim. If you prove to me that the United States was not responsible for this horror, then I will once again embrace you like brothers, but until then, take your money and leave. You are not welcome in my shop, in my city, or in my country.”
Mohammed drew the dagger from his belt and thrust it an inch deep into the hardwood table.
President J. William Day entered the White House Situation Room. The video monitors recessed into the walls were dark, the mood somber. Seated around the table were a dozen principals from the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement communities. The president had already reamed out the CIA director in private, but this was the first meeting of the national-security power players since the disaster in Mecca.
The president spoke to FBI director Ed Kerr. “Walk me through some scenarios, Ed.”
“There are three possibilities, Mr. President,” said the director. “First, there was a technical failure. The UCAV flew where it wasn’t supposed to and launched its weapons due to some bug in the code, but we can dismiss that for obvious reasons. The odds against it flying to Mecca and striking the Grand Mosque during the Hajj are astronomical. Unfortunately, the other two possibilities entail malicious tampering with a special-access-program weapons system. Either someone hijacked it or the operators went rogue.”
“Let’s not engage in speculation,” said Director David Feinman of CIA.
“I asked him to speculate,” the president said. “The police treat every death as a murder until they prove otherwise, and right now everyone is a suspect until we prove otherwise. The United States has never been this isolated. This attack puts our economic prosperity and our physical safety at risk. I want the Bureau investigating it over at Langley immediately.”
“Yes, sir. We also need to pursue the possibility that this was a cyber attack. Based on recent intrusions and attempted intrusions into our networks, there are several countries that make the suspect list for something like this. In terms of capability and motive, I’d say Russia, China, and North Korea are at the top. India and Taiwan might have the capability, but probably not the motive. Iran and Pakistan are at the bottom because they likely don’t have the ability and it’s improbable that another Muslim nation would attack Mecca. We’re already coordinating with the director of national intelligence.”
“This is one more reason why DoD should be running all of these operations,” said the secretary of defense. “CENTCOM prosecuted over one hundred twenty strikes in Yemen last year and we never had anything like this happen.”
The CIA director knew the dig was more about budget dollars than anything else, but he’d worked closely with the defense secretary over the past two years and didn’t appreciate being kicked while he was down.
“Where is the aircraft now?” said the president.
“It crashed,” said Feinman, “but it was equipped with a one-time, burst-encrypted emergency landing transmitter. We received a signal that it impacted the Red Sea, west of Mecca.”
“We’re in for a world of hurt if the Saudis pull it out of the water,” said the president. “Is there any indication they know where it crashed?”
General Jay Landgraf, an army four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered. “There’s been no mobilization of Saudi search assets, Mr. President.”
“What about on our end?”
“We have a special operations submarine en route at flank speed, but it won’t be on station for another twelve hours. It has orders to hold in international waters outside the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, pending your authorization to enter the Red Sea.”
“Send it,” said the president. “What about increasing our military readiness? We should be ready for the next act if this was a foreign state executing a false-flag operation.”
“We’ve already moved all U.S. forces to Force Protection Condition Charlie,” said General Landgraf.
“I’m not talking about a terrorist attack. I’m talking about war. What if this was done to justify an attack on the United States?”
“Sir, our overseas forces are already at a high state of readiness. I would caution that the Russians, the Chinese, and everyone within a hundred miles of our bases will notice any escalation in our posture. The rest of the world views what happened in Mecca as a U.S. attack on a longtime ally. If our adversaries see us ramping up, they might misunderstand our intentions and perceive it as a precursor to ‘additional’ offensive operations.”
The president shifted in his chair. “The bottom line is that it was an American aircraft that killed those people and we should expect some sort of retribution. My job now is to minimize further loss of life, so while I appreciate your concern, General, as of this moment I’m ordering you to take all U.S. forces up to DEFCON-4.”