While in England on an unsanctioned assignment, Sean Garrett witnesses the shooting of a distinguished Cambridge professor by elite contract killer David Laurent. With his cover blown, Garrett is on the run from an assassin desperate to erase his tracks, and authorities who believe he is responsible for the murder.
Banastre Montjoy, a burned-out head of section at the Secret Intelligence Service, is in a race himself to discover if the scholar's death is linked to a bombing of the London Underground a year earlier. Montjoy's nemesis, the power-hungry and scheming Berwyn Rees, seeks to drum his rival out of MI6, while maneuvering to become deputy chief.
With time running out, SOG operators Tre Ward and Brian Bishop are sent in by the CIA to locate and extract Garrett. As Laurent, MI5, and Scotland Yard close in on their target, Montjoy uncovers a secret that someone inside the British government has sought to keep buried since World War II.
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Dearborn, Michigan October 2013
Youssef al-Zahrani sat beneath a pavilion in Hemlock Park and bit into a sweet pastry lay- Y ered with chopped nuts and honey. He watched the small crowd already gathered, and wondered if any of them were aware that so many others had once laid claim to this land.
For a thousand years it had been the indigenous peoples that lived and warred along the Detroit River. Then came les coureurs des bois, who trapped, traded, and settled on Ribbon farms throughout the region. The French were finally driven from the territory by Britain, who owned it for all of two decades until the New World English took violent possession as Americans. Waves of Europeans followed, and transformed the fringe outpost into an empire.
And now, al-Zahrani's people, who began as a trickle one century earlier. What was the difference between John Winthrop, the powerful seventeenth-century governor of the Massachusetts B century Bay Colony, and he, wondered al-Zahrani? Both had come to the New World to purify the rot that threatened their communities. Each yearned to build a "city upon a hill," which would emanate as a beacon of light across the world.
Who could deny the supremacy of his God? Not these people, for it had been their Founding Father, John Adams, who praised the founder of Islam as a seeker of the truth. It was in their Supreme Court where a likeness of Mohammad stood in honor as one of history's greatest lawgivers. It was their very own George Washington who became a favored epistoler of Mohammed ben Abdallah, Sultan of Morocco, the first ruler — and country — to recognize the revolutionary yelps of freedom from the fledgling nation.
Al-Zahrani saw himself as the father of his people, the new chosen. America was as much their rock as Plymouth had belonged to the Pilgrims. And the ripple from what he was about to cast into an unholy well would spread outward with devastating effect. Soon, he was certain, the name al-Zahrani would resonate alongside Winthrop and Washington.
"As-salamu alaykum, my brother," came a voice over his shoulder.
"And unto you, peace," answered al-Zahrani, diverting his attention from a small grove of trees across the park. He glanced at the man. "Did you bring it?"
Aabis al-Adheen nodded as he reached into a backpack.
"And you are set on this course of action? You were warned of the consequence the last time, yet you chose to ignore it."
"I've considered the risk," al-Adheen replied, "and it is one I am willing to take."
"Then the die is cast, my friend."
"It is cast." Al-Adheen smiled, and set down a wooden chessboard on the bench between them.
"Your turn to select," he said, offering two closed fists.
"In that case, I choose your right hand. May it not smite me down on this most glorious morning."
Al-Adheen showed his palm. "Black again."
The men organized the ornate, hand-carved pieces on interlocking squares, and al-Adheen opened with queen's pawn.
"What do you have in store for me today?" Al-Zahrani asked as he played king's knight.
"All good things to those who wait." Al-Adheen pushed queen's bishop pawn.
Al-Zahrani thought he recognized the opening.
"The Budapest Gambit?"
The imam played his king's pawn. "And what news of our London gambit?"
Al-Adheen considered the board before taking the piece. "The pawns are in place. They await our move."
Al-Zahrani pushed his king's knight into an attacking position. "Then let us move them."
"Yes, it is time. Al-Hamdu lillah."
"Praise be to Allah, indeed," al-Zahrani seconded the thought. "And to us, my friend."
London, England Four months later
It was a bitter, wet workday for anyone looking to shake the lingering effects of the weekend. The live board at the massive railway complex in North London showed all tracks running on time. Uncommon for a Monday morning. Unusual, considering the waterlogged mob that overran the scores of domestic and international platforms of King's Cross St. Pancras. The combined system, which served as the terminus of several main lines, Eurostar, and half of all Tube routes in the city, was one of the biggest and most important transportation hubs in the U.K. Despite its crowd, the sounds of the station were dampened, far different from the buzz of other places far away and warm, where travelers fled in search of seacoasts and suntans.
It had been four months since Mohammad Imran Basha was activated, and almost two years that the twenty-year old student at Leeds Beckett University had dropped out while pursuing a degree in business. Born in London to Pakistani immigrants, the youngest of four raised in a poor, but loving, household, Basha had never given much thought to the teachings of Islam, radical or otherwise. Until he was eighteen, and a fresher at university. Until he met a sympathetic neighbor who worked as a counselor to struggling young Muslims, a mentor to those who felt foreign in the land of their birth.
After several months, the man introduced Basha to Abdul al-Faraj, formerly Devon Whyte Walcott, a Jamaican-born convert and radical imam who had arrived in England by way of Saudi Arabia fifteen years earlier. Basha soon joined a mosque near Finsbury Park, where his education truly began.
You feel like an outsider because you are considered one, he was taught.
These people do not want you in their country, he learned.
Their system has no interest in helping you succeed, he heard.
Such was drilled into his core until the message came to define Basha. And, he had been convinced, there was something the new convert could do to remedy the wrongs perpetrated against him and his people.
Basha's initiation soon moved outside the mosque. He memorized chapters of the Koran, hoping one day to become a hafiz, and became so proficient at reciting verse and doctrine that he was sent into local parks to recruit schoolboys younger than himself.
In the winter of 2011, Basha was sent to the Lake District, a rough-hewn picturesque region in the northwest of England. Promoted as fellowship and bonding sessions for young Muslims who felt displaced, the camp was in reality a terrorist initiation school aimed at training small cells to wage a holy war throughout the Western world. The budding jihadi exceeded expectations more than any other candidate, and was isolated from the main group for more advanced instruction.
Soon after, Basha was instructed to reapply to university, and reenter society under the pretense of a well-adjusted, happy lad, coming of age and completing his studies en route to a prosperous life and fulfilling career. An example of how a first-generation British-born Muslim could integrate and succeed. And Mohammad Basha, now known as "Mo," performed the role with exception, excelling at his studies, while playing the dutiful son, brother, and devoted partner to his new fiancé. In the summer of 2012, on the eve of the Olympic games in London, he was overjoyed to announce to his family a well-rehearsed lie, that he had been awarded a one-year fellowship to study medical science at Bahria University in Islamabad.
Nine months later, Basha returned home, schooled in guerilla warfare and sabotage. Skilled in firearms and bomb-making techniques. Proficient in violent jihad.
To his handlers, Basha was the perfect recruit. He was a "cleanskin," someone completely off the radar of MI5, the United Kingdom's domestic, counter-intelligence agency. And as he descended a stairwell at King's Cross Station that morning, the only other people who knew of the coming carnage were in Dearborn, Michigan, and Cambridge, England.
Basha had traveled from Leeds to London one day earlier. He carried only the backpack in which the device would be concealed, its components preassembled, and one change of clothes. The young fanatic stayed at a cheap hotel in the East End, with his plan to board the Piccadilly Line at peak time and detonate between Russell Square and the Circus, near the dead center of the city.
He would be successful, Basha had been assured by his handler, because it had been willed. His act, Allah's sanction, would send a message worldwide. It would be heard, and heeded, and others would answer the call. His confidence had grown after conducting several dry runs over the previous two weeks, using the same hotel and train route, and carrying the same backpack. The composite bomb, which Basha had learned to build in an al-Qaeda camp in Malakand, Pakistan, was a mixture of boiled hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric and citric acid, hexamine, and pepper. Wrapped in aluminum foil, it would be triggered by a nine-volt battery.
Basha awoke at first light that February morning. He ate nothing, and prayed until it was time to leave. It was a miserable day as Basha calmly retraced his practiced path, arriving at King's Cross shortly after 9:00 a.m. The target had been chosen carefully — the Piccadilly Line was one of the busiest in the Underground system, transporting over two-hundred million people each year. The deep level Tube was also one of the longest in the network, with half its stops below ground.
Basha moved behind a partition of commuters, and stood against a wall emblazoned with the ubiquitous red circle crossed by a blue horizontal bar. The train pulled in, and passengers cycled through in one chaotic, yet synchronized, motion.
He pushed his way to the middle of a crowded section, and grabbed a support pole next to an elderly man and a pretty blonde woman, who smiled at him. Basha stared at her for one long moment, but did not return the gesture. And though he didn't know why, he forced his way to the other side of the car, and stood near the exit.
The doors were still open. Basha stared blankly at the Mind the Gap warning at his feet.
Suddenly, his own mind focused on an alternate ending, one in which the would-be jihadi would disembark the Underground and abandon the mission. And in that instant, his commitment and resolve, hardened by others, began to waver and unspool. Basha suddenly realized he could defuse the bomb and toss the pack into the Thames. He would disappear with his fiancé, and finish his studies elsewhere, perhaps America. The young man could grow old, and his large family would grow up to become successful doctors, businesspeople, and community leaders. He envisioned a peaceful death in his bed sixty years later, surrounded by his wife, scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and whispering to himself, with pride and in peace, Mashallah.
What Allah wishes.
His entire existence, everything that Basha had become, but could yet be, teetered for one fleeting moment on the precipice.
The doors hissed shut and the train lurched from the platform. Basha decided that he could not wait, knowing he would ride the Tube to the end of the line, before making his way meekly home. He could not let so many people down. The young man from a loving family, full of promise and with a full life ahead, pulled the pack off his shoulder, peeled back the top pocket, and as he pinched the battery snap in place, quietly muttered, "Mashallah."
King's College, University of Cambridge April 30, 2015
The man ignored the image cast off a small mirror of the single-room lavatory in the Caffè Nero on King's Parade, the tourist thoroughfare that housed one of the most visited landmarks in England, the chapel at King's College, Cambridge. Though he rarely dwelt on his past, for what was the point, the man mused that his origin could be traced to an almost singular moment in history. The profession of those like him, the few who existed and enjoyed life beyond forty years of age, had been born in the last decade of the eleventh century, on the eve of the first Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. It was from a fortified citadel, high in the mountains north of modern-day Tehran, that a militant polymath named Hassan al-Sabbah created a secret society of radical converts proficient in a form of warfare the world had never seen.
The man disregarded the rattle of the handle and frustrated rap that preceded a muffled curse from beyond the door. The unique fraternity to which he belonged had long been maligned, even from the earliest days, when its adherents were viewed by many as a witless group of hashasheen, the Arabic term for "trouble-making rabble." Others saw them as hashishi, or "hashish abusers," the disparaging label Marco Polo attached to them centuries later. In reality, Hassan's operatives were highly disciplined and well trained, versed in the language and culture of the royal households they infiltrated and served. And they remained humble servants and trusted advisors, until the moment each of them struck with sudden and absolute vengeance.
The greater the success of his fedayin, the "men who accept death," the larger Hassan's shadow spread over the Persian Empire. Death at anytime and from anywhere became an unmistakable signature, and ensured that sultans who opposed his radical agenda, whether targeted or not, lived in a constant state of fear. Where this elite corps had once been dismissed as outcasts by the Egyptians and labeled as junkies by the Europeans, history recognized them as something else — killers of the highest order.
The assassin refocused on the present, and a small washroom in the chain coffee shop where he would finish his painstakingly meticulous prep. Though his skill rivaled those who had waged war from the shadows for a millennium, David Laurent was a collision of worlds. His physical frame and mixed complexion, tan and chiseled, with dark brown hair and deep-set hazel eyes, could have been mistaken as the result of a long weekend on the beaches of Mallorca. But, it also allowed the professional killer with an Apulian father and mother from Skopje, who was fluent in Arabic and Farsi, as well as French, Italian, and an array of Slavic dialects, to pass through the streets of Marrakesh with the same attention paid a corner rug merchant.
At forty-four, supremely confident and still operating at his peak, the elusive assassin had become the preferred weapon of an exclusive group who knew of his existence and could afford his services. Initial contact for potential clients originated with one man, an Albanian, who routed inquiries through a near labyrinthine string of digital dead drops. As Laurent took the assignments no one else wanted, or were capable of, the few he accepted paid handsomely, half on the front end, and with no time frame guaranteed for completion. When the target turned up inexplicably dead, the job was done.
The contract on Mohammad Haamid Ahmad, distinguished professor at King's College, Cambridge, had been offered to Laurent three months earlier. His preparation, habitually exhaustive, showed the Saudi scholar to be, among many things, a man as vain as he was connected. Born into wealth and privilege, Ahmad found his place in academia, and had been at the renowned university for nearly five decades.
After two weeks of shadowing his target, Laurent was fully acquainted with Ahmad's daily routine. He knew the professor would have already pardoned himself, to the accustomed irritation of his colleagues, from their bi-weekly meeting. As Ahmad made his way back to a large, ornately decorated office, the assassin calmly cycled through his own routine. Three precise shots, an unmistakable grouping. He tightened a King's College tie under a liturgical gown, similar to the cotta of a church acolyte, and donned a pair of black, designer, non-prescription glasses. Followed by a direct train to London, and a quick stopover on the Strand. Laurent finger-combed water through his hair, slicking it William Hunter back nearly flat against his head. Two days after the murder, when Scotland Yard's investigation began its descent into a maze of dead ends, he would be in Paris.
Laurent chambered a hollow point in his Heckler & Koch 9mm, fitted with a five-inch suppressor, and re-clipped the weapon into the waistband of custom-made wool-mohair trousers. His target would be preparing tea, and settling, for the last time, into a plush recliner.
Excerpted from "Sanction"
Copyright © 2017 William Hunter.
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