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Targets of Opportunity CHAPTER ONE TEHRAN
SEYED ASGHARI WAS a true believer. He had dedicated much of his adolescence and all of his adult life to the glory of Allah, pursuing what he perceived to be God’s purpose—the destruction of all Western infidels. He was devoted to this calling and therefore honored to have been recruited for his latest assignment, serving Iran in a multinational assault upon the United States.
And yet, almost from the start, he was troubled.
He first became anxious when he learned his cell would be led by an Asian. Throughout his years of loyal service to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Seyed had always taken orders from fellow countrymen, or from Syrians or Palestinians with whom he shared a cultural and religious bond. This stranger from the Far East was different in style and approach from any of the other men he had followed, and the unconditional authority he wielded disturbed Seyed more and more as the days wore on.
He was also bothered by the inclusion of three Spanish-speaking men in his unit. Not only was it unusual for Hispanics to be involved in an operation originating in this part of the world, but these three seemed to share a private bond with the Asian that alienated Seyed.
And there was one further issue. Seyed presumed he had been selected for this mission because of his expertise in clandestine methods, skills that involved far greater subtlety and technical proficiency than those possessed by most of his compatriots. As the planning proceeded he was not entrusted with details of the impending assignment, but what little he was told left him wondering how his particular talents would be useful in what appeared to be a paramilitary strike.
Something did not feel right about any of this.
For the past few years Seyed’s handler in the IRGC had been Ahmad Jaber, a man well respected within the organization for engineering terrorist assaults and who, as a consequence of his service to the cause, was being actively hunted by the governments of the United States, Argentina, and Israel, among others. Jaber had become a mentor to Seyed, the only person to whom the young man would dare confide his apprehension. And so it was to Jaber that he brought his concerns.
Seyed was seated on the edge of the sofa in the comfortable living area of Jaber’s home, a place he had visited only once before. He spoke slowly and deliberately, wanting to be certain he was giving a fair account of everything he had seen and heard.
After listening intently until his protégé was finished, Ahmad Jaber slowly shook his head and admitted, “I have been told nothing of this operation.”
Seyed was dark skinned and bearded, short and powerfully built, clothed in a traditional, free-flowing Arabic aba and sandals. His eyes, ebony dark and normally filled with defiance, now betrayed his growing fear. “How can that be, emir? How can such a thing be arranged without your knowledge?”
Jaber calmly held an upraised hand in response to the question, then stood and paced thoughtfully back and forth across the room as his young charge waited. Jaber was tall, clean-shaven, and well groomed, his thinning hair combed straight back, his nails buffed and trimmed. He was finely dressed in an Italian suit and French shirt, worn open at the neck. His Western bearing was what one might expect from a corporate executive in Europe, not a murderer in the service of a distorted faith. Jaber finally stopped and looked down. “I honestly do not know how this can be,” he conceded. “What else have they revealed to you of their plans?”
“I told you all I know. They have not yet discussed plans for the attack with me. They act as if I cannot be trusted, as if I should not really know everything until the last moment.”
“And how many of our own countrymen are involved?”
“Only two others,” Seyed told him, then recited the names of the other Iranians in the cell. “I had never heard of them before.”
Jaber shook his head again. “Nor have I.”
“How can that be?” the young man asked again.
While Seyed was anxious about his individual role in this mission, Jaber had a broader concern. In the past year he had repeatedly clashed with other IRGC leaders over their use of foreign agents, fearing that the purity of their jihad was being compromised. Jaber warned them that they were beginning to look more like some international conglomerate run by the Americans than an Islamic crusade.
Now he was being informed of a major assault being prepared without his participation, an operation led by an Asian and run with South Americans. The implications for his own future were obvious.
Jaber returned to his seat opposite Seyed, still trying to make sense of this.
“Emir?” Seyed interrupted his reverie.
Jaber stared at the young man without speaking. Then he said, “It is clear that you must continue your role, learn everything you can and then report back to me. First, recite for me again everything you have been told. Everything.”
Seyed restated the major points he had already shared, then Jaber pressed him for details, seeking to piece together as much information as he could about the others who were involved, particularly the Asian. Seyed believed he was either Chinese or Korean, his nationality having not been disclosed. He had not been told which country the South Americans were from, but believed they were from Venezuela. He vowed to find out. “I am sorry I do not know more,” he said.
Jaber smiled warmly and assured him it was only a beginning. “But you must not come here again. There may be danger in that for both of us.”
“I understand. But please know that I was most careful in my journey to your home.”
Jaber smiled again. “Good, good. I am certain you were. And you must be just as careful when you leave.” Then he gave instructions for contacting him.
Seyed pledged his loyalty, then went on his way.
As Jaber suspected, Seyed had been less cautious than he believed in traveling to this prosperous suburb of Tehran. The men who organized Seyed’s mission had assigned watchdogs for everyone involved and, even as the young man followed a circuitous route back to his own home, his meeting with Ahmad Jaber had been tracked and reported.
“A shame,” the Asian man told his three Spanish-speaking lieutenants, speaking in their native tongue. “Seyed might have been valuable to us at some point.” He thought for a moment. “That leaves only two Iranians in our unit. We may need to recruit another. What a waste of time.”
The others said nothing.
“He must be removed at once.”
One of the men asked, “Can we be sure that he revealed anything to Jaber? After all, they have had a long relationship. Is the visit so unusual?”
“It is when you consider the pains he took to conceal his destination.”
The others could not disagree.
“And it is the nature of their relationship that persuades me he would certainly have discussed our plans. There is no question, Seyed must be interrogated and then eliminated. And quickly. There is no telling who else he might speak with.”
One of the other men hesitated, then asked, “What of Jaber?”
“Yes, I know, a troubling complication.”
“He is a high-ranking operative in the IRGC.”
“I am aware of that.” The Asian paused, then said, “It must be made to look as if someone else removed him. The Americans, the Israelis. Do what needs to be done, but clean this up now.”
Later that evening Seyed received a text message summoning him to a meeting. There was nothing remarkable in either the short notice or the late hour. His cell had been gathering frequently, often at odd times. In each their Asian leader assured them that the time for action was drawing ever closer, even if specifics were scarce.
Seyed deleted the message, completed his prayers, then headed out.
Unlike the IRGC briefings he attended in the past, which were conducted by Jaber in an impressive high-rise at the center of the modern Elahiyeh district, tonight Seyed traveled on the Kordestan Highway, taking an exit that led to an old neighborhood of broken-down buildings and industrial yards.
During the ride he thought a great deal about Jaber. Until today Seyed had always known the man to be beyond fear. His mentor thrived on power and control. Now he was obviously distressed at the prospect of a major offensive being planned, right here in Tehran, without his knowledge. Seyed had repeatedly asked him, “How can it be so?” It worried them both that neither had an answer.
It was also apparent that Jaber, although he voiced no criticism, was upset Seyed had visited his home to deliver this information. Seyed was certain that he had taken the necessary precautions, that he had arrived and departed from their meeting undetected, but he recognized that Jaber was not convinced. It was up to Seyed, then, to prove himself. He was determined to learn what he could and report back.
Seyed turned off the service road and drove to the end of a long, dark street, guiding his car around a squat structure. He parked in the rear lot and took the stairs to the second floor.
Hurrying up the two flights, he reached the warren of offices they used for their meetings, strode through the unfurnished vestibule, and entered the inner room. As soon as he walked in he saw that Jaber had been right, his betrayal had been discovered. There was nothing tangible, just a feeling, an intuition about danger he had developed over the years, an instinct that up to now had kept him alive. Tonight he saw that his fate had been written. He saw it in the face of the Asian, and in the fact that only this stranger from the East and the three South Americans were present.
“Where are the others?” Seyed asked.
The Asian was standing beside a large drafting table they used for their meetings. He stepped forward as two of the others moved behind Seyed and barred the door.
“We need to talk,” the Asian said simply. His Arabic was rough, but understandable.
“I trust you will be professional, so this does not have to become unpleasant.”
“You have gone outside our circle, contrary to all instructions. We need to know how much you have revealed, how much damage has been done.”
Seyed held on to the fleeting hope that this was only a bluff, a test. Perhaps they were not sure. He said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
As he uttered the final word of that denial he felt the crushing blow of a metal pipe across the backs of his knees, dropping him to the floor. Before he could catch his breath he was struck a second time, the heavy iron rod now brought crashing down on his right shoulder, the sickening sound of breaking bone followed by his cry of pain.
The Asian stared down at him. Then, without speaking, he gave a slight nod, and another blow was inflicted from behind, this time just below the left side of Seyed’s neck. The young Iranian crumpled face-first onto the cracked tiles.
“I asked you to tell us the truth, and was hoping to conduct this inquiry in a civil manner,” the Asian said. “The offer will not be made again.”
Seyed twisted his head slightly, excruciating pain searing through his neck and shoulders as he struggled to look up. The Asian waited, but all Seyed Asghari muttered was “Allahu Akbar.” He already knew he was a dead man.
Ahmad Jaber had not survived these many years in his violent profession by taking chances or relying on the competence of others. When Seyed came to his home and revealed what he knew about this mission, Jaber realized that his own life had taken an inexorable turn.
There was no way that a major assault was being planned by the IRGC without Jaber taking part, not unless his own people had turned against him. This left only two possibilities.
The less probable scenario was that the IRGC was indeed involved and that Jaber had been betrayed for reasons he did not know. The more likely alternative was that outside forces had initiated this scheme and decided to exclude him. In either event, Seyed Asghari would not have been permitted to roam the streets of Tehran without surveillance, or perhaps an escort—Jaber had to weigh the possibility that Seyed was being used to set him up.
Whichever of these was true, Jaber was certain that his enemies, whoever they were, already knew of the meeting. Whether Seyed put him in harm’s way by mischance or was a willing instrument of his demise, Ahmad Jaber understood that he had become expendable.
Whoever was running the operation had no choice but to liquidate him. If the situation were reversed, Jaber grudgingly acknowledged, he would do the same thing.
Living one’s life as a terrorist requires this sort of cold pragmatism. It also involves constant vigilance and the need to maintain any number of escape strategies. Whatever the facts proved themselves to be at some later date, he had to move swiftly to save himself and so, shortly after Seyed had departed that afternoon, Jaber initiated his plan.
Only his wife, Rasa, and their servant, Mahmud, shared the house. Their sons had died years ago, in faithful service to the forces of Iran in its struggles against Iraq.
He called his wife into the study, shut the door, and calmly explained that she must immediately take her car and leave for Tabriz to visit her sister. He offered neither an explanation nor a final good-bye. “If anything should happen, if you should hear anything that gives you cause for worry, you must then depart from Tabriz and follow the path to safety we have spoken of in the past.”
After years of marriage, Rasa Jaber had come to terms with the constant danger that was a part of their lives. The tragic loss of both children had hardened her, and so when Ahmad explained what she must do, she asked no questions. Only when her husband completed his instructions and handed her a case containing a large amount of cash did her dark, trusting eyes well with tears. They had been through difficult moments before, but this time she felt an eerie sense of finality.
“We will always meet on the bridge to paradise,” he told her, invoking the name Al Sirat. Then he added, “Allah be praised.” He spent the next hour with her, seeing to it that she packed and was on the road before nightfall.
Once his wife was gone, he told their servant that he would also be leaving for several days. He knew that in their absence Mahmud would avail himself of the luxury of his master’s bedroom, a far more comfortable situation than his own. Since he and Mahmud were approximately the same age, height, and weight, this would serve Jaber well.
After dismissing Mahmud, Jaber locked himself in his den, where he opened the wall safe and removed its contents. Then, using a keypad secreted on the wall inside the safe, he entered a series of codes. He had long ago planted explosives throughout his home, which remained benign until the day arrived when it became necessary to bring them to life. He was convinced that day had arrived. Once activated, they could be set off with the remote detonator he now held in his hand.
As soon as darkness fell, Jaber bid Mahmud good night, wished him well, and left the house. He took the various papers, weapons, and cash he had removed from the safe and placed them in his car. He then drove off, as if he were leaving town, but eventually circled back to his own neighborhood, arriving on the bluff high above his home. He parked, got out of the car, and took a position on the hill, where he prepared to wait.
Jaber had no doubt they would be coming for him, and he suspected it would happen soon. Given what little Seyed had described of his mission, it was obvious that the planned attack was a major offensive. Loose ends would not be tolerated. Assuming that everything Seyed had told him was the truth, the young man was already dead, or at least in custody, and anything they did not already know about his visit with Jaber would soon be revealed. Seyed might try to protect him by lying, but they would know the two had met and would not take any chances.
Even if they did not make their move against him tonight, Jaber understood that his time was limited. He was willing to spend a few hours here to see if he could discover anything, at least about the identity of these people. Either way, he was prepared to take the action he knew he must and make his escape. His plan was simple. If the assassins arrived tonight he would wait until they entered the house, then set off the explosion. It would kill his servant—who was standing in for Jaber in this tableau—as well as the men who would have come for him. If they did not arrive, he would initiate the explosion anyway and, by all accounts, Ahmad Jaber would be reported as the victim of some Western reprisal, a martyr in the cause of Allah, an Iranian hero.
Either way, it would take time for the authorities to properly identify the mutilated corpse in his bedroom, which would give him the opportunity he needed to follow his route to safety, through the back roads of his native land, moving west and into the border area near the Iraqi city of Erbil, where several Iranian diplomats were seized a couple of years before by American Special Ops personnel. The last leg of his journey would take him into the Sulaymaniyah province of Iraq, a Kurdish territory controlled by the United States. There he would turn himself over to the Americans, who would gladly accept the surrender of a senior IRGC official.
He allowed himself a grim smile as he sat on the stony ground, staring at his home below. This was a well-to-do area by Iranian standards, the houses set comfortably apart, offering that illusion of privacy enjoyed in residential areas everywhere. It left Jaber to wonder who among his neighbors might have guessed at the secret life he had led all these years. What a convoluted world he inhabited. What an ironic end to his illustrious career.
As the night wore on, he could not help but consider another option. The notion of his own redemption was nearly irresistible. What if they came for him and he managed to capture one of these assailants, to have the chance to question him, perhaps to learn what all of this was about? What if he could then prove that he was still loyal to the cause, that he had not betrayed his country? A tempting prospect, of course, but he admitted to himself that he was not suited to such a confrontation. He was a terrorist, not, as the Americans would call it, a gunslinger. His job was to plan destructive actions to be carried out by others, not to put himself in the line of fire.
For the present, escape was the most viable path.
As the moments dragged slowly by, Jaber had no problem remaining alert—the fear of death is a dependable adrenal trigger. He spent the time staring at his home, a squarish structure of classic architecture. He looked around this affluent neighborhood, set just to the north of the Pasdaran district. Unlike the modern towers that reached to the sky near the Niavaran Highway, this was a quiet area, set among hills, with a view of the Alborz mountain range in the background. He allowed himself a melancholy thought, realizing how much he would miss this home and this life, while knowing that things had developed too quickly for him to allow emotion to influence his judgment. He had made his decision and would yet have to make other difficult choices in the moments and days ahead.
And then, as he rued this situation, he saw three men approaching his house from three different directions.
Very professional, he observed approvingly.
Even in the darkness he could make them out through his small field binoculars. They appeared to be Hispanic, just as Seyed had told him, and each was carrying an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, each wearing a backpack. They stopped and removed their packages, then laid out the materials before them.
Interesting, Jaber thought as he watched them prepare incendiary devices. It had not occurred to him that they might arrange his death by planting explosives instead of a straightforward assassination, such as a gunshot to the head or a knife to the throat. Whoever they were, they wanted it to appear that he was a victim of terrorists, not thieves. From the look of things, they also wanted to leave no trace of him behind.
He wondered who these people might be, these foreigners who were so well organized and equipped, operating with such impunity in his own country. They could not be IRGC, he decided, and for a fleeting moment he reflected again on a reversal of course. Perhaps he should let them believe they had successfully played out their murderous plot, then he could arrive this very morning in IRGC headquarters to report everything he knew.
But what if he was wrong? What if the IRGC had condoned their plans? He would be walking into a firing squad, and suicide was certainly not a path Ahmad Jaber was prepared to travel, not even for the glory of Allah. That sacrifice, he had long ago decided, was best left to others.
He shook his head as if to wish away all of this double thinking, then quietly rose to his knees. Leaning on a pile of rocks that protected him from view, he had a better look at the proceedings below. As the three men continued to prepare their materials Jaber became convinced they were not going inside the house before setting off the explosives. That meant they would be able to make their escape before Jaber could detonate his own blast.
What a pity, the Iranian reflected bitterly.
He could ignite his charges first, when these three assassins approached the perimeter of the house. Perhaps the explosion would kill them, and there was certainly gratification in the idea. But what if one or more survived and came after him then and there? No, he decided, these were enemies he would have to fight another day.
He would set off his charges immediately after theirs, and they would be allowed to flee. They would be unlikely to notice the additional conflagration as they ran from the scene, but Jaber’s bedroom would certainly be vaporized and any chance of positive identification of the body inside would then be impossible, unless the government spent the time and effort to recover body fragments and do DNA testing. Even if they were so inclined, he would be far gone by then.
Jaber watched with a sense of morbid detachment as the three men went about the business of placing explosives around the base of the walls to his home. When they had completed their work they met at the bottom of the hill, where one of them suddenly pointed upward. Jaber crouched down, his pulse quickening. He waited a moment, then peered out into the darkness from behind the rocks. He felt his heart pounding even harder as they began climbing in his direction. He drew back, weighing his options. He realized his handgun and limited physical resources were no match for these three younger men. He had no time to run; the rocky hillside would give him away as soon as he moved.
Then he thought about setting off his own charges. The distraction might give him enough time to get away. It might even trigger their explosives, which would surely create enough mayhem to provide him an opportunity to get to his car.
Before he acted he risked one more quick look and was amazed to see that they had stopped halfway up the steep incline. As one of them pointed off to his right, Jaber understood. He had not been spotted. Apparently they had only been looking for a better position.
Jaber drew a deep breath as they clambered to a spot a hundred or so yards off to his right. He slumped down with his back against a large rock as he tried to control his heavy breathing. He stared at the detonator in his hand and prepared to wait.
He did not have to wait long. As soon as the three men settled in at a safe distance from the house a booming noise rocked the night. Seconds later Jaber hit the red button on his remote, and a combination of fire and noise lit the sky and filled it with a deafening thunder and a spray of stone and dust.
People in the homes all around them were jolted from their sleep, rushing to their windows to see what had happened. The damage was confined to Jaber’s home, but the explosions propelled debris into the dark sky.
Jaber held his ground, not moving until the three men had stolen away over the hill. He allowed himself a final look at the flaming remnants of the place he had called home for so many years, feeling a sadness he had not expected. Then he turned and began his journey to safety.