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PrologueSomething had changed. Hassan Abdul-Bari Aswad surveyed U.S. forward operating base Camp Hammerbeck in Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan through his night vision binoculars, observing the heightened activity his men had reported. The Marines were creatures of discipline and routine; nothing happened without a purpose. Routine, however, spawned predictability. Aswad concentrated his attention on a small group of men who had arrived the day before. His men said they were replacement soldiers, but he noted they wore different uniforms, body armor, and helmets, and they stayed together rather than fraternize with the Marines. Something else caught his eye. One was smaller and had a different gait. He zoomed in on the subject of his curiosity and watched until the soldier glanced in his direction. A woman.
• * *The next morning Aswad awoke before sunrise and returned to his observation point. He stood alone and scanned the base through his binoculars as the winter sun rose. With his hands on his hips, he came to terms with what he saw and smiled. The Americans were gone. After months of fighting, he was the victor. Or was he? Could this be a clever deception to lure them into the open?
Before sending his men into the compound, Aswad positioned observers in the hills. They would alert him if the Americans were waiting there or circling back. Then he sent his team leader, Abdul-Wajid Shadid, and a few men to search for mines and booby traps while he waited outside the perimeter of the base with the others. After almost two hours, Shadid returned. “Our search is complete. We located and disarmed several mines and booby traps. We found a mine in front of the munitions bunker and disarmed it. Allah has rewarded us. Inside is a treasure of ammunition, grenades, and mortar rounds.”
Aswad frowned. “Check everything. It’s probably a trap.” Booby-trapping ammunition was nothing new. During Vietnam, U.S. Special Forces and the CIA replaced the gunpowder in ammunition with high explosives and left it behind for the Viet Cong. Aswad always ordered his men to destroy any they found. This large cache was different; it was one they could not ignore. They needed it for themselves and for the other insurgent groups.
An hour later, Shadid reported they found no traps. “We examined several cases and magazines. The munitions are ours for the taking.”
Aswad was silent as he considered what Shadid had said. He knew of only one way to ensure the ammunition was safe. “Have Ameer fire a few rounds. Everyone stand clear.” Ameer Antar was fresh from training and eager to prove himself. If someone were to die today, it would be him. Tragic as his death would be, the impact on the team’s effectiveness would be less than that of any of his experienced men.
Aswad watched as Ameer, his hands shaking, inserted a magazine into an American rifle. Ameer closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned his head away and fired several shots into the air. The sound of the last shot was still echoing off the hillsides when Ameer opened his eyes and twisted his head back and forth, looking at the others as if surprised to be alive. Now smiling, he reloaded and fired again, using magazines selected at random from the bunker.
By mid-afternoon, the American munitions were on the way to a large cave in western Pakistan, a central supply and distribution point for operations near the border. News was spreading throughout the region that the Marines had been defeated and the strategic infiltration route to and from Pakistan was once again open.
• * *A few days later, Hassan Aswad and a few of his men squatted on the ground near the opening of a cave in the early evening sun. The ammunition from the American outpost was enough to supply Taliban operations for months to come. Aswad had sent Abdul-Wajid Shadid to deliver the first shipment of ammunition to the insurgent teams operating nearby. The bulk of it, however, was in the small cave. He listened to the men boast about their victory and debate which factor was most paramount in achieving it.
“The isolation of the outpost,” said Abdul Zahir, the most senior of the men who remained at the cave.
“Yes, but our sustained attack was more important. We wore down the American cowards. We outlasted them,” Jamal Baz said. Baz, a fearless fighter, had been wounded twice during the long months of battle against the Marines.
“They retreated like a bunch of old women,” said Ameer Antar, the man who had test fired the ammunition from the bunker.
Aswad understood their excitement, although he remained unconvinced by their arguments. Marines do not abandon a position without defeat. The outpost was an integral component of the American strategy to close the routes into and out of Pakistan, yet the final victory was a bloodless gift, contrary to everything he knew about them.
Aswad walked toward the sun, now low in the sky. He would rejoin his men for Maghrib, the Islamic prayer at sunset, but now he needed a moment of solitude to think.
• * *In a secure bunker at Creech Air Force Base, thirty-five miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, Air Force Major Doug Shepherd stared at the image on the video display. The image was transmitted from the camera of a land-based MQ-9 Reaper drone circling thousands of feet over eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. To Shepherd’s right, his tech sergeant operated the drone’s cameras and sensors. Both men wore flight suits and were settled into what they called their “Naugahyde Barcaloungers.” It was Friday, near the end of their sixty-hour week.
The heads-up display, showing the drone’s speed, altitude, and other data, overlaid the video image. Four other screens displayed satellite images and data. A digital gauge on the bottom left corner of the display maxed out, indicating the area under surveillance was the source of the homing signal. On the screen, Major Shepherd zoomed in on the small group of men sitting in a circle.
Shepherd went through his firing checklist, including target confirmation by the field team, before taking the final step. “Request permission to fire, sir. We have visual and electronic confirmation of the target,” Shepherd said to Lieutenant Colonel William Byrne, who was standing behind him, watching the screen over his shoulder.
“Granted. Blow them to hell, Major.”
“Yes, sir. Three, two, one.” Shepherd pushed the button on the drone’s throttle and squeezed a gray trigger on the joystick.
The AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile, guided by the signal, flew at Mach 1.3, approximately 950 miles per hour. Instead of traveling in a straight line from the drone to the cave entrance, the missile flew a trajectory closer to the ground, where it zigzagged between the mountain peaks.
• * *As the shadows grew longer, the temperature dropped. The color of the earth and sky would soon blend into one. To some, the landscape was rugged, barren, and monotonous. To Hassan Aswad, his homeland was an awe-inspiring sight of which he never tired. A faint buzzing noise, like a wasp, caught Aswad’s attention. He looked toward the cave. “Drone!”
The men sprung up and sprinted toward the entrance of the cave. Searching the sky for the unmanned aerial vehicle, Aswad saw something streaking toward the cave from low in the heavens, as if sent by God. In an instant, he knew what it was, but before he could even process that thought, the missile struck. The explosion shook the earth under his feet before the shock wave from the blast lifted him off the ground and threw him backwards. He covered his head with his arms to protect himself from the rocks that pelted him.
• * *Major Shepherd saw the flash of the explosion on his monitor, as did the others who had gathered around for the test of the Navy’s new targeting system. They shouted in unison. A couple of them punched their fists in the air. When the smoke and dust began to clear, he zoomed out for a wider view of the damage. A man was running away from the impact zone.
“We have a squirter, sir,” said Shepherd.
“Don’t waste a Hellfire on one man. Locate the signals for the other ammunition locations,” ordered Lieutenant Colonel Byrne. “I’ll be back to give you authorization to fire after I notify Lieutenant Commander Hamilton with Naval Special Warfare. She will be pleased.”
Shepherd stretched out his arms and moved his head from side-to-side, forward and back, trying to relax his stiff neck. He glanced at his watch. In two hours, give or take thirty minutes, he would be home having dinner with his wife and children.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Michael McManus for Readers' Favorite When a young, healthy employee of LTG, a defense contractor for the US Navy’s drone development program, dies suddenly from an overdose of a dangerous chemical, Jake Palmer is called in to investigate. Jake, an ex-Navy Seal turned private investigator, is reunited with an old Seal buddy and a woman he dated in college, making this assignment different for him than most, but he is certain he can get to the bottom of the mystery in just a few days. Unfortunately, the theft of a laptop and the murder of his former Seal friend, along with a chance encounter with Alona Green, a beautiful corporate spy, complicate Jake’s investigation and make the situation uncomfortably personal. Injected into the chaos of an investigation that appears to be getting out of hand is a terrorist plot, concocted by a dangerous member of the Taliban in Afghanistan, being hatched against the drone program itself. When all of these elements begin to collide, the action begins. The plot of The Drone Enigma moves quickly and always in one direction. Its author, Ron McManus (no relation to this reviewer), continuously builds the tension by the unpredictable, but quite believable, plot twists and turns. The dialogue he skillfully presents is often witty and always crisp and to the point. His characters, especially Jake and Alona are well defined. Their relationship makes me believe that we will see them together in future works. I would recommend this book to readers who like action and adventure and a frighteningly believable plot.