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The Third Target
By Joel C. Rosenberg
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Joel C. Rosenberg
All rights reserved.
INTERNATIONAL AIRSPACE, APPROACHING LEBANON
I had done a lot of crazy things in my life, but nothing as stupid as this.
As I stared out over the roiling waves and countless whitecaps of the Mediterranean below, I couldn't help but think about my grandfather. A. B. Collins was once the Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press. Long before I was born, he flew this exact route as an American foreign correspondent in the war-torn Middle East. His career was legendary. As a young boy I dreamed of following in his footsteps. As a teenager, I read all his journals. In college I spent hours in the library reading his old dispatches on microfiche. Now here I was, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, wondering if, given all the risks my grandfather had taken, he'd ever done anything quite this foolhardy.
There was still a way out, of course. I could still change my plans. But the truth was I didn't want to. I may never have interviewed a king or witnessed the assassination of a monarch. But I was just as committed to my craft, and I was going in, come what may. That's all there was to it. In six minutes, my Air France flight would touch down in the Lebanese capital. In nineteen minutes, I'd link up with my colleagues. Together we'd drive ninety miles to the border of Syria. And if all went well, by nightfall we'd slip across the border unnoticed and eventually locate one of the world's most feared jihadi commanders.
Jack Vaughn, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had personally warned me not to do this. So had the head of the Mossad and the chief of Jordanian intelligence, not to mention my mother. My editor, Allen MacDonald, had expressly forbidden me to go. Their rationale was as simple as it was compelling: Jamal Ramzy was a killer.
Born in Jordan. Raised in the Gulf. Went to Afghanistan. Joined the mujahideen. Killed more Russians than any other Arab fighter. Met bin Laden. Became his chief bodyguard. Was in the room when bin Laden created al Qaeda in 1988. Sent to fight in Somalia. Became a top aide to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Personally trained the 9/11 hijackers. Helped plan the bombings of two American embassies in Africa. Helped behead a Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan. Became a top aide to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda after bin Laden was killed, but had a severe falling-out with him over the future of the organization. Teamed up with his barbaric younger cousin Abu Khalif, the head of "al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant," an ultra-violent breakaway faction of the mother ship. Sent to command a force of rebel fighters in Syria. Ordered to bring back Assad's head on a platter. Literally.
This was the guy I was trying to locate. I knew it was crazy. But I was going anyway.
To my knowledge, Jamal Ramzy had never been photographed or interviewed by a Western reporter. But after nearly a year of my constant e-mails to someone I believed to be Ramzy's lieutenant, he had finally said yes—to the interview, anyway, if not the photograph. If I was communicating with the right person, and if he was being truthful—neither of which, at the moment, I was able to fully verify—the big questions were these: Why would Ramzy talk to anyone? Why now? And why me?
The answers, I believed, were simple: He wanted to be on the front page, top of the fold. He wanted to be the new face of the Radicals for all the world to see. And he knew full well that there was no bigger venue than the New York Times, the world's newspaper of record, for which I had been a foreign correspondent for nearly a decade.
As far as timing went, my operating theory was that it was not vanity that was persuading Ramzy to finally respond to my repeated overtures. After all, the Jordanian-born terrorist had lived in the shadows for decades. He had survived all this time by living off the grid, and I suspect he would have been content to remain there if possible rather than risk being obliterated without warning one day by a drone strike, like most of his comrades-in-arms. No, it was unlikely that vanity was driving Ramzy. Rather, I was fairly certain he had something to say at this moment, something he had never said before, and that he was planning on using me to say it.
For the past several weeks, I had been picking up rumors that Ramzy and his rebel forces had captured a cache of chemical weapons in Syria. The Assad regime had supposedly allowed international forces to destroy its remaining weapons of mass destruction, but it was widely believed that at least some stockpiles had been hidden. Now one well-placed American intelligence source told me his agency had picked up frantic radio traffic three weeks earlier between Syrian army forces loyal to Assad saying one of their WMD storage facilities not far from Aleppo had just been overrun. The Syrian forces were desperately calling for air strikes, but while the air support had come, it was too late. Quite separately, another source, this one in a foreign intelligence service, confided to me that a high-ranking Syrian general had just defected to either Turkey or Jordan (he wouldn't say which) and claimed some al Qaeda breakaway faction had seized several tons of chemical weapons south of Aleppo within the last few weeks.
Was it true? I had no idea. All I knew for certain was that nothing of the sort had yet been reported in the Arab press or anywhere in the West. No one at the White House, State, or the Pentagon would confirm or deny my discreet inquiries. Part of this, I suspected, was to prevent the widespread panic that was sure to break out if it became known that one of the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations now had control of some of the world's most dangerous weapons.
Of course, I hadn't raised any of this in my e-mails to my source in Syria. I'd simply repeated my long-standing requests for an interview. But I was increasingly certain this was why Ramzy wanted to talk now, when he had never talked publicly before. He wanted the world to know what he had. He wanted the American people and their president to know. What's more, I had to believe he savored the irony of Ayman al-Zawahiri hearing through an American newspaper that one of his former advisors had hit the mother lode—that an al Qaeda offshoot finally had possession of the very weapons al Qaeda itself had been desperately seeking for nearly two decades.
I hoped I was right. Not that Ramzy had the WMD, mind you, but that he had a story—an important story—he wanted to communicate through me. It was, I suspected, my only hope of survival. After all, this was a man who cut people's throats for sport, Americans' most of all. Only if he really did want to use me to communicate a big story would my colleagues and I be safe.
It was no wonder no one I knew wanted me to head into Syria to track this man down and speak with him face to face. Even the colleagues I was about to meet were deeply uncomfortable. I certainly understood why. And I didn't blame them. What we were about to do wasn't normal. But I—and they—were part of "the tribe," part of an elite group, a small cadre of foreign correspondents whose lives were devoted to covering wars and rumors of war, revolutions, chaos, and bloodshed of all kinds. It's what I'd gone to school for, nearly twenty years earlier. It's what I'd been doing for the New York Daily News and the Associated Press and the Times ever since. I loved it. I lived for it.
Some said it was an addiction. They said people like me were adrenaline junkies. Maybe I was. But that's not the way I thought of it. To me, risk was part of my job, and it was a job my colleagues told me I wasn't half-bad at. I had won an award for covering a Delta Force firefight in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with another Times reporter in 2001. And I had even won a Pulitzer for a series of articles I wrote in 2003 when I was embedded with the First Brigade of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division as they stormed Baghdad. The awards were gratifying. But I didn't do this to win awards. I did it because I loved it. I did it because I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Most reporters couldn't wait to get out of Afghanistan or Iraq after the initial invasions and the establishment of the new governments. But I repeatedly requested longer tours. I loved getting to know our boys who suited up for battle every day. I loved interviewing the Iraqis our troops were training and taking into battle. I also loved having beers and trading gossip with the spooks from Langley and MI6 and every other intelligence agency on the planet who had come to play in the Big Game. Most of all, though, I found it absolutely fascinating to slip away from the Green Zone and get out in the hinterland and risk life and limb trying to hook up with one insurgent commander or another to get his story. All the news that's fit to print, right? I wasn't there to regurgitate whatever the flacks at State or the Pentagon tried to spoon-feed me. I was there to find the real stories.
So whatever lay ahead, I was absolutely determined to head into Syria. I was going after the story. Not a single person I had confided in approved of what I was doing. But I wanted to think that one would have. I wanted to believe my grandfather would have been proud of me. At least he would have understood what I was doing and why.
A. B. Collins covered the Second World War for United Press International. Then he worked for the Associated Press all over the globe. To be perfectly honest, he was my idol. Maybe it was because of all the stories he used to tell me when I was growing up. That man could really spin a good yarn. I was in awe of the way he had seemed to have met everyone and seen everything. Then again, maybe I simply loved him because of all the ice cream Pop-Pop used to buy my older brother and me whenever he and Grammie Collins came to visit. Or maybe it was because my father had left us when I was only twelve, and I never saw him again—none of us did—and Pop-Pop was the only man I really had in my life growing up. It was he who took me fishing on Eagle Lake and hiking in Acadia National Park. It was he who taught me how to use his collection of rifles and took me on hunting trips all over Maine and even up in Canada. Whatever the reason, I loved the man with every fiber of my being, and for as long as I could remember, I wanted to do what he did, to be what he was. Now here I was, about to touch down in Beirut, a city he had worked in and lived in and loved dearly.
Maybe the olive didn't fall far from the tree.
Then again, my grandfather had lived a long and fruitful life and despite his many adventures had died in his bed, in his sleep, in his old age. At the moment, I had no presumption of meeting such a quiet and peaceful fate. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Third Target by Joel C. Rosenberg. Copyright © 2015 Joel C. Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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