DAVID LENDER

On Home Soil

 

On Home Soil


A Sasha Del Mira Thriller


by


David Lender

Copyright 2015 © by David T. Lender

   Chapter 1

Sasha Del Mira had asked to be seated at a booth halfway down the wall of Bar Louis from which she could survey all the escape routes. The windowless basement bistro in the Hotel Fauchère in Milford, Pennsylvania was all modern design, an enclave of maple, polished brass and glittering glass tucked inside a restored Victorian Relais & Chateau hotel. Aromas of sautéed garlic and herbes de Provence. Lazy jazz playing. Cozy and warm on a raw November day. Sasha glanced around, taking in the restaurant with a practiced eye.

The man in his 40s who’d been sitting at the end of the bar near the wall for almost an hour had returned from the corridor to the restrooms. He walked with his shoulders thrust back, fit and muscular, looking formidable. He sat at the bar again, his frame erect, holding his body a few inches from the back of the barstool as if poised for action. He rested his cell phone on the bar in front of him, then sipped his drink.

His third drink. Sasha had watched the bartender prepare his second, club soda with double lime. No alcohol. That was part of why she continued to observe the man.

A couple entered and was seated at the booth in front of her. The man, 35ish, appeared to have recently lost weight, because his pants were buckled at the waist where he’d cinched in his belt, and his sports jacket hung off his shoulders as if it was a hand-me-down. Probably a divorcee. The woman with him, wearing too much perfume, was at least 10 years younger. She was looking around as if she’d never been to a high-end place like this before, her movements uncertain, tense. And probably their first or second date.

The couple in the booth behind her, the one with the talkative girl about eight years old, had just asked for their check. She heard the father hush his daughter again for about the fifth time during their lunch.

Sasha watched as a family of four, a couple in their 50s with two sons in their twenties, emerged from the corridor to the stairway and were greeted by the hostess.

She reviewed the exits again in her mind: the main entrance next to the bar with an enclosed stairwell up to the side of the hotel on Catharine Street, and the corridor to the restrooms that led to the elevator—worthless in an emergency—and the stairway to an exit door to Catharine Street, or up a second flight to the first floor of the hotel, from which she could access either the front door of the hotel to Broad Street, or get out the back to the alley.

Someone with resources could cover all the exits with three, maybe four operatives, so she wasn’t totally secure. But that left out the tunnel from the main kitchen to the proposed prep kitchen in the building next door that had been built when the hotel had been renovated seven years earlier. The prep kitchen had never been installed, so the tunnel was never used, but it was available in a crisis and few people knew it existed.

Sasha let out a controlled sigh. After years of training and work as a field operative, would she ever relax? Even though she was retired? Do we ever really retire?

She glanced at the man at the end of the bar, saw he was on the phone again.

She checked her watch. 1:15 p.m. She reached for her handbag to get out her cell phone, then decided against it. She’d last called Tom an hour ago and left a message. He’d yet to call back. He was probably stuck in meetings down in Langley and might not arrive for another day or two.

Thinking that made her smile. The upcoming weekend was their first anniversary, at least in a manner of speaking, so maybe it wasn’t so odd that he’d be late, what with the cliché about men forgetting anniversaries. But he’d had a genuine incentive to be on time for their meeting last year—anticipating the consummation of their relationship, one that had been simmering for 20 years—and he’d been late then, too.

They had just completed their assignment in Saudi Arabia. Tom had insisted upon going into the field to run the operation himself, heading their black ops team of five, with Sasha inserted undercover into the midst of the al-Mujari’s takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Sasha had been held captive for more than a week during the operation and subjected to sensory deprivation, including starvation. She’d emerged obsessing over a Bar Louie cheeseburger. After three days in the hospital and a week debriefing in Langley, she’d flown north for some R&R and her cheeseburger fix.

Tom had promised to join her the following day, but was unable to extricate himself from further debriefings and meetings.

When he’d finally arrived, a week late, he’d phoned from the lobby of the Hotel Fauchère and she’d stood in the open door to her room upstairs, waiting. She watched him get off the elevator and walk down the hallway toward her, remembering how, more than two decades earlier as a girl of only 18, she’d first seen him saunter across the floor of a restaurant in Nice. The Scruffy American—tall, with sandy hair shooting off in all directions and a perpetually wrinkled sports jacket. The same trim frame as today, the same powerful hands and movie-star blue eyes.

As he neared the hotel room door, Sasha felt a swell of longing. She said, “The conquering hero, stiff-legged walk and all.”

He stopped in front of her, his eyes soft with love. Those blue, blue eyes. Impossibly blue.

“You realize I’ve waited for this moment for a very long time,” Tom said.

“You don’t need to wait anymore,” she told him. “And we’ve all the time in the world.”

He leaned toward her, and she arched her neck to receive his kiss.

Chest heaving, she pulled him into the room.

After they made love, she lay next to him on top of the sheets. She made no move to cover herself, enjoying his gaze on her as he moved it down her body, then back up into her eyes.

She smiled, feeling serene.

Tom said, “You don’t mind me admiring you, do you?”

“You’re my man.”

She leaned over to kiss him, and then he pulled her to him.

“Again?” she said. “So soon?”

“I told you, I’ve waited for this moment for a long time.”

After they made love again, Tom lay beside her, breathing deeply, looking up at the ceiling. When she asked what he was thinking, he turned and looked into her eyes for a while before reaching over and caressing a bruise on her arm.

She was fine, she assured him. Just a few lumps and scrapes.

His eyes softened. That wasn’t what he meant. It had to have been a hell of an ordeal—being held, and then ending it by—

“You said yourself it was worth it. Something like, ‘Because we were in the right we were able to stop something very wrong from happening.’” She stroked his cheek. “My idealist.”

“Still, it must have been rough, ending it by shooting a man you’d once been—”

“That part was easy. Saif was a monster, and the world is better off without him.”

Tom nodded. He must have seen the resolve on her face, because he smiled and said, “Remind me never to piss you off.”

“Like by standing me up for a week?”

“Look at it this way. You got a chance to gorge yourself on those cheeseburgers you carried on about.”

“They would need to have flown in another side of Angus beef if you’d kept me hanging any longer.”

“I’m sorry.” He smiled. “It wasn’t a strategy, and it wasn’t by choice.”

That was Tom. And the demands of their work.

Sasha came back to the moment as she heard the family in the booth behind her sliding out of their banquettes, gathering their things and getting up to leave. Once more, the father said to his daughter, “Carla, please keep your voice down.”

At least this time he said “please.”

She glanced back at the man of the end of the bar, now on his cell phone again. His fourth call.

The family that had been seated behind her walked past. The girl, redheaded with freckles, trailed her parents. She smiled at Sasha, showing big teeth with braces, then exclaimed, “Oh!” as she dropped her iPod and it bounced beneath Sasha’s table.

The father turned, his eyes stern.

“I’ll get it,” Sasha said, smiling back at the girl. She reached down and picked up the iPod. As Sasha sat back up, her gaze caught the man at the end of the bar watching her, not at all casually.

She felt a surge of tension and looked away. As she handed the iPod to the girl she glanced back at the man. He had averted his eyes. Sasha sighed, feeling momentarily tormented by the reality she might never be able to let down her guard. She reached into her handbag beside her on the banquette. She didn’t need to check to know her Beretta Cheetah was there, but she felt more secure as she put her hand on its grip.


Chapter 2

At 10:00 a.m. one of the disposable cell phones lined up on the bureau in Ahmad’s Paris apartment rang. He looked at the serial number of the one ringing and checked his list. It was the series for this week, so he answered it. It was Rashad, his controller.

Ahmad listened. “Got it,” he said.

Four hours later he walked three blocks to the Peugeot he’d rented after Rashad had called, then drove out to Le Bourget Airport to wait. He didn’t know the man, Felix, who was supposed to call him to tell him the private plane had arrived and at which hangar, but not knowing was procedure. It came from the top down, from Director Assad himself. He parked beside the chain-link fence that separated the parking lot from the hangar area and checked his watch.

2:30 p.m.

He was about three hours early. In this business, if you were late, you were out. Assad’s way.

At 5:26 p.m. he got a phone call that awakened him from a nap. He sat up. Felix said, “Hangar 16. A black Mercedes SL560 will be waiting. You’re looking for Omar and his party. Follow them, report in on the way, and continue until you’re relieved.”

Ahmad felt his heart rate increase when he heard the name Omar. He’d been briefed months earlier. They all had.

He started up the Peugeot and drove about a quarter of a mile around the airport, then pulled into a parking space and slid down in his seat to watch for any planes taxiing into hangar 16.

A Gulfstream V eased in toward the hangar near a black Mercedes on the tarmac. When the steps were lowered three men got out, then a fourth, a giant with a long blond beard.

Ahmad’s pulse quickened.

Omar.

He was dressed as an Orthodox Jew. Ironic. Black coat, white shirt and black hat, but his beard extended out over his shirt like a blond flag.

Omar and his party climbed into the Mercedes. Ahmad waited until the Mercedes pulled out, then started the Peugeot and followed. He called in from the A1 on the way toward Paris, then again from Boulevard Périphérique to report their route.

Twenty-five minutes after leaving Le Bourget they were in the 8th Arrondisement in Paris. They drove down Boulevard Malesherbes and turned onto Boulevard Hausmann.

Ahmad was about a half dozen cars behind when the Mercedes pulled over on Boulevard Hausmann in front of a retail chocolatier. The four men who’d gotten off the plane climbed out of the car and started toward the door of the chocolatier. Ahmad rolled on toward them. Omar was even bigger than he’d appeared on the tarmac, at least 6’5”, and broad-shouldered. As Ahmad passed, Omar looked back, scowling at the activity on the boulevard—cars honking, exhaust fumes from an idling truck hanging in the air, pedestrians dodging traffic and couples walking arm-in-arm.

Ahmad hit the button on the map app on his phone to mark the spot and kept going. He called in, reporting the location, and was told to circle back and park on the street across from the chocolatier. After squeezing the Peugeot in beside a smart car parked with both front wheels up on the curb, he sat back to watch and wait. A half hour later he got a phone call saying he was being relieved, but to leave his vehicle where it was and be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice.

He got out of the car and walked around the corner into the bistro on the corner of Rue Lavoisier and ordered an espresso. After 45 minutes sitting on a stool at the counter facing the windows, people-watching like everyone else, surrounded by cigarette smoke and hearing the hiss of the espresso machine, he left. A few blocks up Boulevard Malesherbes he stepped into a café and ordered a glass of Sancerre.

It was 7:20 p.m. when he got the call to go back to his car, sit and wait. He sat in the Peugeot all night, his fingers and toes icy cold from the night air. When daylight was just sending patches of light onto the sandstone facades and brightly painted shop doors of Boulevard Hausmann, he saw lights turn on in the second-floor rooms above the chocolatier.

At 5:45 a.m. the door to the chocolatier opened and he saw two men walk out. One was a giant. No beard, wearing a skullcap and down jacket. The same broad shoulders.

They got into another black Mercedes. The car pulled out and Ahmad followed. On the A1 he phoned in again to report his location. Just before the turnoff to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Ahmad got a call to say another surveillance car was taking over, that he was finished for the day.

He steered the Peugeot back into Paris. He wondered where Omar was going and what Assad planned to do about it. He’d write up his report and send it in when he returned home, knowing that ultimately Assad himself would read it, and that his hours of sitting, watching and waiting were worth it as a small part of fighting the good fight.


#


The source who’d called Everett Ward that afternoon said to meet him at Judy’s on Cherry Street, a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania that Everett had never been to before. He was now seated at the bar, waiting.

He looked around. Judy’s was housed in a block-long 19th-century former indoor farmer’s market. The renovated interior featured the original brick walls, vaulted ceilings and wooden trusses as part of the décor, accented by sophisticated lighting and stylish modern furnishings. A 6,000-pound brick oven behind the bar was the centerpiece of both the interior and the cuisine, its heat and homey aroma from the wood fire pervading the place. The buzz of the patrons’ voices and laughter proclaimed Judy’s a roaring success, and the good vibe was making Everett feel light-hearted. He decided he’d be back.

Everett had nursed a beer for 30 minutes, munching on the restaurant’s signature focaccia bread, hot and fresh out of the brick oven. The stuff was amazing, the smoke of the oven accenting the olive oil flavor of the crust and the rosemary seasoning inside.

He checked his watch again.

Almost 8:30.

The guy was about a half hour late, which was hardly unusual for a source. Everett turned around on his bar seat and looked at the entrance. Sometimes a source showed up and hung back for a while, checking him out, deciding if he really wanted to tell his story to a reporter. Everett swung back around and watched the sous chef sliding another loaf of the focaccia bread out of the oven.

“Another?” the bartender said, pointing at Everett’s empty beer glass.

Everett debated for a moment, trying to decide whether to punt on this one and leave. Katie would understand why he was late—by now she knew it was part of the job—but if he didn’t leave soon he wouldn’t get to say good night to Chad and Chloe.

If he really had a story for him, the source would call back some other time. Everett glanced back at his watch again, then shrugged.

But maybe he won’t call back. And what the source said on the phone had been too chilling to disregard.

“No. Make it a martini. Tito’s vodka, just a kiss of vermouth, no fruit.” Well, that settled it. He was in for the duration. He pushed his plate of focaccia bread away. Twenty-two years a reporter for the Reading Eagle, meeting sources in restaurants, bars, coffee shops, hotel lobbies. That was the drill. Beers, martinis, plates of bread. A few pounds here, a few pounds there, and all of a sudden he was pushing 250 pounds.

Now he saw the sous chef pull what looked like calamari out of the oven and put it on a serving plate.

“What’s that?” Everett asked the bartender as he made his drink.

The man turned and looked. He smiled. “Hearth Fire Roasted Calamari. Out of this world.”

“I’ll take an order.”

If he had to sit here and wait, he might as well eat.

A few years back he’d sat in a different restaurant waiting for a different anonymous source that resulted in a long feature series, The Gangs of Reading. It totaled 20,000 words in eight articles spanning six weeks. By the end of it the managing editor was giving him placement on the Eagle’s front page. It had won him a George Polk Award and cemented his status as the Eagle’s top reporter. After that the news editor fed him all the major breaking stories and gave him the leeway to pursue additional features.

Two weeks ago he’d written a long feature that ran on Sunday about the two local Muslim girls who had publicized on social media their intention to fly to Turkey, then enter Syria to join ISIS, presumably as brides for the fighters. He reported the hard news elements of it—the FBI intercepting and arresting the girls at Lancaster Airport on the way to get an international flight from Pittsburgh—and then the feature article, after interviewing the girls’ friends and families.

This source he was meeting tonight, whoever he was, had called him and offered information on an ISIS recruiter based in Reading. The guy said he’d give Everett the inside story on how he operated right here in their midst. It sounded credible, and if it was, Everett needed to make sure people read about it. So here he was at Judy’s, waiting. Friday night at the prime dinner hour, the restaurant packed and the parking lot across the street overflowing so he had to park around the corner on Carpenter Street, unlit and downright creepy. He hoped his car would still be there when he got out of here.

When he finished his martini he checked his watch and it was 8:50 p.m. He’d just finished the calamari. He scanned the menu and ordered the small plate of Gorgonzola Baked Figs Wrapped in Bacon, then tapped his glass. The bartender nodded and started mixing him another drink.

If he’s not here by 9:15, I’m gone.

At 9:20 p.m. he checked his watch again. I’m out of here in 10 minutes.

At 9:30 p.m. he signaled for the check, paid and walked out. It wasn’t the first time he’d been stood up by a source.

He turned his sports jacket up against the breeze as he walked along Cherry Street. He saw the interior light go on in a car about 10 feet in front of him as the door opened a crack. After he passed the car he heard the door open and somebody get out. As he reached the intersection of Carpenter Street and turned left toward his car, he glanced behind him and saw that two men were walking behind him.

Well, isn’t this special.

He felt a shiver of concern and picked up his pace. When he heard the men turn the corner and follow him down Carpenter Street he realized they had increased their own pace and closed on him.

Now Everett got a flash of alarm, felt his heart begin to thump. He lengthened his strides. A moment later he pulled his car key out and chirped the door lock open, saw the lights on his car flicker as he did so.

Now he heard the men behind him break into a run. He got a blast of adrenaline and ran for his car. He was half a block from it when he saw two more men step out from the shadows between him and his car.

Oh, no.

He pulled up to a stop and turned to see the men running after him almost upon him. He dove to the pavement and one hurtled past, but the other jumped on him as he scrambled to get up and run back toward Cherry Street.

“Help!” he yelled, reeling with panic, and the man punched him in the stomach. The wind went out of him. Then the man who’d run past him came back and clamped his hand over Everett’s mouth.

He was writhing on the ground, gasping for air, trying to pull away, but now it seemed like all four men were on him. His heart was pounding and his eyes were tearing. Then he felt them put a sack over his head. They pulled him to his feet and started moving him down Carpenter Street in the direction he’d been running.

He heard the sound of a car door opening and felt himself thrown onto the floor in the back of a van, two men holding him down. Then the sound of the doors closing behind him and the engine starting. His last thought was of Katie and the kids as he felt a thud on his head and everything went black.


Chapter 3

Three days later Tom Goddard, Mid-East Division Chief, sat in a conference room on the 15th floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and saw the caller ID on his iPhone screen as it vibrated on the conference table. Sasha. He let it go to voicemail. He’d call her back after this meeting. Sending her another text saying he’d be delayed again would just piss her off.

The conference room was adjacent to the office of Harold Ross, Director of the CIA, and Tom could see Ross through the open door to his office, sitting behind his desk and talking on the phone. Ross had recently redone his office suite again. Now it was all minimalist Scandinavian design. Blond wood, angular lines and grass wallpaper. The matte finish on the conference table was almost prickly to the touch and made a hissing sound when Tom had slid his file in front of him.

Foreboding, he’d thought, girding himself for yet another session of overthinking and circular discussion with the president’s staff, three of which talked in murmurs at the end of the table.

Tom’s immediate boss, Terry Jenkins, Division Chief Coordinator, who could talk in circles with the best of them, sat to his left. Tom could smell Jenkins’ cologne, and to add to that annoyance Jenkins was clunking his oversize cufflinks on the table as he shuffled papers in front of him. The other CIA representative at the meeting, Roger Upton, sat next to Jenkins. Upton, an agency icon with eyes that looked right inside you, was sitting in with this group for the first time. Tom knew very little about Upton’s current role except that it technically didn’t exist, because he ran domestic spying, a job that was outside the CIA’s mandate. Ross had created Upton’s position during the last year, and Tom was certain Ross was running Upton himself on a need-to-know basis.

Tom looked over at Jenkins and stifled a smile. Jenkins, the knucklehead, undoubtedly knew only what Ross told Upton to feed him. It was the same way Ross had personally run Tom with his Saudi operation a year earlier, with Jenkins completely out of the loop. Another operation that technically hadn’t existed: Tom and his black-ops team that injected Sasha into the Saudi desert to take out Saif, and in the process send the al-Mujari terrorist group into meltdown. It was how Ross worked—keeping independent silos of information and influence—and why he’d survived as director at the agency for more than 20 years through different presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. The man thrived on keeping all kinds of political balls in the air. Even the thought of it was exhausting to Tom.

Tom had met the three members of the president’s staff in numerous similar meetings. James Francis, the national security advisor, with a pointed nose and squinty eyes who Tom thought of as “Ratface”; Ronald Campagnella, head of Homeland Security; and Steven Reynolds, head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

They were talking about the Washington Nationals’ prospects for next season, having just been swept in the NLCS by the San Francisco Giants. Tom saw the irony in it: they were all lame ducks along with president, since President-elect Richardson and his coattails had swept the Republicans out of the White House and both houses of Congress a week earlier. Tom was surprised they were even talking about sports, because guys in their position usually didn’t have anything on their minds between now and January except finding their next jobs.

Standard beltway bullshit.

At times like this Tom was thankful the CIA—and old spooks like Ross and him—existed. People still in the game and committed to a higher-minded agenda than finding their next meal tickets in the four or eight-year Washington revolving door.

The other attendee was John “Rusty” Baldridge, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tom had gotten to know Baldridge on the Mecca assignment a year earlier. Baldridge had moved people and influence around to make sure his team got what it needed, including personnel on special assignment from Army Special Forces. Tom figured Ross wanted Baldridge at the meeting as a steadying adult presence to help quell any melodrama from the president’s staff.

Tom watched Ross hang up his phone, stand up and start across his office in his military gait, buttoning the jacket of his custom suit and looking every bit the man in command with his trim good looks and salt-and-pepper hair.

“Sorry, but I needed to finish that call,” Ross said as he sat down. He glanced around the table. “Thank you all for coming. You’ve all met so I won’t bother with introductions.”

Ratface Francis glanced at Upton with a quizzical scrunch of his brow, then looked back at Ross. Tom suppressed another smile.

Ross looked over at Francis, Campagnella and Reynolds and said, “You need to hear this firsthand rather than reading it in a briefing memo. Some things may be coming to a head that will require action that can’t wait for the next administration.”

Now Francis’ brow lifted in skepticism.

Ross ignored him and turned to Tom. “You all know Tom Goddard, a 25-plus-year veteran of the Middle East who’s been in the field as an agent, a station head in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and now running the region from here at Langley as Mid-East Division Chief.” He nodded for Tom to begin.

Tom said, “Thanks, Harold.” He turned to Francis and said, “I’m here to brief you today on some fresh intel we’re getting on Omar Abu Usman, one of the ISIS commanders in Syria.”

Francis said, “You mean the kid who Abu-Bakr made commander of ISIS’ battlefield forces?”

“Yeah, they call him Omar the Albino. He’s—”

“We all heard this briefing three months ago.”

“This is new,” Tom said. “They’ve groomed their golden boy for a special role.”

Campagnella, the head of Homeland Security, said to Tom, “I haven’t heard about this Omar yet.” He glanced over at Francis and Reynolds, then turned to Tom again. “Can I get a 30-second briefing to get me up to speed?”

Tom didn’t even pretend not to notice as Ratface took out his phone and start composing a text. He watched him for a moment before turning to Campagnella.

“His name is Omar Umarov, Arabized as Omar Abu Usman. He’s only 28 years old, but he grew up in Chechnya fighting the Russians. He’s been making IEDs and packing a Kalashnikov since his early teens. He’s war-hardened and ferocious. Omar left Chechnya for Turkey a few years ago and dropped out of sight until earlier this year, when he surfaced with ISIS in Syria. He’s risen in the ranks amazingly fast, in part because ISIS changed its strategy to recruit fighters with demonstrated experience and battlefield success, regardless of nationality. From the minute he got there Omar acted like a first-team All-Pro quarterback, taking charge of the offense and running with it. He surrounded himself with a group of Chechen fighters and showed himself to be ISIS’ most effective battlefield commander. He and his fighters are the most feared of all ISIS’ soldiers. That’s why Abu-Bakr, the ISIS leader, put Omar in charge as the new military chief of the entire ISIS movement.”

“And he’s only 28 years old?” Campagnella said.

“Yeah, but he’s impressive, charismatic.” Tom took photographs of a smiling, blue-eyed, blond-haired young man from his folder and handed them around. “He’s a big specimen at about 6’5”, runs about 220 pounds, and he’s got an unmistakable blond beard down to his chest. He loves getting himself into their videos, usually with a big smile. A month ago he was seen on video all over the Internet asking Allah for strength for his fellow fighters in reestablishing an Islamic caliphate across most of the Middle East. He’s their poster boy now.”

Jenkins piped in, “His public profile has been carefully cultivated. We’ve even got intelligence that it was Omar who insisted that ISIS get itself onto Twitter to help blast out its message.” Tom’s boss, grandstanding as usual, unable to resist the reference to social media, like some “cool” dad trying to impress his teenage daughter’s friends.

Francis looked up from texting and said, “Okay, so why this meeting?”

“Omar is assuming a broader role,” Tom said. “ISIS is increasingly interested in taking its fight to the West.”

The national security advisor set his phone on the table. “How so? ISIS has made it clear its goal is to establish a caliphate across the Arab world. They’re not interested in coming to the West.”

“You think they’ll stop in the Middle East once they establish their caliphate?” Tom said. “You forget who we’re dealing with.” He paused for emphasis. “They consider all non-Muslims—non-believers—as infidels who should be eradicated from the earth.”

Francis didn’t respond.

Tom went on. “And maybe in the short term their goal in the West isn’t to wipe us out, but to soften us up so we stop bombing their camps, arming their enemies and disrupting their lines of supply. Some kind of negotiated standstill that hands them the Middle East.”

Francis squinted and said, “‘Negotiated’? That’s ridiculous.”

“I think in the political trade the term for that kind of backroom horse-trading with your enemy is called ‘statesmanship,’ not ‘ridiculous.’”

Francis couldn’t contain his contempt, curling his lip as he said, “We negotiate with established foreign governments, even in wartime, but not with terrorists who are led by mindless adherence to some radical ideology. These stone-age fanatics aren’t smart enough to understand the concept of negotiation.”

Tom said, “They’re smart enough to have gotten this far. To recruit and train foot soldiers to create a formidable fighting force that’s taken over major chunks of Syria and Iraq. To build a sophisticated approach to financing their war with oil profiteering from oilfields they’ve seized, from ransoming people and antiquities. They’re smart enough to be winning.”

Francis glanced around like he wanted someone to chime in to help him.

Tom said, “Okay, maybe their immediate goal isn’t to either wipe us out or negotiate. Maybe they just want to scare us into submitting to them, leaving them alone to take the Middle East.”

Francis said, “Why on earth would we do that?”

“If they were holding your wife hostage with a gun to her head, wouldn’t you at least think about it?”

No one said anything for a few moments.

Reynolds, the head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, spoke for the first time. “But ISIS has no footprint here to hurt us at home.”

“ISIS is at heart a terrorist organization, with a terrorist group’s mosaic structure. No vertical command structure like ours in the West. Loose lines of reporting, fragmented responsibilities, independent cells, pre-established missions that the cells will lay dormant for extended periods of time before going active to execute. We know they have cells here.”

Reynolds said, “So what are you suggesting they’ll do?”

“I’m not suggesting,” Tom said. “We have good information that Abu-Bakr himself is so impressed with Omar’s value as their poster boy that he’s now put Omar in charge of the effort to bring the fight to the West. Call him the head of foreign-soil-based terrorism, with his first goal as recruitment. Like I said before, he’s a charismatic leader, now also a media face for ISIS, and he’s gonna recruit right here at home to bring the fight to us from the ground up.”

Jenkins wrinkled his face and said, “I fail to see how ISIS is any different from the al-Mujari guys we’ve been dealing with forever. The same brand of Islamic fundamentalists—stoning as the appropriate punishment for adultery, beheadings for minor crimes, advocating believers be killed if they leave Islam.”

“From a religious standpoint, yes, essentially the same,” Tom said. “And many of al-Mujari’s fighters joined ISIS after al-Mujari largely dissolved.”

Tom saw Ross turn and give Jenkins one of his half-dozen different blank stares. Tom had long ago figured out that you were supposed to know which one Ross was using and what it meant, depending on the circumstances. Jenkins always seemed to respond to one of them as if he was getting encouragement from the teacher for stellar performance in class, even if Ross had just smacked him down.

Sure enough, Jenkins sat up straighter and his face brightened. He narrowed his eyes at Tom. “We’ve been running an effective counter-terrorism strategy and anti-propaganda campaign against the al-Mujari here at home for years. What could be so different about ISIS and its message that should cause us to change our strategy against them?”

Tom didn’t acknowledge him. He turned to the national security advisor and said, “These guys are recruiting, and they’re going about it very professionally.”

“Give us an example of how they’re recruiting,” Jenkins said, making it sound like an accusation.

Tom still didn’t look at Jenkins. He paused for a moment and looked at Francis to make sure he had his attention. “ISIS propaganda has just about nothing in common with the old, grainy videos al-Mujari used to show on Al Jazeera. These ISIS guys are shooting their stuff on high-def digital cameras. Beautiful cinematography. Fluid editing with modern software. Mixing the sound to capture all the dialog, and overlaying music to fit the mood—alternately dramatic and spooky. It’s like the video games and slick ad campaigns all American kids have grown up watching in TV commercials for the latest smartphones. ISIS has even created their own brand logo with that black flag with the white lettering. It’s in all their videos.”

Tom could see Jenkins scowling out of the corner of his eye as if saying, Are you kidding me?

Francis shook his head. “You said it yourself: it’s just propaganda. Terrorist propaganda.”

“And very effective propaganda. They’re justifying their actions as in retaliation for our drone and F-14 airstrikes that are killing their wives and children. Calling to Allah for strength for their cause. Making themselves the underdogs and the righteous vindicators at the same time. And in the process, they’re putting the best possible face on their message.”

Francis sneered in disgust. “By showing themselves beheading U.S. citizens in the desert?”

“That’s the one thing they’re not showing. They’re showing one of our citizens, portrayed as a criminal in orange prison jumpers, cowering, a proxy for the great U.S. as impotent and powerless. Their assassin standing next to him delivers their message and calls to Allah for strength in support of their cause in perfect English, strong, righteous and defiant. Then the camera fades out, leaving the rest to your imagination. When the picture returns, yes, the victim’s head is resting at the feet of his corpse. But ISIS has spared their recruits the brutality of the act of the beheading itself and left them with the impact of their message and the defeat of their enemy.”

“The world community is condemning them and has sympathy for us,” Francis said.

Jenkins nodded his agreement.

Tom plunged on. “Yes, they’re drawing world outrage, but also establishing their power and commitment to their cause at the same time. Not to mention scaring the hell out of the average American. And their message is getting through to those they’re trying to reach.”

“How so?” Jenkins said. “We’re not seeing any evidence of that stateside.” He paused as if for effect and said, “You’re a Mid-East expert, Tom, no disputing that. But my mandate covers all the various Division Chiefs, including those with responsibility for counter-espionage here at home. My stateside on-the-ground intelligence just isn’t picking up what you’re suggesting.”

Tom now turned to look his immediate superior in the eye. He said, “Then your people aren’t reading the New York Times or watching CNN. They didn’t see the stories about that guy the FBI picked up at O’Hare Airport who was boarding a plane for Turkey to meet some guys from ISIS to take him into their camps in Syria. Or the girl studying at Harvard who dropped out of school and flew to Iraq to become an ISIS wife.”

Jenkins didn’t respond, his face frozen.

“What about the American kid just out of Stanford University who left home in Toledo to join up with ISIS and died fighting for them in Syria?”

Jenkins still didn’t respond.

“You want me to keep going?”

Ross said, “Alright, you made your point.”

The national security advisor leaned forward and said, “So how long do you think before we have a major problem on home soil?”

“They’re already here. We got a tip the other day from a friendly intelligence service that Omar had boarded a flight from Paris to London. We had the Brits double down on security. A routine facial recognition software scan of a surveillance video at London Heathrow two nights ago flagged a frame grab showing Omar getting onto a British Airways flight to Boston. Our own software got another hit from surveillance video showing him getting off the flight at Logan Airport.”

Francis turned to look at Ross in alarm, then back at Tom and said, “How in the hell did he get through security at Heathrow? And past our people here in Boston?”

“He got a helluva makeover. Shaved his beard, dyed his hair black and seems to have been wearing brown contact lenses.”

“Then how can you be sure it’s him?” Francis said.

“We’re not relying on our facial recognition software. We’ve put our best eyes on it. It’s him.” Tom took photographs reproduced from the frame grab out of his folder and passed them around the conference table.

No one in the room said anything for about 30 seconds as they looked at them. Tom thought this dramatic touch was over the top, but it had been Ross’ idea. He heard someone clear his throat, a chair creak. He could see Francis pursing his lips.

Finally the national security advisor said in a loud whisper, “Do you have any leads on where Omar is or what he’s up to?”

“He landed here two nights ago,” Tom said. “He could be almost anywhere by now. But he’s not here on vacation.”

counter in iweb
Home | Biography | Books | Trojan Horse | Sasha Returns | Arab Summer | The Gravy Train | Vaccine Nation | Bull Street | Rudiger Comes Alive | Rudiger in the Islands | Rudiger in Peril |  Rudiger on the Streets | Rudiger | Rudiger Stories | Mickey Outside | Spin Move | On Home Soil | Contact | BlogHome.htmlBiography.htmlBooks.htmlTrojan_Horse.htmlSasha_Returns.htmlArab_Summer.htmlThe_Gravy_Train.htmlVaccine_Nation.htmlBull_Street.htmlRudiger_Comes_Alive.htmlRudiger_in_the_Islands.htmlRudiger_in_Peril.htmlRudiger_on_the_Streets.htmlRudiger.htmlRudiger_Stories.htmlMickey_Outside.htmlSpin_Move.htmlOn_Home_Soil.htmlContact.htmlhttp://davidlender.blogspot.com/Contact.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0shapeimage_1_link_1shapeimage_1_link_2shapeimage_1_link_3shapeimage_1_link_4shapeimage_1_link_5shapeimage_1_link_6shapeimage_1_link_7shapeimage_1_link_8shapeimage_1_link_9shapeimage_1_link_10shapeimage_1_link_11shapeimage_1_link_12shapeimage_1_link_13shapeimage_1_link_14shapeimage_1_link_15shapeimage_1_link_16shapeimage_1_link_17shapeimage_1_link_18shapeimage_1_link_19