Salal sensed movement in the darkened room and tightened his grip on the AK-47 at his side. He strained to hear a whispered voice.
“Osama,” the voice said in the Urdu language of Pakistan. “Awaken at once. We must go from this place. The Americans are coming.”
There was a soft rustling of cloth, and a calm, deep voice responded in Arabic. “How many are they? How far away?”
A rifle barrel scraped on the wall as the weapon clattered to the floor.
“An hour, maybe more, perhaps a bit less. Islamabad informs us a large transport aircraft from the American base at Dalbandin has been observed. One of our agents in Islamabad at the control tower has been tracking the plane by radar. The aircraft is moving in a direction he thought suspicious, and it is now on a course which will cross the border on a path close to this place.”
Salal sat up from the hard stone floor on which he lay, now fully awakened.
“Just one plane?” Salal asked.
Salal was a lean man who had let his silver-flecked beard grow long in the manner of bin Laden himself. His eyes were quick and bright, shining and empty, similar to those of a bird of prey. He had been in Afghanistan for just over three months, and he missed the warmth of his Palestinian homeland and the heat of the African deserts that had been his native sanctuaries.
“Yes, only one was seen,” replied the messenger who served as a liaison to the Taliban and one of the inner circles of Osama’s couriers and bodyguards.
Bin Laden stirred near the small charcoal brazier which warmed the room. A long body emerged from under a heavy, sheep-wool hide.
The two men, Osama bin Laden and Salal l’Rahal, rousted about the confined space in an organized and efficient manner, issuing orders to their small band of dedicated bodyguards, gathering belongings, stuffing food and clothing into rucksacks. They had both done this type of evacuation many times before and were well-practiced in its execution. Neither their voices nor their actions betrayed any sign of panic or anxiety.
Knowing the Americans had put a huge price on their heads and would continue to hound them with determination served to make them more alert to impending danger and more cautious in their actions.
“Send word to our Taliban friends in the mountains to the north. Tell them we are coming,” bin Laden instructed. “Gather the men. We leave straightaway.”
“It has already been done. Machmued has organized a rearguard and will delay the Americans if they come in force,” the man responded.
Salal was silent for a moment, bit on his lower lip, and tugged inattentively at his beard. His thoughts went back to a time seven months earlier, when he last had been forced to flee from Americans close on his heels. He raised a hand in a gesture signaling a pause for re-examination.
“The Americans will not come in force,” Salal said to bin Laden. “I think the ones who come are assassins who seek to take us by surprise. The men they send will be their very best. Otherwise, even with our few numbers, they would have sent a larger force with more planes. No, they come by stealth to catch us unaware in our beds. They will attack when the sun touches the valley.”
Another of bin Laden’s personal bodyguards spoke from the doorway. “We should attack them before they can harm us. We can ambush and kill them in the mountains.”
“No,” Salal replied while he and the others continued to gather their belongings. “The most important thing is our safety. The Americans cannot be allowed to take us. Escape is more important. Besides, we are too few at this place, and the time to send word and gather men before the Americans arrive has already past. We are too late for this choice. Let them come—we will be gone.”
Turning to bin Laden, Salal continued, “Leave the rearguard under Machmued’s command. He knows well how to delay the Americans. Send another of your men to the Taliban friends who are with us to the south and to the west. Let the Taliban gather and attack the Americans in the mountains as they withdraw. The death of the Americans will be a good example for those who are still undecided in their support for us.”
“Yes, a wise course,” bin Laden replied after a moment’s thought.
“Once the American assassins are engaged,” Salal continued, “they will call for reinforcements. The diversion and confusion to save the assassins will distract the Americans from our escape. By the time they realize we are not here, we will be safely away and across the border into Tajikistan. They will have political and diplomatic difficulty in following us, and our friends there will protect us.”
Osama bin Laden nodded his agreement and, drawing to his full six-foot-four-inch height, turned to the bodyguard. “Make it as Salal has said,” he ordered. “We will dance away from the Americans for now, but in Allah’s short time, we will become a lion, and rip American flesh with sharp Arab teeth.” Turning to Salal, the terrorist commander-in-chief continued. “Come, my friend, it is time for us to go. Again you have proved to be wise in your counsel.”
Salal nodded and slung a pack with his sparse gear over his shoulder.
Unobserved, the SEAL team jumped their ram air chutes and steered them into the glacier landing zone, high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. As they were about to touch the snow field, the men released their clumsy, leg-mounted cargo packs, which fell to the earth. They stalled their chutes for easy, low-velocity landings. Each man recovered his equipment and awkwardly struggled through the crusty snow to the rally point just to the east of the glacier. Quickly, they donned Afghani native dress over their uniforms. If confronted by nomadic Taliban tribesmen or al Qaeda security outposts, the costume would give them a moment for surprise and perhaps a bit more time to react. Black, hooded ski masks were replaced with long-tailed Afghani lunge, which were twisted about each man’s head to provide protection to their wind-exposed faces. Rather than the jump boots Matt had worn in the aircraft, he switched now to locally made, warm, fleece-lined, calf-high, yak leather boots. An ankle-length chupan was wrapped round his body. The chupan fit like a cloak over big, loose fitting pants, a nondescript colorless shirt, and a sleeveless baggy vest jacket. Beneath these outer garments, the team wore under vests of Kevlar that covered their torsos, front and back.
Christ, it’s cold, Gannon thought.
As a rule, Matt dismissed with deprecating humor the bits of plastic and metal that formed the prosthesis fitted to his left leg, but not this morning. The stump hurt; it was throbbing, sending a pulse of discomfort to the trunk of his body with each beat of his heart.
A cheerless sun transformed the purple night to a chilled, blue blur of fog and swirling snow as morning came to life. Peaks, darkened by night, transformed from purple, blue-black shadows and black crevasses to softer, less ominous shades in the light of the dawn sky. Reconstituted and organized, the eight men, without conversation, deployed into tactical formation and moved off the ice and snow field.
Although the entire team had undergone high altitude acclimatization, the cold and elevation nonetheless had a lethargic, fatiguing effect. Only because of their rugged physical condition and focus was the team able to make the trek in a little over ninety minutes. Into the faces of the SEAL team, the sun climbed over the rim of the horizon but brought no warmth to the wind which scoured the 24,550 foot height of Nowshak, the highest of the Hindu Kush chain. Their slogging forced march was made even more arduous by the thin air.
As he trudged over the coarse terrain, Matt shifted his pack in an effort to relieve a cramp which had developed in his left thigh. By far the oldest member of the assault force, he reflected on the events which had led the retired Army officer to the moment where the Lockheed-built Hercules powered him through the night and into the breaking Afghan morning skies. The trek had in fact started in September two years earlier, with a call from the office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Lieutenant General Rufus Brandt.
“The mission is to kill or capture an evil man,” Brandt had said when Matt had finally completed his vetting and was cleared for the EYES ONLY intelligence file. “You’ll be the trigger on the trap. Your life will be put in extreme danger. I wouldn’t make an even money bet on your chances of survival. Are you still interested?”
“Yes sir,” Matt had responded.
And so began a journey had taken Matt Gannon through Operations Jericho, Gambit, and Judas, and had resulted in the loss of his left leg below the knee. In less than twenty-four months, he had been cast into the bowels of international terrorism; made an obsessive, extremely dangerous enemy in the personage of Salal; come far too close to death; and, somewhat to his personal regret, had left behind a successful army career. He had also acquired a wife, found and lost new friends, come to know men—both admirable and dishonorable—and now was engaged in a clandestine mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The latest episode had begun shortly before his first meeting with Phil Hobler, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, which had occurred only five months earlier. That meeting was in the forefront of his memory, and he recalled the cautions provided as he now trudged through the hard-packed snow.
If we don’t get Salal this time, Gannon thought, I’ll have really fucked the duck.