When a captured spy reveals the presence of a mole within Pakistan’s intelligence establishment, a race against time ensues to unearth the double agent. In a world of shadows, where lying is an art, will those on the hunt get to the mole in time? Eos presents an exclusive excerpt from Omar Shahid Hamid’s fifth novel, Betrayal
Jor, near the Iran/Pakistan border
The ends of the earth. That’s what this place looks like. The edge of the modern world, a junkyard where the detritus of a post-industrial society is dumped. The air itself seems infused with diesel fumes. The man wipes the gritty dust from his eyes and rouses himself from the flatbed of the ancient Tata truck. It’s the thing he hates most about this place. The dust, constant and coarse, that gets into everything. It flavours his food, it corrodes his equipment, and permeates itself into his clothes. He’s not unused to dust. After all, his native Bihar is a dusty place as well, but it’s nothing like this. The dust in this desert has a physical presence, constantly pushing and prodding, looking for a way in.
The dust isn’t the only thing he hates. After two years, the monotony and isolation of this place is getting to him. The work is boring, consisting of endless observation of Chabahar port and its surrounding areas. This is a deep cover independent assignment, so there are no colleagues to share his burden. None of his erstwhile ‘co-workers’ in the shipping company where he has been placed are aware of his real job. To them, he is simply a slightly underqualified logistics coordinator who, according to the rumour mills, has gotten this assignment because the company chairman is a distant relative. He tends to stay clear of them, thus further cementing the belief that he is a sifarshi with nothing in common with the rest.
He jumps off the truck and circles around to the side of the dirt track. The driver has sat himself down on the ground and opens a Tupperware container which has a simple breakfast of flatbread and cottage cheese. The driver looks at him and offers him the container, but he declines. He can’t eat when he’s this tense. Besides, he hates the food in this country. Everything tastes so bland. He longs for his wife’s cooking, the aloo bhujias and daal with tarrka, with a side of homemade spicy achaar, prepared so lovingly by her own hand. His mouth salivates at the thought of it. He hasn’t had achaar for two years. He hasn’t even spoken to his wife for two years. Control’s instructions. They feel it would be best for all concerned if his wife didn’t know his exact whereabouts. Receiving any kind of communication would risk blowing his cover. Control is obsessed with the fact that Chabahar is flooded with Pakistani spies. Therefore, his wife thinks he’s on secondment to a scientific research mission, on a boat somewhere in the remote recesses of the Indian Ocean. His ex-Navy background blends into that story well. Once every two months, Control drafts and forwards a message to her from him, assuring her that all is well, along with his salary payment. He himself has become so immersed in his cover that sometimes, late at night, he recites his own name to himself, just to make sure he still remembers it. Rabinder Kumar, Lieutenant Commander, Indian Navy (retired), now with the intelligence service, husband of Shalini and father of two beautiful daughters.
It has taken nearly three hours to get from Chabahar to Jor on the rickety old Tata truck. The last hour has been spent on old country tracks, to reach their current isolated destination in the middle of the desert. Huddled in the back, with the wind piercing the tarpaulin cover and licking the flatbed of the truck, he feels numb with cold. In January, the entire area is a freezing desert. Kumar has never previously travelled so far from Chabahar, but this time, he has been compelled to come all the way to the edge of the border. It’s definitely a risk, so close to Pakistani territory, but, considering the nature of the message, it’s one he feels is worth taking. Besides, for a change, he has some back up. The driver is reliable. He has been using him as a courier for the past year, ferrying messages and instructions to various assets in Pakistani Balochistan. The driver knows these back roads well and has earned his trust. It would be difficult for the Pakistanis to try anything as brazen as an incursion across the Iranian border. No, his main concern is more about preserving his cover with the Iranians. Control has informed him from the beginning that he is an illegal, an undeclared agent in country. Although there is a general understanding with the Iranians that a number of cover agents will be deployed in the region due to its proximity to Pakistan, if anything untoward were to happen, he knows he would be on his own. At least for a while, till Control worked the back channels with the Vezarat-e-Ittelat. The Iranians would not be happy if anything controversial came to light in Chabahar.
He drapes the locally bought keffiyeh more tightly around his neck and rubs his hands together for warmth. The sun has only just started to rise, pushing back the shadows over the landscape just a little. He looks questioningly towards the driver, who has finished his breakfast and is putting away the Tupperware container. The driver nods and points to the ground. He was the one who brought the message across yesterday. The contact will meet them here. But, as the light increases and the rolling expanse of desert becomes clearer to the eye, he can see no movement for miles around, just the occasional swirl of dust, dancing in the air.
The driver approaches him and offers him black tea from a flask. He raises his hands and points to his watch. ‘When is he coming Agha?’ His Farsi is only slightly accented after two years.
The driver shrugs his shoulders and replies ‘He will come when he will come. Have some tea, it will keep you warm.’
‘But you are sure it was him? The Deaf Leopard? He wants to meet me himself?’
‘That’s the message I was given in Taftan.’
He himself has become so immersed in his cover that sometimes late at night, he recites his own name to himself, just to make sure he still remembers it. Rabinder Kumar, Lieutenant Commander, Indian Navy (retired), now with the intelligence service, husband of Shalini and father of two beautiful daughters.
In two years, he has run dozens of assets in Pakistan, sending couriers with messages and money back and forth, but he has never met any of his charges face to face. The fact that the most important asset of all has asked for a direct meeting, can only portend something of huge significance. It excites him, makes him feel alive. The monotony of the past two years is drained out by this moment.
Kumar decides he will have that tea after all. It will give him something to do and the driver is right about one thing, it will keep him warm. He pours the black tea from the flask into the cup and sighs. They can’t even do tea right over here. How he longs for the flask cap in his hand to be filled with a hearty cup of milky, sweet, cardamom-scented mix chai. But he still raises the cap to his lips and sips deeply.
It takes about thirty seconds for the drug to start working. He hasn’t fully lowered the flask cap from his lips, when his vision starts to blur, and his legs feel like jelly. The last thing that he remembers focusing on is the tea as it falls on the desert sand. The driver seems to be in no hurry, and waits for a couple of minutes before going to inspect the body. He checks Kumar’s pulse, the way he has been taught to do, and once satisfied that he is still alive, picks up the fallen flask top. Suddenly, out of the darkness of the horizon another man appears, riding a motorbike. He too checks Kumar for a pulse, and then, without exchanging a word, both men lift the inert body on to the flat bed of the truck. The body is covered with a sheet of dirty tarpaulin and the motorcycle is also carefully loaded on to the flatbed. Having wiped out all signs of their presence in the area, both men get into the truck and drive towards the border.
George Mueller shudders as he steps out of the warmth of his Ford Explorer into the cold air. The temperature must be ten degrees below, he thinks, as he walks past mounds of shovelled snow piled next to the dividers in the massive parking lot of CIA headquarters. The simple act of walking to the front entrance becomes a lesson in endurance, as the icy wind, undeterred by surrounding buildings, blows hard across the open expanse of the parking lot and cuts into Mueller’s skin like a thousand needles.
Mueller curses to himself as he finally reaches the warmth of the lobby. Headquarters is empty, as it should be at this time, at one AM on a Sunday, in the middle of the worst ice storm to hit the East Coast in 25 years. It’s his own fault, really, for having volunteered to be assigned to the Counter Terrorism Centre. He bets the North Korea desk guys are sleeping comfortably in their warm beds. Dictators respect the sanctity of the weekend. It’s only the jihadis who choose Fridays and Saturdays to do crazy shit.
It takes about thirty seconds for the drug to start working. He hasn’t fully lowered the flask cap from his lips, when his vision starts to blur, and his legs feel like jelly.
The skeleton security crew at the front desk seem to sympathise with his predicament and offer him their commiserations as he rides the elevator up to the seventh floor. The floor itself is an extremely limited access floor but, even by the standards of the seventh floor, the Counter Terrorism Centre (CTC) stands out for its restrictiveness. It’s essentially a windowless vault, decked with three rows of work stations and a video wall covering one entire side. Visitors are constantly surprised to find the CTC to be so small, considering it has been the CIA’s most high profile unit in the past two decades, responsible for the tracking and targeting of the biggest and baddest terrorists. The CTC has been the CIA’s most public face, or at least the face most frequently portrayed by Hollywood and the media. It’s the unit that an entire generation of officers who came into service after 9/11, have aspired to join. But the folks at CTC take pride in remaining exclusive and elite, and pick only the best of the best.
George Mueller is one of this elite group. Recruited a year before 9/11, he can’t claim to have been inspired by the attacks on the Twin Towers, but he did volunteer to be one of the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan. He was selected because he knew Farsi and Arabic, which was the next best thing to knowing Urdu or Pashto, since the CIA at the time had an extreme shortfall of local language linguists. Mueller managed to attach himself with a Northern Alliance faction and had ridden into Kabul with the first wave of fighters. He moved to Iraq when the war began over there and did a full tour in Baghdad. He had also managed stints in Jordan and Pakistan, and so became a natural fit for the CTC when he returned to Washington. A more ambitious man would have ridden on political coattails to grab a management position within the agency. But climbing the greasy pole of the CIA bureaucracy never interested George Mueller. He enjoys being an analyst, a kind of Sherlock Holmesian detective, tracing clues from the most obscure details, trying to hunt down the most dangerous men on the planet. He is the epitome of what the younger analysts call ‘a Jihadi Junkie’. But it is this quality that makes him such a natural for the CTC, because most of the analysts here are exactly the same. They wouldn’t be any good at their jobs if they weren’t.
‘Did you get it? Please tell me you got it?’ Tom Wolfe, a young analyst who has been with the CTC for the past year, and stands out for both his geekiness and his analytical brilliance, looks expectantly at the brown paper bags that Mueller is carrying. George is fond of the younger man, and usually enjoys his eccentricities, but finds himself getting irritated by Wolfe’s pleading tone.
‘Jesus Christ, Tom, have you been outside? It’s a f—ing ice storm, I don’t think there’s a f—ing Taco Bell open at one AM between here and New York. So no, I did not get you a plate of soft tacos. I got you something from home, my wife’s own, leftover meatloaf sandwich. And some coffee.’
‘Oh thank God for coffee. The commissary’s shut and I’ve been drinking that sludge from the vending machines for the past ten hours.’ Wolfe grabs the brown paper bags and demolishes the meatloaf sandwich in four bites, while pouring himself a cup of coffee from the flask that Mueller has brought in. ‘And no, I have not been outside because things have been getting pretty hot in here.’
‘So what’s going on? What’s so important that you dragged my ass out of bed, in the cold?’ George pours a cup of coffee for himself from the thermos. It’s his own special brew, mixed with a pinch of salt and a smattering of cinnamon. The first sip sends a jolt through his body, getting rid of the remaining cobwebs in his brain.
George Mueller is one of this elite group. Recruited a year before 9/11, he can’t claim to have been inspired by the attacks on the Twin Towers, but he did volunteer to be one of the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
‘The asset made contact a few hours ago, met him direct in the compound that he had identified, and confirmed that it’s our friend. He’s also confirmed that he’s on the move. We’re tracking live and his convoy is just about to hit the Khost-Paktia highway.’
‘Why is he moving so freely? We haven’t heard a peep about him for 11 months, and now he’s driving down the f***ing highway?’
‘The asset did say there were rumours of an important shura meeting in the next few days. This must be it. That’s the only thing important enough for Mufti Bungalzai to take such a risk.’
‘Was the asset able to deliver the tracker to the vehicle?’
‘Yeah. He messaged an hour ago. He was able to throw the SIM card in the back of one of the Toyota double cabins.’
‘But how do we know Bungalzai will ride in that one?’
‘We don’t. His standard security protocol is that he doesn’t choose which vehicle he gets into until the last moment. And there are three of them. Only way to be sure is to take all three out.’
‘What about collateral damage?’
‘Anyone doing a ride along with Mufti Bungulzai ain’t a good guy George. F*** em.’
‘The boss is ok with us blowing up the entire convoy? There must be like, twenty, twenty-five people in those vehicles. You called him?’
‘Yeah, just before you got in. He said it’s your call. He says he’ll back you either way. No one knows Bungalzai better than you George. So, what’s it gonna be?’
‘You got eyes on the target?’
‘Two Reapers in the area, with four Hellcat missiles. They’ll be over the target in…5,4,3,2,1…voila.’
Suddenly the video wall on the far end of the room, that had been running newsfeeds from around the world, goes blank, and the feeds are replaced with one large black and white aerial image of three Toyota pick-ups on a dirt road, heading towards a bigger, metalled road. There are empty crop fields on either side of the dirt road, where George assumes the locals must have just sown the seeds for the poppy crop that will be harvested in the spring.
‘How sure are we about the asset?’
‘Come on George, we’ve been through this like, a million times. He’s a good asset. Been working with us for almost a year now. The Pakistanis passed him over. He was the one who brought in intel on Bungalzai after the trail had gone cold. Everything he’s told us so far has checked out. He told us about the compound, he told us about the shura meeting, he said Bungalzai couldn’t afford not to attend. And now we have a highly suspicious convoy of three vehicles with armed gunmen leaving the same compound at the time that the asset said they would. It’s got to be Bungalzai, George.’
George Mueller scratches his beard contemplatively. The thought of killing such a High Value Target excites him. He has been hunting Mufti Bungalzai for a very long time, collecting any and every scrap of information about him. He’s the worst of the worst, a Taliban commander with a penchant for the macabre, a man who happily killed half a dozen American interrogators by detonating a bomb that had been hidden in a captured militant’s anus. What made it even more grisly was that the detainee in question had been his own nephew. Bungalzai was the man who had not flinched in taking child hostages from an army school in Pakistan and slaughtering them on national television. Yes, George Mueller thinks, it would be so delicious to blow the one-eyed bastard to bits.
‘George, what do you want to do? I’ve got the drone pilot on the line. If they hit the highway, they can scramble and we may not get another chance like this one.’
‘Is the asset safe? Or is he travelling with them?’
‘He’s safe. He managed to get away undetected from the compound. He’s heading in the opposite direction.’
‘F— it. Let’s nail the son of a b—-. It’s a go.’
‘Green light. I repeat green light.’ About thirty seconds after Tom Wolfe utters those words into his headset, the video wall shows three explosive flashes, and three plumes of smoke rise up from where the three vehicles used to be. Tom Wolfe’s plump face breaks into a wide self-satisfied grin. ‘Gotcha, m***********.’
‘How long till we get a confirmation of the kill?’
‘Well, the asset is still in the area, he can walk across and confirm it and message us. We’ll know in the next forty minutes.’
George Mueller takes another sip from his coffee. ‘Good. If it is Bungalzai, give the asset a bonus. It doesn’t hurt to pay extra if you get a target as big as Bungalzai.’
‘Good thinking George. Man if this is Bungalzai, then this is my first HVT.’
‘You did good, Tom.’
‘Congratulations George. I know how long you’ve wanted this guy.’
‘Thanks, but let’s not be hasty. Let’s wait till the confirmation before we start popping the champagne over here. Oh and Tom, one more very important thing we need to do once the asset calls it in.’
‘Give a heads up to the Islamabad station chief. The Paks have had an even bigger h*** on for Bungalzai than we did. Islamabad station can pick up some major brownie points by letting the Pakistanis know we just did them a huge favour. And tell her to make sure to inform their National Security Advisor.’
‘Oh yeah, cuz he masterminded the army school massacre, right?’
‘Yeah, that too, but Bungalzai was responsible for murdering the National Security Advisor’s wife and kid. He’s been looking for him even longer than I have. He’s gonna want to know.’
The writer is a police officer and the author of multiple internationally celebrated novels. Betrayal is his fifth novel.
He tweets @omarshahid
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 1st, 2021