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Southeast of Al-Bukamal, Syria
March 3, 0930 Eastern European Time
Alan Burton’s head slammed into the overhead of the Humvee with eye-watering force. Nearly stunned by the impact, he dropped back into his seat, feeling his scalp for signs of blood. “Damn. That hurt!”
General Bob Underwood suppressed a smile and held out a Kevlar battle helmet to his aide. “Try this. It’s harder than your skull.”
Burton accepted the helmet and put it on, just in time to cushion his head’s next collision with the roof of the heavily armored vehicle.
The ride in the army truck was rough as it stormed across the Syrian farmland that lay hard by the Euphrates River and close to the Iraq border, en route to the Syrian city of al-Bukamal. Their convoy had crossed the unguarded Iraqi-Syrian border a half hour ago. One Humvee led the one Underwood and his aide were riding in, while one trailed them. A total of eight special operations Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment provided security for Underwood and Burton.
While Underwood and his aide were attired in much the same way as their Ranger Regiment escorts—Interceptor body armor bullet-resistant vests, MICH TC-2000 Kevlar Advanced Combat Helmets, M9 Beretta side arms and the rest—there was one distinct difference. Underwood had last hung up his Marine Corps’ uniform almost two years ago when he retired as the Commander of the United States Central Command—or CENTCOM.
Now, he was back on familiar territory as the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In his six months in this assignment, Underwood had spent time in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. He was in Syria again because the Syrian refugee crisis was worse now than at any time since it began in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings. The president had dispatched him to Syria to try to broker a cease-fire between the Syrian government and the forces opposing it—Hezbollah, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army and a number of fringe rebel groups. Underwood didn’t fancy his chances of success forging an agreement between and among the warring parties. Still, to Underwood, a presidential order was a presidential order.
“How much longer until we get to al-Bukamal, Sergeant?” Underwood asked the driver.
“About fifteen minutes, General.”
“Thanks. Ask our lead vehicle to slow down after we make the next turn. Last time we ran this route we almost took out a herd of cattle.”
“I remember, sir, and wilco.”
Underwood returned his attention to the ruggedized Panasonic CF-29 laptop as his aide scrolled through their agenda for the meeting. “General, here are the players from the Free Syrian Army we’ll—”
The sound of the rocket-propelled grenade hitting the side of their Humvee was ear-splitting and shook their three-ton truck violently. Flames shot along the side of their vehicle. Underwood and his aide hung on as their driver tried to steady the burning Humvee.
Seconds later, there was a deafening sound as an improvised explosive device detonated under the lead vehicle. Underwood and his aide both looked up in horror as the lead Humvee leapt into the air just yards ahead of them and crashed down on its side and then rolled over on its back. Fire began to consume that truck as thick black smoke billowed into the air.
Their driver immediately started to take well-rehearsed evasive action and gunned his V-8 turbo-diesel engine as he tried to drive around the destroyed truck in front of them. Suddenly, Underwood’s aide cried out, “Look out!” as an AMZ Dzik “Wild Boar” infantry military vehicle barreled straight for the right side of their Humvee. It was too late. The Polish-designed truck the Iraqi Army once owned hit them square-on as Underwood and his aide tried to grab on to any available handhold.
Gravity took over and their vehicle teetered—then landed on its left side with a sickening thud. The last thing Underwood remembered before passing out was their driver’s head hitting the bulletproof glass on the left front door, his helmet popping off, and blood gushing from his skull as it rebounded from the glass before hitting it again.
The Rangers in the trailing vehicle did precisely what they’d been trained to do—they converged on Underwood’s Humvee, dismounted, and quickly deployed in a protective ring around it, their gun muzzles pointed in different directions, searching for threats.
“Command, this is unit Mike-Hotel, taking fire from unknown hostiles approximately one-five klicks southeast of al-Bukamal!” the senior man in the trail vehicle shouted into his Motorola XTS5000R secure UHF radio. “One vehicle destroyed, one disabled. Hawk down, repeat Hawk—” the first lieutenant, the senior Ranger still alive, started to say. But his voice was quickly silenced as well-aimed shells from Browning M2HB heavy machine guns, fired from converging American-made M1117 Guardian armored security vehicles, ripped through him and also cut down his fellow Rangers.
With all the Americans in the lead and trail American trucks dead or dying, the men in the attacking vehicles converged on the Humvee carrying Underwood.
* * *
“Major, I just got a radio call from Mike-Hotel, the 75th Ranger Regiment element providing security for General Underwood. Sir, it was a partial transmission—”
The watch commander cut him off in midsentence. “What did you hear, Staff Sergeant?”
“Sir, he said they were southeast of al-Bukamal and that Hawk was down—”
The Army major standing the duty watch at the former Victory Base complex near Baghdad International Airport converged on the staff sergeant’s console and immediately barked, “Play it back now!”
Every man and woman in the command center stood transfixed as they listened twice to the frantic call from the convoy.
The watch commander turned to another man and said, “Call CENTCOM Headquarters on the command net. Tell them Hawk is reported down and request air cover.”
“Yes, sir. Major, where should I request they get the air cover?”
“Just tell ’em, damn it!”
But the watch team knew there would be no air cover. The United States had pulled out of Iraq years ago. A skeleton U.S. military force remained in Iraq to train the Iraqi Army as well as provide security to people like the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. However, they had little more than a few dozen vehicles like the now-destroyed Humvees, a handful of helicopters, and a few crew-served weapons in addition to their personal weapons. The Americans in the convoy were on their own.
* * *
As soon as Underwood tried to move, he realized his left arm was broken. With the Humvee on its left side, his brain was in overdrive as he hung suspended by his lap belt and harness and looked out the smoke-blackened right-side windows of the smashed truck. What had just happened? They were attacked—but by who? He thought he knew, but he tried to banish the thought from his mind.
“Sir, are you okay?” Burton said as he struggled to free himself from his belt and harness and come to Underwood’s aid.
“I … I think so, Alan. Our driver is dead. What about the Ranger in the front passenger seat?”
His aide looked into the front seats and replied, “I’m afraid they’re both dead, sir.”
“My arm’s bunged up; help me unstrap. We’ve gotta get out before this truck explodes,” Underwood said, as he groped for his Beretta with his right hand.
Just then, they heard loud voices and felt heavy thumping on their Humvee. They jerked their heads and looked as the right-side back door was yanked open. Several pairs of arms reached into the vehicle as first Underwood, and then Burton, were lifted out of the truck and roughly dropped to the ground. Other men grabbed them and dragged them a short distance away from their broken vehicle.
A crowd of men surrounded the two Americans and began kicking them while shouting in a language neither understood. Suddenly, another man pushed his way to the front of the group and stood over Underwood. He held a tablet in his hand. He looked at Underwood, then looked at the tablet, then looked at him again.
“That’s him,” the man said, drawing a pistol from his belt, as the other men nodded in agreement.
Underwood looked on in horror as the man raised the pistol, took aim, and put a bullet in Burton’s forehead.
The special presidential envoy recoiled in horror as blood, bone, and brain tissue from his aide’s shattered skull landed on him. Then he looked up at the flag flying from the nearest Guardian armored security vehicle. It was the unmistakable black flag with white Arabic writing. It was the flag flown by ISIS.
Underwood cried out in agony as two of the men grabbed him, bent both his arms back, hog-tied him, and threw him into the Guardian ASV. Then the ISIS vehicles sped away.
* * *
“The special presidential envoy?”
“His convoy was attacked?”
“Southeast of al-Bukamal, Syria.”
The Air Force colonel conducting the interrogation was the watch commander at the CENTCOM command center at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. The report by the Navy chief petty officer manning the command net on their watch floor was far from complete. She knew only as much as the sketchy report she’d heard from the soldier at the former Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. It was still well before sunrise in Tampa and they were two of only five watchstanders in the command center. The partial report was enough to rouse the colonel to action.
He turned to the Army master sergeant at the console on his left.
“Call Beale. We need eyes-on at that location—now! Tell ’em to get a Global Hawk moving in that direction. We’ll give ’em updated position information when we get it.”
The rest of the watch team sprang into action as chat windows opened and questions—but few answers—streamed back and forth between Baghdad and Tampa. Meanwhile, flash messages rocketed up several chains of command. Soon, other watchstanders, those manning the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Military Command Center, the White House Situation Room and other command centers processed what they heard and began to notify key seniors. In the Sit Room, the National Security Council senior staffer leading the watch team picked up the phone and called the president’s national security advisor, Trevor Harward.
* * *
Bound and gagged and with a sack over his head, Underwood tried not to let the sheer terror of the moment overwhelm him. As a Marine Corps first lieutenant he had led men in combat in Operation Desert Storm. He had served in other conflicts in the ensuing decades and had numerous tours as a commander in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. He had never feared his enemy—but he feared those holding him now.
The Guardian ASV bounced along near its maximum speed of sixty miles an hour. Underwood tried to keep track of time to somehow gauge how far he was traveling but random large bounces shot shards of pain into his broken arm that almost overwhelmed his senses. He became almost numb to the pain and tried to think through what over three decades of military training had taught him about how to react in a crisis.
* * *
It was morning in Washington, D.C., when Trevor Harward entered the Oval Office. He had called President Wyatt Midkiff in the family quarters shortly after the president’s normal wake-up time and told him the news, promising to bring him up to speed in the Oval later that morning.
The president had worked with Harward long enough to know his national security advisor was giving him every detail he knew, but the lack of information about the situation still frustrated him. And there was a personal element. Midkiff had worked closely with Underwood when the general commanded CENTCOM and was especially cheered when he had accepted the position as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. He knew Underwood had dedicated his life to the Marine Corps, had served almost continuously in the Middle East and South Asia for the latter third of his career, and was a devoted family man who looked forward to spending more time with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren when he retired and came home to Great Falls, Virginia. But the man’s unique credentials made him the consensus choice to serve in this capacity and the president and his wife had courted the Underwoods—especially Mrs. Underwood—to entice the general to take on this assignment. Now he was missing and very likely kidnapped.
“Trevor, I’ve listened to what you told me over the phone and I read your memo. I’m less interested in what’s happened than I am in what we’re going to do to find Bob Underwood.”
Harward paused. He knew what the president wanted to hear: that the U.S. national and military intelligence agencies had located Underwood’s position and that a combat search and rescue mission was being mounted to snatch him away from his captors. That was not the case—far from it.
“Mr. President, we got eyes-on with a Global Hawk about two hours ago. General Underwood’s convoy was ambushed in what appears to have been a well-orchestrated attack. All of the vehicles in the convoy are still there and are either damaged or destroyed. There were ten personnel in the convoy counting General Underwood and his aide. The Global Hawk picked up what we think are six bodies surrounding the vehicles.”
“But we can’t see inside the Humvees, right?”
“Right, Mr. President. We have two channels working to try to do just that—”
“How … how will we do that?” the president interrupted.
“We have operatives working with the Free Syrian Army. The closest ones are in—” Harward paused to look down at his secure iPad, “—Deir ez-Zor. It’s about one hundred and thirty kilometers—eighty miles—north-northwest of al-Bukamal. Our people there don’t have air assets, so they’re driving toward al-Bukamal, but it’s rough terrain and slow going.”
“The other channel we have is with the Iraqi Army,” Harward continued. “The CENTCOM commander is working with the Iraqi military to try to get some of our 75th Rangers aboard Iraqi helicopters and get to the site ASAP—”
“Iraqi helicopters?” the president interrupted again. “Don’t we have any American helicopters there?”
“We do, but they’re attack helicopters, with very little space for troops. We need bigger birds that can haul more men out to the site.”
“All right, I get it. But you said, ‘working with’ the Iraqi military. Are there any issues? With all the damn blood and treasure we’ve poured into that country and the way we’re still propping them up now, they’d better treat this like a five-alarm fire and give us everything they’ve got. Do I need to call the Iraqi president?”
“No sir. I made it clear to General George that if he needed our help he’d get it. The Iraqi military has a pretty good inventory of American, French, and Russian helicopters. It’s just a question of picking ones that can make the two hundred-plus mile round trip carrying the Rangers and all their gear.”
“I want to know immediately when those helos are en route.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“Anything else you need to tell me about this mess?”
“There is one more thing. We won’t know this for certain until we have eyes at the site; the Global Hawk can only pick up so much detail. But we think there’s an ISIS flag planted in the ground at the ambush site.”
The normally controlled president lost it. “Damn it!” Midkiff shouted, “Find Bob Underwood. I don’t care how we do it, just do it!”
* * *
“Roger … Aaron?” Chase Williams said as his intelligence director and the intel director’s networks assistant appeared in his doorway. Op-Center’s director was reading a report and sipping his Sumatra dark roast coffee from his Navy mess-decks mug. Williams put the report aside and motioned the two men to sit down.
Now in his third year as the leader of Op-Center, Williams had helped his president deal with crises across the globe, as well as at home. He was recruited—hard—by Op-Center’s former director, Paul Hood, when the president decided to reestablish the organization.
Williams brought just the right qualities to the job. A retired Navy four-star, he was a former combatant commander for both Pacific Command and Central Command. He had proven his mettle in uniform, and now, as director of the National Crisis Management Center—as Op-Center was officially known—Williams enjoyed the president’s complete trust and confidence. He had saved American lives at home and abroad and used his international and domestic Op-Center assets as precision instruments.
Roger McCord began, “Boss, you’ve read our reports and have likely seen the network news feeds, so you know the convoy carrying the special presidential envoy was attacked. You also know there are at least six KIA and the CENTCOM commander is trying to get eyes-on the ground to see if General Underwood is there.”
“Bob Underwood’s a good man,” Williams said. “He did a phenomenal job at CENTCOM under tough circumstances—much tougher than I ever faced. What else we got?”
McCord, a former Marine who previously commanded the Intelligence Battalion at the Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, had been one of Williams’s first hires when he took over Op-Center. With a PhD from Princeton, magna cum laude in international affairs, McCord was a former infantry Marine who transferred to Marine Corps intelligence when he was wounded in Ramadi. He was in many ways Williams’s alter ego. Williams trusted him without question, but what he liked best about McCord was that his intelligence director never guessed and always gave it to him straight.
“Aaron has mined ISIS’s social media and also hacked into the transmissions bouncing off some of the cell phone towers near their compound in Mosul. I’ll let him tell you more, but from what we can figure, it looks like ISIS has General Underwood and has taken him well away from the ambush site.”
Williams had suspected as much, but hearing it from McCord caused him to sag in his chair. “Aaron?” he asked.
Aaron Bleich’s official title was Intelligence Directorate, Networks Assistant. But that title so understated his role in the organization that Williams kept asking McCord to change it. Widely regarded as the intelligence director’s MVP, Bleich had been recruited through a gaming company front at the annual Comic-Con International convention in San Diego, California. “Chief hacker” sounded like a too-judgmental title, but that was the long-and-short of what Bleich did so well.
Bleich was the architect behind the data mining and anticipatory intelligence programs that made Op-Center hum and that put its analysis abilities on a level above—likely far above—any other intelligence collection efforts in or out of government. Bleich ensured that Op-Center had access to all the information collected by each of the sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies. More importantly, he had carefully built the automated collation and analytical programs to make sense of the mountains of data Op-Center ingested. Big data didn’t worry the Geek Tank leader; he embraced it and put it to use. Bleich had built his Geek Tank around machines and people—and the people were the best and the brightest minds, hired away from companies like Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and eBay.
“It’s like this, sir,” Bleich replied. “ISIS has only dribbled out a little bit into social media, but they’ve been burning up the cell phone circuits. They definitely have General Underwood. We’re all but certain he’s out of Syria and into Iraq. Beyond that, there’s not much more we can say with any certainty.”
“But what’s your anticipatory intelligence suggesting?” Williams prodded.
Bleich looked toward McCord before continuing. He had overstepped his bounds with his immediate boss before and had been gently nudged back into line. McCord just nodded, so he continued.
“Well, the special presidential envoy for countering ISIL is a prize for any terrorist organization, but perhaps more so for ISIL because his very existence suggests we intend to take the fight to them. Most of the cell phone conversations we’re picking up are carefully worded—we suspect ISIS is well aware of our monitoring capabilities—but my … umm … our analysis suggests there’s little drama in their calls. It’s more like whoever has him is just reporting in to someone at the top of their food chain.”
“Mabad al-Dosari is still their leader,” McCord interjected.
“You’re saying the ISIL fighters who snatched him aren’t operating independently. You think they’ve grabbed him at al-Dosari’s behest and are bringing him to their compound in Mosul?”
“That’s right,” Bleich added. “And you know that area is no-mans-land for the Iraqi Army. They don’t even make a pretense of controlling it.”
“Do you think what you’re picking up and what you’re analyzing will alert us once they have him there in Mosul?” Williams asked.
“We’re pulling out all the stops to ensure it’ll do just that,” McCord interjected. “Aaron will keep us posted on a real-time basis. You want us to send the ops folks in, boss? You thinking of sending our JSOC unit downrange?”
“No, not yet,” Williams replied. “Give me a minute to let the president know what we know. Once I do that, we’ll get the rest of the staff together and see if there’s anything we can do to help.”
As soon as McCord and Bleich left, Williams sat in front of his computer and composed one of his short, cryptic memos to the president. It was in the format of Williams’s own design for communications that were strictly between him and President Midkiff. The infrequent communiqués were initially labeled, “President of the United States/Op-Center Eyes Only” which Williams later abbreviated to, “POTUS/OC Eyes Only.”
Copyright © 2016 by Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc.