Read Strike Force Alpha Online
Authors: Mack Maloney
Finally Jazeer had to scream.
He could see the man’s finger begin to squeeze the trigger. Jazeer was expecting a bullet to his brain at any moment…but then the soldier screamed at him again.
“Hands out front!”
Jazeer immediately laid his hands on the counter. He opened his eyes just in time to see the ax coming down. He saw blood, he saw pieces of bone…
Jazeer collapsed in shock. The American soldier stood over him and in perfect Arabic, hissed: “If you have no hands, you will be of no further use to Al Qaeda!”
Then the soldier threw a handful of playing cards on top of Jazeer and left.
One card fell next to where Jazeer’s head had hit the floor. He could see it perfectly, through fading eyes. It was a photo of New York City’s Twin Towers with the message:
We Will Never Forget
STRIKE FORCE ALPHA
explodes off the page with a story torn from today’s headlines. Mack Maloney has created a team of realistic characters that pulse with patriotic fervor. With intense military action, twists and turns that keep you turning the pages well into the night, and a collection of the most evil bad guys you will ever come across, Mack Maloney hasn’t just crafted a great war story, he has set a new standard for action-packed thrillers.”
bestselling author of the
For those who lost loved ones in
the attacks of September 11th
We will never forget
Tom Santos was scared.
He’d flown B-52s over North Vietnam. He’d seen entire squadrons shot down around him. He’d seen friends plunging to their deaths, 20,000 feet below. All of it terrifying. But nothing compared to this.
The doctor’s office was cold and sterile. The yellow walls were devoid of anything but diplomas and awards. This guy had been referred to Santos as being the best in the business, that business being oncology. But he was having doubts. The diplomas looked too small and the awards too large, as if the guy had printed them up himself.
He’d been waiting here, alone, for 35 minutes. This after the nurse had told him the doctor would see him “in just a few.” Ginny, his wife of 28 years, mother to his six kids, was down in the lobby, seven floors below. The torture of waiting for the results of the test he’d taken a week ago had exacted a toll on him, so Santos had asked her to wait downstairs. He didn’t want her to see just how scared he was.
The door finally opened and the doctor walked in. He had a blue file with him and his eyes were downcast. He sat behind his desk, directly across from Santos, but didn’t speak. He spent the next five minutes going over every paper in the file. Santos could barely breathe. He stared down at his hands, resting on his knees. His knuckles were pure white. His fingernails were digging into the flesh on his palms.
Finally, the doctor closed the file, looked up, and smiled faintly. That’s when Santos knew….
“It is not good news,” the doctor said, with all the emotion of ordering a sandwich. “I’m afraid the problem has spread.”
Santos didn’t hear much after that. Terms like “near-complete metastasized” and “fifth stage” floated in one ear and out the other. The words “six weeks to six months” lingered a bit longer. It was impossible for him to know just how long he sat there, cold and stiff, in the hard plastic chair, eyes shut, heart pounding, his knuckles drained of blood. Somehow an envelope stuffed with brochures for chemotherapy treatment wound up on his lap. So did his insurance form.
When he looked up again, the doctor was gone.
Santos managed to stumble out into the hallway.
Stupid stuff began running through his head. He’d only been out of the Air Force a few months. Would the government still pay for his burial? What would happen to his pension? His mortgage? He had three kids in college.
Then came a crushing blow to his chest.
She was still downstairs, saying the rosary. They’d married the day they graduated from high school and he’d loved her more every day since. The bad times had been few with them, none of the horror stories most bomber pilots experienced after being gone from home for long periods of time. She’d never complained, never wavered. He loved her so much at that moment. How the hell was he going to tell her?
He collapsed onto a bench in the hallway. It squeaked when he sat down, and would not stop squeaking, no matter what he did. The hallway floor was filthy with spilled coffee, scuff marks, even drops of blood. A huge multimillion-dollar medical facility like this, you’d think they’d wash the floor every once in a while.
The nurses and doctors and administrative people strolling by all shared an air of privilege and self-importance. Meanwhile, the fluorescent lights overhead were so bright they hurt his eyes. Somewhere down the hall, a woman was laughing hysterically. She was telling someone about the repair of her new BMW and how she’d got the pickup date wrong.
How was he going to tell Ginny?
The bench squeaked again. But this time it was because someone had sat down beside him.
Santos didn’t look up. It was hardly the time to make a new friend. With all his strength, he wished they would just go away.
“Colonel Santos?” a very unlikely-sounding voice asked. “Are you Tom Santos?”
Santos finally looked up and saw a very beautiful young woman sitting next to him. She couldn’t have been more than 20. She was blond, big eyes, big mouth, absolutely stunning. Her skirt was short, her blouse opened several buttons too low. An angel, Santos thought. So soon?
“Who are you?” he asked her. “Do you work for my insurance company?”
“I’m a friend of a friend,” was her reply.
She pulled a briefcase up to her lap and opened it. Inside was every personnel folder Santos had accumulated over his career in the Air Force. Several documents had
written in after his name. Others were bound with pieces of red tape. One clear plastic folder contained his old security badge, the one he’d been issued right after 9/11.
She took a file out from the top sleeve. It was a duplicate of the report the doctor had just read to Santos.
“What’s going on here?” Santos demanded.
“I’m showing you these things so that you will believe what I am about to tell you comes right from the top—”
“Tell me what?”
“That, by presidential decree, you have been ordered to take part in a highly classified combat operation….”
Santos looked back at her coldly. Was this the most poorly timed practical joke of all time?
“What are you talking about? I was just told that I’m dying, for Christ’s sake. You’ve got the report right there.”
She brushed the hair back from her eyes.
“Our mutual friend knows about your medical issues,” she said. “He might be in a position to help.”
Santos started to wonder if he was having a hallucination or something. This was crazy.
help me?” he asked, voice quivering.
She smiled, oh God, how sweetly, and then tapped his knee.
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
She reached deeper into the briefcase and came out with a prescription bottle. It contained several dozen yellow pills. They were so bright, Santos thought they might glow in the dark. On the cap someone had scrawled the name “Bobby Murphy.”
“Take at least one of these every morning,” she told him, giving him the bottle, then closing the briefcase. “And make sure to eat a good breakfast right afterward. Then take as many during the day as needed for pain or depression. If the pills bother your stomach, drink some milk.”
She stood up and brushed off her skirt. “Say nothing to anyone about this,” she went on. “That includes your wife. Someone will contact you soon.”
With that, she touched him lightly on the cheek and then walked away.
Two days later
The bomb was in the pastry truck.
It weighed 120 pounds and was made of the plastic explosive Semtex. Seven hundred two-inch roofing nails were layered inside it; they had been soaked in pesticide before being entombed. There was no timer. The bomb was set for manual detonation. An electrical charge from a car battery nearby would serve as the trigger.
The 1998 blue Toyota truck was parked on Fayed Terrace next to the side entrance of the el-Sabri function hall. It was almost half past noon, a Saturday, and the street was crowded with cars and other small trucks. A wedding ceremony was set to begin inside the hall at one o’clock. Guests were already arriving, some in limousines, many in SUVs. They were backing up traffic for blocks around.
This part of West Beirut was known as the Rats’ Nest. The name came from the maze of alleyways that ran all around Fayed Terrace. It was a squalid neighborhood, still bearing the scars of a civil war that had ended more than a decade ago. These days it was home to many combat-hardened
Muslim holy warriors from all over the Middle East. It was known as a very dangerous place to be.
This was no ordinary wedding being held inside the el-Sabri function hall, because the bride’s father was no ordinary man. He was Muhammad Ayman Qatad, supreme leader of the Al-Hajiri
one of the largest organizations in the Al Qaeda network. Qatad was a financier of terror. He’d accumulated a fortune by running a string of bank-theft and money-laundering operations from Lebanon to New Jersey. The people in his organization, Algerians mostly, were experts at counterfeiting credit cards and manipulating ATM machines. They stole as much as $25,000 a week from money machines in Great Britain and France. The cash was laundered by a web of Islamic charities also under his control and then deposited in secret bank accounts to be used as needed. In this way, Qatad had supplied funds for suicide operations on the West Bank and in Gaza. He’d sent
to fight in Chechnya. He’d paid for the boat and motor used in the bombing of the
. He’d provided airline tickets for the bombers of the U.S. embassy in Kenya. His greatest accomplishment however, at least in his eyes and those of his followers, was helping to bankroll the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. He’d provided nearly $200,000 to those operations alone. Blood money, down to the last drop.
No surprise, the neighborhood was crawling with heavily-armed men, local Muslim militia hired by Qatad to provide security for his daughter’s ceremony. They were stationed along the streets and on the rooftops. Those on the street were roughly handling any local Lebanese who were deemed a nuisance or simply not moving along fast enough. As for Qatad’s personal bodyguards, more than a dozen were stationed inside the wedding hall itself.
It was now 12:45. More guests were arriving, a who’s who of the local Islamic underworld. Men were entering the wedding hall through the front door. Women were directed to a door in the back. All the men were wearing
all had either beards or mustaches, symbols of strength in the Muslim world. The interior of the wedding hall smelled of oil and cinnamon. At Qatad’s request, the walls had been given a fresh coat of paint.
The men took off their shoes and settled on their prayer mats. The women sat quietly off to the side. Each guest was offered watermelon and pastries while waiting. Lemonade was served. A small crowd had gathered on the street outside. Qatad’s hired guards watched over it nervously as their boss arrived in an armored SUV and was hustled into the hall. He would be the last one allowed inside.
The wedding ceremony would be brief. As the clock struck one, the bride was led in. She showed no outward sign of emotion. She was wearing a
and her hair was covered by a
the traditional Islamic headdress. Her hand was clutching a rose. There was no music.
The bride took her place beside the groom. A prayer was recited by the men; then a marriage contract was produced. The groom made his formal marriage proposal and the bride responded three times: “
[I accept].” Then she and the groom signed their names to the contract and put their thumbprints in the wedding registry. The ceremony was complete.
Qatad, the proud father, embraced the newlyweds, kissing each one three times on both cheeks. There was polite applause and others in the immediate families embraced. Then the bride and groom each ate a piece of fruit offered to them on a date palm. Then they kissed.
The bomb went off a second later.
The explosion was so powerful, the shock wave broke windows two miles away. At the instant of detonation the swarm of roofing nails went flying off in all directions, their tips ignited by the superheated pesticide, perforating everything within the wedding hall. In the same moment, a great wash of fire raced through the building, sucking up oxygen and vaporizing anything not made of stone. In seconds, a crimson cloud was rising above West Beirut.
When the smoke cleared, the wedding hall was simply gone. An immense crater now filled the space where the five-story building had stood. The hole was already awash in sewage, pouring out of pipes broken in the blast. Bodies were everywhere. Fifty-two people had been crowded inside the hall. Now, just a handful of survivors emerged from the rubble. They looked like wounded ghosts, bleeding and covered with plaster, stumbling out onto the debris-strewn street.
An eerie silence descended on the area. A deathly quiet, except for the crackle of flames. Then came the sirens. And suddenly the streets were filled with armed men again. All of Qatad’s bodyguards had been killed in the blast—these soldiers were the local militiamen hired to watch the periphery of the wedding celebration. Through the smoke, many Kalashnikovs could be seen, moving around frantically, barrels in the air. Pushing the stunned survivors out of the way, the militiamen were looking, up, down, this way and that—but looking for what?
A group of them was immediately drawn to the wreckage of the pastry truck. All that remained was the chassis and the four tire rims. The militiamen were wise in the ways of truck bombings. It was obvious the blast had originated from here. They also knew the chances the perpetrators were still in the area were nil. But then a surprise. Shouts from two blocks away. Through the smoke and flames, two of their brethren were gesturing wildly.
“They are here!” they were both yelling.
“We have them cornered!”
This seemed unlikely, but the small army of militiamen rushed forward anyway. The street was filling up with ambulances, fire apparatus, and men in Red Crescent coats. Barreling through these people, the militiamen reached their colleagues, and sure enough, at the other end of the alley, two blocks from the devastated wedding hall, they saw two individuals holding a small car battery and a handheld detonator plunger. They appeared frozen in place.
It seemed to good to be true—and it was. As soon as the militia raised their weapons, the men pushed the plunger again, and another bomb went off. A car parked nearby held the explosives this time. Six militiamen were killed in an instant.
For a few moments another surreal silence enveloped the area. It was soon broken by the cries of those who had somehow survived this second blast. Those militiamen still standing made their way down the alleyway, now strewn like the street behind them with bodies and wreckage. At the end of this gauntlet, incredibly, they spotted the two bombers again. Having discarded the detonation devices, the two men were running even deeper into the Rats’ Nest. The chase was on.
The militiamen found themselves fighting crowds of terrified civilians who, shaken by the two terrific blasts, were fleeing the area before there was a third. This stream of humanity slowed their pursuit, yet the militiamen were still able to keep the two fleeing bombers in sight.
The foot chase reached the center of the neighborhood, a place known as the Wheel, for its circular marketplace. The bombers were spotted ducking down a narrow alley to the east. The militiamen followed quickly, knowing this particular alley was a dead end.
But after turning that one last corner, the militiamen abruptly came to a halt. Before them was an incomprehensible sight. Hovering almost silently above the other end of the alley, not 200 feet away, was a large black helicopter. It had two ropes lowered from it and the two bombers were being lifted up into it.
More shocking, the helicopter was not unmarked, as might have been expected in this case. Just the opposite. There was a huge flag attached to its fuselage.
An American flag.
None of this seemed right to the militiamen, but they started shooting at the helicopter anyway. This was a big mistake. A gunner at the side door of the aircraft returned their fire with a high-powered automatic weapon. It tore through one group of militiamen, reducing them to pieces. More armed fighters arrived on the scene. They, too, began firing at the helicopter, one with a .50-caliber assault gun. But suddenly another helicopter appeared above the alley. This one was bristling with weapons. It fired two rockets directly into a second group of armed men, killing them all instantly.
Chaos now ensued. The noise was deafening. Explosions, the sound of gunfire, the surviving militiamen trying to shout to one another over the racket. Another dozen gunmen arrived, their large open truck screeching to a halt at the end of the alley. They were armed with rocket-propelled grenades. One fired his weapon at the helicopter retrieving the bombers. The RPG shell missed high, exploding in the street one block over from the alley. Another RPG went off. This one went
the rear cabin of the helicopter and out the other side, without exploding, an extraordinary piece of luck for those on board.
A third RPG was fired, this one at the helicopter that had unleashed the rocket barrage. Aimed way too low, the grenade smashed into an empty apartment building a half-block away. The structure went up like a box of matches.
The two bombers had been reeled into the helicopter by this time and the aircraft began moving away. Still, the remaining militiamen persisted. They were astonished that these were Americans doing this, astonished that it was happening so fast. But no matter. Shooting down one of the U.S. helicopters was now their priority.
So every man with a gun opened fire on the second helicopter. It took some serious hits along the fuselage and up near the tail. It began to stagger; a trail of smoke appeared. A cheer went up from those below. Suddenly half the neighborhood was shooting at it.
That’s when the Harrier jump jet arrived.
It came out of nowhere as jump jets were known to do. It immediately opened up with its cannon, raking the alleyway from one end to the other. The militiamen went scrambling for their lives. Firing at helicopters with rifles was one thing; battling a jet fighter was quite another. The Harrier climbed, turned, and came back down again, cannon blazing once more. Another stream of explosions ran down the alley, tearing up the pavement and covering just about all the fleeing militiamen in concrete and burning rubble. This gave the second chopper enough time to safely move away.
Only then did the Harrier leave the scene.
Five hours later
The Mercedes had been speeding through the streets of East Beirut all afternoon, going in circles, a caravan of SUVs and Toyota trucks trying hard to keep up with it.
Slumped over in the backseat of the SE500 sedan was Abdul Abu Qatad, brother of the recently departed Muhammad Ayman Qatad. Abdul’s chief bodyguard was lying on top of him, shielding him. After five hours of this, both men were very sweaty.
Abdul was lucky he was still able to sweat. Arriving late at his niece’s wedding, he’d just climbed out of his SUV when the function hall blew up. Abdul had escaped with just cuts on his hands and face, but his young boyfriend had simply disappeared, caught by the storm of nails. His gore was still splattered on Abdul’s robes. Abdul had served as his brother’s right-hand man for the past 10 years. They had overseen dozens of
operations together, using their Algerian moneymen as their workforce. But never had Abdul imagined the horror he’d seen this day. And never had he come so close to being killed himself.
He’d been calling and calling on his cellphone all during this mad trip through the crowded streets, trying to contact anyone still alive in his brother’s security organization. His fingers were numb from punching in the same numbers, over and over again. But no one answered. No one was left.
He finally ordered his driver to stop in front of a nondescript apartment building on the edge of East Beirut. The escort of SUVs and Toyotas, brimming with private security troops, roared up behind him. The armed men jumped from these trucks and surrounded the Mercedes. It was dark by now. The lights on the narrow street were very dim.
The chief bodyguard lifted himself off Abdul and opened the door. A mumbled request was translated into a quick order: the security men were not to look at their employer as he was being taken from the car. He was in such a sorry state, Abdul didn’t want his hired guns to see him like this.
All eyes averted, the chief bodyguard gently eased his boss out and helped him through the apartment building’s dilapidated front door. This was a safe house, a place Abdul had secured years before for just such an emergency as this. His bodyguard produced a key and turned it in the lock. The door sprang open.
Only then did Abdul straighten up. He wanted to enter the house with dignity; not to do so would be considered bad luck. He shook off the bodyguard and ordered him back to the car. “Watch the entrance until further notice” was the man’s new order. The bodyguard hugged Abdul and departed.
Abdul stepped inside. Downstairs was only one room, small and dark, no running water, no electricity. It also smelled of sewage. But Abdul didn’t care. The apartment was in such an obscure part of the city, no one would ever suspect he would flee here. Even his closest associates knew nothing about it. Nor did his wife or children. At last he would be safe.