Read Shadow War Online

Authors: Sean McFate

Shadow War

BOOK: Shadow War
10.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again . . . but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.


With lies, you may go forward in the world but you may never go back.




May 10, 2014

“Target ahead,” my team leader, Jimmy Miles, said from the lead car.

“Copy that, Alpha One,” I replied into my headset, as the outer wall of the abandoned outpost began to emerge from the desert half a mile away, a dark shadow against a dusty brown hill so slight most people wouldn't have noticed it was there.

I scanned the horizon. Nothing to the east but dunes and distant mountains, the same thing we'd been seeing for the past four hours and two hundred miles. Nothing in front but a dust track in a desert. The hill to the west was maybe fifteen feet at its highest point, rising at a consistent low gradient. It wasn't much more than a tilt of the horizon line, but out here, it could hide an army.

The perfect place for an ambush,
I thought, although that didn't mean much. Every building in this rocky corner of the south Sahara was perfect for an ambush, since they were all built in wadis or against small cliffs to escape the wind. Our contacts, the Tuareg, were the legendary bandit-warriors of this harsh
world; they knew every foot for five hundred miles. But they didn't have GPS, so you couldn't global-position a meeting. You had to meet them at a spot like this.

This was kinetic country, like the old Wild West: banditos were common and law came out of the barrel of a gun.

“Steady speed,” I said. “Eyes open.”

The call had come in seventeen hours ago from a new contact in Benghazi. A tribe of Tuareg had two cargo trucks full of weapons, and they wanted to deal.


“They were in Mali last year,” the contact said. “They fought the French paratroopers at Gao.” I could almost hear the shrug. “Now they need money.”

My instinct was to turn the opportunity down. Too many variables. Maybe the contact sensed my hesitation.

“It's not small arms, I assure you,” he said. “It's what you want.”

Finding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers was easy. The world was awash in them, especially Africa. But surface-to-air missiles, antitank rockets, 20 mm cannons: those weapons were gold. You laid your hands on them whenever you could.


“Tomorrow. Fourteen hundred. Deep southwest, near the Algerian border. I'll shoot you the coordinates.”

The two hundred thousand euros had arrived five hours ago, on a fishing trawler. The boat had probably come from Malta, our primary Mediterranean financial hub since the collapse of the Cypriot banking sector, but that wasn't my concern. What mattered was the courier. He had been late, so now I was late. I had intended to arrive at the rendezvous by noon, two hours early, but . . .

“They're here, Charlie One.”

“Copy that, Alpha Two,” I said flatly, biting off my frustration at the sight of the off-road trucks. I trusted my team—six Alphas (my team) wearing earpieces, and four local recruits—but I didn't like the Tuareg having the jump. I wouldn't be able to scout the location or position marksmen on surrounding dunes.

This was how the accident happened,
I reminded myself.

“Fifteen,” Miles said, counting men, as the compound came into view, two crumbling buildings surrounded by a six-foot earthen wall. Sand piled on the west side; the roofs clearly collapsed. It was probably the most habitable permanent structure for a hundred miles.

“Eighteen,” said Tingera “Tig” Butuuro, our spotter. “Three against the rise.”

Based on the satellite imagery, I had intended to set up between the warehouse and the rise, but the Tuareg were already there. That left my team with the bunkhouse and the earthen wall. At least the Tuaregs' cargo trucks—two canvas-covered deuce-and-a-halfs that looked like they'd been in use since Indiana Jones slid under a German version eight years before D-Day—would be between us.

“Plan B,” Miles said, seeing the same thing. “Use the deuces for cover.”

Miles's white Toyota Land Cruiser, obviously stolen from the United Nations and bought by me ten days ago on the black market in Tripoli, left the road and swung wide, giving him a better view into the Tuareg position. Our other two identical vehicles, also bought on the black market, followed.

“Twenty,” Tig said, still counting men.


“Jesus,” I muttered, as the two Tuareg sentries stood up to announce their positions. At least the deuce-and-a-halfs were fac
ing our convoy. That meant the Tuareg were planning for us to drive them away, as agreed. Or maybe it didn't mean anything.

“Lock and load,” I said, as we approached firing range. “Stay frosty.”

Manners were important to the Tuaregs. This was a planned meeting; it had to be approached with respect and trust. That meant guns pointed down. Out here, respect meant security . . . if you crossed a line, quite literally, the knives came out.

“Roger that, Charlie One,” Miles replied.

I didn't need to tell him anything else. I was the mission leader, but Miles, as always, was in tactical command. He chose the men, mixing and matching skills as mission parameters required. These Alphas were all Tier One operators recruited from the elite of the elite: Navy SEALs, Army Delta, British SAS, Thai special forces, Ugandan Presidential Guard, El Salvador counterdrug hit squad, the best money could buy. I had worked with some of them for years, others just this month. But we understood each other. In this line of work, danger breeds respect and respect breeds love, faster than a fungus. At this point, they were practically family. But even if they'd been strangers, I trusted Miles. He was my brother-in-arms; he'd been protecting my ass since 1992, when I was fresh meat out of officer training and he was my platoon sergeant. Twenty-two against ten, if it came to that, wasn't particularly dangerous for this team. But it was poor operational planning, and that was on me.

“Move to staggered formation,” Miles said. “Alpha Three on overwatch. Alpha Two on me.”

The Land Cruisers fanned out, the drivers approaching at a flat angle to face the Tuareg, then turning and stopping in unison with their grills facing the way we had come. In a combat situation, parking mattered. You never wanted to back up. You always chose cover. The embankment would offer protection for our two most important assets: men and engine blocks.

I checked my pistols, being an ambidextrous shooter. Everyone else was kitted out with body armor and heavy weapons. I was wearing mercenary business attire—sunglasses, desert boots, 5.11 cargo pants, a web belt, a super 80 button-down Oxford shirt, and bespoke blue linen sport coat from Jermyn Street in London. No Kevlar vest or assault rifle. A few years ago, I was a Tier One operator, too, but I was corporate now.

I adjusted my earpiece and slid the nine-mils into their dual holsters at the small of my back, the only place my sport coat would hide them. Corporate, but not foolish.

“Ready?” I asked the interpreter. The man nodded weakly. He was in his fifties, dressed in cheap slacks and a short-sleeved button-down shirt. He looked like what he was: a linguistics professor forced into this dangerous job by the ongoing disintegration of Libyan society.

Another weak link,
I thought. But what I said was, “Don't worry. You'll be fine. This is a friendly transaction.”

I stepped out of the Land Cruiser and walked toward the warehouse, trusting my men enough to keep my eyes on the Tuareg. A few older fighters, but mostly young men. Kalashnikovs slung, but close at hand. There were a few traditional sky-blue robes, beautiful in their simplicity, but most of the men were wearing mismatched desert fatigues. All but one was wearing a black turban. This wasn't religious. The Tuareg weren't zealots. In this climate, turbans were a necessity against sand and sun.

I was disappointed but not surprised they hadn't brought their camels.

As-salaam alaykum,
” I said, greeting the Tuareg at the entrance. The building had no ceiling, but faded Italian graffiti was still visible on the walls, probably from the soldiers condemned to live in this hole when Mussolini tried to control this desert.

The man nodded, pulling aside the rug that shielded the empty doorway. I stepped inside. The Tuareg had swept the room, strung a cloth tarp for shade, and placed five rugs in a circle in the center of the space. Three men in blue robes were sitting on the rugs, watching me. They seemed to have been sitting for days.

” the old man in the middle said, and touched his forehead in the traditional greeting. His face was grizzled and his teeth rotten. That was typical of the Tuareg, who drank mostly sugared tea.

The man gestured to an empty rug, and I sat cross-legged before him. The interpreter sat beside me. It was traditional to take off your shoes, but I had no intention of removing my desert boots. I noticed the Tuareg hadn't removed theirs.

We waited, watching each other, saying nothing. These were among the fiercest fighters in the world, but also the most civil. They had survived in this desert for centuries, and their customs were ancient, especially compared with the West. Patience was the Tuareg way.

Finally, the leader nodded. A man appeared from the doorway, carrying a long, slender brass pot. He squatted beside us and lined up four small glass cups on the ground. He placed a lump of sugar in each one, then poured boiling tea slowly over each lump from the long brass spout.

He waited, then poured the tea back into the pot. He repeated the process, this time raising and lowering the ornate kettle as he poured, arcing the tea into the glasses. My interpreter spoke to the Tuareg leader, and the man to his right responded, but there was no need for translation. It sounded like small talk. Perhaps the interpreter was wondering about his lack of a cup. But he wasn't a person here, only a mouthpiece. That was also the Tuareg way.

Finally, after ten minutes of pouring, the teasmith passed out the cups. I took my tea. It was scalding hot, but I drank it without expression. It was sweet and minty.

Sugar cookies followed, then another round of tea. The Tuareg sipped and munched silently, their eyes alert, their battered but well-oiled Kalashnikovs at their sides.

Arms deals are dangerous,
I reminded myself.
Arms deals are points of contact. All points of contacts can go wrong . . .

The teasmith bowed. Then he stood, took his empty pot, and exited. The three Tuareg began speaking softly. I sat silently. I would wait until one of them addressed me, and then enter the conversation.

Don't lose focus. Don't forget the danger . . .

“American?” the Tuareg leader asked.

I nodded solemnly. “A colleague,” I replied, stopping to allow the interpreter to repeat my words in Berber. “We have traveled far to meet you.”

The Tuareg nodded. They had also traveled far. “Where are you fighting?”

“In the north. Beyond the desert. This is not our fight.”

It wasn't the Tuaregs' fight, either. It had been forced on them by European boundaries and the implosion of Gaddafi's regime. This desert was their homeland, and also where the Libyan army dead-enders had withdrawn when there was nowhere else to go. The weapons cache outside had almost surely been Gaddafi's at one time.

The old Tuareg nodded approval. The man on his right spoke.

“Let's go to the trucks,” the interpreter said, clearly relieved.

There was no need to negotiate. The terms had been fixed by our mutual friend in Benghazi. No doubt we had overpaid.

Outside, it seemed as if no one had moved, but I spotted Miles in the lead position and surreptitiously extended three fingers on
my right hand, telling him all was as planned. Speaking through the earpiece would have raised Tuareg suspicion.

I walked to the two cargo trucks. They were 1960s Soviet, probably taken from Algeria in a past skirmish. I peeked inside the steel cab. The mechanics looked good, and the keys were in the ignition. The doors were rusted, and the canvas over the beds was covered in dust and patches, but the desert tires and metal rims looked new. They would run for miles, even if fragged.

A young Tuareg in an Atlanta Braves baseball cap stepped forward. He was wearing a Bob Marley shirt under his camos, probably thrown in a donation box by a stoner college kid back in Vermont. He dropped the tailgate and smiled, his teeth already rotten. Societies that forbade alcohol, like the Tuareg, were often insatiable for sugar.

The wooden crates were piled two deep, three wide, and four high. I climbed inside and opened two boxes. SA-18 shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, known as “Grouse” to NATO and “Iglas” in their country of origin: Russia. With these, amateurs had brought down helicopters in Bosnia, Syria, and Egypt. An SA-18 was rumored to have shot down the Rwandan presidential airplane as it approached Kigali International Airport in 1994, triggering the Rwandan genocide. Throw a few in the trunk of a car, park within a mile of a runway, and a terrorist could bring down a 747 at almost any airport in the world.

The other truck held twelve Soviet KPV-14.5 antiaircraft guns, wrapped in Tuareg blankets. The weapons were used but passable: well oiled, the action unclogged. When mounted on the back of a Toyota HiLux pickup truck to create a “technical”—the workhorse of modern warfare—these guns were devastating. In and out in minutes, killing everything within peripheral vision. I'd seen it in West Africa too many times.

The SA-18s would probably need new coolant units and the
AA guns some parts, but they were a great catch. I nodded to Miles as I climbed down from the tailgate and walked over to face the Tuareg leader, a sign of respect, but also a warning. If anything went wrong, I wanted this man to know he wouldn't get away.

“We accept.”

The interpreter spoke at surprising length. The Tuareg nodded. Two of my Libyan freelancers emerged from a Land Cruiser, each with a large Pelican case. They walked over and placed the black molded containers on the ground at my feet.

BOOK: Shadow War
10.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Harry's Sacrifice by Bianca D'Arc
Hardcore Volume 3 by Staci Hart
Possession by Elana Johnson
I'll Be Watching You by M. William Phelps
The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan
Rescuing Rose by Isabel Wolff