I arrived in Afghanistan a little more than eight weeks ago. Forgive me; it feels like it’s been a year already. Between the heat, seclusion, and stress from the mission, time seems to drag on. The scout team, including Joseph, who’d been in the area before our arrival, had secured a small house in the village for us to use. It was near the center of the village, but far away enough for some privacy. It was clean and neat; however, the significant disadvantage was the size. The house had five rooms total: living room, two small bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. The four of us trying to live and work in this space was cramped. One of the bedrooms had become our work area, we’d fashioned a desk and set up our surveillance equipment.
We’d settled on two of us sleeping in each room, which made it somewhat uncomfortable since I was the only female on the team. Luckily, one of the agents with me was also married, so we agreed to sleep in the same room because it might be less awkward. Honestly, it was awkward no matter how you sliced it.
In the living room, we made some functional pieces of furniture that could help hide our equipment. We needed to be able to hide anything in case anyone in the village decided to get nosy. It was evident that we weren’t local, so we were bound to draw attention. Efforts were made to blend, though. We secured traditional clothing, and all three of the men on the team had been growing out their beards. I had taken to wearing a burqa, a traditional covering that hid my face and hair. You could really only see my hands and feet. We had crafted a cover story that we were on a path of religious enlightenment. We could just hope that it would help to explain our arrival and help us blend into the village.
For the men, it seemed to be working well. They were able to move around the village and interact with the other villagers, carrying on conversations and immersing themselves in the culture. Like the men, I could walk around the village without question. The burqa provided anonymity and that could easily work to my advantage. It was custom, in this village at least, that women did not speak unless spoken to directly. While I hated that women were treated this way, I couldn’t start a cultural revolution when I was on a mission to bring down a suspected terrorist. So, I played my role and kept my ears opened when I moved through town.
I’d been out on the streets three times and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t the clothing, it was something else, but I couldn’t pinpoint it at first. But it became clear on the fourth time I tried to move about – there were hardly any women out in public. In fact, I could probably count the number of women on the one hand. Armed with this knowledge, I decided it would be best to stay out of the village and remain in the house as much as possible. If women weren’t seen in this area, the sudden appearance of one could begin to raise red flags. I didn’t need to draw attention to myself or to my team.
Laying low would provide an opportunity for me to focus on our surveillance. One of our other operatives had come into the village a few days after our arrival. If we were questioned, our cover story was that he was a relation of ours and came to the village to see how we were settling in. While he’d been in the house, I’d replaced a few buttons on his vest with a recording device. I’d also provided him two extra that he could put on his other clothes when he returned ‘home.’ The frequency given off by the device was low enough that it shouldn’t be detected by anyone within the compound.
Having a set of ears on the inside was valuable to us. While we trusted what our operative was sneaking out trusted intel, it was a relief to now be able to have corroborating evidence to back him up.
~ * ~
I was the most tenured agent on this mission. Therefore, I was the lead agent and the one responsible for reporting our intel back to the Agency. Of course, that meant I had a handler, and all of my contact went through him. It just so happened that they made my brother, Simon, my handler so I would be able to have a lifeline back to my family. I didn’t share this tidbit with the other agents because this could have caused problems since I could speak to my family and they were cut off from theirs.
Since I knew I would be able to talk to my family, I cut off all email and social media accounts before I left for Afghanistan. I was afraid that having a connection like that would be detrimental to the cause. I’d find myself distracted by what was happening with friends and family and it could jeopardize the job I was sent her to accomplish. Not only that, I didn’t want access to Chris. If I had access to email or any other social media, I’d be tempted to reach out to him. Or, at the very least, hoped he would see anything I posted. However, I didn’t want to be tracked down via location services and couldn’t risk being discovered.
I had no idea whether he even cared what I was doing. He tried calling me after he first deployed, but I didn’t know if he was still trying to find me or if he’d finally given up. I ditched my phone when I came over here, opting to get an Agency issued phone that no one but Simon had the number to. I hated I couldn’t call my other brothers, but it was best that Simon just kept everyone in the loop as necessary.
Several days ago I’d finally told Simon about my concern going into the village. He agreed with my assessment to stay in the house as much as possible. The rest of the men in the house had thought I’d been overreacting, but Simon didn’t discount my concerns. I’d been tracking the chatter out of Yusef’s compound a bit closer in case there was any chatter over concerns with a ‘new’ woman in town. There was no doubt in my mind that if the men in the village had interest in me, Yusef would know about it and would want updates.
As of right now, things were quiet.
~ * ~
The operative working inside of Yusef’s camp was a man named Joseph Siegel. His legend, however, was that of Husni Al-Hashim, a munitions expert, and a former rebel fighter. Joseph had extensive training in weapons and spoke several languages, including Farsi. He had moved to this remote area of Afghanistan a little over a year ago and has been in a deep cover. He’s worked hard to get inside Yusef’s compound and to gain trust among his inner circle. He’d been in deep before we’d ever got the official word that we could infiltrate and try to bring down the organization. But Congress didn’t need to know that.
Two weeks ago, Joseph appeared to be gaining the trust of the inner circle. He was being included in meetings and had even been asked for advice regarding specific weapons for different types of attacks. I could tell, as I’m sure he could, that they were testing him. He passed with flying colors. How do I know? He’s still alive and transmitting information, so they believed everything he said.
The conversations Joseph was privy to had more context and two nights ago things got interesting. A meeting was held to discuss an arms deal that was being brokered between Yusef and a band of rebels in Sudan. Yusef had obtained a cache of weapons from a military coup in some country that I didn’t catch the name of, and he was willing to sell them to the rebels in Sudan for a nice profit. The arms were being moved now, the rebels had several days to wire the money to an account before delivery could take place. If the money didn’t arrive, the arms would keep moving, but the rebels would be taken out. While Yusef was not on this tape, it was clear what the implications were if someone did not hold up their end of the bargain.
I called Simon, thinking he might want to know about this information. After all, the Agency would have known about a coup, but would they have known about missing guns? He was very interested in what I’d told him and said he’d begin running down information and seeing how he could link it back. If Yusef was running everything out of his compound, this could tell us who some of his contacts are in other countries. Then again, since we’ve not heard Yusef on the recordings at all, maybe he’d been handling these deals in person.
Before hanging up, I asked the same question I ended every call with, “So, is Washington hearing any chatter we should know about?”
Tonight, Simon actually paused before giving a patented, ‘no.’ “Simon, is something going on? You’re evasive when you’re normally quick to tell me nothing is going on.”
Simon blew out a breath and then cleared his throat. I could tell he was stalling. “I don’t want to alarm you. But there’s been some chatter. I need to tell you, though, it’s coming from MI-6, there are a few things they can’t validate.”
“Just spit it out, will you.”
“Supposedly several villages around the Yusef compound pay for protection. Unfortunately, they’ve not been able to pay lately because of the crackdown on the poppy exports, the drug trade is how they make their money. Yusef is telling them if they don’t pay there’ll be retribution. Read between the lines, Lauren that means there’ll be bloodshed.”
“Shit, how many villages are we talking about? From my research, there were twenty or so villages that are close enough to his compound that could be impacted.”
“That’s the problem, MI-6 doesn’t know which villages are in danger. I’ve heard they have someone on the inside, but they haven’t been forthcoming with their intel, or at least not as forthcoming as we’d like.”
“I’ve not heard anything on Joseph’s feeds. He’s being drawn into more and more inner circle conversations, but there’s been no mention of villages or retribution. Keep me informed, will ya?”
“Lauren, be careful. If this intel is accurate, you could really be in danger.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine. How’s everyone else doing? Give me something else to grab onto before we hang up.”
“Ok, well, Chris’s mother called me last night.”
“Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“Lisa wanted to know if I’d talked to you recently. She said she couldn’t get ahold of you and neither could Chris, they were worried. Thought I might be able to shed some light on where you were and how you’re doing.”
Color me stunned. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Lisa Evans, but I wasn’t entirely sold on her liking me. I rarely talked to her when Chris and were happily married, so to have her call me now was a little off-putting. See, Lisa loved her son immensely. She was very proud that he’d joined the military and was giving fighting the good fight for his country. However, she hated that his deployments kept him away from most major holidays and family get-togethers.
When Chris and I started dating, our schedules had us coming and going and different times. We didn’t always have holidays together, but if we did, we tended to stay in one spot and not visit either of our families, instead of spending as much time together as possible. This continued after we were married as well. Lisa also thought I was trying to keep Chris away from his family, but it was never my decision, it was always his. There were a few times I was just getting back and didn’t want to travel, but I’d encouraged him to go see his family. He’d refused and said he wasn’t going without me. I know he did visit them when I was away, but if we were both home, we never left each other’s side.
The fact that she was suddenly concerned about my whereabouts seemed off. I know I shouldn’t be suspicious, but it’s the nature of my job, I guess. “So, what did you tell her?”
“I told her that you’d changed your number and had no interest in talking to her or her good-for-nothing son.”
“Shit, Simon, please tell me you did not say that to her!” I implored him to tell me the truth, he suddenly began to laugh. Not just a snicker, a full out belly laugh. I don’t think I’d heard Simon laugh that hard in some time. Honestly, it was a relief because I’d be mortified if he’d actually said those words to Lisa.
“No, bug, I told her that you were working excruciatingly long hours on a critical operation and had to cut off all outside communications. I told her that you are safe and she could relay that information to Chris. You’d reach out to him when the operation was over and you could come up for air.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. It was a good cover, it worked. He was telling the truth but leaving out crucial details. I’m sure if Lisa gave that information to Chris word-for-word, he’d realize I’m on a mission. I had to compartmentalize that and realize I didn’t care if he knew. It didn’t mean he’d know where I was or what I was doing, just like I didn’t know anything about his current mission.
“Thank you, Simon. You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah, I know, bug. I’ll pass that love on to the others for you, too.”
~ * ~
Three days after talking with Simon I finally heard Yusef’s voice. It was early in the morning, I’d only been listening to Joseph’s audio feed for an hour or so when Yusef stepped into the room and started speaking. He was angry because the deal with the Sudanese terror cell had fallen through. While he was angry, he never talked about retaliation or murder. Instead, he gave the details of a new deal that he was ready to act upon, this one in Somalia.
Terror groups and violence were nothing new in Somalia. However, there had been a crackdown from the US Military and a NATO coalition to reduce the number of guns getting in through specific ports and checkpoints. While it hadn’t stopped terror attacks, the constant flow of munitions had been impacted. Yusef was speaking of a deal he’d made with a terror cell to get guns into the country using a cargo container for an international relief agency. This was worrisome that an aid agency would actually be complicit in terror activities that they were cleaning up after. Although, at this point, there was no way of knowing if the relief agency was actively taking part in this or if it was being done under their noses.
I immediately fired off a transmission to DC detailing what I’d just learned. Unfortunately, I didn’t have too many details, but I’d hoped it would be enough to get the intelligence community to find out the information I was lacking. I also made a point of my transmission to confirm that I had Yusef’s voice recorded. I would be uploading it to our FTP site so that our team in Washington could isolate and study his voice. I knew they would want to compare it to other recordings we had to see if we could tie Yusef to other transactions and terroristic activities.
The initial meeting with Yusef had dissolved but I continued listening to the audio streams in the hopes of picking up something new. Several hours had passed and I was preparing to throw in the towel when Yusef’s voice began booming through the headphones. The group was assembling again and he was berating everyone. He’d been informed that the shipment into Somalia had been intercepted and the guns had been discovered. He wanted to know who in the room had given up the details? Of course, there was no answer from anyone.
My blood ran cold when Yusef continued his rant and brought up the villages that owed money. He was confirming the intel that Simon had mentioned a few days prior. He was ranting about who knew what and wanted to know if the villagers turned on him. He said there were new people in several villages and he wanted to know if they were trying to take his business, if they were, they’d regret it.
One of the other men in the room spoke up about what could have happened. Providing the details that port searches had been lax over the last few weeks and it was only a matter of time before they escalated again. It was clear that Yusef didn’t like this answer. I began to hear grunts and realized that punches were being thrown. I doubted that anyone was fighting back, which meant the sickening sounds I heard were of Yusef beating the members of his inner circle for the failed shipment.
Approximately one hour after hearing Yusef speak of the raid, I received official word from DC that the cargo had been intercepted. The transmission said several containers in multiple locations were raided. I had a feeling they did this to shift the focus and not make it look like they had information solely on Yusef’s shipment. I doubted that Yusef believed it, based on what I’d heard earlier. The agency confirmed that they had actually located two deliveries, one in the relief agency’s container and one in an unmarked container. I couldn’t help but think that whichever US force initiated this raid, something about the way it was done would haunt us.
I couldn’t help but fear that DC botched this entire situation and that Joseph and my team were in jeopardy. The only thing I could think of was trying to figure out how to get Joseph to safety and how we needed to run.