Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
WHEN the plane finally began to descend, Mitch Rapp turned to the window and examined the grid of runways and buildings that made up the Madrid-Barajas airport. A delay in Cairo had put his flight three hours behind schedule, but that was the least of his problems. It had taken him almost a day longer than expected to clean up one of the Saudis’ many messes in Yemen and he was now a full day and a half late arriving.
Sayid Halabi was rotting in the Somali desert thanks to Scott Coleman, but much of the elite team the ISIS leader had assembled was still on the loose. The men had significant expertise in everything from social media to spec ops to science and had scattered throughout the world. Now, though, they seemed to be re-forming under the leadership of a former Iraqi army captain. He was no Sayid Halabi, but he was tough as nails and motivated as hell.
Their targets and strategy going forward was largely unknown, but what was certain was that they weren’t going to just crawl under a rock and die of old age. They were looking to inflict some pain before they finally met Allah.
Rapp coughed into his hand and checked it for blood. There hadn’t been any for months, but it was a habit that was proving hard to break. He’d managed to prevent Halabi from smuggling a deadly pathogen across the Mexican border, but had contracted the disease in the process. The docs still seemed surprised that he was alive. And, in truth, so was he. He’d spent longer than he cared to remember with machines breathing for him and, at its worst, death would have been preferable. As far as he was concerned, the next time a bioterror threat raised its ugly head, the fucking FBI could handle it.
The wheels touched down, but Rapp stayed in his seat as the other passengers prepared to disembark. He turned his phone back on and scrolled through the texts, searching for anything that suggested his impending operation had run into a snag. Nothing. As of that moment, it was still a go. His plans for a shower, steak, and some shut-eye before the briefing, though, definitely weren’t.
Once the plane was more or less empty, he slung a small pack over his shoulder and started up the aisle. The crew near the door gave him a quizzical look as he approached and he reflexively turned his face away, mumbling the expected thanks.
Rapp had spent most of his adult life seeking anonymity and his current state wasn’t helping that quest. His dark hair hadn’t completely regrown and was in the uncontrollable stage between short enough to behave and long enough for gravity to take control. Thankfully, his beard had come back more quickly, effectively obscuring his lower face and leaving only his sunburned nose visible below mirrored sunglasses.
What really made him stand out, though, was the dust. It was still clinging to every part of him from his trip across Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The loaded Range Rover he’d been promised had been on fire when he found it and there hadn’t been a lot of other options. So, instead of making the trip cradled in leather and caressed by air-conditioning, he’d made half of it in the back of a dilapidated pickup and the other half by motorcycle.
The jet bridge and corridor beyond were empty, already cleared of passengers hurrying to secure a good place in the passport control line. He kept a leisurely pace, walking toward a sign pointing him left, but instead passing through a door marked NO ENTRY. The alarm that was supposed to sound didn’t and he was met on the other side by an impeccably dressed Spanish woman.
“I trust your flight was a good one,” she said in more than acceptable English.
“We have a car waiting and I fear I’ll have to take you straight to your meeting. As you requested, there is food, water, and a clean change of clothes in the backseat. Also, you’ll find a brief that will bring you up to date on the situation.”
“It’s good to see you again, Mitch.”
Jordi Cardenas, the head of Spain’s national intelligence agency, held out a hand and Rapp took it. “Good to see you, too. We appreciate the assist.”
“It’s very much our pleasure,” he said, leading Rapp into a windowless conference room. The men around the table were ones Rapp had known for most of his career—Scott Coleman was at the far end and his top operators had taken the chairs closest to him. Claudia Gould, the woman Rapp lived with and who also happened to be Coleman’s logistics director, was standing near a large screen hanging on the wall. Rapp gave them all a silent nod and took an empty seat that wouldn’t put his back to the door.
“Okay, I think we’re all here,” Claudia said with a French accent that had become a bit less pronounced over the last year. “Let’s get started.”
The screen came to life with photos of a number of Middle Eastern men as well as a few squares containing silhouettes with question marks inside. “We’re in the dark as to the identities of three of the people in Sayid Halabi’s inner circle and we have very little intelligence on which of his enforcers are still alive. What we do know is that Muhammad Nahas has taken over leadership.” She pointed to the screen. “This is the only existing photo of him, taken by the US Army when he was a member of Iraqi special forces.”
It had been cropped to focus on the man’s intense eyes and hawklike nose, framing out the smiling American and Iraqi comrades that had been visible in the original. Perhaps fitting in light of the fact that they were all dead now. Nahas had purposely led them into an ambush that only he survived.
“Based on what we know from US Army records and people who fought with him, he’s an extremely disciplined and well-trained soldier. Smart, and well respected, but not necessarily a man who commands the kind of devotion Halabi did. Also, he’s not the big thinker that Halabi was. Based on Internet activity we’ve intercepted from the group, they haven’t yet formed any concrete plans. They’re talking about everything from a 9/11-style attack, to a sarin gas attack similar to the one carried out in Japan. There’s also discussion of more far-fetched operations like poisoning a water reservoir. Overall, it comes off a bit like…” She paused for a moment to search for the right term in English. “… spitballing.”
“Is Nahas the target?” Scott Coleman asked.
“Unfortunately, no. We haven’t been able to find him.” She zoomed in on another of the on-screen photos. This one depicted a clean-shaven, bespectacled man in his early thirties. Middle Eastern descent for sure but he had the look of someone who’d lived a comfortable life in Dubai or Kuwait City.
“This is the target. Hamal Kattan. He doesn’t look like much, but he was actually a key person in Halabi’s orbit. His educational background is in physics but he seems to be knowledgeable in pretty much anything relating to technology. A renaissance man who Halabi relied on to keep him connected to the modern world.”
“He looks soft,” Rapp said.
“That’s probably an accurate assessment. He wasn’t particularly religious in school and his parents are secular Jordanians also involved in the sciences. The overall impression is that he was looking for a purpose in life and Halabi gave it to him.”
Rapp knew the type better than he wanted to—people who bought a copy of Islam for Dummies on their way to join ISIS. Some were looking for excitement or a sense of brotherhood. Others for power or to get laid. Still others just wanted to get bloody and make other human beings suffer. And finally there were the ones like this little pissant—aimless bastards in search of the meaning of life.
The slide changed to a picture of Kattan walking down a narrow cobblestone street, head down and collar up against what appeared to be a stiff wind.
“This was taken yesterday in southern Spain. Granada to be precise.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Meeting with like-minded jihadists, it appears,” Jordi Cardenas interjected. “We’ve been following him and we’re getting all kinds of interesting information on his friends.”
“But you’re not moving against them,” Rapp clarified.
“No. Not until you give us the go-ahead.”
Rapp nodded and motioned for Claudia to continue her briefing.
“The day after tomorrow, Kattan is scheduled to fly from Granada to Washington, DC, via Barcelona and New York.”
“Do we know why? Entering the US is a pretty big risk,” Rapp said.
“Based on our wiretaps, he’s going there at the orders of Muhammad Nahas to meet someone. It’s possible that Nahas is going to be at this meeting as well.”
Rapp perked up at that. He’d love to put a bullet between that son of a bitch’s eyes. “What do you mean by ‘possible’? How possible?”
“We don’t know. The communications have been vague on that point. Call it fifty-fifty.”
She switched slides again, bringing up a seating chart from the airplane Kattan would be taking from Granada to Barcelona. She used a laser pointer to indicate an aisle seat near the left wing. “We’ve arranged for the target to be sitting here.”
“Does he have anyone watching his back?” Coleman asked.
“We aren’t sure yet,” Cardenas said. “We just found out about his flight yesterday and we’re working around the clock doing background checks on the passenger list. So far, we have one strong possibility—a young Muslim male originally from Morocco but living in Seville now. He’s taking a train to Granada and catching that flight to Barcelona, but not continuing on to the US.”
“Will you have looked at all the passengers before the wheels on that plane go up?”
“Absolutely. If there’s anyone else suspicious, you’ll know about it before you board.”
Scott Coleman let out a long breath. “It’s a lot of moving parts, Mitch.”
“Maybe one of the most complicated ops we’ve ever done,” Coleman’s sniper Charlie Wicker agreed. “And here we are two days out, still wondering if the target has backup.”
“We all know it’d be easy to snatch Kattan off the street, but when he goes missing, his network’s going to find out. We’d have a few hours at the most to question him before they scatter and everything he knows goes stale. If we can do it in a way that makes them think he’s dead, then we might actually have a shot at completely decapitating what’s left of ISIS.”
“What about weapons? If he has an escort, how are we going to know if they’re armed?”
“We’re in the process of quietly upgrading the security in the Granada airport,” Cardenas said. “We should be able to find any significant weaponry going through.”
“Can I assume we’re not going to do anything about it?” Joe Maslick said.
Rapp shook his head. “If we take one of them down in security—”
“Their network’s going to know,” Bruno McGraw said, finishing his sentence for him.
“So we’re going to get on a plane with an unknown number of terrorists carrying an unknown number of weapons and try to take them alive.”
“That about covers it.”
“Bullets and planes don’t mix,” Coleman pointed out. “Remember Azerbaijan?”
Rapp remembered it a little too vividly. “Look, I understand that these aren’t our normal operating parameters. We’re going to be in a confined space thirty thousand feet off the ground, working with people we have no experience with, and relying on crap intel. I’ll do what I can to mitigate the risks, but if the wrong thing on that plane gets shot there’s not going to be much to do but bend over and kiss our asses good-bye. Anyone who wants to sit this one out should do it. It’s the smart move and I’m not going to hold it against you.”
None of the men at the table even bothered to look around. They were in. They were always in.
Rapp leaned back in his chair. “All right, Claudia. Give us what you’ve got.”