He was on I-64 heading west toward Richmond, VA. He needed to get to Camp Peary in Williamsburg. It wasn’t very hard to figure out after all, top secret base or not, there were huge green signs pointing the way. Camp Peary was officially known as a Department of Defence Experimental Training Activity base. But in reality, it was where the Central Intelligence Agency put prospective recruits through a one year intensive training course. The recruits learned among other skills, how to fire weapons, set up landing zones, make brush passes and communicate in code all in the privacy afforded by over 9000 acres of heavily wooded property surrounded by barbed wire fences. It even had a landing strip.
The presence of street signs had always been a fickle issue at CIA depending entirely on the perception of the sitting director at the time. If he decided that having road signs pointing the way to CIA headquarters was a security risk, they would magically disappear. If he thought that the signs weren’t a risk, they’d suddenly reappear. It had gotten to be a bit of a joke for the workers at Williamsburg Public Works who held bets as to whether or not the arriving director of the CIA would make them take down or put up the signs—depending on if they were up or down at the time. Regardless, the CIA had its own private Police force to deal with any stray “undesirables” who managed somehow to wander onto the restricted property. At Camp Peary, it was doubly dangerous as the land was officially owned by the Department of Defence, thereby warranting protection from professional soldiers.
Nathaniel Howard pulled onto the winding road that lead to Camp Peary. It wasn’t as wide as the Interstate and it was lined with trees—a forest actually. Signs on this road bore more ominous warning messages designed to warn off people who were lost and on the wrong stretch of blacktop. They were written in the name of the Department of Defence and warned that the only thing up the road was a military base and that access was restricted. As he got closer he saw that the signs began to proclaim the right of the guard element to use deadly force. This was an obvious attempt at keeping the curious away—not because a military base was even remotely interesting, but because the word had gotten out that this particular base was in fact a CIA training facility. And everyone was in one way or another was taken by the myth surrounding the Agency. Whether they were fans who thought it to be omniscient and all-powerful or its detractors who thought it inept and a bureaucratic relic from the Cold War. Either way, obvious efforts were made to discourage the curious. Which normally worked, but in some cases, it spurred them on. Those were the kind to run out onto the field in the middle of a game, or hop the fence at the White House and get tackled and/or shot by the Secret Service. They just didn’t think, and subsequent psychological evaluations of most of those who were caught doing such things stated that they were not very well balanced in the head. Well, that explained why someone would ignore a sign that said in no uncertain terms that trespassers could be shot, legally.
The long winding road finally came to an end at a set of guard booths and a large chain-link gate adorned with razor sharp barbed wire. Closer inspection revealed a second gate several hundred feet back. Nathaniel had been on his share of bases, and this one was making a point of keeping people out. So much the better. At least the CIA took security seriously, he thought to himself. An MP walked from his booth over to the driver’s side window. Howard looked over at him and didn’t notice, the other MP standing at the passenger window with an M-16 in his hands. He was checking out the inside of the car while his partner found out what Nate’s business was.
“Can I help you sir?” the MP said.
“Nathaniel Howard, here to see a Mark Hannigan,” he said feeling rather comfortable around the military presence. After all, he belonged to the U.S. Army Rangers and wasn’t easily intimidated by guns and uniforms.
The MP looked at the list on his clipboard and found the appropriate name. “Alright,” he handed him a visitor’s pass, “let me go open the gate,” he concluded and walked over to his booth. The other MP started walking toward the other booth and that’s when Nathaniel noticed him. He scolded himself for the oversight. The gate slid open and he drove his car forward only to stop again in front of the next one. He waiting for what felt like at least a couple of minutes only to realise later that he’d driven over a set of grates and was probably having the undercarriage of his car examined by a number of cameras and instruments. Satisfied, the second gate slid open and allowed him to proceed toward his destination. He drove for another mile or so until he came upon what looked like a standard military base. He suddenly felt at home. He parked his car in the visitor’s parking area and made his way to the main building. He noticed a lot of people in uniform walking around as would be expected of any normal military base. What was different here though was the presence of an inordinate amount of people in civilian clothing as well.
A day ago, his commanding officer told him that some people in the DoD wanted to see him about a special posting. Apparently he’d caught the eye of some important people and they wanted to see if he could cut it in a new outfit that was being put together. But that was about all he’d been told. The inside of the main building looked remarkably like a regular office. He found what looked like a receptionist at a desk and asked if she could direct him to a mister Mark Hannigan.
“Your name please?”
“One moment please,” she said while picking up her phone. “Hello sir, a mister Howard is here to see you. Yes sir.” She hung up the phone and turned to Nathaniel. “Down that corridor, second office to your left. H14.”
He knocked on the door. “Come on in,” was the reply. He entered what looked like a very plain office with little in the way of decorations. What he didn’t know was that Mark Hannigan had only just moved into the office himself.
“Come in, come in, sit down son,” Mark told his visitor. “So, you managed to find your way alright?”
“Yes sir. No trouble at all.” Nate said not really knowing what to expect.
“Okay, I’ll cut right to it. We’re rebuilding the SOG, that’s the Special Operations Group, and we’re looking for a few highly talented people to volunteer. Your name came up as a possible candidate. I read your jacket and I want you on my team,” Hannigan said in the manner of a man building a baseball team. Hydra was technically attached to the SOG, but in as far as his mandate was concerned, nobody but himself, the DDO and the DCI were actually aware of its special status. But he could hardly reveal the nature of the team he was building to a potential recruit who had yet to accept the offer.
For his part, Nathaniel had heard many stories about the SOG. Not all of them were flattering as they hearkened back to the Bay of Pigs disaster. Then again, he also knew that SOG was the paramilitary wing of the CIA, which was right up his alley. He’d always been fascinated by the clandestine world but had never seen himself as strictly a spy. He was a very physical person and needed action in his career. Being an intelligence officer for the CIA though appealing in a James Bond sense, didn’t offer him anything to appeal to his physical side. But now, with the prospect of joining the SOG, well, he was quite excited. But he tried not to show it. Better to seem slightly uninterested than overeager to accept the offer. “How long do I have to think about it?” he asked finally.
“Not long. I want to know now,” came the answer. “We’re on a tight schedule and we need committment from our troops. You do understand though that this is a high risk posting to which you must volunteer. You cannot be forced into it,” Mark said knowing already that the soldier sitting before him would jump at the opportunity. His jacket was drawn because of two deciding factors. One, he’d already volunteered to become a soldier and then further volunteered to enter Ranger school, and two, he had no immediate relatives.
Howard thought for a second and realized that he’d already made his decision from the second he’d heard the letters: SOG. “You’ve got yourself a recruit,” he told Hannigan and with that they shook hands.
Hamza was just a little nerveous. It’s not that he hadn’t done this countless times before. It was just that every time he did this part, he was a little nerveous. After all, he was driving through a city with explosives in the trunk of his car. Any number of things could go wrong. He could be pulled over for speeding, a broken mirror, or even racial profiling and be asked to open his trunk. That’s why he was driving at the posted speed limit trying very hard to follow all fo the rules of the road to the letter. He could also be involved in a car accident which would most likely not detonate the explosives, but would attract unwanted attention. The sooner he could get to his safe house, the sooner he could deposit the materials and get on with his mission.
Ten minutes later he pulled his car safely into the parking lot of the apartment complex he currently called home. It was nighttime, which made it easier for him to conceal his activities. He opened the trunk and pulled out a duffel bag. He carefully carried the bag up the stairs to his appartment. He didn’t trust elevators when doing this sort of thing. One could never predict when an elevetor would stop working. He didn’t want to risk being stuck in an elevator with a large bag full of explosives. So he took the stairs and every miserable step of the way he reminded himself of the need to be in shape. He’d let that slide lately. It had been a while since his training days in the desert and his lifestyle hadn’t allowed him to exercise regularly. He was therefore out of shape and out of breath by the time he reached the fourth floor landing. He put the bag down and took a minute to catch his breath. He didn’t want to risk making any mistakes with this cargo. Finally, when he’d caught his breath, he picked up the bag and slowly made his way down the corridor to his appartment.
The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) after the 1991 Gulf War was charged with the task of conducting arms inspections in Iraq. This for the obvious reason of preventing another act of aggression toward any of its neighbors. At least that was what was being said publicly. Privately, everyone knew that it was to protect America’s allies notably Israel. After all, when the Americans retaliated on behalf of Kuwait, Iraq lashed out at Israel with Scud missiles. Though the American made Patriot missile was lauded for preventing most of the Scuds from reaching their destinations, in actual fact they failed in their mission almost eighty-five percent of the time. Which was another reason for the U.S. backed UNSCOM. One of the methods employed by the UN Special Commission was the use of strategically placed video cameras throughout Iraq which recorded the comings and goings of personnel and equipment that could potentially be used in the manufature of arms. The system used conventional video tape recorders requiring a technician to go out to each camera and replace the tape on an ongoing basis. After three years of this, it was decided to employ radio transmission of the images back to UNSCOM headquarters in order to improve the process. Unbeknownst to the Commission, the U.S. technicians who installed the relay system were in fact intelligence operatives with an alterior motive. The system they installed was also designed to listen in on Iraqi microwave transmissions, the better to eavesdrop on their military. When it was eventually revealed that the U.S. was spying on Iraq via a UN Special Commission, all hell broke loose. There were accusations made back and forth until eventually the system was altogether abandoned. Or so the story goes. In fact, the cameras and eavesdropping equipment never stopped operating. The “take” was re-routed from stations in friendly countries all the way back to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, where a dedicated team of intelligence officers analyzed and archived every bit of data that came through the pipe.
So it was that when the request for assistance from the FBI reached the NSA, the director got on the phone and called Lowery.
He was asleep eight hours and several time zones away when his phone rang. It took a couple of rings before he realized he wasn’t dreaming and reached out to pick up the phone.
“Lowery,” he said groggily.
“Special Agent Lowery? There’s a call on the secure line for you sir,” said the communications officer.
“Alright, I’ll be there in a minute,” he said and hung up the phone. He sat up and got his bearings then quickly changed into a pair of pants and a t-shirt before walking outside to the communications trailer. He was handed a receiver which he placed to his ear. “Hello?”
“Mister Lowery?” The voice asked.
“Please hold for Admiral Vettriano,” the voice said.
“Special Agent Lowery?” He heard after a minute or so of silence.
“Yes? And to whom am I speaking?” He asked, still shaking the cobwebs loose.
“This is Admiral Vettriano, Director of the National Security Agency. You request assistance earlier this week, correct?”
Lowery was a little confused if not shocked. Normally this sort of thing was handled by low to mid level functionaries. He would have never in his wildest dreams imagined receiving a phone call from the director of the NSA after having requested access to—pirated, the NSA pirated all manner of information from around the globe—information from a foreign vehicle registry.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Lowery said trying very hard to mask his incredulity.
“I’m sending you something we dug up that may be of some help to your investigation,” the Admiral said.
“Transmission coming through now sir,” the comms officer said. It was transmitted relatively quickly and the communications officer sent it to a free terminal where Lowery could take a look at the file privately.
Lowery took the three steps necessary to get to the terminal and double clicked the icon for the file—which he recognized to be for an image. It took a couple of seconds for the program to load up and finally he was looking at a grainy picture that looked like a still frame from a video. In fact it was several stills put together in a sort of grid. The pictures were taken at a high angle and were of a van in motion. The driver and passenger could be made out in at least two of the stills. He clicked the zoom button and was thankful that the image was of a high enough resolution to permit him to get a closer look. He still had the phone cradled to his ear. “Are these who I think they are? How did you get these?”
“Lowery, you’ve been in the game for how long now,” the Admiral asked.
“If you mean how long I’ve been with the Bureau, fifteen years,” he replied.
“Then you know that I can’t reveal sources and methods son,” Vettriano chided like a grandfather would his most beloved grandson. It was obvious from the sound of his voice that the man was much older than Lowery. Admirals didn’t become Admirals overnight. He wasn’t like previous directors at the NSA either. Several of whom were given to overinflated egos. Rather, everyone who had served under him always spoke highly of the Admiral, like one would of a close family member. Those close to him said that it had to do with his belief in taking care of his people. It also helped that he had people skills, something a lot of his peers lacked—or more likely lost as they ascended through the ranks. “What I can tell you is that we were able to use the vehicle identification number you gave us and get the make and model of the van,” what he didn’t say was that the information came from a hacked Syrian database. It was also a smooth play on his part, because this way he wouldn’t have to give the FBI access to that database as was originally requested. “Then it was just a matter of finding your van in those pictures there.” Again, he went just far enough to mention the pictures but didn’t say more. He was one of the few who knew of the continued operation of the UNSCOM cameras and didn’t feel the need to reveal that particular source to Lowery. He also didn’t mention that in order to produce the pictures a custom piece of software had to pore over tens of thousands of frames of video captured from hundreds of cameras over the past week.
“Who’s the last one?” he asked. There was one frame of a man driving the van but it was obviously not either of the two in all of the other frames.
“Unknown,” Vettriano said. “I certainly hope that this helps. I have to go now.”
“Thank you very much Admiral. This certainly does help.”
“Thanks,” Lowery said to the dialtone. He stared intensely at the pictures in front of his eyes. He was taking in every detail. Memorizing the faces, especially the partially visible one on the last frame. It wasn’t a very good picture, but Lowery already knew that that wasn’t one of the bombers, and that made him the planner. They had a lead and it was hot.
“Officer, how do I print this?” he said turning to the comms officer who was now working on something else. “I want ten copies, and I want the file transmitted to headquarters right away.”
“Yes sir. Your printouts will be coming out of that printer in just a minute sir,” the officer said pointing to the high-end laser printer in the corner.
He still had the secure phone in his hand and had been around enough of them to know how to use it. He got a line and dialed his boss’ direct line.
“Bob, it’s Steve. We’ve got him.”
“Assalamu ‘Alaikum,” the visitor said.
“Wa ‘Alaikumus Salam,” Hakim replied as he let the man through the door. He didn’t know him, but knew to expect him.
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