They called him Yahweh Arisen. They considered him a descendant of the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Noah. Some even dared risk the wrath of radical Islam by calling him Mohammed Incarnate.
They spoke these terms in quiet whispers - in shadowy corners and darkened rooms. A people tossed about like the violent sandstorms that scraped through their homeland, they lived in a hard place made up of rigid rules, laws and norms. And they faced deadly consequences for non-conformism and disobedience.
They lived in fear of the domineering clerics and holy men that ruled their Palestine homeland by Sharia law, a force that overwhelmed, undermined and ignored political and sovereign boundaries, national governments and local law enforcement.
They witnessed cruel stonings, beatings, dismemberments and beheadings, flaunted in their streets and squares for all to see. They watched their peers and friends suffer mercilessly merely for expressing interest in him. They braved discovery by radical militants just to download the latest video or audio file. And they paid with their lives when caught.
Year by year, the fear and intimidation continued to degrade their ancient society like the relentless desert winds that grind and decay the rocky hills into dry listless barren sand. For 10,000 years throughout history, they had learned to live with this fate and their dehumanizing choices; submission or death.
And yet, like a desert flower, growing out of the arid, lifeless sand and clay, they had discovered reason to hope. Perhaps a mirage, they had found a figure that seemed to transcend the limitations of their harsh environment and gain favor among all but the most extreme factions in their area.
Not since Osama Bin Laden, had an individual been able to engage so many followers from across so many different borders and cultural boundaries. Like Bin Ladin, he led from the shadows, making only cautious, unannounced public appearances and producing his messages for distribution via video, voicemail and an effective word-of-mouth network.
But unlike Bin Ladin, he represented a more moderate approach to human rights, values, individuality, decency, spirituality and free will. Essentially, he stood up for the positive, virtuous common-sense messages and meanings in all the religious doctrines that swirled about the Middle East. And for the first time in the 2,000-year history of the region since the birth of Christ, his messages started to gain momentum among the meek, but populous majority. The phenomenon spread deeper and wider across the Middle East after the advent of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, where masses of downtrodden, ordinary citizens in all the major cities across the region flexed their muscles and rebelled against their oppressive leaders to rally for freedoms and expanded rights. These protests resulted in the ouster, reform or severe weakening of several long-standing dictators in Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Jordan and Libya.
With the Arab Spring and the ensuing chaos of the extreme zealous militarization of the Middle East, he had started to more rapidly gain favor among the moderate Muslim leaders that still clung to power in their countries. These leaders saw opportunities to capitalize on his popularity among their subjects. And they braved the consequences of their quiet, but steady support for his mission.
With the positive momentum, his followers grew emboldened in their revolution and it spread like an unnatural, but undeniable flood across the desert. They increasingly made outward expressions of their support as the number of believers in the new Messiah escalated.
They came from hundreds of miles away just to hear him speak. They traveled by plane, by train, by car, by boat. They emerged from the hills, from the villages, from across the Gulf and from the ghettos in the dilapidated cities circling the once Fertile Crescent.
On a warm July morning in 2012, a large crowd, his biggest ever, congregated in the dirt and cement square by a sandstone wall, several centuries old. The followers from any of the dozen countries wedged into the sandy peninsula bordered by the Red Sea, the Sea of Aden, the Arabic Sea and the infamous Persian Gulf, clamored for a glimpse of the new savior that had captivated their volatile land and galvanized so many people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds.
Most of the people in the vast crowd cheered. Some protested. In isolated spots, individuals shoved in frustration, seeking to advance their vantage point by pushing through the gathering throng. Violence broke out in pockets where skeptics voiced dissent and aimed derogatory chants toward the man they considered a false idol.
Members of the press occupied prime positions in the front of the crowd for the first time since he started preaching in various Middle Eastern cities. Having recently discovered their feature story of the moment they surrounded him with their cameras, their lenses and their boom microphones. Helicopters hovered low.
Along the roofs of the buildings like a ring of fire around a sea of people, hidden armed guards looked on, perched in the elevated shadows. Among the soldiers, a strange diversity united them in their unlikely cause of protecting the Holy man. They consisted of a few inconspicuous Americans, flown in covertly to work with local Palestinian police as well as members of friendly Suuni and Fahta clans. They stood guard, on the watch for the more extreme Shia opposition or Hezbollah, the militant arm of the Shia that controlled the Palestinian lands with the support of the dominant Hamas party. The threat of an ISIS attack loomed above the dust like gathering storm clouds.
But despite the presence of military protection, the crowd seemed to police itself as it had over the past few months in Beirut, Bagdad, Basra, Damascus and Jerusalem. Even though the numbers had grown, the communities remained small and local enough for members to recognize dangerous individuals or known radicals and either force them away themselves or engage the armed attendants to apprehend them. And despite the opportunity for violence, the rallies had proceeded peacefully against the expectations of many pundits, religious officials and news analysts.
“Time is danger,” said Cael Block, the elite U.S. Marine assigned to protect the holy man, into his shoulder-mounted radio unit.
“We’ve got press by the stage,” his team member, Ruben Herrera, replied from a rooftop across the square.
It helped that nobody ever really knew when the rallies would occur until, sometimes, hours before, thanks to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The generally peaceful crowd of more than 10,000 had filled a famous square in Jeruselem near the Wailing Wall on ground sacred to three of the most populous and explosive religious groups on earth, the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims.
Remarkably, religious leaders from all three groups had agreed to support the near mythical figure in his address to the mixed crowd from the hallowed ground near the homeland of David and the birthplace of Christ.
“We knew there could be leaks,” Cael replied, scanning the square through the view of his rifle.
Some of the followers pronounced it: “J.O. …”. To others, it sounded like “Hey-O”, “Hey-Ho”, “Yah-Yo” or “Hchay-O”. But the sound blended together like an orchestral arrangement and deafened anyone within several thousand yards of the dais where he faced his followers.
As indelible as any footage portrayed on CNN or captured on YouTube, the image of the tall, slender, handsom preacher, simultaneously addressing the throng of followers from so many different sects and faiths at the most explosive square mile of land on the planet reached not just the live audience, but a growing worldwide interest.
The footage called to mind images of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1964, the first landing on the moon in 1969, the U.S. Olympic Hockey team win over the Russians in 1980, the fall of the Berlin wall or the protest in Tienneman Square, or - of course - the unforgettable images of the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11th, 2001.
The build up to the event had occurred over the past several months with each subsequent flash rally forming almost out of thin air with little or no advanced warning. Each event, roughly six-to-eight weeks apart nearly doubled in size from the previous one. The press had just missed a gathering a month earlier in Bethlehem, despite several tips with about an hour’s notice. But each time, they grew smarter in their investigative tactics and identified the right contacts to ensure enough notice to set up coverage. The rally in Jeruselem represented an enormous step forward in Jaio’s following and also ushered in a new frontier with the inclusion of press coverage and global exposure.
“I don’t see Patel on his roof,” Cael snapped to his team as he scanned the rooftops along the edge of the square.
Between each Rally, the mysterious preacher, known only as Jaio, walked the streets of the world’s most dangerous cities, learning where the locals lived, worked and socialized. He spread his message of peace and renewal, group by group, neighborhood by neighborhood, church by church and even mosque by mosque. Often, he preached person by person.
Catholic Priests, particularly the progressive Pope, saw him as a religious purist, someone who could undo the modern-day bastardization of their image and return them to their original mission to spread the good news of the bible. Jewish Rabbis, for the first time in centuries, viewed him as a figure that might finally galvanize the peaceful masses to rise and reject the violence promoted by radical fundamentalist sects of the Islamic world in which they lived. Even moderate Muslim Clerics sought him out to discuss and debate Theology and the teachings of the Koran, due to his extreme knowledge and understanding of their holy words.
He had a knack for identifying the right people to approach, people with open minds, people willing to listen and view their world under different perspectives. And rarely did he find himself in trouble with radicals and corrupt local officials.
One night in Basra, several Shia militants raided a social club where they had heard Jaio would be. But he had left just before they arrived. He also had to cancel a trip to Tehran due to the many concerns of his closest followers that he would not be safe in Iran.
Jaio found that many people he met were willing to house him and, as needed, hide him from those that wished to arrest or harm him - at great risk to their lives and to the lives of their families.
And so, several years after he had started preaching to escalating sized groups in major Middle East cities, he found himself broadcast across a global stage to an international audience not far from the site of the Nativity.
“Are we exposed?” Ruben’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Abort?”
As Jaio spoke, the crowd hushed, so starkly, that the soldiers peered through their magnifying view finders to make sure they were all still there. Speaking through a rudimentary loudspeaker system, his crystal-clear voice boomed and bellowed, echoing off the dull, sand-colored walls and facades around the plaza. He repeated each of his messages in multiple languages, seamlessly flowing back and forth between them. The crowd remained silent throughout his sermon. Every ear could hear his words and take in his message.
“I’m pull him out,” Cael barked to Ruben as he slid down the ladder into the building adjacent to Jaio’s makeshift stage.
In hindsight, it had to happen eventually. The experts and analysts had all predicted the bloodbath. Jaio’s inner circle could never have expected to continue growing their ranks of believers without a response from the radicals. And they made their mark in Jeruselem.
The first bomb went off at the opening to the plaza, followed by others along the outer rows of apartment buildings that lined the cement walkways. Smoke rose into the air and obscured the view from above. Fires set to the surrounding buildings trapped the armed guards at the rooftops. Not designed to kill, the explosions instead cast confusion and created panic. The soft lull of the crowd gave way to screams and bodies moving frantically in all directions.
Across the way, a dozen armed militants walked deliberately along the edge of the square toward Jaio. The soldiers along the rooftops engaged the group and a wicked firefight ensued. The press had the best and worst seats in the house. Because of the position of the bombs, the mass of frantic bodies between them and the only egress cut off by the cross-fire that dotted the long smooth cement causeway, they had to take cover along the sides of the makeshift stage that Jaio’s supporters had built.
The cameras darted about. Desperate commentators described the scene from off-camera. They kept filming despite the great danger and broadcast the battle worldwide in real-time.
The Terrorists had planned their attack effectively and had tactical advantages over their counterparts. They were able to move their position close to the stage where Jaio stood beckoning the crowd to stay calm and take cover.
As he stood tall on his stage, one of his attackers popped out from behind a small riser. At the same time, a CNN camera man maneuvered his angle to secure a perfectly framed shot of the confrontation.
The militant shouted something in Arabic, later translated to “God is great, death to the infidel, death to the imposter, death to all that oppose Allah”.
He pulled a lever that protruded from his bulging belt, laden with deadly explosives. An awkward moment passed as the bomb failed to ignite. The terrorist looked over his shoulder in panic and confusion. Then he pulled out a hand gun, aimed it at his mark, squeezed the trigger and sent a bullet straight into Jaio’s chest.