2:24 a.m. AST (Atlantic Standard Time). March 15, 2009
About 150 nautical miles east of the Grand Bahamas.
The Toledo, the Valencia, the Sevilla and the Cartagena had come to a full stop on a calm, moonlit sea.
Eight men trussed in safety harnesses stepped onto a rigid scaffold suspended with nylon ropes over the port side of the Toledo. The scaffold was lowered and then stopped when it reached the top side of the ship’s bow. Two men held shaded halogen lights, their beams solely illuminating the name Toledo. The other six pried loose a corner of a thin layer of laminated vinyl plastic adhered to the ship’s hull. Ripping off six separate plastic “skins,” each letter of the ship’s name was removed and rolled into ten-foot lengths of plastic sheeting. Already painted in white on the ship’s hull was Tondela, the name of a Portuguese city. Other eight-man crews performed the same task at the ship’s stern and starboard side.
A little more than two hours had passed before the Tondela, the Vila Real, the Seixal and the Cantanhede continued steaming south toward Cuba. Red and green Portuguese flags fluttered from the four ships’ aft flagpoles.
In the semi-darkness of the Seixal’s wheelhouse, repeating scanning bars on two illuminated radar screens detected no ship traffic for miles in a 360-degree arc. With a flashlight, Abu Mahmoud Rahman studied a nautical map of the United States’ Gulf Coast taped to a bulkhead.
8:06 a.m. EST. March 16, 2009
The Oval Office, White House
President Forster stood before an eye-level, ornate mirror hanging inside a small alcove off the side-door entrance to the Oval Office. Below a shelf on her right she opened a drawer and picked up a hair brush. Three times on each side of her head she slowly brushed back her thick, graying hair and tucked loose strands behind her ears. Forster pulled up the collar on her white blouse and pressed it over her jacket’s collar. Then she pulled down the jacket’s sleeves and smoothed over the front of her silk blouse, loosely tucked into her pantsuit trousers, jacket to match.
She walked over to the large presidential desk and fell into its cushioned brown-leather chair. On the heavily carpeted floor under the desk well she slipped off her low-heel pumps and slid her feet into a pair of bedroom slippers, which were more comfortable than any pair of leather dress shoes she’d found. If she had to get up from the desk, she’d merely slip the shoes back on. No one would know, except for Helen Brown. Forster slowly twirled once around in the chair, stopping to gaze through a rear window at perennials trying to inch their way up to the sun in the White House garden.
Forster closed her eyes. How can there ever be peace in Afghanistan ... in Iraq. I wish to God I had the answer. Such a loss of life. Her eyes blinked open.
She had finished speaking with Secretary of State Gordon Steinmetz earlier in the morning. He was landing in Ankara to brief Turkey’s Prime Minister on the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. He would be heading to Syria the next day. She’d told Steinmetz to add quick stops to his lengthy itinerary at Bahrain and Kuwait to offer apologies about U.S. troops being pulled from there and the mix-up concerning treaties that never were ratified. She also had dispatched Defense Secretary
Wheeler to Qatar and Oman to make similar apologies. She was getting up from her chair when the phone rang. It was Helen Brown.
“Lorraine,” she said, “I’m sending over Mr. Connors. He should be outside the Oval Office in minutes. Do you want me to come over?” Brown was calling from her West Wing office.
“No, no,” said Forster. “Finish up those arrangements for my big trip Saturday. As I said to you earlier about that stop in Baghdad, plan it down to the minute so I can get out of there and on to London as soon as possible.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Brown hung up and Forster started toward the door to meet Connors, her National Security Advisor. She took one more look in the mirror, before suddenly realizing she’d forgotten to change into her black pumps.
“Oh, crap,” said the President who scurried back to her desk just as Jessica, the secretary, opened the door. “Come in, Tim, come in.” Forster was seated at her desk, hurriedly trying to change her footwear, hoping Connors wouldn’t see what she was doing. But she accidentally pushed one of the shoes too far back to reach it with her foot. She kept the slippers on and came around the desk to shake Connors’ hand.
“You look a little winded, ma’am,” he said. “Ah, you okay?”
Forster started laughing. “Yes, just don’t ask me to go dancing right now. I don’t have on the proper shoes.” She was a little embarrassed, attempting to get away with something as silly as clumsily changing into a different pair of shoes hidden under a desk well.
“Uh, what ma’am?”
“Nothing, Tim,” she said. “What do you have for me?”
“Within the last month, ma’am, probably around mid-February, a few hundred Afghans boarded freighters docked at Karachi Harbor.” Connors leaned over the Truman desk. He pointed to a relief map of southeastern Pakistan he’d unfolded and placed in front of the President on top of the presidential desk. Scattered around the desk were satellite and grainy digital photos and other maps of the United States, western Africa, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf states.
“Do we know where they’re going, what they’re up to?” she asked Connors, rubbing her hands together.
“Ma’am,” said Connors, “a Navy submarine stationed in the Arabian Sea took some surveillance photos.”
“And we find out about this now?” Connors picked up a brown folder and opened it. Inside there were eleven photos, taken through the periscope of the nuclear submarine USS Jack London. He placed them in line over the maps and other photos.
“I got these photos late last night, even though I had been trying for weeks to get them once I heard about them.”
“They’re out of date already, right? Are they of any value then?” asked the President. “And what’s the importance of knowing where these ships are headed?”
“Ma’am, I assure you that even though they’re not immediate intelligence, they have value. Let me explain. You see, a college classmate of mine on board the sub alerted me about them through secure channels. The Jack London’s skipper was going to destroy them because, well, he only saw freighters involved, not warships. Just old freighters, some going back thirty or forty years. But my friend, this lieutenant commander, saw something else.
“First of all, we know Afghans boarded these ships because of the way they’re dressed. Those baggy, pajama-like trousers, the long shirt and that wool hat. No mistake about it. They weren’t Pakistani day laborers. But we don’t know where the ships were headed. There had been a number of similarly registered ships stopping at Karachi, each taking on Afghans and then leaving. Any questions so far?”
“I still wonder why this is important,” said the President.
“Please ma’am, look at the first photo, then pass your eyes to the second, and so on to the end. Tell me what you see.” A ball-point pen tapped the second photo, then the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth until the eleventh. All the photos showed the stern and starboard side of each ship. “Madam President, what do you see?”
“They all look freshly painted.”
“Yes,” Connors said, “they’ve been repainted dull black, bow to stern.” Then the President noticed the names of the ships.
“My God, they’re named after Spanish cities. On the side and the back end. There’s Cadiz, Barcelona, ah, yeah, Cordoba, then Cadiz again and then Barcelona again. I don’t get it, Tim. Are they the same ships? They all look the same.”
“These photos were taken over a week’s time.” Connors looked at the President. “Ma’am, those old ships can’t turn around that quickly and return to the same port two or three days later unless they’re steaming someplace close by. We looked at the photos real close, Blew ’em up with hi-tech software. We looked at rigging, position of portholes, paint schemes, smokestack con-figurations and height of deck cranes. All that and more, but we couldn’t figure it out.”
“What do we do now?” She was feeling anxious. “And still, without knowing what they’re carrying or where they’re going, what does all this mean for our national security?”
“Until I get more intelligence, I can’t make any determination.”
“Anything to do with the troop withdrawal?” the President asked.
“Ma’am,” said Connors, “I really doubt it. I don’t see any connection.”
“Well, again,” she asked, “what does this have to do with national security?”
“These ships going back and forth, it appears, from Karachi to somewhere bear some watching. I alerted Secretary Wheeler about this intelligence. Somehow we have to determine the ships’ ultimate destinations and what’s their cargo.”
“What’s your gut feeling, Tim?” asked the President. “Do you have some hunch these ships are going to unload troops somewhere and attack some U.S. military installation or one of our ships?”
“I’m afraid of that happening,” said Connors. “It’s a question I believe we have to get resolved real soon. Maybe Secretary Wheeler can shed more light on this. He’s got a lot more contacts than I have.”
“Okay then.” Forster let out a deep sigh. “We’ll let this go for now.” Then she remembered as she walked around the desk to sit down. “You know I’m going to the Middle East and then Iraq at the end of the week.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Ms. Brown and I were talking about it. But ma’am, I strongly advise against you visiting Baghdad. It’s too risky.”
“But I want to see how the withdrawal is going. And to be politically correct, I have to see the Iraq Prime Minister, meet with U.S. military commanders and some of the Marines there.”
“Still too risky for you, ma’am.”
“Are you saying that because I’m a woman?” the President asked, gesturing to her National Security Advisor to take a seat.
Connors walked over to a nearby couch and sat down. “No ma’am, I’m not like that. I would have given the same advice to President Templeton. It’s just too dangerous. You know, ma’am, Prime Minister Ahmed Omar al-Jabbar is just a corrupt puppet. The Iraqi Parliament hasn’t met in months.”
“Tell me something, Tim, I don’t already know. But I have to meet with him.”
“Okay ma’am,” said Connors, leaning forward. “But something else just occurred to me. I know I haven’t told you about him, but have you had any briefings from D-I-A or the C-I-A or your military commanders on the ground in Iraq about Abdul Mohammed Aziz?”
“Yes,” said the President, who took a deep breath as she placed her elbows on the desk. “I haven’t been President very long, but even before I was Vice President I knew about him. I know he runs things now in Iraq out of his compound. Uh, where is it?”
“Sadr City, ma’am,” said Connors. “He’s gettin’ arms galore for his Shiite militiamen. He’s lookin’ to take over as soon as we pull out.”
“But we have feelers out now to several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan and Egypt, requesting they send in troops to fill the vacuum once we leave in July.”
“Don’t bet on it, ma’am,” said Connors. “Oh, they might make a big public relations splash
about sendin’ their troops, but it may be only a few hundred from each country. Not really enough to make any difference at all. And once some of the militias start shootin’ at ‘em for one reason or another, our good friends in Egypt or Jordan, or wherever, are gonna pull out their troops. They’re not going to risk losin’ troops to Aziz’s gang of cutthroats. That would be too big of a political risk for them back home.”
“Aziz can do that? He has that much power?”
“He’s got thousands of dedicated and well-trained militia fighters,” said Connors. “They’re quite a disciplined force. That’s because Aziz is a seasoned military commander.”
“In Iraq, I see that he is.”
“But he goes back further than Iraq, ma’am. Back to Afghanistan when the Soviets were there.”
“He fought them,” she said, “probably because he was like a lot of other Arabs at the time. They hated the Soviets for invading Afghanistan.”
“Well, yes ma’am, but he commanded the mujahidin there. He planned every battle against the Soviet Army, and he beat them, along with the bloody awful weather over there. And he had a small cadre of first-class lieutenants under his command. Let me show you a picture.” Connors got up from the couch and started toward the desk. The phone rang. Forster picked it up.
“Yes, Jessica,” she said. “Put him through now.” She looked at Connors. “It’s Jefferson.” “Good, we need to hear from him.”
“I’ll put him on speaker phone,” said the President. “Go ahead, Jefferson. How are you?”
“Fine, Madam President,” said former President Wheeler. “I can’t talk for very long. I’m now in Oman. Haven’t met yet with the Omani Prime Minister. I suspect it’ll be soon. But I talked with our embassy CIA contact here about some developments. Is Helen there?”
“No, I have Tim Connors with me, and you’re on speaker phone.”
“I’m glad you’re there, Tim. Madam President, Stevens the C-I-A man here says his
contacts noticed some strange things goin’ on near Suhar, about 175 miles up the coast on the Gulf
of Oman. Over a couple days, men with scarves covering their heads were motoring around in some kind of rubber boats off the beach. Twenty or thirty of ’em had come off cargo ships about five miles out, I was told. From the repetitive movements of these boats it appeared they were training for something.”
“Sir,” said Connors, leaning closer to the phone. “Did those contacts get any names of those ships?”
“Nope,” said Wheeler. “Even with a full moon they couldn’t read any names on the sides or back ends of the ships. Just too far away.”
“Did they see the ships during the day?” asked Connors.
“No, Tim, the ships never docked. Stayed a ways out all of the time, as I said, and were gone in less than three or four days. We couldn’t touch ‘em anyway because they were in Omani waters. But Stevens’ contacts said crews in Omani military uniforms loaded speedboats with food and water jugs from the beach and then took off back toward the ships.”
“Sir, did the contact count the number of ships in the Gulf?” asked Connors. “And was he able to describe them in more detail than just cargo ships?”
“All I got Tim was about four or five ships, total,” said Wheeler. “Descriptions, well, not much. As I said before, just cargo ships. That’s all. Madam President and Tim, I gotta go. But if there’s more on this, I’ll call right away.”
“I hope we talk soon.” Forster wondered whether the ships off the Oman coast were the same ones she’d seen in the photographs Connors had shown her.
“I’ll get back to you later from Oman or from Qatar tomorrow,” said Wheeler. “Goodbye ... oh, wait ma’am. Got some other news for ya. I called around to a few of my ol’ friends in the House and Senate. I hope I changed some minds. But I can tell ya one thing, you’re gonna have a heck of time gettin’ Connie Stowe in as Vice President, yes ma’am.”
“I know that Jefferson,” Forster said. “It all doesn’t come as any surprise to me.”
“You’re gonna stick with her, right?”
“Oh yes. I’m not letting those old coots get me down. No way.”
“Good,” said Wheeler, “an’ I hear ol’ man Dodge has a bum ticker an’ is laid up. That’s a good sign for ya in the House. I, uh, had a brief talk with Senator Hughes and from what he says you’re gonna have a tougher time in Senate.”
After the call, Forster swirled around in her chair and gazed momentarily at the White House garden. Then she slowly turned around and looked at Connors. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right, ma’am,” he said. “I know all this can get quite overwhelming sometimes. I sure wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.” Forster quickly remembered she still had on her slippers.
“Back to those ships, I guess,” she said. “Ah, do you think those ships in Oman are the same ones that left Karachi?”
“God, who knows, ma’am, at this point,” said Connors. “But it sure does make one wonder if there’s any connection.” He shook his head and turned around. “Oh, that picture I wanted to show you.” He went to the corner of the president’s desk and pulled from a manila folder a grainy black-and-white photograph. He placed it in front of the President. “On the left that’s, ah, Abdul Aziz in his mujahidin outfit in Afghanistan when the Soviets were there. The guy next to him with the AK-47 most likely could be Abu Mahmoud Rahman. But, as you can see, that side of the photo’s more blurry than the side where Aziz is standing. ”
“Where did you get this picture?”
“From the Russian military archives a couple years ago,” he said. “I was looking through my records the other day and saw it and pulled it out. Turn it over and take a look.” On the bottom left and bottom right on the back were Russian Cyrillic letters and numerals written in faint black ink. “Allow me to translate for you. The date is May 10th, uhm, 1984. The name on the left side is Aziz. The initials in the lower right are translated as A-M-R. They could stand for just about anything. But I’m leaning toward Abu Mahmoud Rahman.”