QANDAHAR

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Chapter 15

5:48 p.m. GMT+3hrs. March 22, 2009

Persian Gulf, about 40 miles east of Saudi Arabia

The Barreiro, followed by the Chaves and the Coimbra, steamed northwest at a speed of approximately fifteen knots toward Saudi Arabia.

A 170-foot-long, U.S. Navy patrol ship had begun a search for three Portuguese-flagged freighters. The USS Thunderbolt, armed with four machine guns and two combination chain guns and cannons, was ordered to steam parallel to the ships, if detected, at a distance of no less than one mile and no more than two miles south.

Sadiq Haqqani was below in the Barreiro helping his Jihadist fighters finish locking in two M240 belt-fed, mounted machine guns, fore and aft, on each of ten Omega boats. Velcro-strapped to the decks of each boat were two shoulder-fired, Carl Gustav M2 anti-tank rocket launchers with ten rounds each and two RPG-7 shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, also with ten rounds each. Yokosuka outboard engines were attached to each boat and raised at an upward angle to avoid propellers being damaged from scrapping against the hold’s steel deck.

All the Omega boats, after they had been armed and loaded, were tied down with each bow pointed toward the port-side bulkhead.

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6:33 p.m. CST. Gulf of Mexico. March 22, 2009

Ten miles south of Gilchrist, Texas

The Seixal’s radar had picked up a fast-approaching blip less than an hour after the shrimp trawler blew up and sank. Abu Mahmoud stood behind a Pakistani radar operator and watched the moving radar blip. Suddenly it stopped.

“Coordinates?” Abu Mahmoud asked in Arabic. “Where are they?”

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“Same longitude and latitude, about same location where we left the shrimper,” the radar operator said. Abu Mahmoud turned to the ship’s captain, a tall Indian Muslim.

“We’ll stay here until two hours after nightfall,” Abu Mahmoud said. “Then we proceed. If that blip starts moving west, call me immediately.” He went to bridge deck, grasped the safety railing tightly with both hands and stared at the water’s placid surface. After several minutes he went below to his cabin.

6:47 p.m. CST. Gulf of Mexico. March 22, 2009

Eighteen miles southeast of Peveto Beach, Louisiana

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Patrick Styles had stopped dead in the water. Coast Guardsmen switched on deck-mounted floodlights and scanned the surface below. Off its bow floated the blackened, mangled wreckage of the shrimp trawler. Bright, harsh lights illuminated pieces of foam insulation, strips of wood from the trawler’s hull and empty life jackets. The cutter’s captain ordered lifeboats to be lowered to pick up five bodies, facedown in the water. Before the bodies were zipped into body bags on deck and carried into a cold-storage locker, the cutter swung around east and sailed to New Orleans.

7:08 p.m. CST. Gulf of Mexico. March 22, 2009

Eighteen miles southeast of Caplen, Texas

Abu Mahmoud slammed shut the hatch to his shipboard sleeping quarters, a cabin with a low ceiling and about the length and width of a Soviet Army officer’s tent. He screamed. He knew the three Jihadist fighters who’d fired their AK-47s and the RPG round into the trawler. They had disobeyed his strict orders to use their weapons only in conjunction with his planned attack, now set for early Monday, March 23rd. Under normal battlefield conditions, the three Jihadist fighters, no matter their loyalty, would have been summarily executed, their bodies thrown overboard. But Abu Mahmoud needed all the fighters he had on board the four ships.

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There was a chance, he thought, the mission’s security had been compromised. Whether the mission was completely jeopardized at this point was unknown. If a Coast Guard cutter or other

U.S. government patrol craft were to track down his four ships, the entire operation would have to be scrapped. That would entail the immediate scuttling of the four ships. All hands were to be locked below deck and go down with the ships. No one was to survive. Water pressure-sensitive devices on each of the four ships were electronically rigged to trigger blasting caps wired to 200 pounds of dynamite strapped inside each of the ships’ bilge tanks.

Abu Mahmoud sat on the edge of his bunk after clearing it of several maps and nautical charts in a fit of anger. He looked through the last page or two of a several hundred page single-line, computer printout: the Jihadist Front’s synchronized battle plan for the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf. He checked his wristwatch, then tossed the printout to the floor and picked up a satellite phone that had been on a small, bulkhead-mounted table. He checked his watch again and left the cabin.

Facing south from the Seixal’s port-side deck, Abu Mahmoud dialed a number on the satellite phone and waited a few moments. He looked west. The sun had set over Galveston, twenty-five miles to the southwest.

Sadiq heard the ring tone and picked up a matching satellite phone while he was sitting on a deck chair inside the Barreiro’s wheelhouse.

“Qandahar,” Abu Mahmoud said softly into the receiver. He loudly repeated “Qandahar” without a twitch in his voice.

Sadiq repeated the same word twice before he clicked off the phone. He went a few steps to a deck railing outside the wheelhouse and flung the phone into the Persian Gulf.

Abu Mahmoud pulled out his nine-millimeter Beretta, making sure the safety was on, and dropped the phone to the Sevilla’s deck. Gripping the pistol’s barrel in his right hand, he knelt on one knee and hammered down the pistol’s butt, smashing the phone. After holstering his pistol he heaved overboard the jagged scraps of plastic and bent metal.

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Abu Mahmoud leaned against the ship’s railing and looked skyward. His gaze locked onto the constellation Orion. Ready to attack with a single arrow, this archer, he thought. A moment later, he pushed off from the railing to go below deck into the ship’s hold. But he stopped by the radio room and called the other ships to make sure his plan was proceeding on schedule.

Less than five miles south of the Seixal, two 300,000 dead-weight tonnage Texas Gulf Oil supertankers steamed west toward Galveston Bay. The huge ships would disgorge thousands of tons of crude oil at the largest oil, liquefied natural gas and refinery terminal in the western hemisphere.

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