As soon as he heard the order, Jahni lost the fear, the nerves that ate at him. A man who didn’t fear combat was a fool of course, but the waiting is when he felt the fear. At the moment it started, the moment he went into the fight, the fear went… elsewhere. A strange calm descended on him. The SAS had taught him that. How to repress that natural fear for as long as he needed to carry out the mission.
The men moved into position exactly as planned. The plane looked impregnable to an ordinary observer, but Jahni and his men saw a dozen ways to get aboard. Some easier than others.
They moved close in the darkness, stayed in the shadows where anyone looking out from inside the bright interior couldn’t see them. Jahni himself headed with six of the men to the wheels. Others waited nearby with the wheeled steps, brought from all over the airport. Some of them motorised, forming strange little cars. Others would be hauled into place by muscle power.
In his ear he heard Madari’s voice in the radio chatter. Madari stood only a few hundred yards away he knew, on the windy tarmac, watching through night vision goggles and giving his orders through the radio. Safe.
Jahni had seen him fight too often. Seen him in the thick of it, when a random bullet could take him at any moment. Now he gave the orders without having to duck. Jahni knew Madari could fight. Respected what a fine soldier he was. But having him safe let Jahni focus in a way he never could when he fought at Madari’s side.
He looked at his waiting squad. They needed no last minute instructions. Any man who forgot details of a plan at this stage didn’t belong in the unit. He glanced at his watch. Time was the signal. Eleven twenty-three and fifty-three seconds showed on the softly glowing display. Seven seconds to go. He counted them down in his head, to eleven twenty-four. He pulled on his gas mask.
By eleven twenty-seven Jahni’s group was inside the plane, and heading up through the landing gear into the cabin. They were the advance group. Only once the enemy spotted them and the shooting started were the others to make their presence known, with a fast, overwhelming assault.
They climbed up through the guts of the plane and through a maintenance hatch into the cabin. Jahni and three of the men had made it all the way out before they were spotted. A young man turned from where he stood by what Jahni knew was the galley and saw them. He yelled and started to raise his pistol. Jahni, still low on the floor, shot him, his silenced gun’s pop sounding as loud as an ordinary shot to his ears. Didn’t matter, the man had already yelled a warning. Other yells started coming back, and then movement.
Jahni was up and moving forward before the first dead hijacker hit the floor. He covered the galley, but found only a flight attendant cowering on the floor. She looked no less afraid at the sight of her rescuers. Jahni waved a hand to her to indicate she should stay down and headed for the cabin. His group burst into the cabin at the same instant that explosions sounded from the side of the plane.
The shooting began.
“Get the stairs in place, come on!” Madari snapped, impatient as his men rushed sets of steps into place. One set of motorised ones actually slammed up against the plane and Madari heard the brakes screech. Men swarmed up the steps, with explosives ready to blast open the doors.
In seconds the bangs sounded as the explosive packs shattered the door locks.
Slides, slides, deploy the slides, Madari thought. With the slides deployed they could start getting the hostages off fast. Then one set of stairs was pulled away, all the men from it inside now, and the yellow slide expanded suddenly. The foot of it slapped onto the tarmac.
“Now?” Dhan, at Madari’s side, asked impatiently.
“Not yet. Keep them on the perimeter.” Dhan wanted to move his people in, to help anyone who came down the slides. Or capture them if they were the wrong people. They wouldn’t be. His men wouldn’t be so careless as to let any of the terrorists slip past them like that. The exits would be guarded.
One by one the other slides deployed and Dhan gasped suddenly as a figure appeared at one door. A woman, a blue scarf streaming out behind her as she jumped onto the slide. She had a child in her arms. One of Madari’s men waited at the bottom and grabbed the woman and screaming child, rushed them away and handed them off to Dhan’s men on the perimeter. She was swallowed in a crowd of people and in the darkness outside the ring of floodlights pinning the plane now.
A spotlight. The world is watching.
Gunshots sounded from inside the plane and more passengers started to come down the slides, yelling and screaming.
“Now,” Madari said to Dhan.
Two of them left on the upper deck, Jahni knew. His unit had secured the lower deck and cockpit. The hijackers lay dead and the panicking passengers were evacuating down the slides. A couple of gas grenades made the passengers even more scared and inclined to behave like headless chickens, but Jahni’s men were practically tossing them from man to man and then out of the exits, to tumble down the slides. Dealt with.
Now these last two. One appeared at the top of the staircase to the upper deck and yelled something. Kadry shot him dead.
The body crashed down the steps and hit the floor. Odd, Jahni thought. No gun in his hand. He hadn’t really been able to hear what the man had yelled, if it had even been something coherent. Had it been a surrender? Perhaps. Didn’t matter. Too late. Too late the moment they took this plane. Death warrants signed.
“Up,” Jahni snapped and led the way up the stairs. He poked his head up quick and back down again, taking in what he needed. He slithered out of the steps, staying close to the floor. Ahead of him the business class cabin was almost empty. Almost. A man’s feet showed, just sticking out from a row of seats. The row nearest the bathrooms at the front.
“I’ve got the ambassador!” A harsh, but panicky voice came from those seats. I’ll kill him!”
Jahni heard two other voices, one a woman, speaking in English with American accents. The Ambassador and his wife. They shouted for help.
“Shut up!” the hijacker screamed at them and Jahni heard the sound of a blow. The woman sobbed. Jahni scowled and pulled off his gas mask. No grenades this time. He was going to look this bastard in the eye. He moved and got half-way down the cabin before the man yelled and appeared around the seats to fire a shot at Jahni, who dived into the cover of a row of seats.
Jahni spoke softly into his radio to the men who had come up the steps behind him. “Pin him.”
They opened fire, keeping the hijacker cowering behind the seats. Jahni dropped to the floor, and, staying close against the seats ready to jump into cover again, commando crawled towards the enemy’s position.
Within seconds he was in the seats directly behind the hijacker and his hostages. Since he couldn’t speak without giving himself away, Jahni tapped three times on his microphone. The men ceased firing at once. A moment of quiet and then the muzzle of the hijacker’s pistol showed around the back of the seat, as the man poked his face and gun out cautiously to check the situation.
A straight-armed blow knocked the weapon from the terrorist’s hand, sending it flying across the aisle to slide under seats on that side. Both Jahni and the hijacker jumped up. The sight of Jahni, so close, so terrifying, made the man fall back and stumble into the tiny passageway outside the bathrooms. He tripped and started to fall.
The first shot took him in the shoulder. Jahni had aimed for the heart, but the fall took him by surprise. The next one found its mark. The final one went into the man’s temple and an instant later blood sprayed up the floor of the passageway as the dead man hit the floor.
Jahni’s men pounded up the aisle and one immediately checked the body, looking for signs of life and for explosives – they wouldn’t be caught out like that again. Jahni meanwhile, took a breath and turned to the middle aged man and woman, clinging to each other, the two of them crammed into one seat.
“Are either of you injured, sir?”
They shook their heads, still staring at him. Jahni touched his radio, opening the channel to Madari.
“We’re secured here on the upper deck. Hostile dead. The Ambassador and his wife are safe and unharmed. No casualties among unit personnel.”
That done, he turned back the the Americans. They’d risen now, still clutching each other, but both calmer. The ambassador held out his hand.
“Captain Jahni, isn’t it? Heard of you, young fella, heard of you. Thank you, Captain, from both of us, thank you.” His wife nodded, repeated ‘Thank you’ a few times.
“You should evacuate now, sir. We still have to check the plane for explosives.”
“Oh. Right, right, of course. Thank you, Captain. Good job, soldier. Good job.” Jahni bowed his head and let his men lead them away. He’d heard the reports coming in over the radio. All the hijackers were dead. No casualties among the hostages beyond the effects of tear gas and some tumbles down those emergency slides. None of his men killed or injured. Time for the final word, to Madari.
“Operation complete, Colonel, target fully secured. Send the bomb squad with their sniffers.”
“Well done, Captain. You may withdraw.”
“Thank you, sir. See you in five minutes.”
Madari didn’t see Jahni in five minutes. The Ambassador and his wife came down the steps placed against one door. Dhan greeted them there and tried to steer them to the terminal. But to Madari’s surprise, a moment later the Ambassador was in front of him, shaking his hand.
“I wanted to thank you personally, Colonel. A superb operation.”
“My men take the credit, your Excellency.”
“Come with me now, you’ll need to give a statement. I’ll bet the place is crawling with reporters.”
“Thank you, sir, but I still have work to do.”
“I insist. Follow me.”
He took Madari’s arm, and hustled him away. Unwilling to be impolite, Madari followed, Dhan hurrying along behind them. A moment later they walked into the terminal, and into a blaze of television lights. Flashbulbs popped, making Madari raise a hand briefly to shield his eyes. He tried to move away from the ambassador, since it must be him the press wanted to see, but the man held firm to his arm.
Questions came at them from every direction and after a second Madari realised many were directed at him. He held up a hand, hoping he could play his part in this and get back outside. Work to do.
“I’m Colonel Madari of the Royal Guard Special Forces group. We carried out this operation tonight, and I’m pleased to tell you that the aircraft is secured. All the hostages have been freed.”
Questions exploded at him again. Casualties, they wanted to know.
“There are no casualties among the hostages, or among the attacking force,” Madari said, and thought of those people waiting for that news of their loved ones. “I repeat. Though a few sustained minor injuries during the evacuation of the aircraft, no hostages were killed or seriously injured.”
A cheer sounded then, from upstairs in the departure lounge where Vali had housed the friends and families. They must be watching on televisions. He wondered again if Sophia was watching. Rather belatedly, he hoped he looked presentable, but he suspected his hair was a little wild from the stiff breeze outside.
“What about the hijackers?” The voice was in English, Madari answered in the same language.
“All the hijackers were killed in the operation. I must pay tribute to my men and their excellent work tonight. And also to Major Dhan of Airport Security who coordinated the crisis response over the last thirty-six hours. Thank you, I must go back to work now.”
With a sigh of relief, he hurried back out into the darkness, leaving the reporters firing questions at Dhan and the ambassador. Jahni waited, lounging against a wall right outside.
“CNN will make you a star.”
Madari shook his head. “I hope not. You’re the star, Kahil. You and all the men. Go back to the break room and I’ll arrange transport back to barracks.”
“Good. I’m starving.”
Madari got to bed just a little after three, in quarters at the barracks, and slept until almost nine in the morning. A soldier woke him with a clean uniform and told him Colonel Rahama would like to hear his report at Madari’s earliest convenience. Madari had been in the Army long enough to know that meant ‘right the hell now’, and fifteen minutes later, showered and shaved, he joined Rahama in his office. Rahama had a buffet breakfast waiting and also all the local and many foreign newspapers spread around.
“Ah, Faris, I hope you managed to get some sleep. Sit, sit. Private, serve the Colonel coffee, please and bring him some food.”
It was a pleasant enough way to deliver a preliminary report. After that was done, Madari took a look at some of the newspapers, flattered and gratified by their praise of his unit and him personally. Though one, the Az-Ma’ir Sunrise made him frown.
“Ah, I thought you’d find that one,” Rahama said. “What a strange thing to ask.”
“Well, it’s a legitimate question,” Madari said, trying to be fair. An editorial in the paper acknowledged the efficiency and success of the operation, but it added a caveat, a question over whether it had been necessary to kill all of the hijackers. Madari felt sure it had been and that when he read the detailed reports from his men, they would reflect that.
“Actually, they have requested an interview,” Rahama said. “Well, many of the papers have of course. The reporter who wrote that piece in the Sunrise wants to interview you and Captain Jahni.”
“No.” Madari snapped it and almost had to bite his tongue. “Not Jahni. Members of a Special Forces unit do not give interviews, certainly not on operational matters.”
Rahama nodded. “Understood. You however are the public face of the unit and I would like you to give this man his interview. Please arrange it.”
Annoyed, but with no choice, Madari nodded. “Of course, sir.”
Rahama smiled a little then. “Convince the man the answer to his question is ‘yes’. Do it quickly. Best to nip these things in the bud, eh?”
Madari understood now. Rahama was giving him an opportunity, one he might not have taken himself. That thought in mind, he headed to his office, where he found a stack of messages on his desk. He ignored them for now and picked up his phone. A moment later he heard Sophia’s voice and smiled.
“It’s me. I just wanted to make sure you got home safely after I left.”
“I did, thank you. I saw you on the television.” He heard a smile in her voice. “Your hair was rather messy and you needed a shave, but you looked very handsome anyway. Have you had any sleep?”
“Yes, but I could use some more. I’m not sure when I’ll get away from barracks. There’s a lot to do. I’ll call you when I can.” He glanced up, at a movement at the door to see Jahni there and gestured to him to come in.
“Well, when you can come around I’ll make you a proper dinner. And feel free to bring some of your handsome young soldiers around too. I’m quite happy to feed the heroes of the hour.”
Madari laughed, imagining such a dinner party. Of course, his men would all be perfectly polite. That in itself would be worth watching.
“Well, I must go,” he said. “I’ll call you later.”
Jahni waited until Madari put the phone down and then handed over a folder.
“Preliminary reports from all the officers and men, sir.”
“Thank you. Sit down, Kahil, you still look tired.”
Jahni sat, nodding. “Barely five hours sleep. I could use another ten.”
“You and all the men from the operation are under orders to rest for the next two days.” He found Jahni’s own report on the top when he opened the folder and skimmed through it, skipping quickly to the termination of the terrorists on the plane. What he read niggled a little at the back of his mind, and made him think about that strange question in the Sunrise. But a glance at Jahni, his pale face and dark-circled eyes made him decide to discuss it later.
“Go home, Kahil, and tell the other men from the operation to do the same. I don’t want to see any of you back here before tomorrow lunchtime. We’ll have the full debrief then.”
“Are you going home?” Jahni said. “You look as tired as I feel.”
“Soon,” Madari said. “I have some things to deal with first. I’ll call you later.” He added the last part, not sure why, then went on. “In case you want to talk.”
Jahni looked a little puzzled, but nodded and left the office. Madari checked through some of his messages. A lot of them were congratulations, some were thanks, from loved ones of the liberated hostages. One was a telegram, from America and made him smile to read it. ‘Saw TV. Face says you need to comb your hair. Nice job. Kahil too. Speak later. Hannibal.’
CNN really had made him famous.
But now he had work to do. He pressed the intercom to speak to his clerk.
“Corporal, get me the news desk of the Az-Ma’ir Sunrise.”
Madari met the journalist that afternoon. The man insisted that yes, he could come right over, no problem. Madari hesitated a moment, but decided he might as well get this over with.
Preferring not to give the man access to the Special Forces unit’s buildings, he found a meeting room in the main headquarters. At two that afternoon, a private showed his visitor, Mr Hamin, in.
“Colonel Madari, thank you for seeing me.” Hamin gave Madari a long handshake, studying him with sharp and observant hazel eyes. A younger man than Madari expected, surprising him, barely thirty years old.
“Mr Hamin, I’m happy to speak to you,” Madari said, the ‘happy’ being something of an exaggeration. “But I am pressed for time, I can only give you thirty minutes.” Another exaggeration. Like the men, he was ready to go home and rest, all the debriefing and paperwork would come tomorrow.
They sat and after a private served refreshments and left them, Hamin brought out his notebook and a tape recorder. Madari eyed the recorder warily, not keen on that idea. But he knew a little about reporters. If you refused to cooperate they made that into the story. They turned caution into a sinister conspiracy of silence. So he made no objection to the tape recorder. He had no reason to, he had nothing to hide after all. His men had made him proud, their success and discipline made him proud.
“Mr Hamin,” he said, deciding he’d take control of the conversation before the reporter could. “Your newspaper raised a question about whether is was necessary to kill all of the hijackers when my team took the plane.”
“Yes, I -”
“I’ve read the preliminary reports from my men now and believe they were entirely justified in their actions.”
“I appreciate all of the hijackers had to be shot, to incapacitate them. But none were merely wounded?”
“My men had a duty to protect the hostages, and themselves and their colleagues.”
“And killing the hijackers was the only way to achieve that?”
“It usually is, and it was last night too.”
“I see. Does your unit operate a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, Colonel?”
“No!” Madari snapped the word, then glanced at the tape recorder and regretted his defensive tone. Damn civilians. Why couldn’t they understand this? They had ridiculous notions about aiming for the legs, or shooting the gun from a man’s hand. They watched too much television. “Our policy is shoot to stop, Mr Hamin. That’s the policy of every counter terrorist unit, or SWAT team in the world. Stop the threat. It’s the only policy that works.”
“I see.” Hamin glanced down at his notebook. “Will I be able to speak to Captain Jahni, or any of the other men from the mission?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“May I ask why not?”
“Members of Special Forces units do not give interviews to the press.”
“Not only ours.”
Hamin nodded. “I understand the need for anonymity, but Captain Jahni is already quite well known to the citizens of Qumar.”
“Perhaps. But he’s not allowed to give interviews about his work. I’m sorry.” Madari felt some pride in himself. He’d retained his control well so far. Snapped a little at that stupid ‘shoot to kill policy’ question. But otherwise, he’d kept his temper in check and not allowed the man to provoke him.
“Your unit has an impressive record, Colonel.”
“On your last three operations all of the targets have been killed.” Madari froze at Hamin’s words. The reporter went on after a moment. “Is your mission to eliminate terrorist cells, or to simply eliminate all of the terrorists?”
“These are terrorists, Mr Hamin! Hostage-takers, bombers, men who target innocent civilians, women and children.”
“So you kill them for revenge?”
Madari opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again, his eye on that tape recorder. After a moment, he gathered himself and spoke calmly.
“Are you accusing my unit of excessive force?”
“Yes, Colonel. Yes I am.”
“My men are too well trained and too well led in the field to lose discipline like that. I refute your allegation.” His voice was icy cold now, despite the rage building inside him, but Hamin was watching him closely, perhaps waiting for that control to crack.
What did this man know of battle? Had he ever had a man point a gun at him, fully intending to kill him? You didn’t think of revenge, or policy at that moment. You made sure the threat was neutralised. You made sure the threat wouldn’t get up again. Yes, it often meant killing, but you didn’t even think of it that way.
Wait, Madari thought. Didn’t think of killing as killing? Didn’t think of killing a man as ending a life? As killing a son, brother, husband, father? Of snuffing out a soul?
“Colonel?” Hamin said, bringing Madari’s attention back to him. “May we continue?”
Madari stood, shaking his head. His anger had vanished, replaced by worry, and he didn’t want to show that to the reporter.
“We’re done, I have work… thank you for coming in.”
“Thank you for seeing me, sir.” Hamin stood too. He turned off his tape recorder and looked at Madari for a moment. “Off the record, Colonel. I appreciate you will defend your men one hundred percent. I know you have confidence in them. And I know you are a man of principle, of good intentions. All I ask is that you think about what I said.” He gathered up his belongings and left, leaving Madari alone in the meeting room.
Madari walked to the window and gazed out across the parade ground. A corner of his unit’s building was just visible from here.
‘Think about what I said’. Hamin needn’t have asked that. How could Madari not?
He thought about it until he went home and slept and he thought about it when he woke up, quite late in the morning. He was still thinking about it, standing by the window, wrapped in his bathrobe and drinking coffee when the phone rang. He expected Sophia or Jahni, but the voice on the line had an echoing tone. Long distance.
“Well, if it isn’t my famous friend, Colonel Faris Madari.”
“Hello, Hannibal,” Madari said, sitting down in an armchair. “Thank you for your telegram.”
“No problem. Just wanted to pass on my congratulations personally. You did great, Faris. You and your team.”
“The credit is all theirs, I assure you. Kahil especially of course. He makes me so proud.”
“Well, hell, he makes me proud. You both do, and the rest of the boys. You know I’ll be dining out on you for months. ‘Ah yes, I taught Colonel Madari everything he knows, you know’.”
Madari laughed at that, and the boasting tone Hannibal used as he said it.
“Hannibal, I hardly think you, of all people, need to use me as dinner party conversation.”
“Well, you know, there’s only so many times people will listen to that cabbage cannon story before they start asking ‘what have you done for me lately?'”
“Really? Personally I never tire of the cabbage cannon story.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed you even like to listen to it with your eyes closed now so you can really savour it.”
They laughed together, but then Madari spoke more seriously. “Hannibal, may I ask your advice on something?”
“Always. I’ll send an invoice later.” But then his tone changed, became as serious as Madari’s. “Go on. Problems?”
“Possibly. One of the newspapers here in the city made a comment about why we had to kill all of the hijackers.”
“The answer is kind of in the question there, isn’t it? Hijackers… gives it away.”
“That’s what I argued. I spoke to one of their journalists and he accused the unit of excessive force.”
Hannibal snorted, the contempt in it coming through clearly even over the thousands of miles between them.
“And does this guy not understand what a counter-terrorist unit is? You are the excessive force. You’re who they call when excessive force is exactly what’s needed.”
“I know.” Madari shook his head. “But try telling that to a journalist on a campaign.”
“If you give me his number, I’ll do just that.”
Madari thought he detected a hint of humour in Hannibal’s tone. He was probably joking, wasn’t he? Then again – this was Hannibal.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you. But I appreciate the support.”
“You’re not letting it get to you, are you?”
“It made me think. I think after the full debrief today I’ll perhaps have personal meetings with each of the squad, just to talk about it. I’m confident that they are too well disciplined to behave that way, but still, it’s been a while since I talked to some of them on an individual basis.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Look, I have to go, this call is clocking up the cash fast.”
“Of course. Thanks for calling anyway, and for your advice.”
“Call me about it any time. You guys are doing great, but you’re still a young unit and I know it takes time to get everything right.”
“Your advice is always welcome.”