Lethal Agent – Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn

THE cave was more than ten meters square, illuminated with a handful of battery-powered work lights. The glare and heat from them was centered on two rows of men kneeling on colorful cushions. Armed guards lurked near the jagged walls, barely visible in the shadows. Mullah Sayid Halabi sat cross-legged, gazing down from a natural stone platform. Most of the men lined up in front of him were in their middle years—former junior oГcers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army. Their commanders had been either captured or killed over the years, but these simpler soldiers were in many ways more useful. Their superiors had left the details of war to them while they focused on the much more critical activity of currying favor with Hussein. The prior leader of ISIS had recruited these men in an eАort to turn his motivated but undisciplined forces into an army capable of holding and administering territory. After his death in a drone strike, Halabi had taken over the organization with a much more ambitious goal: building a military capacity that could stand against even the Americans. Unfortunately, it was proving to be an infuriating, slow, and expensive process. His men, generally prone to bickering and loud displays of fealty, had fallen silent in order to contemplate the rhythm of approaching footsteps. Halabi did the same, turning his attention to an inky black tunnel in the wall facing him. A few moments later, Aali Nassar appeared. His expensive clothing was torn and covered in the dust that made up this part of Iraq. His physical suАering was admirably absent from his expression but evident in both his posture and the broken section of collarbone pressing against the luxurious cotton of his shirt.

Only hours ago, he had been the highly respected and greatly feared director of Saudi intelligence. A man who had never failed to prove himself—Йrst in the Saudi Special Forces and then during his meteoric rise through the ranks of his country’s intelligence apparatus. He had the ear of the king, a devoted family, and a lifestyle marked by privilege and power. But now all that was gone. His plot to overthrow the Saudi royalty had been discovered and he’d been forced to Мee the country. The great Aali Nassar was now alone, injured, and standing in a cave with nothing more than the clothes on his back and the contents of his pockets. It was the latter that he hoped to exchange for protection and a position in the ISIS hierarchy. “Welcome, Aali,” Halabi said finally. “I trust your journey wasn’t too uncomfortable.” “Notatall,” he said, revealing only a hint of the pain that speaking caused him.

“I understand that you have something for me?” The thumb drive Nassar was carrying had been discovered when he’d been searched for tracking devices in Mecca. He’d been allowed to keep it and now retrieved it from his pocket. When he stepped forward to hand it to Halabi, the men at the edges of the cave stirred. “Don’t give it to me.” The ISIS leader pointed ata man to Nassar’s right. “Give it to him.” He did as he was told and the man slipped the drive into a laptop. “It’sasking for a password.” “Of course it is,” Halabi said. “But I suspect that Director Nassar will be reluctant to give us that password.

” Prior to his escape from Saudi Arabia, Nassar had downloaded an enormous amount of information on that country’s security operations, government officials, and clandestine financial dealings. “The intelligence and bank account information on that drive are yours,” Nassar said. Halabi smiled. “A meaningless response. Perhaps politics was your true calling.” “Perhaps.” “Can we break hisencryption?” Halabi asked. His very capable technological advisor shook his head. “Unlikely. Torturing him for it would have a higher probability of success.

” “I wonder,” Halabi said thoughtfully. “It seems likely that there’s a password that would put the information forever out of our reach. Isn’t that so, Aali?” “It is.” Halabi rubbed his palms together in front of his face. “The money that drive gives us access to will quickly slip through our Йngers and the intelligence will just as quickly become dated. Is it the information it contains that’s valuable or is it the cunning and experience of the man who brought it here?” The question was clearly rhetorical, but one Halabi’s people answered anyway. “Do those qualities make him valuable or do they make him dangerous? He’s betrayed his king and country. Why? For the cause? For Allah? Or is it for personal gain? Can he be trusted, Mullah Halabi? Is he here to assist you or is he here to replace you?” “I had power,” Nassar responded. “I had wealth. I had the respect of the king and the Americans.

But I jeopardized itall. I—” “The king is old and weak,” the man interrupted. “You feared the collapse of the kingdom and were playing both sides. The Americans discovered your treachery and now you’ve had to run.” Nassar fell silent for a moment before speaking again. “They discovered my allegiance to Mullah Halabi, yes. Regrettable, because while I can be of great assistance to you from here, I would have been much more eАective at the king’s side. The eАort that went into gaining his confidence isn’t something that I’d expecta simple soldier to understand.” The man stiАened at the insult, but Nassar continued. “I’ve worked closely with the Americans on their homeland security protocols and preventing terrorist attacks on their soil.

It’s given me an intimate knowledge of their borders and immigration policy, their power grid and nuclear plants. Even their water supply. If we strike surgically, we can turn the tide of the war. We can make the Americans lash out againstall Muslimsand turn your thirty thousand soldiers into a billion.” Halabi stared down at Nassar, who averted hiseyes in an obviously insincere gesture of fealty. Then his forehead exploded outward. In the split second of stillness that followed, Halabi saw a bearded face Мicker into view at the tunnel entrance. It was the face of the devil that had been burned so indelibly onto his mind and soul. The face of Mitch Rapp. And then everything was in motion.

Members of Halabi’s guard charged toward him while others Йred into the tunnel. Three of his men began dragging him toward a small opening at the back of the cavern as the roar of gunfire and acrid stench of gunpowder became overwhelming. A blinding Мash preceded the sensation of shrapnel tearing through his lower leg. The man behind him took the brunt of the blast, slamming into Halabi from behind and driving him to the ground. The lights were immediately extinguished and debris began cascading from the ceiling. The men with him were either dead or unconscious, and Halabi struggled to get out from beneath the weight of the one sprawled across his back. As he did so, the extent of his injuries became clear. His right arm was useless and completely numb. His left leg felt as though it was on Йre and a dagger-like pain in his side made it diГcult to breathe. The warm, wet sensation of Мowing blood seemed to cover nearly his entire body, but it was impossible to know if it was his or that of his men.

A few muЖed shouts became audible but were quickly drowned out by a collapse somewhere not far from him. A rush of air washed over him, Йlling the cavern with a choking cloud of dust and pulverized rock. He buried his face in his blood-soaked tunic and fought to stay conscious. It couldn’t end this way. God wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t allow his faithful disciple to die at the hands of Satan’s representative on earth. Not before His work was done. A test. That had to be the explanation. It wasa test of his strength.

His worthiness. His devotion. Bolstered by that realization, Halabi managed to drag himself from beneath his man. The darkness was now absolute, but he wasable to Йnd the back wall of the cave and feel along itas the last weak shouts around him fell silent. Finally, he located the narrow opening he was looking for and, by the grace of God, it was still passable. Reports were that it was six hundred meters long and varied from three meters in diameter to barely wide enough for a full-grown man. He dragged himself through the broken rock, feeling his way forward. In places the passage seemed blocked, but after a few moments of blind exploration, he always managed to progressa few more meters. Finally the walls narrowed to the point that it was impossible to continue. He tried to retreat but found himself trapped.

The world seemed to disappear, adding to his confusion and amplifying the pain that racked his body. For a time, there was little else. No sound that wasn’t produced by him. No light that his eyes could process. Only the pain, the taste ofearth, and the swirl of his own thoughts. The elation he’d felt when he’d concluded this was a test became lost in the realization that what he wasexperiencing felt more like a punishment. What had he done to deserve Allah’s wrath? He slipped in and out of consciousness, though in the darkness it was diГcult to diАerentiate the two. He saw America. The gleaming buildings. The mass of humanity pursuing pleasure and comfort as a replacement for God.

He saw the glorious collapse of the World Trade Center and the horror and vulnerability thatattack had instilled in the American people. An incredible victory wasted by Osama bin Laden, who had turned to blithering endlessly about Islam on hazy video. He saw the rise of ISIS fueled by its grasp of social media and intimate understanding of what motivated young men throughout the world. And, Йnally, he saw its battleЙeld victories and ability to terrify the Americans in a way thateven September 11 hadn’t. He tried to pull himself forward again and again collapsed into the bed of shattered rock beneath him. The darkness and silence was deeper than anything he’d ever experienced. It blurred not only the lines between consciousness and lucidity but between life and death. Only the pain and sound of his own breathing assured him that he hadn’t crossed over. He didn’t know how long he lay there but Йnally the darkness began to recede. He opened his eyes but didn’t see the earthen tunnel around him.

Only the blinding white light of God. It was then that he understood. It was his own arrogance that had brought him to this place. He had allowed his own hate and thirst for victory to deМect him from the work God had charged him with. He had become seduced by the power he wielded over his followers and the fear he commanded from his enemies. By visions of a new caliphate with him at its head, locked in righteous battle with the forces of the West. He felt the panic rising in him, growing to a level that was nearly unbearable. The life he’d lived was a lie and God had finally shown him that fact. He had served only himself. Only his own vanity and hate.

Halabi clawed at the wallsaround him, unwilling to die in this graceless state. He felt something in his shoulder tear, but ignored itand was finally rewarded with a cascade of rock that created a path forward. He was free. CHAPTER 1 SOUTHWEST OF THAMUD YEMEN MITCH Rapp started to move again, weaving through an expansive boulder Йeld before dropping to his stomach at its edge. A quick scan of the terrain through his binoculars provided the same result it had every time before: reddish dirt covering an endless series of pronounced ridges. No water. No plant life. A burned-out sky starting to turn orange in the west. If it were ninety-Йve below zero instead of ninetyfive above, he could have been on Mars. Rapp shifted his gaze to the right, concentrating for a good Йfteen seconds before spotting a Мash of movement that was either Scott Coleman or one of his men.

All were wearing camo made from cloth speciЙcally selected and dyed for this op by Charlie Wicker’s girlfriend. She was a professional textile designer and a Мat-out genius at matching colors and textures. If you gave her a few decent photos of your operating theater, she’d make you disappear. A couple of contrails appeared above and he followed them with his eyes. Saudi jets on their way to bomb urban targets to the west. This sparsely populated part of Yemen had become the exclusive territory of ISIS and al Qaeda, but the Saudis largely ignored it. Viable targets were hard to engage from the air and the Kingdom didn’t have the stomach to get bloody on the ground. That job had once again landed in his lap. SatisЙed they weren’t being watched, Rapp started forward in a crouch. Coleman and his team would follow, watching his back at perfect intervals like they had in Iraq.

And Afghanistan. And Syria. And just aboutevery other shithole the planet had to offer. The Yemeni civil war had broken out in 2015 between Houthi rebels and government forces. Predictably, other regional powers had been drawn in, most notably Iran backing the rebels and Saudi Arabia getting behind the government. The involvement of those countries had intensiЙed the conМict, creating a humanitarian disaster impressive even by Middle Eastern standards. In many ways, it was a forgotten war. The world’s dirty little secret. Even among U.S.

government oГcials and military commanders, it would be hard to Йnd anyone aware that two-thirds of Yemen’s population was surviving on foreign aid and another eight million were slowly starving. They also wouldn’t be able to tell you that hunger and the loss of basic services were causing disease to run rampant through the country. Cholera, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and even diphtheria were surging to levels unheard-of in the modern era. And anyplace that could be described using words like “forgotten,” “rampant,” and “war” eventually became a magnet for terrorists. They were yetanother disease that infected the weakened and wounded. An unusually high ridge became visible to the northwest, and Rapp dropped to the ground again, studying it through his lenses. He could make out a gap just large enough for a human about three hundred yardsaway. “Whatcha got?” Coleman said over hisearpiece. “The cave entrance. Right where they said it would be.

” “Are we moving?” “No, it’s backlit. We’ll let the sun drop over the horizon.” “Roger that. Everybody copy?” Bruno McGraw, Joe Maslick, and Charlie Wicker all acknowledged. The four men made up about half the people in the world Rapp trusted. Probably a sad state of aАairs, but one that had kept him alive for a lot longer than anyone would have predicted. He Йne-tuned the focus on his binoculars, reЙning his view of the dark hole in the cliА face. It was hard to believe that Sayid Halabi was still alive. If Rapp had been any closer with that grenade, it would have gotten jammed in the ISIS leader’s throat. But even if his aim had been way oА, it shouldn’t have mattered.

The blast had brought down a significant portion of the cavern he’d been hiding out in. The collapse had been extensive enough that Rapp himself had been trapped in it. In fact, he’d have died slowly in the darkness if Joe Maslick wasn’ta human wrecking ball who had spent much of his youth digging ditches on a landscaping crew. Oxygen had been getting pretty scarce when Mas Йnally broke through and dragged him from the grave he’d made for himself. Despite all that, the intel on Halabi seemed reasonably solid. A while back, someone at NSA had decrypted a scrambled Internet video showing the man standing in the background at an al Qaeda meeting. The initial take had been that it was archival footage dredged up to keep the troops motivated. Deeper analysis, though, suggested that the images may have been taken six months after the night Rapp thought he’d finally ground his boot into that ISIS cockroach. The video had led to the capture of one of the people at that meeting, and his interrogation led Rapp to this burned-out plain. The story was that Halabi had been severely injured by that grenade and was hiding out here convalescing.

The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was whether it was true. And if it was true, was he still here. Clearly, he was healthy enough to be going to meetings and starting the process of rebuilding ISIS after the beating it had taken in hisabsence. The sun Йnally hit the horizon, causing an immediate drop in temperature and improvement in visibility. Waiting for full darkness was an option, but it seemed unnecessary. He hadn’t seen any sign of exterior guardsand night versus day would have little meaning once he passed into that cave. “We’re on,” he said into his throat mike. “Copy that,” came Coleman’s response. Rapp angled left, moving silently across the rocky terrain until he reached a stone wall about twenty yards from the cavern entrance. Staying low, he crept along the wall’s base until he reached its edge.

Still no sign of ISIS enforcers. Behind him, the terrain was similarly empty, but that was to be expected. Coleman and his team would remain invisible until they were needed. It was impossible to anticipate the environment inside the cave, and Rapp was concerned that it could get tight enough to make a force of more than one man counterproductive. When he Йnally slipped inside, the only evidence that it was inhabited was the churned dirt beneath his feet. He held his weapon in front of him as he eased along a passage about three feet wide and ten feet high. The familiar weight of his Glock had been replaced with that of an early-model Mission crossbow. His weapons tech had modiЙed it for stealth, pushing the decibel level below eighty-Йve at the bow. Even better, the pitch had been lowered to the point that it sounded nothing like a weapon. Even to Rapp’s practiced ear, it came off more like a bag of sand dropping onto a sidewalk.

Crossbows weren’t the fastest things to reload and there hadn’t been much time to train with it, but he still Йgured it was the best tool for the job. The quietest pistol he owned—a Volquartsen .22 with a Gemtech suppressor—was strapped to his thigh, but it would be held in reserve. While it was impressively stealthy, the sharp crack it made was too loud and recognizable for this operating environment. The darkness deepened the farther he penetrated, forcing him to move slowly enough for his eyes to keep pace. Based on what had happened last time he’d chased Sayid Halabi into a hole, it made sense to prioritize caution over speed. Mas might have forgotten his shovel. A faint glow became visible at the end of the passage and Rapp inched toward it, avoiding the rocks beneath his feet and staying on the soft earth. As he got closer, he could see that the corridor came to a T. The branch going right dead-ended after a few feet but the one to the left continued.

A series of tiny bulbs wired to a car battery was the source of the glow. One of the downsides of LED technology was that it made hiding out in caves a lot easier. A single battery could provide light for days. But italso created a vulnerability. Power supplies tended not to be as widely distributed and redundantas they used to be. Rapp reached down and flipped the cable off the battery, plunging the cavern into darkness. Shouts became audible almost immediately, but sounded more annoyed than alarmed. Rapp could tell that the voices belonged to two male Arabic speakers, but picking out exactly what they were saying was diГcult with the echo. Basically a little name-calling and arguing about whose turn it was to Йx the problem. When all your light came from a single improvised source, occasional outages were inevitable.

One of the men appeared a few seconds later, swinging a Мashlight in his right hand but never lifting it high enough to give detail to his face. It didn’t matter. From his youthful gait and posture, it was clear that it wasn’t Halabi. Just one of his stooges. Rapp aimed around the corner and gently squeezed the trigger. The sound proЙle of the crossbow and the projectile’s impact were both outstanding. Unfortunately, the accuracy at this range was less so. The man was still standing, seemingly perplexed by the fletching protruding beneath his left clavicle. Rapp let go of his weapon and sprinted forward, getting one arm around the Arab’s neck and clamping a hand over his mouth and nose. The man fought as he was dragged back around the corner, but the sound of their struggle was attenuated by soft ground.

Finally, Rapp dropped and wrapped his legs around him to limit his movement. There wasn’t enough leverage to choke him out, but the hand over his face was doing a pretty good job of suАocating him. The process took longer than he would have liked and he was gouged a few times by the protruding bolt, but the Arab Йnally lost consciousness. A knife to the base of his skull finished the job. Rapp slid from beneath the body and was recocking the crossbow when another shout echoed through the cavern. “Farid! Whatare you doing, idiot? Turn the lights back on!” Rapp yelled back that he couldn’t get them working, counting on the acoustics to make it diГcult to distinguish one Arabic-speaking male from another. He loaded a bolt into his weapon and ran to the battery, putting the Мashlight facedown in the dirt before crouching. The illumination was low enough thatanyone approaching wouldn’t be able to see much more than a vague human outline. A stream of half-baked electrical advice preceded the sound of footsteps and then another young man appeared. He didn’t seem at all concerned, once again proving the grand truth of all things human: people saw what they wanted and expected to see.

Rapp let the terrorist get to within Йfteen feet before snatching up the crossbow. This time he compensated by aiming low and left, managing to put the projectile center of mass. No follow-up was necessary. The man fell forward, landing face-first in the dirt. Certain that he wasn’t getting up again, Rapp reconnected the battery. He was likely going to need the light. Things had gone well so far but, in hisexperience, good luck never came in threes. Support for that hypothesis emerged when a man who was apparently distrustful of the sound of falling sand bags sprinted around the corner. Rapp’s .22 was in an awkward position to draw, so instead he grabbed one of the bolts quivered on the crossbow.

The terrorist had been a little too enthusiastic in his approach and his momentum bounced him oА one of the cave’s walls. Rapp took advantage of his compromised balance and lunged, driving the bladed head into his throat. Not pretty, but eАective enough to drop the man. As he fell, though, a small pipe sprouting wires rolled from his hand. Not again. Rapp used his boot to kick the IED beneath the man’s body and then ran in the opposite direction, making itabout twenty feet before diving into a shallow dip in the ground. The explosion sent hot gravel washing over him and he heard a few disconcertingly loud cracks from above, but that was it. The rock held. He rolled onto his back, pulling his shirt over his mouth and nose to protect his lungs from the dust. The smart money would be to turn tail and call in a few bunker busters, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

If Halabi was there, Rapp was going to see him dead. Even if they entered the afterlife together with their handsaround each other’s throats. The sound of automatic Йre started up outside but Rapp ignored it, pulling the Volquartsen and using a penlight to continue deeper into the cavern. Coleman and his boys could handle themselves. The cave system turned out to be relatively simple—a lot of branches, but almost all petered out after a few feet. The Йrst chamber of any size contained a cot and some rudimentary medical equipment—an IV cart, monitors, and a garbage can half full of bloody bandages. All of it looked like it had been there for a while. The second chamber appeared to have been set up for surgical procedures but wasn’t much more advanced than something from World War I. A gas cylinder that looked like it came from a welder, a tray with a few instruments strewn across it, and a makeshift operating table streaked with dried blood. And that was the end of the line.

The cave system dead-ended just beyond. “Shit!” Rapp shouted, his voice reverberating down the corridor and bouncing back to him. The son of a bitch had been there. They’d brought him to treat the injuries he’d sustained in Iraq and to give him time to heal. A month ago, Rapp might have been able to look into his eyes, put a pistol between them, and pull the trigger. But now he was long gone. Sayid Halabi had slipped through his fingersagain. CHAPTER 2 AL MUKALLA YEMEN SAYID Halabi carefully lowered himself into a chair facing a massive hole in the side of the building he was in. Shattered concrete and twisted rebar framed his view of the cityscape stretching into the darkness. A half-moon made it possible to make out the shapes of destroyed vehicles, collapsed homes, and scattered cinder blocks.

No light beyond that provided by God burned anywhere in sight. Power had once again been lost and the city’s half a million residents were reluctant to light Йres or use battery power out of fear that they could be targeted by the Saudis. It hadn’t always been so. In 2015, al Qaeda had taken advantage of the devastation brought by Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen and mounted an attack on Al Mukalla. Government forces had barely even gone through the motions of Йghting back. After a few brief skirmishes they’d run, abandoning not only a terriЙed populace but the modern weapons of war—battle tanks, American-made Humvees, and heavy artillery. After that stunning victory, a glorious glimpse of what was possible had ensued. Strict Islamic law was imposed asal Qaeda took over the governance of the city. Roads were repaired, public order was restored, hospitals were built. Sin and destruction were replaced by order and service to God.

A year later, Emirati-backed soldiers had driven al Qaeda out, returning the city to the dysfunctional and corrupt Yemeni government. Since then, nothing had been done to rebuild, and the Saudis’ indiscriminant bombing continued, slowly strangling hope. Hunger, disease, and violence were all that people had left. A lone car appeared to the east, weaving slowly through the debris with headlights extinguished. Halabi followed it with his gaze for a time, wondering idly where the driver had managed to find fuel and listening for approaching Saudi jets. None materialized, though, and the car eventually faded from view. The ISIS leader was Йnally forced to stand, the pain in his back making it impossible to remain in the chair any longer. Three cracked vertebrae were the least visible of his injuries, but by far the most excruciating. Mitch Rapp’s attack on him in Iraq had taken its toll. Beyond the damage to his back, Halabi no longer had full use of his right leg and, in fact, had barely avoided its amputation.

His left eye had been damaged beyond repair and was now covered with a leather patch. The shattered Йngers on his left hand had been straightened and set, but lacked sensation. He’d spent months hidden underground, submitting to primitive medical procedures, surviving various infections and extended internal bleeding. All the while wondering if the Americans knew he’d survived. If, atany moment, Rapp would once again appear. After a time those fears had faded and he began to heal both physically and psychologically. Once he was able, he’d devoted himself to prayer and study. He’d spent endless hours watching newsfeeds from throughout the world, reading history and politics, and studying military strategy. During that time, he came to understand why God had allowed his most devoted servant to be attacked in such a way. Halabi had let his life become consumed with the battle.

He’d pursued the Мeeting pleasure of inМicting damage instead of dedicating himself to the far more arduousand unsatisfying task of securing a final victory. Footsteps became audible behind him and he turned to watch his most loyal disciple approach. Muhammad Attia was an American by birth, the son of Algerian immigrants. He’d expended his youth working at his parents’ general store in New York and seeking the approval and acceptance of the Westernersaround him. After high school, he’d attended a year of community college before taking a job asa civilian Arabic translator for the U.S. Army. As a Muslim American, he’d already experienced the treachery and moral bankruptcy of his parents’ adopted country, but it wasn’t until he’d arrived in Iraq that he came to understand the magnitude of it. His recruitment by al Qaeda had occurred less than six months into his tour and he spent almost Йve yearsasan agent for the organization before being discovered. He’d proved too clever for the Americans, though, and had escaped into the desert before they could come for him.

“Can we change?” Halabi said as the younger man approached. “Are my followers capable?” “Everything is possible with Allah’s help.” “But it’s far more difficult than I imagined to garner that help.” “No man can see into the mind of God. We can only seek to play our small role in His plan.” Halabi nodded. “Are we ready?” “We are.” The stairs had been cleared of debris, but the ISIS leader still needed help getting down them. The darkness deepened as they descended into what was left of the building’s basement. Halabi felt a moment of panic when the door closed behind them and the blackness recalled the agonizing hours he’d spent dragging himself from the cavern in Iraq.

This time, though, the darkness didn’t last. The dim glow of computer monitors coming to life pushed back the emptiness and he found himself standing in front of a series of screens, each depicting a lone male face. The diАerence between this ISIS leadership meeting and his last one couldn’t have been more stark. The former Iraqi soldiers who had lined up on the ground in front of him and the traitorous Aali Nassar were all dead now. Taken from him by God not as a punishment but because they were useless. He understood thatand so much more now. With his newfound clarity, Halabi saw his past actions as almost comically misguided. He’d put his faith in men who had already been defeated by the Americans once. They’d had no new ideas. No new capabilities.

No knowledge or insight that hadn’t existed for decades. The most that they could hope to do was bring order and discipline to ISIS’s next failure. A red light Мashed on a camera in front of him and the faces on-screen gained resolve. Despite the hardening of their expressions, though, it was clear that none were soldiers. Some were well-groomed and clean-shaven while others had thick beards and unkempt hair. The youngest was barely twenty and the oldest hadn’t yet reached his fortieth year of life. Two—one a pale-complected Englishman—didn’t even speak rudimentary Arabic. That diversity went deeper than appearance, extending to their areas of expertise. Computer programming. Marketing.

Finance. The sciences. Perhaps most important was a young documentary Йlmmaker who had spent the last year working for Al Jazeera. The only common thread was that all had been educated in the West. It was something he now required of his inner circle. While a far cry from the brutal and fanatical forces Halabi had once commanded, these men had the potential to be much more dangerous. “There was a time when I believed that the movement had lost its way,” Halabi said in English, his heavily accented words being transmitted over a secure satellite link. “But now I understand that there was never a path to victory. Osama bin Laden expected hisactions in New York to begin the collapse ofa society already faltering under the weight of its own moral decay. But what was really accomplished? Punishing but ultimately indecisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A handful of minor follow-up attacks that were lost in America’s culture of violence and mass murder. Bin Laden spent his Йnal years bleating like a sheep and waiting for the Americans to find him.” Halabi paused and examined the faces on the screens before him. While these men were indeed diАerent from the ones he’d commanded before, the Йre in their eyes burned just as intensely. The movement was everything to them. It gave them purpose. It gave them a target for their fury, hate, and frustration. And it gave them peace. “Al Qaeda failed because their leadership grew old and forgot what motivates young men,” Halabi said flatly. Osama bin Laden had feared the rise in brutality throughout the region, seeing it as counterproductive to recruitment.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t lived to see the truth. To see the slickly produced videos of chaotic, merciless victories. To hear the pumping music that accompanied them and the computer-generated imagery that enhanced them. To see thousands of young men, motivated by this propaganda, flood into the Middle East. Ready to fight. Ready to die. “And ISIS did no better,” Halabi continued. “I and my predecessors became intoxicated by the vision of a new caliphate. The Middle East was fractured and the West was tired of Йghting wars that couldn’t be decisively won. We deluded ourselves into believing that we were ready to come out of the shadows and stand against the U.

S. military.” He paused, considering how much he wanted to say. In the end, though, this was the age of information. Withholding it from his inner circle would lead only to another defeat. “It wasall a waste of time and martyrs. The moment for that kind ofaction had not yetarrived.” “Has it arrived now?” one of the men said, his youthful impatience audible even over the cheap computer speakers. “America is as weak as it has been in a hundred and Йfty years. Its people are consumed with hatred for each other.

They see themselves as having been cheated by the rest of the world. Stolen from. Taken advantage of. The twenty-four-hour news cycle continues to reinforce these attitudes, as do the Russians’ Internet propaganda eАorts. And the upcoming presidential election is amplifying those divisions to the point that the country is being torn apart.” “It’s not enough,” Halabi said. “The Americans are people of extremes, prone to Йts of rage and selfdestructiveness, but also in possession of an inner strength that no one in history has been able to overcome.” The faces on the screens looked vaguely stunned at what they saw as adulation for their enemy. It was one of many lessons Halabi had learned in his time conЙned to a hospital bed deep underground: not to let hatred blind one to the strengthsand virtues of one’senemies. “If no one has been able to overcome it,” the British man said, “how can we?” It was the question that Halabi had been asking for almost his entire life. The question that God had finally answered. “We’ll continue to distract them by fanning the flames of their fear and division,” he said. “And after that?” the man pressed. “After that we’ll strike at them in a way that no one in history hasever even conceived of.”

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