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David risked a quick peek into the lobby.
Najjar was there, but he was not alone. On the marble floor next to him were the laptop and accessories. And in Najjar’s arms was the six-year-old girl from the street. He was trying to keep her warm and telling her everything would be all right.
David began to breathe again. “Didn’t I tell you not to move?”
“I didn’t want her to get hit,” Najjar said.
David wiped blood from his mouth. “We need to go.”
* * *
At the safe house, David dressed Najjar’s wounds.
Najjar ate a little and fell fast asleep. David unlocked a vault stacked with communications gear and uploaded everything on Dr. Saddaji’s laptop, external hard drive, and DVD-ROMs to Langley, with encrypted copies cc’d to Zalinsky and Fischer. Then he typed up his report of all that had happened so far and e-mailed the encrypted file to Zalinsky and Fischer as well.
At six the next morning, word came that the plane had arrived. David woke Najjar, loaded the computer equipment into a duffel bag, and took the bag and the scientist to the garage downstairs. Ten minutes later, they arrived at the edge of the private airfield.
David pointed to the Falcon 200 business jet on the tarmac. “There’s your ride,” he said.
“What about you?” Najjar asked. “You’re coming too, aren’t you?”
“But if they find out you were connected to me, they will kill you.”
“That is why I have to stay.”
Najjar shook David’s hand and held it for a moment, then got out of the car, duffel bag in hand, and ran for the plane. David watched him go. He wished he could stay and watch the plane take off as the sun rose brilliantly in the east. But he couldn’t afford the risk. He had to dispose of the Renault he was now driving, steal another car, and get back to Tehran.
“I have come to reestablish the Caliphate.”
At any other time in history, such an utterance could have come only from the lips of a madman. But Muhammad Ibn Hasan Ibn Ali said it so matter-of-factly, and with such authority, that Iskander Farooq was tempted not to challenge the notion.
“I have come to bring peace and justice and to rule the earth with a rod of iron,” he continued. “This is why Allah sent me. He will reward those who submit. He will punish those who resist. But make no mistake, Iskander; in the end, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that I am the Lord of the Age.”
The satellite reception was crystal clear. The voice of the Promised One—the Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi—was calm, his statements airtight, Iskander Farooq thought as he pressed the phone to his ear and paced back and forth along the veranda of his palace overlooking northeastern Islamabad. He knew what the Mahdi wanted, but every molecule in his body warned him not to accede to his demands. They were not presented as demands, of course, but that’s precisely what they were—and while the Mahdi made it all sound wise and reasonable, Farooq heard an edge of menace in the man’s tone, and this made him all the more wary.
The early morning air was bitterly and unusually cold. The sun had not yet risen over the pine trees and paper mulberries of the Margalla Hills, yet Farooq could already hear the chants of the masses less than a block away. “Give praise to Imam al-Mahdi!” they shouted again and again. “Give praise to Imam al-Mahdi!”
A mere hundred tanks and a thousand soldiers and special police forces now protected the palace. Only they kept the crowds—estimated at over a quarter of a million Pakistanis—from storming the gates and seizing control. But how loyal were they? If the number of protesters doubled or tripled or worse by dawn, or by lunchtime, how much longer could he hold out? He had to make a decision quickly, Farooq knew, and yet the stakes could not be higher.
“What say you?” the Mahdi asked. “You owe me an answer.”
Iskander Farooq had no idea how to respond. As president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the fifty-six-year-old former chemical engineer was horrified that Tehran had suddenly become the seat of a new Caliphate. Though the Mahdi had not formally declared the Iranian capital as the epicenter of the new Islamic kingdom, every Muslim around the world certainly suspected this announcement was coming soon. Farooq certainly did, and it infuriated him. Neither he, nor his father, nor his father’s father had ever trusted the Iranians. The Persian Empire had ruled his ancestors, stretching in its day from India in the east to Sudan and Ethiopia in the west. Now the Persians wanted to subjugate them all over again.
True, Iran’s shah had been the first world leader to formally recognize the independent state of Pakistan upon its declaration of independence in 1947. But it had been a brief window of friendliness. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had come to power in 1979, tensions between the two states had spiked. Khomeini had led an Islamic Revolution that was thoroughly Shia in all its complexions, and this had not sat well with the Pakistanis. Neither Farooq nor his closest advisors—nor anyone he had known growing up—had ever believed that the Twelfth Imam was coming to earth one day or that such a figure would actually be the Islamic messiah or that he would usher in the end of days, much less that Sunnis would end up joining a Caliphate led by him. Farooq’s teachers had all mocked and ridiculed such notions as the heresy of the Shias, and Farooq had rarely given the matter any thought.
Now what was he to believe? The Twelfth Imam was no longer some fable or myth, like Santa Claus for the pagans and Christians or the tooth fairy for children everywhere. Now the Mahdi—or someone claiming to be the Mahdi—was here on the planet. Now this so-called Promised One was taking the Islamic world by storm, electrifying the masses and instigating insurrections wherever his voice was heard.
More to the point, this “Mahdi” was now on the other end of this satellite phone call, requesting—or more accurately, insisting upon—Farooq’s fealty and that of his nation.
* * *
Syracuse, New York
David Shirazi faced the most difficult decision of his life.
On the one hand, despite being only twenty-five years old, he was one of only a handful of NOCs—nonofficial cover agents—in the Central Intelligence Agency who had an Iranian heritage. He was fluent in Farsi and had proven he could operate effectively and discreetly inside the Islamic Republic. He had no doubt, therefore, that he was about to be ordered to go back inside Iran within the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, given how rapidly things were developing.
On the other hand, David simply wasn’t convinced that the American administration was serious about stopping Iran from building an arsenal of nuclear weapons or stopping the Twelfth Imam from using them. In his view, President William Jackson was a foreign policy novice.
Yes, Jackson had lived in the Muslim world. Yes, he’d studied and traveled extensively in the Muslim world. Yes, Jackson believed he was an expert on Islam, but David could see the man was in way over his head. Despite years of hard evidence to the contrary, Jackson still believed he could negotiate with Tehran, just as the US had done with the nuclear-armed Soviet Empire for decades. He still believed economic sanctions could prove effective. He still believed the US could contain or deter a nuclear Iran. But the president was dead wrong.
The truth was chilling. David knew that Iran was being run by an apocalyptic, genocidal death cult. They believed the end of the world was at hand. They believed their Islamic messiah had come. They believed that Israel was the Little Satan, that the US was the Great Satan, and that both needed to be annihilated in order for the Twelfth Imam to build his Caliphate. David had done the research. He’d met with and extensively interviewed the most respected Iranian scholar on Shia Islamic eschatology. He’d read the most important books on the topic written by Shia mullahs. He had found Iran’s top nuclear scientist and smuggled him and his family out of the country. He had documented everything he had seen and heard and learned in detailed memos to his superiors at Langley. He had argued that they were severely underestimating the influence Shia End Times theology was having on the regime.
He knew at least some of his work had made it to the Oval Office. Why else was he being asked to come to Washington for a meeting with President Jackson at noon tomorrow? But he wasn’t convinced he was getting through. Why should he risk his life and go back inside Iran if his superiors didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and weren’t willing to take decisive measures to neutralize the Iranian threat before it was too late?
* * *
“I appreciate your very gracious invitation,” Farooq replied.
Trying not to appear to be stalling for time, though that was precisely what he was doing, he added, “I look forward to discussing the matter with my Cabinet later today and then with the full parliament later this week.”
Events were moving far too quickly for his liking. Someone had to drag his feet and slow things down. To Farooq’s shock, he had watched as his dear friend Abdullah Mohammad Jeddawi, king of Saudi Arabia, had actually fallen prostrate before the Twelfth Imam on worldwide television, then publicly announced that the Saudi kingdom was joining the new Caliphate. Worse, Jeddawi had even offered the cities of Mecca or Medina to be the seat of power for the new Islamic kingdom should the Mahdi deem either of them acceptable. How was that possible? Despite his divinely appointed role as commander of the faithful and custodian of the holy sites, Jeddawi—a devout Sunni Muslim—had offered no resistance to the Shia Mahdi, no hesitation, no push back whatsoever. Farooq could not imagine a more disgraceful moment, but the damage was done, and in the hours since, the dominoes had continued falling one by one.
The prime minister of Yemen, a good and decent man whom Farooq had known since childhood, had called the Mahdi late last night to say his country would join the Caliphate, according to a report on Al Jazeera. Now the Gulf-based satellite news service was reporting that Qatar was also joining, a dramatic change from just twenty-four hours earlier. So were Somalia and Sudan. Algeria was in. The new government of Tunisia said they were “actively considering” the Mahdi’s invitation to join the Caliphate. So was the king of Morocco. The Shia-dominated, Hezbollah-controlled government of Lebanon had made no formal announcement but was meeting in emergency session at that very moment. Turkey’s parliament and prime minister were reportedly gathering the next day to discuss the Mahdi’s invitation.
To their credit, the Egyptians under President Abdel Ramzy were resisting. So were the Iraqis and the Sunni king of Bahrain. These were good signs, but Farooq wasn’t convinced they would be good enough. Syrian president Gamal Mustafa in Damascus was silent thus far,
but Farooq had little doubt he, too, would soon cave.
“Is there a reason for this hesitation I perceive in you?” the Mahdi asked.
Farooq paused and considered his words carefully. “Perhaps only that this has all come so suddenly, and I do not know you, have not heard your heart, have not discussed your vision for our region or what role you envision Pakistan playing.”
“History is a river, my son, and the current is moving rapidly.”
“All the more reason that we should take caution,” Farooq replied, “lest we be swept away by events beyond our control.”
“Do you have a request of me?” the Mahdi asked. “If so, make it now.”
Farooq struggled to find the right words. He had no desire to meet this pretender to the throne. He had more important things to do than to waste his precious time with a man so clearly consumed with blind arrogance and ambition. But Farooq knew full well that he was now walking through a minefield and that he had to be judicious with every step.
He looked out across the city and marveled at the majestic parliament building to his right and the ornate Islamic architecture of the supreme court facility to his left. Both served as tangible reminders of the great civilization over which he now presided. He dared not gamble with his nation’s sovereignty, much less his people’s dignity and honor. He felt a tremendous burden upon his shoulders. He governed more than 185 million Muslims. Precious few of them were Shias, like the Mahdi who had awoken him from his slumber at this ungodly hour. The vast majority of them were Sunnis, like him. Most were devout. Some were passionate. Some were fanatics. A week ago, Farooq would never have imagined that any of them would embrace the teachings about the Mahdi, much less take to the streets to call for Pakistan to join the Caliphate with the Twelfth Imam as its leader. But now the people were on the move.
From Karachi to Cairo to Casablanca, millions of Muslims—Shias and Sunnis alike—were on the streets demanding change, demanding the immediate downfall of “apostate regimes” like his own, demanding that the ummah, the community of Muslims around the world, join forces to create a new, unified, borderless kingdom, a new Caliphate stretching from Pakistan to Morocco.
And that was just the beginning. The masses wanted what the Twelfth Imam was preaching: a global Caliphate in which every man, woman, and child on the face of the planet converted to Islam or perished in a day of judgment.
It was lunacy, Farooq thought. Sheer lunacy. Yet he dared not say so. Not yet. Not now. To do so, he knew, would be political suicide. Abdel Ramzy could publicly defy the Mahdi from his secure perch on the banks of the Nile, backed by all that American money and weaponry. But one word in public from the Mahdi that he was unhappy with the “infidel of Islamabad,” and Farooq knew he would have a full-blown and bloody revolution on his hands. The protesting masses—notably peaceful in their first twenty-four hours—could very well turn violent. He had seen it before. He had been part of such mobs before, back in his youth. If that happened, he genuinely doubted the military would stand with him, and then what?
“I appreciate your call very much, Your Excellency,” Farooq told the Mahdi. “There are a few more questions I have, ones that I would prefer not to discuss over the phone. Perhaps we could meet in person? Would that be acceptable to you?”
“It must be soon. Coordinate details with Javad.”
“Very well, Your Excellency,” Farooq said before being put on hold.
As he waited for Javad Nouri, the Mahdi’s personal aide, to come on the line, Farooq tried not to think about the consequences if he were deposed and his nation descended into anarchy. If he didn’t bide his time and plan his steps very carefully, this self-appointed Twelfth Imam would soon gain control of his beloved Pakistan, and with it, control of 172 nuclear warheads—the nation’s entire arsenal—and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Queens, New York
Air Force One was now on final approach.
As they descended through the clouds into John F. Kennedy International Airport, the military crew and Secret Service detail on board the presidential jumbo jet were unaware of the threat materializing on the ground below. For them, this was just another mission, carefully scripted and exacting in detail, one of hundreds of similar missions they flew every year for their commander in chief. Thus far it was indistinguishable from the rest. Half a world away, tensions were mounting, to be sure, but for now, in the blue, cloudless skies over the Big Apple, they had a beautiful Sunday afternoon with unlimited visibility and unusually warm temperatures for the first week of March.
Flying over the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the pilots could see Runway 13R—at more than fourteen thousand feet, one of the longest commercial runways in North America—three miles ahead and closing fast. “Wheels down” was scheduled for 5:06 p.m. eastern time, and they were on track for another picture-perfect, on-time landing. All other air traffic was on hold. Ground traffic at JFK was on hold. Marine One and her crew were on standby.
“It’s time, Mr. President.”
Special Agent Mike Bruner, thirty-eight, head of the president’s protective detail, made sure he had his boss’s attention. Then he stepped out and quietly closed the door behind him, leaving the leader of the free world alone with his thoughts.
William James Jackson, about to turn fifty, fastened his seat belt, adjusted the air vent above him, and looked out the bulletproof window at the strobe lights guiding them in. They were now steadily descending over Queens. He could see Jamaica Bay off to his right, but none of it registered. It was all a blur. Having just finished reading the latest eyes-only briefing paper sent to him by the Central Intelligence Agency, the only thing he could think about was Iran.
According to the Agency’s best analysts—including their top man inside Tehran, an agent code-named Zephyr—the mullahs had done it. They had crossed the threshold. They had built an atomic bomb. And they had just successfully tested it near the city of Hamadan. The world had just taken a very dark turn.
Now what? Would Israel respond? Should his own administration? The sobering reality that he had no answers made him physically ill.
To the world, he would put on a brave face—particularly tonight. In less than an hour, he would headline a black-tie fund-raiser for 1,500 well-heeled donors in the posh grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. It was going to be an exceptionally rare evening, and the photos would dominate the front pages of newspapers around the world. Joining him would be both Israeli prime minister Asher Naphtali and Egyptian president Abdel Ramzy. Together they would explain the urgency of striking a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians once and for all. Together they would call on men and women of goodwill to hold fast against the forces of extremism, particularly in the Middle East. Together they would raise nearly $8 million in a single evening to complete construction of the new Anwar Sadat Institute for Peace in Cairo. The center had been in the planning for nearly two years. The fund-raiser had been in the works for eleven months. The timing could not have been more appropriate, Jackson believed. They had to present a united front. They had to believe peace was possible, no matter how impossible it seemed. They had to reach through the television cameras to a billion Muslims and appeal to the better angels of their nature.