And yet, almost from the start, he was troubled. He first became anxious when he learned his cell would be led by an Asian. Throughout his years of loyal service to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Seyed had always taken orders from fellow countrymen, or from Syrians or Palestinians with whom he shared a cultural and religious bond. This stranger from the Far East was different in style and approach from any of the other men he had followed, and the unconditional authority he wielded disturbed Seyed more and more as the days wore on.
He was also bothered by the inclusion of three Spanish-speaking men in his unit. Not only was it unusual for Hispanics to be involved in an operation originating in this part of the world, but these three seemed to share a private bond with the Asian that alienated Seyed. And there was one further issue. Seyed presumed he had been selected for this mission because of his expertise in clandestine methods, skills that involved far greater subtlety and technical proficiency than those possessed by most of his compatriots.
As the planning proceeded he was not entrusted with details of the impending assignment, but what little he was told left him wondering how his particular talents would be useful in what appeared to be a paramilitary strike.
Something did not feel right about any of this. Jaber had become a mentor to Seyed, the only person to whom the young man would dare confide his apprehension. And so it was to Jaber that he brought his concerns. He spoke slowly and deliberately, wanting to be certain he was giving a fair account of everything he had seen and heard. His eyes, ebony dark and normally filled with defiance, now betrayed his growing fear.
How can such a thing be arranged without your knowledge? Jaber was tall, clean-shaven, and well groomed, his thinning hair combed straight back, his nails buffed and trimmed. He was finely dressed in an Italian suit and French shirt, worn open at the neck. His Western bearing was what one might expect from a corporate executive in Europe, not a murderer in the service of a distorted faith. Jaber finally stopped and looked down.
They have not yet discussed plans for the attack with me. They act as if I cannot be trusted, as if I should not really know everything until the last moment. While Seyed was anxious about his individual role in this mission, Jaber had a broader concern. In the past year he had repeatedly clashed with other IRGC leaders over their use of foreign agents, fearing that the purity of their jihad was being compromised. Jaber warned them that they were beginning to look more like some international conglomerate run by the Americans than an Islamic crusade. Now he was being informed of a major assault being prepared without his participation, an operation led by an Asian and run with South Americans.
The implications for his own future were obvious.
Jaber returned to his seat opposite Seyed, still trying to make sense of this. Jaber stared at the young man without speaking. First, recite for me again everything you have been told. Seyed believed he was either Chinese or Korean, his nationality having not been disclosed. He had not been told which country the South Americans were from, but believed they were from Venezuela. He vowed to find out.
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Jaber smiled warmly and assured him it was only a beginning. There may be danger in that for both of us. But please know that I was most careful in my journey to your home. I am certain you were. And you must be just as careful when you leave. Seyed pledged his loyalty, then went on his way. We may need to recruit another. What a waste of time. After all, they have had a long relationship. Is the visit so unusual? There is no question, Seyed must be interrogated and then eliminated.
And quickly. There is no telling who else he might speak with. The Americans, the Israelis. Do what needs to be done, but clean this up now. There was nothing remarkable in either the short notice or the late hour. His cell had been gathering frequently, often at odd times. In each their Asian leader assured them that the time for action was drawing ever closer, even if specifics were scarce.
Seyed deleted the message, completed his prayers, then headed out. Unlike the IRGC briefings he attended in the past, which were conducted by Jaber in an impressive high-rise at the center of the modern Elahiyeh district, tonight Seyed traveled on the Kordestan Highway, taking an exit that led to an old neighborhood of broken-down buildings and industrial yards. During the ride he thought a great deal about Jaber. Until today Seyed had always known the man to be beyond fear.
His mentor thrived on power and control. Now he was obviously distressed at the prospect of a major offensive being planned, right here in Tehran, without his knowledge. It was also apparent that Jaber, although he voiced no criticism, was upset Seyed had visited his home to deliver this information. Seyed was certain that he had taken the necessary precautions, that he had arrived and departed from their meeting undetected, but he recognized that Jaber was not convinced.
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It was up to Seyed, then, to prove himself. He was determined to learn what he could and report back. Seyed turned off the service road and drove to the end of a long, dark street, guiding his car around a squat structure. He parked in the rear lot and took the stairs to the second floor. Hurrying up the two flights, he reached the warren of offices they used for their meetings, strode through the unfurnished vestibule, and entered the inner room. As soon as he walked in he saw that Jaber had been right, his betrayal had been discovered. There was nothing tangible, just a feeling, an intuition about danger he had developed over the years, an instinct that up to now had kept him alive.
Tonight he saw that his fate had been written. He saw it in the face of the Asian, and in the fact that only this stranger from the East and the three South Americans were present. The Asian was standing beside a large drafting table they used for their meetings. He stepped forward as two of the others moved behind Seyed and barred the door. His Arabic was rough, but understandable. We need to know how much you have revealed, how much damage has been done. Perhaps they were not sure.
Before he could catch his breath he was struck a second time, the heavy iron rod now brought crashing down on his right shoulder, the sickening sound of breaking bone followed by his cry of pain. The Asian stared down at him. The young Iranian crumpled face-first onto the cracked tiles. When Seyed came to his home and revealed what he knew about this mission, Jaber realized that his own life had taken an inexorable turn. There was no way that a major assault was being planned by the IRGC without Jaber taking part, not unless his own people had turned against him.
This left only two possibilities. The less probable scenario was that the IRGC was indeed involved and that Jaber had been betrayed for reasons he did not know. The more likely alternative was that outside forces had initiated this scheme and decided to exclude him. In either event, Seyed Asghari would not have been permitted to roam the streets of Tehran without surveillance, or perhaps an escort—Jaber had to weigh the possibility that Seyed was being used to set him up. Whichever of these was true, Jaber was certain that his enemies, whoever they were, already knew of the meeting.
Whoever was running the operation had no choice but to liquidate him.
If the situation were reversed, Jaber grudgingly acknowledged, he would do the same thing. It also involves constant vigilance and the need to maintain any number of escape strategies. Whatever the facts proved themselves to be at some later date, he had to move swiftly to save himself and so, shortly after Seyed had departed that afternoon, Jaber initiated his plan. Only his wife, Rasa, and their servant, Mahmud, shared the house. Their sons had died years ago, in faithful service to the forces of Iran in its struggles against Iraq.
He called his wife into the study, shut the door, and calmly explained that she must immediately take her car and leave for Tabriz to visit her sister. He offered neither an explanation nor a final good-bye. The tragic loss of both children had hardened her, and so when Ahmad explained what she must do, she asked no questions. Only when her husband completed his instructions and handed her a case containing a large amount of cash did her dark, trusting eyes well with tears.
They had been through difficult moments before, but this time she felt an eerie sense of finality. Once his wife was gone, he told their servant that he would also be leaving for several days. Since he and Mahmud were approximately the same age, height, and weight, this would serve Jaber well. After dismissing Mahmud, Jaber locked himself in his den, where he opened the wall safe and removed its contents. Then, using a keypad secreted on the wall inside the safe, he entered a series of codes. He had long ago planted explosives throughout his home, which remained benign until the day arrived when it became necessary to bring them to life.
He was convinced that day had arrived.
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Once activated, they could be set off with the remote detonator he now held in his hand. He took the various papers, weapons, and cash he had removed from the safe and placed them in his car. He then drove off, as if he were leaving town, but eventually circled back to his own neighborhood, arriving on the bluff high above his home.
He parked, got out of the car, and took a position on the hill, where he prepared to wait. Jaber had no doubt they would be coming for him, and he suspected it would happen soon. Given what little Seyed had described of his mission, it was obvious that the planned attack was a major offensive. Loose ends would not be tolerated.
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