Authors: James Barrington
Present day; mid-March; Friday
It was a little after ten-thirty in the morning of the last day of Saadallah Assad’s life.
A white Toyota Land Cruiser with three men inside, each wearing a
, turned off Mu’awia. The driver had no option but to proceed slowly – the
streets bustled with people, a colourful throng moving with noisy and cheerful purpose – but even if the roads had been empty he would still have been driving with great care.
Most of the pedestrians were women wearing all-enveloping black
, or at the very least a
, and carrying shopping bags already bulging with
About seventy yards before the Al-Hamidieh intersection, the driver spotted a gap in the ragged line of parked vehicles and steered the Toyota to the kerb. It was already hot, so he kept the
engine and the air-conditioning running. This was as close as he could get to the
that runs from the Omayyad Mosque to Bab Al-Nasr, but it was near enough. It would only be a short walk
, and as far as the driver was concerned the further away he was parked the better.
For a few moments nobody inside the vehicle moved or spoke. Then the driver and front-seat passenger turned to look at the man sitting behind them.
He was young – no more than twenty – and handsome in the classic Arab mould: deep brown eyes, shaded by impossibly long lashes, a straight nose and full lips. It was the kind of face
that – without the embryonic black beard, so sparse and straggly that it appeared to have been applied to his cheeks hair by individual hair – might almost have graced the wall of a
Hollywood film studio or some teenage girl’s bedroom.
. What would have prevented it was the expression in his eyes. They glowed with excitement and gave the young man’s face a sense of purpose that was frightening in its
intensity. He favoured each man with a brief, almost dismissive, glance, then looked ahead, through the windscreen of the Land Cruiser towards the
, his gaze distant and unfocused.
‘Are you prepared?’ the passenger asked in fluent Arabic. Like the youth in the rear seat, his features were pure Arab, and his voice still carried faint echoes of Oman, where he had
learned the language.
Saadallah Assad looked at him. ‘I’m ready,’ he replied.
will be celebrated through your courage, my friend. We’ll send out the video this afternoon,’ the passenger added, ‘while you are becoming acquainted
.’ It was a weak attempt at a joke. ‘Remember to avoid the mosque. It would be better to keep to the main thoroughfare, at the western end.’
‘I know,’ Assad agreed, with a touch of impatience. He glanced down at his watch. ‘It’s time, I think.’
The two men nodded silently. As the young man reached for the door handle, the driver – whose appearance was anything but Arabic, with fair skin and blue-green eyes – spoke for the
Jazaka Allahu khayran
The youth looked slightly taken aback at this remark, but he responded formally: ‘
La hawla wa la kuwata illa b’Illah
Any Arabic-speaker might have been puzzled by this reply, since it is normally used by a Muslim only when he has suffered some major misfortune, or his life has been overtaken by events beyond
his control, but neither of the other two men looked at all surprised.
Assad stared for a moment at each of them, his expression still confident and almost arrogant, then stepped out of the car. Just before he pushed the door closed, he murmured two words to the
passenger, then moved away from the vehicle and headed towards the entrance to the market.
‘What did he say to you?’ the driver demanded, in English.
,’ the passenger replied.
‘Which means what?’
‘It means he won’t let us down.’
As Assad vanished into the crowd, the white
flowing smoothly around his slight figure, the driver steered the Toyota away from the kerb and set off for the international
terminal. They had confirmed reservations on a flight to Bahrain, with plenty of time in hand, but they wanted to get to the airport as quickly as possible.
The passenger didn’t say another word until they were almost a mile away from the
. ‘His name was Saadallah,’ O’Hagan remarked.
‘Saadallah. His name was Saadallah Assad. But you called him “Abdullah”. That’s why he looked surprised.’
Petrucci shrugged. ‘Whatever. He didn’t say anything about it.’
‘Of course not. He’s an Arab, and that means he’s polite, especially when he’s dealing with stupid white foreigners. He wouldn’t have dreamt of correcting
‘Will it make any difference to the
‘No,’ O’Hagan replied firmly, ‘it won’t make any difference.’
Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the world, dating back five millennia, but the Al-Hamidieh
is comparatively new, having existed for only about one hundred and fifty years.
It is noted for stalls selling clothes and fabrics as well as merchants offering spices, nuts, fruit and other foodstuffs, which are sold from shallow earthenware bowls or open sacks, and often
still weighed on small hand-held brass scales, in a routine familiar to any visitor to a traditional Arab country.
The main entrance to the market is wide and flanked by a pair of lamp-posts, while a high vaulted semicircular metal roof, pierced by tens of thousands of tiny holes, covers and protects the
long, straight, central walkway.
Saadallah Assad ignored the approaches of the traders hawking their wares outside the entrance and joined a steady stream of people heading into the cool and welcoming interior. Immediately he
was assailed by a conflict of sights and sounds – the babble of Arabic as merchants and shoppers haggled with each other; the intoxicating smell of herbs and spices, and the bustle of
shoppers in constant and restless motion. Disregarding all these, Assad threaded his way deliberately through the
He walked as far as the Omayyad Mosque without finding what he wanted, then retraced his steps. At eleven-ten exactly he heard, rather than saw, what he was seeking, and turned round to make
sure of it. Several American tourists – he counted at least six of them – were heading towards him in a loose group, ambling uncertainly through the crowded market while commenting
loudly to each other, blissfully confident that although their remarks might be overheard, they certainly would not be understood.
Like most of the Syrians in the
, Assad did not speak or understand English, but he easily recognized the language, and the garish check shorts worn by two of the men provided
additional confirmation of their nationality.
For the first time since he’d stepped out of the Toyota, a slight smile crossed the young Arab’s face. He stopped and waited for the Americans to get closer to him, as he had been
instructed, and reached into the right-hand pocket of his
to clutch a small cylindrical object nestling there.
The man leading the American group noticed the slim young Arab standing in his path and muttered something
to his male companion, who grinned broadly. Assad had no doubt that
whatever had been said was uncomplimentary, but that thought didn’t matter to him in the slightest. Nothing mattered now – or ever would again.
The American tourist stepped around the human obstruction, and the young Syrian smiled pleasantly at him as he passed by, waiting until he was surrounded by this slow-moving group of noisy
– and, to Assad, vulgar and uncouth – strangers.
He glanced down at the object in his right hand, quickly checked the wires were still in place, then took a deep breath, looking up at the thin shafts of light lancing through the myriad holes
that dotted the roof high above him, closed his eyes and began murmuring softly.
One of the American women thought the young man must be praying, and for the final few moments of her life she wondered why.
She was almost right, for the last words Saadallah Assad uttered were
– ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate,
the Most Merciful’. These familiar words are found at the beginning of every
except for the ninth, and are routinely uttered by devout Muslims
when starting a meal, or donning new clothes or beginning some new undertaking.
Assad lowered his head and paused for a brief moment while he focused on mental images of the faces of his parents and siblings, images that would be the last things he ever visualized, that he
would take with him on this, his final journey. Then he looked up and met the eyes of the female American tourist, who smiled shyly at him. Assad smiled back at her and simultaneously squeezed his
right fist tightly shut.
puffed suddenly outwards, and a microscopic fraction of a second later he simply ceased to exist, as the blast of nearly three kilos – not one kilo, as he had been
told – of detonating C4 plastic explosive instantly reduced his body to a spray of blood and unrecognizable fragments.
The two Americans had lied to Assad about this aspect of his martyrdom, as they had lied to him about almost everything else, but in this, they had had little option. Assad was a devout Muslim,
and the only way they could persuade him to carry out his mission in the crowded
had been to convince him that the explosive charge was small with a very limited lethal radius. He was
anxious that there should be only a few Syrian casualties, so they’d assured him that if he picked his spot with care, he would kill only a bunch of infidel Westerners.
The effects of the explosion were truly devastating. All of the Americans died at the same instant, as did everybody else close to where Assad had been standing. The blast wave generated by
three blocks of C4 slammed outwards from the point of detonation, its horrific power cutting down everyone and everything in its path. Men and women were themselves turned into missiles, ripped
apart and blown away to smash with pulverizing force into the bodies of their fellow citizens.
The products on display – brass and silver trinkets, lamps, mirrors, jugs, plates, bowls, boxes, sacks and their multitudinous contents, even carpets and bales of material –
scattered and flew everywhere. Even the smallest, most innocuous and apparently harmless objects that weren’t instantly disintegrated by the blast became deadly missiles, whistling like
bullets in all directions. Glass shattered, the resulting fusillade of needle-sharp spears adding further to the carnage. Doors and window frames shattered, sending lethal splinters of wood ripping
through the air to seek out soft and yielding human flesh.
High above the spot where Saadallah Assad’s body had existed only a split second before, the arched metal roof covering the
split apart, buckled upwards briefly and then
crashed back, its panels tearing free and tumbling down to smash into what was left of the bodies beneath.
It was additionally unfortunate that Assad had been standing close to one side of the
when he detonated the explosive, for the colossal blast tore an almost circular hole through the
crumbling masonry, and the weight of the structure above then caused the whole wall to give way, shattered stonework and wooden beams crashing heavily to the ground. A choking cloud of dust
billowed upwards into the air, obscuring everything from sight.
As the two Americans had anticipated – and was the reason they had selected the
as their target – its shape acted almost like the barrel of a gun, funnelling the blast in
both directions at once, and causing serious injuries to people standing dozens of yards from the point of detonation. Even those far enough away from the epicentre not to be seriously injured by
flying debris still suffered agonies as their skin was burnt by the heat of the explosion, their eardrums ruptured and their flesh ripped apart by splinters of glass and wood.