Authors: Olen Steinhauer
Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller
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For JN & EP, whose friendship helps keep us sane
Thanks to Mark Milstein, who was there, for revisiting his memories of the road from Novi Sad to Vukovar for me.
On February 19, 2011, two days after the Day of Revolt, the first kidnapping occurred in London, and over the following seventy-two hours similar scenes occurred in Brussels, Paris, and New York. In only three days, five politically active Libyan exiles vanished from the face of the earth: Yousef al-Juwali, Abdurrahim Zargoun, Waled Belhadj, Abdel Jalil, and Mohammed el-Keib.
Word of these abductions reached Langley along the usual paths—updates from the cousins, intercepted e-mails, news feeds, and worried reports from friends and colleagues—yet the computer algorithms somehow missed the possibility that they were part of a single event. It took a researcher in the Office of Collection Strategies and Analysis, Jibril Aziz, to see the connection. As a native Libyan who had been reared on the anxieties of his family’s political exile, he was primed to find connections where others wouldn’t be looking, and his enthusiasm sometimes meant that he found connections where they didn’t actually exist.
Jibril worked in the Original Headquarters Building in an office the size of three, for in 1991 a contractor had altered the penitentiary-like 1950s design by bringing down two walls, finally connecting all the members of the North Africa section of Collection Strategies. Jibril was one of fifteen analysts in that long room, each half-hidden behind cubicle walls, and occasionally they coalesced at one end to puzzle over the decade-old coffeemaker and joke about their view, which was largely obscured by sculpted rhododendron bushes, though if they stood on tiptoe they could catch sight of the busy parking lot. At thirty-three, Jibril was the youngest analyst in Collection Strategies.
Before coming across the disappearances on Tuesday, February 22, Jibril had spent his lunch break eating a meal packed by his wife, Inaya, and verifying the translation of a just-broadcast speech by Muammar Gadhafi, who had rambled for more than an hour in a diatribe against “rats and agents” and “rats and cats” and “those rats who’ve taken the tablets.”
If they’re not following Gadhafi, who would they follow? Somebody with a beard? Impossible. The people are with us, supporting us, these are our people. I’ve brought them up. Everywhere they are shouting slogans in support of Muammar Gadhafi.
After this despressing chore, he tried to divert himself with the Libya-related reports that had come in over the transom, searching for something—anything—to buoy his spirits. This was how he came across the disappearances, and when he read of them he felt as if a light had been turned on. Finally, something palpably real after the fantasy mutterings of a dictator. He was excited in the aesthetic way that all researchers are when they’ve discovered connections where previously nothing existed.
Yet there was more: There was Stumbler.
To reach his direct supervisor, Jibril had to walk down the corridor, steeling himself against the sharp aroma of disinfectant, and climb a set of noisy stairs, then wait in Jake Copeland’s anteroom, often chatting with researchers from the Europe and South America sections as they all waited for a word with the boss. Because of the state of the world, the Asia section had recently begun reporting directly to Copeland’s superior, so, beyond the weekly reports and bi-weekly meetings that brought the whole world together, no one really knew what was happening in that part of the globe.
“They’re doing it,” Jibril said once he’d gained access. He spread five pages across Copeland’s desk, each with a photo, ten lines of bio, and the circumstances of the man’s disappearance.
“Stumbler, Jake. It’s
“Slow down. Take a breath.”
Jibril finally took a chair, leaned forward, and used a long brown finger to point at each of the faces. “One, two, three, four, five. All gone, just as the plan says. That’s step one, by the book.”
Copeland frowned, rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand.
“Check your in-box,” Jibril commanded. “I sent you the memo.”
Copeland pulled up his e-mail. He scrolled through Jibril’s report. “Wordy, isn’t it?”
Copeland sighed and began to read.
22 February 2011
SUBJECT: Unexpected Developments in Exile Behavior, Libyan
On the afternoon of 19 February, after a lunch with other members of the Association of the Democratic Libyan Front (ADLF) at Momo (Heddon Street), Yousef al-Juwali took the Picadilly Line south, presumably toward his home in Clapham. According to intelligence shared by MI-5, cameras recorded that al-Juwali was approached on the train by a man in a heavy padded coat, appx 6 feet tall. Arabic features, nationality undetermined. After a brief conversation, both men disembarked at Waterloo Station and proceeded on foot to York Road, where a black Ford Explorer pulled up. Aboveground cameras noted al-Juwali’s hesitation—the Explorer, it is assumed, was unexpected—but after another moment’s conversation both men got into the car. Yousef al-Juwali has not been heard from since. Inquiries showed that the Explorer had been stolen the previous evening. It was recovered two days later in South Croydon, abandoned and wiped clean.
In a similar scene, Abdurrahim Zargoun of Libyans United (LU) boarded a bus in Place du Petit Sablon with a smaller, dark-skinned man on 20 February. Zargoun, too, is now missing.
Waled Belhadj, an ex-founding member of the ADLF who was rumored to be building an as-yet-unnamed exile network, simply vanished on 20 February. There is no record of the circumstances leading to his disappearance.
Yesterday (21 February), two men—Abdel Jalil and Mohammed el-Keib of the Free Libya Organization (FLO)—were seen at a wedding party on Long Island. Together, they returned by train to Manhattan, where they continued to el-Keib’s apartment on the corner of Lexington and 89th. When they left an hour later they were in the company of a man whose size suggests he is the same one who approached Yousef al-Juwali in London. Appx 6 feet with North African features, dressed in an overcoat. Together, they took the subway north to the Bronx, then boarded the BX32 bus to Kingsbridge Heights. They presumably got off at one of four unobserved stops before the bus reached its terminus. They have been missing for sixteen hours.
To place these items in perspective, one should note that the uprising in Libya is at one of its (presumably) many peaks. Forty-eight hours before the first disappearance, in Benghazi, Libyans stepped into the streets for a “day of revolt” to voice contempt for Muammar Gadhafi’s regime. The Libyan government’s reaction has been to strike back in a violent crackdown. The Libyan exile community (of which I am a member) lives in a state of anxiety as the news trickles out of North Africa.
The men listed above comprise the backbone of the international anti-Gadhafi movement. Indeed, they are each named in the 2009 draft proposal for regime change composed by myself (AE/STUMBLER). If these five men are on the move, then something large is in the works.
Given the sparse evidence above, there are two possibilities:
a. Agreements. An under-the-table agreement has been reached between the various exile groups (FLO, ADLF, LU), and they are either mobilizing for a united public relations front or are preparing to enter Libya itself.
b. Agency Presence. While Stumbler was officially rejected in 2009, there remains the possibility that our own agency, or a section working independently, has decided that with the emergence of a viable active opposition within Libya the time is right to put the plan into action, beginning with the covert assembly of these primary exile figures.
Given the historic animosity between the groups mentioned above, “Agreements” is unlikely. While all three organizations share a desire for the end of Gadhafi’s rule, their visions of a post-Gadhafi Libya keep them at odds, split apart by ideological rifts. Yet this would be the preferred scenario.
“Agency Presence,” while potentially more likely, would be disastrous in this analyst’s opinion. Stumbler began life in this office, but it was a product of a particular time, and with the emergence of an Arab Spring that time has passed. The practical objections brought up to the original plan remain, and now, with reports of Libyans dying in Benghazi in order to oust their dictator, any incursion by the United States (either by American soldiers or leaders handpicked by the U.S. from the exile population) would be rightly viewed as a hijacking of Libya’s revolution, giving increased credibility to the Gadhafi regime and delegitimizing any pro-West government that would follow.
Jake Copeland leaned back, hoping to relieve a backache that had been troubling him for nearly a week. Backaches and hemorrhoids—that was how he described his job at parties when his friends asked with arched brows what life in intelligence was like. He’d sat at this desk for two years, riding in with the new administration, and had during that time watched many researchers run into his office with wild, unsubstantiated theories. Jibril was no more levelheaded than any of them, but he was smart and committed, and unlike most OCSA researchers he had Agency field experience. Yet as the child of Libyan exiles Jibril also had a personal stake in the region and sometimes couldn’t see past his emotions. And now this. “Stumbler, huh?”
“What have I been saying? They’re putting Stumbler into motion.”
“And when you say
. And it’s morally abhorrent.”