And so it begins~Prologue!
“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
—US government officials’ oath of office
Owen Wintour, the recently appointed US ambassador to Pakistan, is taking his wife Sally and seventeen-year-old daughter Alex on a long-promised home leave to the States when it happens.
They’re in the middle of a three-car caravan to Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Jim Carlisle, embassy chargé d’affaires, is with them. He’ll be acting ambassador in Wintour’s absence. Carlisle is sitting in the jump seat facing Owen; they’re talking embassy business. Alex and Sally are doing girl talk in the backseat, near the double cargo doors, guarding the luggage.
The driver is Pakistani, and so is the security guard riding shotgun.
They’re crossing a bridge when the Ford Expedition in front of them explodes in a blinding flash. There’s a delayed sound; it’s deafening and is accompanied by the unmistakable smell of high-explosive cordite. The truck leaps off the road, erupting in a mushroom cloud of vapor and fire and settling back in a smoking pile of melting plastic, glass, and metal.
Our driver slams on the brakes, forcing the gear into reverse. He twists his body for a view out the rear door windows. It’s too late. The truck behind meets the same fate as the Expedition; they’re bookended by smoldering heaps of scrap metal.
Masked bombers, five of them, surround the ambassador’s SUV.
This is a professional hit team. The leader is calm, directing his team with efficiency. They wear black ski masks, bulletproof vests, and headsets. Only when the leader speaks do the others move—not before.
The smallest one wears a large knapsack drooping below his waist. He turns his back to a teammate, who yanks the zipper. The open knapsack exposes two gray balls the size of grapefruits, strapped inside with Velcro, like hot cross buns. He grabs one in each hand and slaps them, hard, against the rear doors, away from the hinges. Cargo doors are vulnerable; they lock together, not to the structure of the truck. Both doors explode out and away, dangling on their hinges.
One bomber jumps in, throwing out the luggage and scrambling toward Alex. The security guard is leveling a Glock 45 at the man, but he hesitates, a moment too long; the red dot of a sighting device aimed by a backup shooter finds the center of his forehead. Bone and brain fragments from a melon-sized exit wound splatter the windshield. The driver goes for a concealed weapon but thinks better of it; the bombers have surrounded the truck.
The leader taps the driver’s side glass with the barrel of his automatic—not hard, almost politely. The driver gets the message; all locks are released.
Two men grab Carlisle from the jump seat and throw him to the ground. Owen moves to protect Sally and Alex, and he’s met with a crushing blow to the temple. He crumples to his knees.
Alex is screaming. The short one holds her around the waist with one hand while jamming a rag against her face with the other. Chloroform permeates the truck. She goes limp in seconds.
This kidnapping is not random; they’re professionals. Their intended victim is not the ambassador or his wife; it’s their daughter.
Ambulances and fire trucks arrive first, ahead of the police. There is pandemonium—people shouting, pointing, and crying. Owen is back on his feet, waving off EMT personnel. He directs them to the security guard lying facedown on the pavement. But the guard doesn’t need an EMT; he needs a coroner.
Jim Carlisle holds his head; the percussion has ruptured both eardrums. Owen and Sally are okay but in shock. The gash on Owen’s head looks worse than it is.
Sally, sobbing, runs into Owen’s arms. Why have they taken Alex? Why not the real prize, a US ambassador?
Owen knows the answer. He puts one arm around his wife while hitting speed dial to the embassy. He knows why it’s Alex, and it terrifies him.
Sally Wintour is not happy about this posting. Her husband is a career foreign service officer (FSO) and she supports him, but Pakistan is becoming increasingly less stable. US drone attacks are on the rise, targeting Al Qaeda leadership. There are collateral consequences for non-combatant civilians. For every US attack, there are reprisals, suicide bombings of Western hotels and shopping centers, and, of course, kidnappings. US State Department policy on negotiating with kidnappers is unequivocal: they won’t pay ransom in any form under any circumstances—the cost is too high. In the case of kidnapping, the ends, no matter how emotionally charged, will not justify the means.
Sally considered remaining in Abu Dhabi with Alex; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) states are stable, prosperous, and supportive of the US. When Owen was appointed ambassador there during the last Bush administration, Sally hoped it would be permanent. Living in the UAE is like Disneyland for people with means. Streets are paved with gold—black gold. Moving from there to Islamabad is going to be a nightmare. What has Owen done to deserve the posting? With Barack Obama in the White House and Hilary Clinton as secretary of state, the politics of international diplomacy intensified. It isn’t what you know or how good you are; it’s who you know and how political you are.
Owen Wintour is a career diplomat who does his job according to his oath of office without regard for his safety and comfort. The question is, is he also willing to endanger his wife and daughter?
When Michael Corbin was appointed Owen’s replacement in the UAE by President Obama in 2011, Owen never flinched. In his mind, there had to be a good reason for the switch; the influence of politics never occurred to him. When you’re a career diplomat, appointments are supposed to be apolitical. It was true that Corbin had a distinguished record, including a posting to Syria by Republican President George W. Bush, but that he was also a man of color had to be more than a coincidence.
The Wintours arrive in Islamabad with full diplomatic immunity, meaning no customs inspection or document checks. Owen would present his credentials to President Asif Ali Zardari in the morning. In Pakistan the president is a figurehead; his office is largely ceremonial, limited to diplomatic functions. The real power rests with Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani, who controls the military, the security forces, and the nuclear arsenal.
Owen replaced Cameron Munter, the US ambassador since 2010. Munter had become politically toxic due to publicly expressed views on drones and their impact on public sentiment. Use of drones was official US policy, and Munter’s views clashed with that policy, leaving the president with no option. He requested Munter’s resignation, political-speak for “You’re fired.”
The president showed confidence in Owen for handling this politically sensitive region. Pakistan is a nuclear power at war with another nuclear power, India.
Owen is noncommittal on the use of drones; his job is to support and defend American interests in Pakistan regardless of his personal views. Other foreign service officers, some at the ambassador level, have succumbed to local pressure, allowing their public statements to differ from US policy. Owen is not one of them. His twenty-one years of service with spotless performance reviews has always spoken to his commitment to uphold his oath of office, at least until now.
This is the Wintours’ story.
God, I’ve hated this trip. I told Mom it made no sense for us. Dad is a senior diplomat, a US ambassador. He’s paid his dues, and then some. Dubai is where we belonged. “Unless, of course, they need someone in London or Paris,” I say with a grin.
Mom smiles at that remark; she knows that I know you have to donate a few million dollars to a president’s election campaign to get Western capital. It’s one of the reasons our ambassadors in Europe are such dorks—they’re political appointees, not trained diplomats like Dad. Washington is clueless.
The Air Emirates flight is totally cool; their entertainment menu is awesome. On top of that, we’re going business class. Frequent flyer points on foreign flag carriers is a recent State Department concession.
I love the online WiFi. I can text Billy at forty thousand feet. He’ll be jealous since the UK hasn’t allowed airline points yet. Wait till he hears about my compartment and bed-sized reclining seat. I know what he’ll say: “Christ, Alex, I should be there. We would have joined the Mile High Club before we left the ground.”
Billy Watson is my heartthrob. He’s a pain in the neck sometimes, but we have lots in common. We’re both foreign expats living a charmed life as children of prominent diplomats from Western countries.
I lost my virginity to Billy in the backseat of his mom’s Range Rover, which has diplomatic plates. It’s the only bedroom in the UAE with parking privileges.
He’s my friend and confidant. I’m not sure what love means, but if it’s about having someone who makes you laugh, makes you trust, and, oh yes, makes you hot, I guess I love Billy. I’ll miss him.
We arrive at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in the spring of 2011. Bhutto was a hero to millions of Muslim women. Muslim women believe they’re not equal to men—not as smart, creative, or dominant. They’re told that only men can be leaders and activists; women are to acquiesce and follow. Bhutto was changing that. Her commitment to education for girls cost her her life in a culture steeped in millennia of tradition.
How do I show these people that an educated young woman can have the strength and passion for leading without appearing emotional or arrogant? Should I, a seventeen-year-old American girl, expose my independence in a culture that considers it a crime? How do I explain the tears when I’m thinking about Bhutto? This is emotion, not passion. Emotion is feeling, passion is a belief, and a great leader needs both.
Benazir Bhutto was a great leader.
US chargé d’affaires Jim Carlisle is waiting for us with three junior staff members. He’s serving as interim ambassador since Cameron Munter stepped down under a cloud.
Three Suburbans are parked at the curb. The diplomatic plates guarantee immunity from local traffic laws and confer status to the drivers. Everyone knows they’re armed and vetted for driving skill, knowledge of the city, and discretion. These men are attached to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the secret agency of Pakistan, similar to our CIA.
It’s early morning. The city is waking up, and government bureaucrats are preparing for another mindless day of paper shuffling and endless meetings. This is our first visit to Pakistan, and as in all new postings, the unfamiliar sights and sounds are intoxicating.
Mom is staying positive, pointing out city landmarks. But I’m not interested. I’m not happy about this move. I’ll miss Dubai and my friends in the diplomatic community there, especially Billy. I know Mom and Dad are trying to put a positive spin on things for my benefit, but this move sucks—no other way to say it.
The windows of the SUV are tinted; we can see out but no-one can see in. We enter a traffic roundabout and spin out on a surface road, just missing a truck decorated in the most outrageous fashion. Graffiti is endemic to US cities, but here they take the art form to a new level. Vehicles are covered from bumper to bumper with elaborate colors and designs; windshields are festooned with dangling talos symbols. This is not protest art—this is a cultural expression, and it’s wonderful. The trucks, buses, and three-wheeled rickshaws, known as took-tooks, move in a chaotic dance. In this colorful cacophony of constantly honking horns, there are no apparent rules except the loudest has the right-of-way.
The graffiti is the first thing about Pakistan to get my attention. I want to get out of the truck and take pictures, but the guard riding shotgun shakes his head. It isn’t safe to stop or slow down, much less get out of an official vehicle on a crowded street. Pakistan is a dangerous place, especially for Westerners.
The ambassador’s residence in Islamabad is a fortress, a formidable multi-storied building surrounded by a twelve-foot wall enclosing a courtyard. The wall is topped with razor wire and shards of broken glass. The solid metal gate has a small peephole and a pedestrian door cut into it on one side. There are security details, heavily armed, on duty twenty-four hours a day in rotating shifts.
Families with money in Pakistan live this way—several generations under one roof, each with an apartment on upper floors. There are rooms for cooking, eating, and socializing on the ground level. My State briefing book explains all this, but it’s hard to visualize; you need to see it.
As an ambassador’s family, we’ve always lived well, not in luxury but with amenities befitting the status of a senior American diplomat. We have a household staff, a security detail, and living quarters comparable to US standards whenever possible. Local staff is vetted for loyalty and discretion; the process is intense.
The truck drives up close to the gate; we don’t leave a gap for someone to enter ahead of us. The driver honks three times, pauses, then honk once more. The gate swings in and armed guards flank the entrance. We enter the courtyard. Five people are standing in front of the main house: three women in the traditional hijab and two men dressed in black pants and white shirts. The outbuildings are grouped around the courtyard: a guard house adjacent to the gate, a large garage or perhaps storage facility, and separate living quarters for staff. The guard house is small, with sleeping cots and a brazier for heating tea.
A third man stands to the side, separating himself from the rest. He is tall and muscular with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair and four days’ growth highlighting a rugged if not handsome face. There’s a tattoo, small vertical letters on his neck beneath the right ear; it’s an Israeli female’s name: “DELIA.”
He’s in designer jeans, a black turban, a New York Yankees jacket, and Converse sneakers, no laces. His complexion is Pakistani, and except for the turban, he’s dressed like an American. The bulge on the back of his waist explains the jacket, which he wears in spite of the heat. This is Mustafa Hesbani. The name means “Warrior of Islam,” a fitting description for the man responsible for my security.
I learned a few things about Mustafa from the State Department dossier, which covers his background, but the security photos hardly do him justice. He’s a dominant figure, the kind of man who stands out in a crowd. You can’t ignore him.
My dad, Owen Wintour, is a loving father and husband. He’s a fine ambassador with a carefully honed sense of loyalty to his family, his office, and his staff.
Mustafa Hesbani is none of that. He’s a warrior, and it shows.
His chiseled features and swarthy complexion give him an air of danger. A woman feels vulnerable in his presence. Mom and I are no exceptions.
“Is that my handler, Mom?” I haven’t felt this animated since leaving Abu Dhabi.
She gives me one of her looks. “Please, Alex, must you use that term? Mr. Mustafa is your security detail, not your handler.”
“Whatever. He sure is cute.”
Mom shakes her head.
The house is intimidating, with double wide front doors—more like an estate than a residence. The security is discreet, but they break ranks and nod when they see me. I know these men— friends and fellow agents. They know that assigning a Muslim educated and trained in the States to protect a US ambassador’s daughter in Pakistan is not exactly the norm.
I also know the household staff. They’re nationals, and I’m one of them, born and raised from the same mud. These are my people—loyal, dedicated, and committed to serving the new ambassador and his family.
This meeting is to be informal, not in the embassy conference room but the Wintours’ private quarters. Owen and Sally Wintour want a better understanding of who is protecting their daughter.
The Wintours are entrusting their prized possession to a Muslim, a stranger who wears a turban and was born in Karachi, a hotbed of insurgent activity.
There are traditional refreshments, tea and sweets on a glass coffee table; three comfortable chairs, small plates, spoons, and napkins. Food is served family style; fruit preserves are eaten directly from the spoon, not as a spread on toast or crackers. Tea is poured by the person sitting to your right, a gesture of hospitality.
The Wintours are adopting our ways sooner that I expected.
I’m not dressed for a special occasion; casual clothes reflect who I am. I’m dressed for work; this is how they’ll see me at all times, ready to protect their daughter.
Owen speaks first. “Be seated, Mustafa. Tell us why you’ve been selected for this duty.”
I don’t want to appear familiar, so I sit apart from the Wintours, my body language reflecting my professional status—not formal, just ready for work. Owen is the senior US official in Pakistan; he will have my respect, if not my admiration—that must be earned.
I know they have my CV and the State briefing book. Christ, what more do I have to say? My experience with Task Force 121, the US Department of Defense’s special operations multi-service force, speaks for itself.
My approach to the ambassador will be cautious, leading from strength. My career, if not my life, depends on having confidence in myself. When I’m in doubt I act first, fast, and hard; I deal with consequences later.
I want to come across as quiet, articulate, and professional, a man comfortable in his own skin, a man in control of his circumstances.
“Please call me Musa, Mr. Ambassador. My friends do.”
“Of course, Musa. Thank you. Please go on.”
“I’m a Muslim, born in Karachi, Pakistan, with family ties to the Karachi business community. I speak the language, understand the culture, and know what motivates the terrorists. I’m also a US Navy SEAL, a member of Seals Team Six and Task Force 121.
I’m qualified to protect your daughter.
“When I was thirteen, my parents and I moved to the US. They both earned PhDs in education and accepted professorships at Indiana State University. My family speaks British English and Urdu, the official Hindustani language of Pakistan. I speak both plus Arabic, Mandarin, and Russian.”
I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but he has to know I’m not a babysitter, that I understand my value to him, his daughter, and the embassy, and why I’m sitting here instead of some random security contractor.
There’s an ache in the pit of my stomach; I’m about to challenge a US ambassador with access to the most powerful man on earth and his secretary of state, the woman who runs our foreign policy and is Wintour’s direct report. I’m not nervous being with those in authority, I’ve been with ambassadors before, but this time it’s different—this is personal. We’re talking about their only child, a seventeen-year-old girl, the daughter of a senior diplomat; she has the experience and training of a girl twice her age but still a teenager.
I go on. “We’re the same, you and me. We both want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our families. My parents escaped the Muslim world for that very reason; I want my life and my service to be a beacon of hope for Muslims. I’m not a carpetbagging Pakistani with an American spoon in his mouth.
“Muslims around the world are subject to humiliation, man’s strongest emotion. To be humiliated is to be debased. It destroys our pride and drives us to extremes. The good book, yours and mine, tells us the same thing: ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.’ For most Americans to understand Muslims, they’d need several miles.”
He smiles at this. Oh shit, there I go again, pushing the envelope. Will Wintour be offended by an E-7 telling a Ph.D. how things go down in Muslim-American relations?
I either plow ahead or shut up. I choose the former and let the chips fall where they may or, in my case, the stripes.
“As you know, Mr. Ambassador, my parents and I hold dual citizenship with US and Pakistani passports. We love both countries.
“They know the difference between training and education. Education is the foundation for all that follows, including training. Terrorists are trained, not educated. If every aid dollar and military expense were devoted to third world education, our global problems would be solved in a generation. With all due respect, USAID, UKAID, the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the Gates Foundation, et cetera, only scratch the surface. We need a global initiative led by a small, educated, nonnuclear nation. A country with the balls to take the first step by scrapping giveaway programs and replacing them with professional educators, state-of-the-art school facilities, and hope for a future free of poverty and humiliation.”
I let this sink in a minute. I’m challenging my new boss—not usually a good idea.
I decide to double down. No going back now. I’ll either leave this house without a job or with the respect of a senior American diplomat. I’m determined it will be the latter.
I continue to speak with conviction. “When I was taking courses at Columbia, there was a chapter of the Black Business Students Association (BBSA). These kids were the best and the brightest; most came from East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Most would stay in the US; the East African brain drain is an epidemic. Look, I know that black business students at one of the finest universities in the world does not equate with Muslims in poverty-ridden third world countries, but stay with me, Mr. Ambassador, please.”
“I’m with you, Musa. Go on.”
This ambassador may be okay; he’s showing me management, not vanity.
Feeling a bit sheepish, I cough in a perfunctory way and nod at the ambassador. “But I digress, Mr. Ambassador. These social issues are a sore point for me, better left for another conversation. I apologize for getting off topic and not discussing your daughter’s safety.”
The Wintours nod and stare blankly, confirming that I’ve drifted beyond the scope of this meeting and waded into topics above my pay grade.
Would Alex Wintour be the safest expat teenager in the third world? I don’t know; I haven’t met her yet.
When I mention combat training, the Wintours look at each other. The sounds in the room change from tinkling teacups to screeching chairs as the couple uncross their legs and move closer to the table.
She’s scared, he’s puzzled. They want answers. Why is it new expats arrive with stars in their eyes, only to discover that reality differs from expectations?
They’re not well informed. This is tough love, what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
Pakistan is a dangerous place. Officially, the country maintains an aura of respectability in world affairs and accepts the US as a friend and ally; the reality is quite different. That respect is bought and paid for with foreign aid, most of which winds up in the pockets of corrupt officials in the form of ill-defined taxes and user fees. If the cash flow stopped, Pakistani loyalty would fold like a wrinkled burka.
The government is losing the support of the people; jihadi terrorists are gaining a foothold in the mosques. The political situation is fragile, and while the prime minister and his generals control the military and the nuclear stockpile, their loyalty to the US is suspect. The extremists are gaining control of the hearts and minds of the people, providing sophistry and charisma in place of economic and political reform.
“Mr. Ambassador,” I begin, “I’m not certain how much of what I’m going to say you’ve learned from State briefings, so please stop me if I’m being redundant.”
I tell him Islamabad is not a combat zone, at least not yet. That could change overnight.
Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan with the seventh-largest population in the world. It’s a tinderbox, with impoverished, mostly illiterate people grasping at any straw that shows them a path out of poverty and despair, I explain.
The country is 98 percent Muslim. Of those, 80 percent are Sunni, 20 percent Shia. The Shia are a powerful and politically active minority. The animosity between these tribes goes back thousands of years. Shia mosques are cauldrons of agitation with charismatic imams preaching a literal interpretation of the Koran. It wouldn’t take much to drive Karachi into riots that could extend to Islamabad and Lahore, I say.
“Local authorities are not responsible for Alex Wintour’s safety or, for that matter, that of any foreign expat in the country. Our embassy and their service providers are responsible for their own security, most of which is contracted out to private companies or PMCs, private military corporations. The best-known of these is the US-based Blackwater Agency, noted for the training and experience of their agents. The State Department often use them when their own security staff is spread thin, which was not the case in Islamabad. I, along with a hand-picked team of agents skilled in security issues, will be personally responsible for Alex’s safety. We’ll be with her day and night except when she’s in this building.”
I let my silence linger.
Owen speaks first. “You obviously know the dangers of living here, Musa, and you have the right training. The issue will be Alex and how you two interact. She’s very bright, well educated, and used to making her own decisions. Alex is familiar with embassy procedures and security measures. Use tact and, if you’ll pardon the word, diplomacy when talking to her. She respects authority but won’t suffer fools gladly.”
I smile at “Fools gladly.”
“I understand, Mr. Ambassador. I will be tactful, but at the same time, Alex must accept the constraints of living in Pakistan. This is not the UAE. I would ask that you both explain to Alex that everything I or my team does is for her safety. We won’t enforce needless restrictions but will insist she take instructions seriously. And we’ll explain the need to in detail, not just issue directives.”
Sally replies, “Alex has lived in the developing world since she was born in Armenia. Most of our assignments have been in relatively safe places, but she’s heard enough horror stories from expat friends to take your word, Musa. If you’re straight with her, she’ll be a model client. If you’re not, she may wander off the reservation and worry all of us.”
The meeting ends with assurances to reconvene regularly and my promise to have an introductory meeting and lunch with Alex as soon as possible.
Seals Team Six is a legend in Pakistan, headed up by Navy Master Chief Bull Casey, a ball-busting E-9, the highest ranking noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the Navy. The tattoo on his forearm, “Don’t Tread on Me,” isn’t a joke; it’s a warning.
Casey got his stripes the old-fashioned way, through the ranks—he earned them. He’s always been respected by his peers and loved by his men, and there’s never been a man on the team who wouldn’t take a bullet for Bull Casey.
I was a recruit and Casey a drill sergeant when we met in basic training. He’s a first-class son of a bitch; he busted my balls for seven long weeks of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training at Coronado. He was determined to expose me as a Muslim zealot, more interested in praying seven times a day than defending the United States.
Casey was wrong. I was top of my class at Boston Latin, Georgetown, and the Farm (the CIA training facility at Camp Peary). I did advanced training as a Navy SEAL before being recruited by the Department of Defense for Task Force 121. For me, respect outranked love every time. It took Casey a while to understand that, but once it sunk in, we were equals in all but rank.
I haven’t seen Casey since graduation, but finding him here is not surprising. Bull Casey would resign, take his twenty-year pension, and go to work for Blackwater Security before the Navy would put him behind a desk.
The base NCO Club is crowded. I smile when the waitress says the beer is on the gentleman sitting at the bar. I turn, stare, and shake my head. That is no gentleman; it’s the legendary Bull Casey. The insignia on the sleeve of his dress blues tells you all you need to know. Red stripes, three stars, and an eagle. This SOB is a US Navy master chief.
I meet Casey’s smile while tipping my longneck bottle forward in salute. Casey does the same as he heads for my table.
As if we see each other every day, he begins talking. No preamble. No “Hi, Musa, how’re they hanging?” He takes a deep swig on the longneck. “What’s going down, Hesbani? What brings you to this godforsaken shit hole? You must have fucked up real bad to get here.”
All I can think of is, The SOB hasn’t changed. It’s one of the reasons I respect this guy—no BS, straight talk, right to the point.
“Nice to see you, Chief. How’s the family. Is the weather in Islamabad to your liking?” I grin from ear to ear.
He growls, “Okay, Hesbani, I get it. How the fuck have you been?”
“A-OK on my end, Chief. As you know, I was born and raised in Pakistan. It may be a shit hole, but it’s my shit hole.” I say this with a smile.
He smiles back; we still understand each other.