Ash Shaddadi, the Syrian Governorate of Al Hasakha, December 2017
When Major Halward woke up the following morning there was frost on his sleeping bag. It was still dark while he pulled on his boots, after carefully checking no unwanted guests had taken up residence in them during the night. The Thompson twins were already up and about and a container of water was being heated on Coleman stoves for the morning ritual of tea. Halward put on his puffer jacket, his daysack, grabbed his carbine and went to chat with them. He then did a tour of the sentries, asking them if all had been quiet, then he walked back to the two Supacats under their spread parachute and camouflage netting. He climbed up into the command vehicle and sat on the front roll bar to look at Ripley.
She was still asleep, curled up like a cat, wearing her hijab, probably to keep warm during the night. Her dark hair framed her face and she looked so calm and appealing, that he just watched her for a couple of minutes. Reluctantly he gently shook her. Her eyes snapped open.
“Sorry to wake you up, Ripley. I need to talk to you over there by that building. I’ll see you in five minutes after you’ve powdered your nose.”
It was beginning to get light by the time she joined him at the building and he could smell toothpaste and a freshness that amazed him. Halward was becoming aware that his clothes could do with a wash and so probably could he. She must have had a shower while he and the men were whooping it up at the previous night’s meal. She had her C8 carbine and her Glock in her thigh holster, her hijab worn loosely but not tied, so he could see her hair that had been brushed. He pushed unprofessional thoughts to the back of his mind and concentrated on the business in hand.
“Let’s go for a little stroll down to the river.”
As they made their way through the meagre olive and almond trees, Ripley was singing in a low, but melodious voice.
We used to walk down by the river
She loved to watch the sun go down
We used to walk along the river
And dream our way out of this town
The water fowl must have been still in bed, because there was little activity on the water. The sun was beginning to rise across the far bank and the two of them hunkered down near some reeds.
“Right, I need to tell you something before I brief the others. As you are absolutely vital to this undertaking, I’ll give you the heads-up first.”
“This is all very intriguing, Paul.”
“Firstly, how are you feeling, honestly? No bullshit because I really need to know.”
She looked at his intense face and forgot about making a facetious comment, “I do feel a lot better, but I get tired easily and physical exertion makes me a little breathless. I’m coughing up multi-coloured phlegm, which is sometimes streaked with blood. I’ll mention it to one of the Thomson twins. I have high stomach pain, which I suspect is more to do with my lungs than my stomach. I am taking the antibiotics like a good girl and I haven’t had a cigarette since we were in Iraq.”
The last part wasn’t strictly true and she remembered how cross James Ellis had been with her, back at the mine workings.
“Can you carry on, or do we need to get you out?”
“We carry on.”
“I was rather hoping…” Halward suddenly stiffened as he was watching the east bank of the Kahbur.
“What is it, Paul?”
“Shussssh. Turn round very slowly,” he whispered, “To your three-o-clock there is a large bush on the skyline of the far bank.”
“Go four-o-clock from the bottom right corner of the bush to the jumble of stones near the water’s edge.”
“Just watch and don’t move.”
The far bank was in shadow, but she caught sight of a sinuous movement, going through the rocks to the water’s edge. She became aware of three other shapes heading down the bank. Halward slowly raised his carbine and peered through the optical sight.
“It’s a Persian Leopard with three of her cubs.”
Ripley put her hand over her eyes to cut the glare of the rising sun. The larger female was lapping water from the river’s edge while her cubs tumbled down the bank, with two of them play fighting. When the mother had finished drinking, she sat back on her haunches while her cubs had a drink, watching over them, scanning the river and the other bank for danger.
The adult leopard turned her head and looked across the river.
“She’s seen us,” said Halward.
The cats made no move to leave as the three cubs were still drinking, but the mother fixed them with a stare. Eventually she moved away back up the bank with her cubs in tow. She paused, silhouetted by the rising sun and stared back at them and then she was gone. Ripley looked at Halward who was still staring at the far bank, his eyes were shining like those of an excited child.
“Come on, David Attenborough. You were going to give me the heads-up.
He blinked as though he was coming out of a trance and smiled guiltily, “Sorry. It’s a bit of a thing for me, wildlife. When I was a young subaltern back at my old regiment, I was with one of the units tasked with hunting down the “Beast of Exmoor”. We chased this cat for weeks and never once got a sniff of it.”
“Did it exist?”
“I think so. It would have had to be a bloody big fox to do the kind of damage we found on various dead and partially eaten sheep. But it, or more probably they, were far better at field craft than we were. Now, down to business.”
Halward told her about his briefings at the Directorate Special Forces and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as MI5 and MI6. He told her everything that was known about the events during the night of October 16th 2014. How the CSAR mission had run into trouble, the loss of one of the helicopters and three of the rescue team. He pulled the tablet out of his day sack and showed her the track away from the target and the last known position. He also showed her several pictures of a Pakistani man, some with him wearing a beard and some of him clean shaven. Halward told her his name was Gamal Kirmani, English born who came from Stockport. That he had slipped away via Turkey to join ISIL, that he was believed to be operating in the Northern Iraq and Syria area and he in all probability knew what had happened to the crew. He had boasted of this on social media. He told her that he was wanted alive if at all possible.
Ripley nodded and looked at the photographs, which she had committed to her photographic memory two weeks previously, along with several photographs of Daffi Hashmi and Parinoush Mahar who came from Leeds and Doncaster respectively. She didn’t tell him this, nor that earlier in the year she had been operating for five months in English Northern cities, posing as an outreach worker for the Fund for Islamic Relief. She thought it best not to mention that Parinoush Mahar had been staked out by her team, but had slipped away minutes before the counter terrorist police raided the building and that he was now believed to be in Belgium.
She asked a couple of questions to make it sound convincing and marvelled at the stupidity of stove piping of information and the obsessive secrecy of the various security agencies. It was a wonder to her how they actually managed to catch anybody.
“But it was over three years ago. Surely the trail has gone cold.”
“We’re hoping that as we push them back, they’ll leave behind some clues, stuff on laptops, documents, anything to help us find out what happened to them.”
“They said it came down in the sea,” she said quietly, “But I never believed that for a second. I thought it rather suspicious that a Major, a squadron commander was leading a small troop and why his two IC was a squadron sergeant major.”
“And here we are. And I’d better tell the rest of the team. Somebody must have seen us going for a stroll and I don’t want them getting the wrong idea,” said Halward looking at his watch.
“Just tell them we were studying the local fauna. I could make myself look dishevelled and stick some dry grass in my hair.”
Halward smiled, “Oh they’ll believe that all right.”
They were operating with a mixed group of Yazidi fighters on the southern part of Ash Shaddadi, the closest district to the river. The American D-Teams with the Canadians were pressing in from the east, with more D-Teams pushing south from across the river. Halward realised that the Americans who had been in the area some weeks, regarded them as somewhat of an unknown quantity. Hence the SAS troops were leading the force that was effectively acting as the anvil and pivot. He didn’t blame them and would have done the same himself.
The MWIMIK vehicle was some three hundred metres back, where it could cover both the buildings and the bridge to the east across the river. The command Supacat was forward as a Tac HQ. Halward and “Frank” Carson manned the HQ, while the four other troops had split into two teams to fight with the Yazidis. They were in pairs for mutual protection, a lesson hard learned in Afghanistan, where local troops had turned their weapons on their advisors.
Combat in an urban area was a time consuming and gruelling operation, with very slow progress. The one main advantage the Special Forces had, air power, was negated by the close proximity of the ISIL fighters and the pointlessness of moving piles of rubble around. This was like wars of the previous century, close in, personal and extremely bloody. As soon as one block was taken, the enemy would reappear in another one, sometimes in an area that had already been cleared. They made extensive use of victim activated booby traps, which almost guaranteed their death on capture, much to Halward’s annoyance. Terms like “front line own troops” or “forward edge of the battle area” were meaningless.
Ripley had been kept out of the way, much to her irritation, with the MWIMIK support Supacat. She was leaning against the left side of the vehicle, watching the 800 gram armour piercing rounds of the .50 Cal machine gun pulverising the facing side of the building. “Manny” Cohen was on the .50 Cal, ably assisted by the lovely Jamie the Medic who was handling the steel boxes of linked ammunition. It was hot work operating the heavy machine gun and both men wore only their body armour on their torsos. Even with the slower rate of fire, every round caused a pressure wave that could be felt in the diaphragm. Ripley was wearing yellow foam ear defenders, as she had no wish to become high tone deaf.
On the left periphery of her vision she caught a sudden movement of a figure. A man was running towards the vehicle screaming something unintelligible. Time seemed to slow down. Ripley was turning to face the figure, yelling a warning to the two of the .50 Cal. The figure was wearing what appeared to be a vest made out of plastic bottles taped to a singlet. The plastic bottles were full of nuts, bolts and screws. A wire came from the vest to something in his left hand. Ripley’s C8 Carbine was in the back of the Supacat. Bad drills. Cohen knew he could never swing the .50 Cal round in time. Jamie knew it as well and went for his carbine he knew he could never reach in time. He felt sick as he watched Ripley, who seemed to go into a half crouch while reaching for her pistol in the thigh holster. Both her hands came up, cocking the Glock in a single fluid movement. He had never seen anybody move so fast. The automatic was drawn and in the aim in less than a second. He had almost reached his carbine. Dust was kicked up by the running figure, whose face was contorted in a rictus of hate. Spittle flecked his mouth.
The first 9mm round hit the running man in his right eye and probably killed him instantly. The second and third rounds hit the maxilla and mandible respectively. The fourth blew off his mandible. Ripley snatched the fifth shot, which clipped the ear. The man was dumped face up in the dust and in its death rictus tried to reach the detonator with dead fingers. Ripley walked over to the body and put four more rounds in its head to destroy the brain stem. The, bubbling burble stopped. She walked back to the vehicle, applied the drop safety and holstered the Glock.
“Fucking hell, Ripley,” said Jamie, white faced with shock. He had just seen what he had regarded as a frippet and a former patient, shoot somebody dead in hot blood, while he and Cohen had been blundering around with their figurative thumbs up their arses, “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“In Israel, courtesy of the Mista’arvim.”
Jamie nodded, “Oh. The Mista’arvim. Well obviously. As you do.”
Cohen was stunned when he realised just how close to being blown apart by a suicide bomber they had been. But for the reflexes and shooting skills of what he thought had been their female, Muslim interpreter with a bit of a sadistic panache for interrogating the prisoners, they would have been three more statistics going home in Union Flag draped coffins .
“We owe you big time, Ripley. We were stupid not to see that coming and you saved our arses,” Cohen said slightly guiltily. With absolutely no rancour and with precious little thought, he blundered on, “I wonder what the Israelis thought of having to train a Brit Muzz.? Sorry, that came out a bit wrong.”
Ripley pondered the question, deciding whether to take offence or not. She took it in the spirit it was intended, albeit slightly clumsily put, “I would have thought that you of all people, Mr Cohen, would have known how many Arab Muslims serve in the Israeli Defence Forces, especially the Special Forces. Despite what the rabid, Jew-baiting lefties in Britain might spout, not all Arabs love the Palestinians and their rockets could kill their families as easily as the Jewish citizens of Israel.”
“So how come you were there for training?” Jamie asked.
Ripley smiled mischievously, “It’s a bilateral training agreement between the UK Government and the Knesset. They train British Muzz how to shoot straight for the day when we take over, we train their undercover operatives in all advanced aspects of equality and diversity.”
Jamie and “Manny” laughed, because it sounded bizarre enough to be true.
“What are we going to do with the body?” Ripley asked, ever the pragmatist, “Please don’t tell me you’re going to dismantle the suicide vest for forensic testing.”
Cohen shook his head, “No, we’ll wait for a pause in the battle rhythm, get a nice, long tow rope, drag it to where it can’t do any damage and blow the fucker up with a demolition charge.”
And as if to underline there was still a battle ongoing, Halward’s slightly peeved voice came over the radio:
“Backstop from Star-shine. Why have you checked fire? Over.”
“Err sorry, Star-shine. We’ve been dealing with an incident here, over.”
“What kind of incident?”
“A blowie-up type of incident involving a bad guy with a vest. Bable fish dealt with it, over.”
“Bable fish? In what manner has Bable fish dealt with it? Over.”
“In a, we’d better put in for a requisition for more 9mm ammo kind of way, over.”
“Err, OK. Get the fifty cal back up and running, out.”
And when there was a lull in the fighting, Halward and Frank Carson came back and looked at the suicide bomber who had seemed to have lost half his head. Then they looked at Ripley.
“Well he looked at me in a funny way, so I had to… How do you chaps put it? So I had to slot him.”
“And what were you two clowns doing?” Halward asked the pair on the .50 Cal.
“No excuses, Boss. If it hadn’t been for Ripley, we’d be toast.”
And later the Supacat duly dragged the corpse to a patch of waste ground, where a demolition charge was placed next to it and they drove behind a building for cover and set off the charge. The explosion was massive and no trace of the body remained. They found steel nuts and ball bearings embedded in the mud walls of the building, behind which they had sheltered when the charge and suicide vest went off.
Halward just looked at them because no words were necessary. That afternoon he sought out Ripley and took her to one side.
“Thank you, Ripley, or whatever your bloody name is,” he hugged her in a totally unmilitary fashion and in a flagrant invasion of her personal space.
“It was my life as well as theirs.”
“Nevertheless, you played a blinder. Do you know what surprised me?”
“No, Paul. Tell me.”
“The way you didn’t bat an eyelid when I told you what my and therefore our primary directive was. It was almost like you already knew. But of course, that would be impossible wouldn’t it?”
“Absolutely,” she agreed.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file