RAF Northolt and Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, Brussels – 1st and 2nd February 2018
Cécile was bored and full of pent up tension, so she decided to do a few circuits of the running track before dinner. As she pounded round the track disjointed thoughts swam through her mind. She pondered whether or not to visit her mother when this was all over and how she would be received. She hadn’t seen her mother in eighteen months, although they spoke on the telephone a couple of times a year. She would make her decision when all of this was over. She sprinted the last four hundred metres, feeling good, although her legs and back were still painful from the SERE course. Gasping for breath and doubled up after crossing the line, Cécile became aware that somebody was sitting in the small spectators’ stand, watching her. She walked over and leaned on the rail. He was dressed in sports gear like her and Cécile wondered how long he had been there.
“Hello, Staff Sergeant Phillips. Are you stalking me?”
“Not until we get on that flight tomorrow morning and then you’ll be sick of the sight of me.”
“Are you going or have you been for a run?” Cécile looked at her watch, “They’ll be serving dinner in the sergeants’ mess by now I’d have thought.”
“I’m not hungry, so I took my life in my hands and went for a run in that open area south of the A40. Most of it was cordoned off, so I ran to Uxbridge and back.”
They looked up as a Eurocopter chattered overhead.
“Why don’t you let me buy you a coffee once we’ve had a shower? There’s a Costa on the base, in the all-ranks club. Do you know where it is?”
He nodded, “Yes, there’s an arrivals pack in my room with a map. Say about half an hour?”
The Costa coffee hub was fairly empty as most of the dependent children from the married quarters, the Scaley Brats, had gone home. The airmen were too savvy to waste money on expensive, pretentious coffees, since Pay as You Dine, or as it was better known, Pay as You Starve had been introduced on RAF bases.
“All right, Staff, what can I get you?”
“Just a tea please.”
“Green tea, herbal tea, peppermint tea, Lapsang Souchong?”
He knew she was pulling his leg, “Just an honest mug of tea, hand-picked from the finest sweepings of the Tetley factory please, Ma’am.”
He found a seat and she brought the beverages across on a tray, “I got some sugar. I don’t know if you take any or if you’re sweet enough.”
“No, given that up. White death,” he sipped the tea, which was very hot, “You were on form this morning.”
“I thought CJO was going to self-combust. You don’t like Mr Franks very much do you?”
Cécile thought about it, “It was the way he looked at me. Like I was some lumpy jumper who should have been serving the tea and biscuits.”
Phillips half-smiled at her, “You can come across as being quite combative, you know.”
“That’s because I’m a lawyer and I’ve had to fight for everything throughout my life, even my mother’s affection, when I was a child.” Damn! Should never have said that. He’ll think I’ve got a chip on my shoulder… Well, haven’t you?
He chose not to pick up on it, “Anyway, we should be sworn enemies. I nick ‘em. You get them off.”
“I do prosecute as well. And I intend to make sure those three bastards pay for what they did.”
“Shouldn’t you be totally dispassionate? Blind justice and all that?” he asked.
Cécile stirred a sachet of brown sugar into her plain coffee, “We’re not androids, Mr Phillips. But everyone, no matter how guilty they are, should be entitled to a fair trial and they used to be. Until the judiciary was corrupted by the politicians and Common Purpose. And I’m referring to the so-called charitable organisation, not joint criminal enterprise.”
A C130 took off and Cécile wondered who was on it and where it was going. All kinds of strange passengers flew into and out of RAF Northolt.
“Staff Sergeant Phillips, what do I call you, as we are going to be working so closely together? My Christian name as you are aware, is Cécile.”
He looked at her for several moments, “Wing Commander Hammond. I’m a member of the Royal Military Police and we do things absolutely by the book. I do understand that in the RAF you do things slightly differently and that’s horses for courses. What you have to remember is that I am now your close protection officer. My job is to keep you absolutely safe and that is my main and only priority. To put it bluntly, I may have to take a bullet for you, but it’s a two-way street.
“We have to have absolute trust in each other and our relationship must at all times be professional. When we are on duty, I would prefer to be addressed as Phillips and I will call you Ma’am. When we are off duty, such as in a hotel, I will address you as Ms Hammond and you may call me Mr Phillips. I hope you understand and are not offended.”
Cécile though this to be rather stiff, but understood his reasoning, “If that’s the way you want to play it, Mr Phillips, then so be it. But I hope you’ll excuse me if I occasionally slip up and accidentally call you The Admirable Crichton.”
He smiled and she wished he would smile more often.
“Isn’t just one a little underpowered for close protection? I thought you were supposed to have a team.”
He gave her an old-fashioned look, “Ms Hammond, you’re not Hilary Clinton, thank goodness. That would be far too intrusive and I understand you’re a bit of a dab hand with the Sig, so we protect each other. After all, you’re no shrinking violet, are you?” he stood up, “Thank you for the tea. I’ll pick you up outside the officers’ mess at 06:30 tomorrow. I can leave the car in the VIP car park.”
She watched him head for the door and couldn’t help but ask herself what else he “understood” about her.
While Cécile was packing her bag in the Northolt officers’ mess, one hundred and eighty miles away in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a man they called “The Afghan” stretched and grunted. Across the room Parinoush Mahar was playing Grand Theft Auto, sprawled on the sofa in the flat’s living room. He had gone off mission and was now busily engaged reducing Los Santos’ hooker population by performing drive-by shootings, rejoicing as the gouts of blood spattered against the walls outside the cheap clubs.
“Have that you fucking slag! Piece of fucking shit!”
The Afghan sighed inwardly. He had come to the conclusion that Parinoush Mahar hated women, particularly white women, but then he knew that before he had even arrived in Belgium. He looked round the filthy, shambolic flat and felt dirty. Living here was hard for him. He knew he had to get out, because he had an important task to do. He feigned boredom at Mahar’s misogyny, “I’m hungry, man. Need to get something to eat. You want anything?”
“Nah, would you fucking look at that?”
On the game his 4×4 had mounted the pavement and mowed down a group of people near a small park. The Afghan knew he wouldn’t be hungry as Mahar had done two lines of coke about half-an-hour ago. They were both speaking in English. It was natural that they would gravitate together, what with Mahar coming from Doncaster and the Afghan coming from Barnsley and their being about the same ages, although the Afghan was slightly older.
He left the flat and once out of sight in the stairwell he checked his pocket for the aluminium cigar tube. He preferred to use them as they could be more easily secreted up his anus, when necessary. It was however, always a risky business and he had no wish to attend the Clinique Sainte-Anne Saint-Rémi and tell them he had “accidently fallen” on a Cuban cigar tube. He left the four-storey block and headed up Merchtemsesteenweg to central Molenbeek.
On the square some of the market stalls were still open including some fast food wagons. The Afghan ordered a kebab in a flatbread, some salad and the spicy sauce, then went under the leafless trees, sat on a bench and made a pretence of eating it. He surreptitiously scanned the square and its inhabitants and might as well have been looking at a North African city. The familiar landmarks of the churches were tucked away, between and behind hideous, concrete flats, but minarets pierced the skyline like the rocket menace of the 1950s Cold War cartoon information films. There were no police, few white faces, but more importantly, nobody seemed to be watching him.
He slipped the cigar tube out of his pocket and tucked it inside a mess of chicken pieces, shredded onion and tomatoes and the sauce, then closed the lid of the expanded foam fast food container, putting it back into the poly bag it had come in. The Afghan cleaned his hands fastidiously with the two sachets of wipes that had come with the meal, then walked over to an overflowing bin, tucking it well into the rubbish.
The Afghan walked reluctantly back to the squalid flat, knowing he was in danger and would have to get away the following evening. He hadn’t always been called The Afghan. Once he had been Corporal Angar Badrashi, an RAF medic who had joined up to escape the continual nagging of his mother and the annual pilgrimage to the Pashtun tribal areas that spanned the meaningless Afghan/Pakistan border. He had no wish to have an arranged marriage to a cousin, a simple girl with no expectations and then have children with congenital birth defects.
His life bore an uncanny similarity to the life of a woman just over 2,000 miles away, who so desperately wanted to make love to a Sergeant in 22 SAS. For him it had been an out of area tour to Afghanistan, not enough work on the FOB so he had gone out with the Regiment patrols, doing some hearts and minds with the locals. Then a visit from some oddly dressed gentlemen in weird and wonderful vehicles, an offer neither he nor his boss could refuse, a strange but exciting few months, then back home to find he hadn’t made the promotion board and he was back shuffling papers in the medical centre. Then a visit from a man in a dark suit and a proposition. And like Ripley, he had fallen off the radar and instead of shuffling F Med forms, he was walking a tightrope in a Brussels suburb with a murderous paranoiac, who spent most of his time off his head on cocaine. An old Animals song came to mind, We gotta get out of this place.
Five minutes after he left, a vagrant walked unsteadily across the road and rooted in the bin. He found the still-warm carton of food and clutched it to him like it was the most precious thing in the world. He took a swig from a wine bottle then headed back and disappeared up a maze of side streets. The tramp opened the side door of a van and jumped in, suddenly quite nimble. The three men already inside craned over the carton as the “vagrant” opened it.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, no chips. I hate that foreign shit,” said a very Scottish voice. He pulled out the aluminium tube and wiped it clean on the “vagrant’s” dirty coat.
Cécile and Phillips had flown into Melsbroek Air Base, a military area of Brussels Airport by a BAE 146 of No 32 Squadron. The embassy had provided a car and driver to take them the seven kilometres into Brussels Central and dropped them off at the Hotel Amigo, which was a short walk away from the main Brussels Police Station. Phillips insisted that he went into Cécile’s room first and he spent a few minutes checking it out and which buildings overlooked her window. In the afternoon whilst Cécile phoned the embassy, he slipped out and walked the few hundred metres to the police station, ascertaining if there were any threats along the route. As Belgium was considered to be a benign environment, their weapons were still in the armoury at Northolt.
Late that afternoon they sat in the bar and had an early meal. Cécile had a platter of grilled fish pieces with a white wine spritzer, while Phillips had a pasta dish with Italian carbonated water. Their chat was easy and Cécile discovered somewhat to her surprise that despite his veneer of stiffness, he was amusing and good company. They talked of some of the more entertaining cases of breaches of good order and conduct they had dealt with, but she had the distinct impression that a part of his life was a closed shop. Coincidentally, he felt the same about her.
At 18:00 local they walked to the Central Police Station, presented their ID documentation and were shown through to the maximum security department and the operations centre. As well as the data and comms operatives on computers and radios, the room was dominated by a wall of screens showing live links from Molenbeek. A senior police official greeted them, as well as a staffer from the British Embassy. The policemen introduced himself as Aspirant-Commissaire Daniau
“You must be Wing Commander Hammond. I’m Leslie Adcock from the Embassy. How do you do,” he said, pointedly ignoring the staff sergeant.
“Really? How do you do,” she shook his hand coolly, “This is my colleague, Staff Sergeant Phillips.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said making no attempt to shake the SNCO’s hand.
Both of them felt slightly overdressed in their dark, winter suits. Adcock wore a lightweight sports jacket and chinos, what was known among RAF other ranks as “Snecwear.”
“Well, this is all rather stimulating isn’t it? You have no idea how much of a change it makes from having to deal with the fallout from this Brexit nonsense. It has really soured our relationships with the Belgian authorities, well all of Europe really.
Cécile and Phillips looked at each other, “Does that include Norway and Iceland?” she asked.
Adcock frowned slightly and then smiled rather wanly. She turned to the senior policeman, “Aspirant-Commissaire Daniau, what is the plan for the night’s operation?”
He was happy to explain the control room to her in his excellent English, “These screens show live footage from security cameras in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. Once the operation goes live, on the blank screens you will see live images from our officers’ body cameras. Once Parinoush Mahar has been apprehended, he will be brought straight here and incarcerated until the formalities of the European Arrest Warrant have been completed.”
“And I will be present during his initial interrogation?”
“As agreed with your government, yes. We have cooperated fully with your team in Molenbeek and they are there to offer support if we should need it. We don’t envisage that requirement as my officers are well rehearsed in these types of operations.”
She nodded, knowing that now they could only wait.
Aspirant-Commissaire Daniau was being slightly economic with the actuality as regards cooperating with the British snatch team. The four man team had been two minutes and thirty seconds away from grabbing Parinoush Mahar, tazering him, bundling him into a van to a disused airfield, where a jet was waiting on the ground, when the operation was blocked by the Belgian authorities. And while Alan Bartlett had rather unkindly misquoted General Schwartzkopf, intelligence cooperation with other EU countries was not as seamless as those who wished to remain in the EU would have you believe.
The Belgian Intelligence and Security Agency (VSSE) is a case in point. It had been established in 1830 and is the second oldest security service after the Vatican’s. It is a civilian agency run by the Belgian Ministry of Justice. The technical collection of intelligence was not allowed, significantly putting the Belgian intelligence services behind their foreign counterparts in terms of collection and effectiveness. This was rectified only in 2010 through the introduction of the Special Intelligence Methods Act (Bijzondere Inlichtingenmethoden, ‘BIM’). Until then, the Belgian police had the upper hand, having been allowed to use wiretapping and technical surveillance methods in 2003 (it had been the intention to provide the intelligence services with similar competences, but this work was left unfinished until 2009).
Another cause for frustration was the installation of a threat intelligence fusion centre in 2006, a consequence of a European agreement to establish such centres as a reaction to the terrorist attacks on Madrid and London in 2004-2005. Fearing competition or even being made obsolete, the State Security chief Koenraad Dassen actively tried to scuttle the establishment of the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA). The service was embarrassed by the escape of a Kurdish terrorist, as VSSE officers had been put to the task of guarding her while under house arrest. Dassen resigned.
At the insistence of the VSSE the operation to arrest Parinoush Mahar was being run by the Belgian anti-terrorist police, the DSU. The centralized 50 operator small assault team of the intervention unit of the DSU is deployed in cases of terrorism, kidnappings, hostage taking and other forms of serious crime. DSU performs emergency responses, high-risk arrests and searches, observation operations, undercover operations. Chief Commissioner Eric Liévin, one of the DSU’s former commanders, stated that “a criminal dealing with the DSU, has a better chance of surviving; they try to use a minimal level of violence/force, and yet try to attain a maximum level of efficiency.” Which is reassuring to know.
However, the relations between the DSU and the British snatch team were not going well. While the British SIS does provide very skilled field operatives, contrary to the novels of Ian Fleming and the 1970s Sandbaggers series, (which is on You Tube) the strong arm personnel are almost exclusively drawn from the UK SF which includes 22 SAS, the SBS and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. The unit is known as E Squadron and is an elite within and elite under the OPCOM of Director Special Forces with OPCON falling to SIS on operations.
One of the problems was the cancellation of the operation to lift Parinoush Mahar. All they had to do was wait for him and The Afghan to leave the café, grab both of them and be out of the country in less than an hour, The Afghan to safety, Mahar to a series of very uncomfortable interrogations. The second was the belligerent nature of the team leader, who was worried about the safety of his undercover operative who was still inside the block of flats and he was under a great deal of stress. They were in the forward control centre that had been set up in a bakery that was being refurbished. The target building was two hundred metres away.
“Inspector Hoek, could you please assure me that your troops will not go in until my undercover operative has left the building.” It didn’t help that anger and stress was making his Scottish accent even broader than normal, “My operative says the entire flat is wired with explosives! Mahar has consumed enough Colombian marching powder to keep the entire EU parliament wired for a week. He thinks the fookin walls are talking aboot him.”
“Mr Gow, my priority is the peaceful arrest of the suspect, Mahar.” The DSU Inspector said impassively.
The Scotsman threw his arms in the air and turned to his long-suffering 2IC, “I don’t think that fookin Van der Valk here gets it. Will ya have a try please, Marty?”
“Sir. What my boss is trying to…”
“Ah good. The body cameras are on line,” Hoek leaned into the microphone on the comms console, “Toutes les équipes se mettent en position.“
They watched the four screens. Two of the footages came from either side of the building, one was from about one hundred metres back and the last one showed the surrounding roofs from the team on the roof. The Scotsman saw something that seemed to freeze his heart.
“Dugs? Marty, they’ve got fookin dugs!” he turned angrily on Hoek, “Why didnae just pull up in yer exploding car with a fookin mariachi band on point? “
“Entrez, entrez, entrez!”
It was like watching a slow-motion train crash unfold. There were two stairwells up and the team ascending the right hand stairway collided with a man who brought down the lead policeman. There were shouts and a scuffle while they tazered the man and cable tied his arms and legs. One of the dogs started to attack the man on the ground who was the Afghan, taking chunks out of his arm. There was a delay while two officers dragged his twitching body down the bottom of the stairwell. It was fortuitous they left him there as events unfolded.
In the forward control room the Scotsman was apoplectic, “That’s oor man! Did yea not hear, you stupid fookin sprout, he is our undercover boy, and if any harm comes to him, I’ll rip yer fookin face off!”
The team on the roof found the entrance hatch locked and had to use a frame charge, which caused a fire as the stairwell was blocked with cardboard boxes. Choking in the billowing smoke they stamped out the flames and descended.
The team in the left hand stairwell reached the third floor, the dog handlers leading the way. They turned left, straight into a hail of fire from a PP19 Bizon machine pistol. The fat 9mm rounds tore holes through the dogs and the unprotected faces, boots and feet of the officers. They withdrew dragging their dead and wounded back to the stairwell under a cover of CS gas
“Kevin frae Home Alone could have done a better job than these fookin clowns,” the Scotsman observed as the flickering of gunfire was relayed on the monitors.
Under the cover of a hail of non-lethal rounds, the first team finally made it to the top of the right stairwell and advanced on the flat. The frame charge was ready and they used breaching rounds to clear behind the door. The subsequent explosion could be heard fifteen kilometres away and the entire front of the block of flats disintegrated into a blizzard of masonry, furnishings and pieces of people. The tactical HQ shuddered and all the screens went blank.
“Big fookin frame charges you boys use.”
In the Police Headquarters all of the body camera relays and several of the security camera screens went blank. Then they heard the explosion.
“Mon Dieu,” said Aspirant-Commissaire Daniau.
“In God’s name!” Adcock exclaimed.
Phillips said nothing, he just pursed his lips and glanced at Cécile.
She was looking at the man from the embassy, “Well, Mr Adcock. Was that stimulating enough for you?”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file