July 2011

    Every night, he saw the children. No matter how tired he was, no matter how preoccupied

he was from the events of the day, no matter anything, he dreamed. And in his dreams,

they came for him. Pain and supplication filled their eyes; a shadow, dark and menacing,

loomed behind them. Sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.
   On this hot night, he woke up screaming. “No! Save them! Save them!” Bolting upright,

the bedclothes fell away, drenched with his sweat. He was panting. The shadow had gotten

close to him, as the children milled around, and he felt its cold tendrils snaking around him,

drawing him closer…
    There was a knock at the door, then a muffled voice. “Yusuf! Are you all right?”
    He didn’t answer, and the door edged open. The face that peered in was that of Amir,

his most trusted lieutenant. Did the man never sleep?
    “Are you ill, Yusuf? May I get you anything?”
    Yusuf shook his head, banishing the last wisps of the faces, knowing they would be back,

perhaps as soon as he nodded off again. “Thank you, Amir, but I am fine. A bad dream, that is all.”
    “Shall I prepare some hot tea? It often helps me sleep.”
    Yusuf started to object, but said, “That would be good. Please, bring it to the library, and join me.”
   He rose, pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light. The lone overhead bulb sputtered but stayed on. At least the electricity was running, he thought. Otherwise it would be candles and lanterns, as it was some nights. How could this truly be part of the land of Allah’s people if it could not consistently provide even the bare necessities? Ah, but what necessities are we thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you enjoyed back in America, at university? Or the ones the true believers scraped and scavenged for every day, here in the barren countryside, the crowded cities, that made up the lands of the Prophet, blessings be upon him?
    In the library, which was little more than a room with some shelves laden with books, a desk and his precious computer, Yusuf sat on one of the pillows along the walls as Amir joined him with a steaming pot of tea and two cups. They sipped in silence for a few minutes, and then Amir cleared his throat nervously. He was always so respectful, rather surprising for a Libyan; as a rule, Libyans tended to look down on central Africans, like Yusuf.
    “What is it, Amir?” Yusuf said. “You may speak freely, my friend.”
    “I—well, these dreams of yours, Yusuf, they must trouble you. I frequently hear you cry out.” Amir lowered his eyes. Men did not often speak of such things, especially the proud and, let’s face it, the arrogant men Yusuf worked with and led. In spite of himself, Yusuf smiled, his white teeth showing starkly against his black skin. He reached over and clapped Amir on the shoulder.
   “Amir, you are my brother, do not be embarrassed. It is proper for brothers to speak of such things with each other. Privately, of course.” He chuckled, and Amir, relaxing, did as well. Yusuf sighed, took another sip of the sweet Turkish tea, and said, “It is the same dream. It is about Katabolang.”
   “Ah,” Amir said. “The children. Yes, it was bad. But they were martyred and are in Paradise now. We must believe that,” he said fervently.
    “I know they are,” Yusuf said, but in his heart of hearts he didn’t really believe that anymore, did he? “I wish, sometimes, that we had been able to do it differently, so that the children may have been spared. They might have grown up to be strong fighters,” he hastened to add.
   Amir drank from his cup. “It was a good plan,” he said, believing it to be so, Yusuf knew, because Amir had helped draw it up. “The Americans had to be drawn to the mosque without knowing about the children, Allah be praised, and our brothers in the ranks of the lackey Kabul army were successful in falsifying the intelligence. The video of the bodies after the American attack was very effective.”
    “Yes, it was,” Yusuf agreed. Once it had aired on al-Jazeera, the images of the broken and burned little bodies succeeded in drawing many contributions to the madrassas, funds which helped finance the cause. And who knew how many new fighters were inspired by the pictures? In America, the crusaders’ always-helpful news media made much of the slaughter, although they were careful not to blame the policies of their new president, whom they adored. Still, the crusaders’ cause had doubtless been hurt severely. The operation was truly well-planned, it was well-executed—­­
   Executed. That was an appropriate word, Yusuf thought. Twenty-three children were killed by what appeared to be American tank shells, but before that they’d been kept there for three days by Yusuf and his men, while a larger force outside held the villagers at bay, waiting for the Americans to come. Yusuf’s engineers carefully planted the explosive charges, designed to be set off by any incoming American heavy fire, or by remote-control if necessary. In the final hours, they tied up the children, then gagged them as their pitiful screams rent the night. Some of his men, yielding to the intense pressure, beat those older ones who attempted to escape, defying Yusuf’s explicit orders. Things were getting out of hand, discipline was breaking down. Yusuf had started to think about releasing the children, which would have been in defiance of his orders, but the Americans arrived, and the slaughter began.
    Then came their own escape from Afghanistan, evading American and lackey patrols as they moved over the mountains into Pakistan. Reporting to the Sheikh himself, and Yusuf recalled the scene in the mansion in Abbottabad where the tall bearded man with the still-fierce eyes embraced him, calling him a hero of Islam, for his fine work in Katabolang, promising there would be more work for him, more chances to strike the infidels. Always he referred to Yusuf by his code name, Sudika, a name that was already known, and feared, in the Horn of Africa. Then they were sent back here, to Somalia, a place even more desolate than Afghanistan, where Yusuf and his men had done much good work in the past, with more to come.
    He had barely settled back into the life of the remote outpost when the shocking news of the Sheikh’s death had flashed upon his computer screen, and with Amir and dozens of their fighters, they watched the satellite TV screen in amazement as the American president arrogantly announced the news to the world. Could it really be true? How could this have happened?
    Over the next few weeks, Yusuf struggled to hold the camp together. Some of the foreign fighters gave up and left for home, but most had stayed. They were heartened when the American president announced late in June that he would begin withdrawing his troops from Afghanistan. “We must hold on, brothers!” was heard often in the camp over the next few days. Yusuf did nothing to temper their expectations, but tried to keep them on an even keel. He knew what they did not: the Taliban were nearly exhausted and on the brink of defeat. The Americans had proven to be a much more formidable foe than the Russians had been. For one thing, the Americans were technological wizards. The mujahedeen lived in constant fear of attack from the devilish drones that could be lurking overhead at any moment. The American soldiers were well-trained and courageous, and they were formidable fighters who were highly motivated. Most especially, the Americans were making inroads with the population, giving them education and medical treatment, helping with their agriculture and building infrastructure.
    The Russians had been different, caring little about the innocent Afghans around them. Most of their soldiers were conscripts, with little stomach for fighting an elusive and deadly enemy so far from home. The Russian Special Forces troops, the Spetsnaz, were an exception, as Yusuf had found out personally on more than one occasion, but fortunately there had not been enough of them to make a difference.
    Success would all depend on how quickly the Americans left. Yusuf had read that the president’s generals all opposed the withdrawal plan, but the political realities of a difficult re-election campaign trumped their objections. If the Taliban re-took the country after the American withdrawal, that would be a problem for the next president.
    The real threat to the Americans was one that few of them yet perceived, and those who did were often discounted within their own government, as far as Yusuf had been able to tell. The Arabs still looked for leadership from the Sheikh, and now from his anointed successor, but Yusuf was one of a very select few within the leadership of the movement that knew what was really going on. His work in the Horn and elsewhere for jihad had not gone unnoticed, not just by the Sheikh, but by others, the ones who had provided al-Qaida and other jihadi groups with much of their funding and weapons.
    Yusuf remembered the day he was summoned to Tehran, five years before. He spent two days in his hotel, meeting with a few very important men. Then someone very high up indeed must have made a favorable decision, for he was whisked away in a small motorcade to an air force base, and from there in a small jet to a remote airfield well to the east, and finally overland to a place in the Aladagh Mountains, east of the Dasht-e Lut basin, one of the driest places on Earth. There, he saw with his own eyes what the future of the jihad would be.
    Just a few weeks ago, Yusuf had received a coded message, brought to him personally by courier. Using the code he had been given in the Aladagh, he deciphered the message. It was the one he had been awaiting for half a decade. Maintain order and discipline in the ranks. The events which were foretold to you are about to come to pass. Expect new orders soon. The message was signed simply, “al-Qa’im”.
    Yusuf nearly shivered when he had completed the decoding and read the full message. He was excited, to be sure, but unsettled as well. Could he be in line for another mission like Katabolang? He prayed to Allah that it would be something different, not involving innocents this time. But over the next few weeks, his soul was increasingly troubled. More often now he thought of his time in the land of the Great Satan, his days at university in that small town in their province of Wisconsin, and the friends he’d made, the times he drank beer with them and laughed and studied together, and even the times he attended their Christian churches with them, with the joyful singing and the words of love and kindness…
    Yusuf’s hand trembled as he placed the cup down, and he heard it rattle against the saucer. Amir looked at him with concern. “Are you all right, Yusuf?”
   “Just a brief flash of the nightmare, Amir. It has passed.” He rose, as did Amir. “Thank you for the tea. I will retire now, and I believe I shall sleep soundly. Thanks to you, my friend.” He clapped Amir’s shoulder. “Good night.”
    In his bedroom, with the light off, Yusuf Shalita, once known to his friends in his native Uganda, and to his friends in America, as Joe, lay back and stared at the dark ceiling. He reached a decision. The next day was July fourth, a date that had no meaning here, but in America, it was their Independence Day. Tomorrow, he would begin his quest for his own independence, freedom at last from an ideology that had eaten away at his very soul. He would begin to work out the details, but he knew without question, in his heart of hearts, that he could no longer do this work. It was wrong. It was—evil. Yes, he had to finally admit to himself, it was evil. How could Allah, blessed be his name—how could God, by any name, consider such things to be acts of good, of love?
    No. He would stop, and what’s more, he would stop the others, as well. He had committed many crimes, caused the deaths of many innocents, and for those crimes the Americans had hunted him for years, and perhaps they would show no mercy on him, even if he renounced his past, even his very faith. Yusuf Shalita trembled, because he remembered his readings of the Christian Bible, and the fate that awaited men who performed such evil deeds.
    Perhaps, though, there was yet a way. First, he would have to somehow convince the Americans to give him sanctuary, protection. They did it for their own criminals all the time, didn’t they? Yes, but those criminals always had something to trade with: information. He had a great deal of that, didn’t he? Information was a commodity, after all, and the Americans knew all about the value of commodities. Yes, it might be possible, especially since he held within his head what was perhaps the most valuable piece of information in the world, a piece only a handful of men knew:
    He was one of a handful of people outside Iran who knew about al-Qa’im, and where to find him. He knew what al-Qa’im was planning, and how he could be stopped. A great many American lives could be saved with that information, and if there was one thing the American politicians valued, it was the lives of their people. The cynic in Yusuf said that was because those lives meant votes to keep the politicians in power, but the realist in him knew that the great majority of the politicians did indeed care deeply for their people and their country. He had become convinced of that during his time among them. They were a proud people, fiercely patriotic, and although they often squabbled among themselves, they did not hesitate to rally together when threatened. That was their greatest strength. They would do whatever was necessary to defeat their enemies and protect their country. In his lack of understanding of that basic fact, the Sheikh himself had seriously underestimated the Americans. Now, with the Sheikh gone, the movement was in the hands of al-Qa’im, a man whose understanding of the Great Satan was much more complete. This understanding had led to the plan he had for the next great strike against the Americans, a plan he had broadly outlined to Yusuf in the Aladagh.
    Yusuf did not know what his own role in that plan would be, but what he did know left him cold. Katabolang would seem as nothing compared to what was now being put in motion from deep in the mountains of eastern Iran. But without al-Qa’im, the plan would not come to fruition. That much was clear to Yusuf.
    And Yusuf could deliver him to the Americans.  
    Surely the Americans would be willing to bargain for that. His life, for that of their newest and most dangerous enemy. They would offer money, as well, but he cared not a whit for that. His life, that was what he cared about, and the chance to repent.
    He would have to be very careful. Which of his men could be trusted? None of them, that much he knew, even Amir, his most loyal, who had been by his side for twenty years now. Worse, al-Qa’im now had his own eyes and ears in the camp. No, he would have to be very clever, a challenge very great, even for a clever man such as himself. But it could be done. For the next hour he turned the problem over in his head, and finally an idea came to him. It was dangerous, and perhaps the longest of long shots, but it might work. The success or failure of it all would depend on one man. Yusuf didn’t know where the man was; he hadn’t seen him in nearly three decades now, since university. Was he still around that town? Was he even still alive? There was only one way to find out.
    He slept, and he did not dream. 

Quest for Honor - Chapter One