It had been five years since Ali had arrived in Peshawar, but it seemed like a hundred. The clean-cut American kid in Levi's had been replaced by the bearded, shalwar-qamiz clad warrior that always carried his modified AK-47 under arm on a sling for comfort and support. Using his turban for padding, he even slept on it at night. With Talha's blessing and Ahmad Khan's assistance, he had made his way back from the 21st Century to 19th by joining the legions of warriors for Allah that inhabited the tribal lands and hired out as mercenaries to the sheik, mullah or businessman who would hire them. The Pashtan distrusted all authority, and readily harbored al Qaeda, Hamas, and Taliban while holding the Pakistani Army at bay. Ali avoided their skirmishes. He had no desire to die on mere principle like so many did.
With introductions from Ahmad Khan, Ali moved among the Pashtan with ease. By spending only a short time with each tribal chief, and by showing them his facility with weapons and the lay of the land, he quickly developed a network of people he could count on if he had to retreat to the mountains again. He listened well and learned. The tales of these tribes were ancient and complex. They chronicled the origin and structure of every family. Bound by hardship, tragedy, and triumph, these stories were as timeless as the mountains and bound the people in each tribe into a unit as tough and hard as the mountains themselves. Ali could not believe the tenacity of these people and their will to survive. He learned all he could from them before moving on. He missed many things: a good haircut, toothpaste, a washing machine and more. The dust of the dry climate coated his clothes and skin with a dingy gray. The sun and wind bronzed and creased his skin. He didn't miss television, the Internet or entertainment. There was a glint in his eye, partially from the bright sun and partially from the constant dust in the air.
Ali had been in Turkmenistan about a year. If it weren't for the many Islamic holidays and the annual Hajj, he would have lost track of time. He had come here following the trail of arms, determined to do something about the increasing terrorist acts destabilizing the Middle East and the World. He had met and lived with members of Al Qaeda, Al Asalmi, el Islam, Hamas and Hezbollah. He didn't stay long and didn't make friends. He did store away their names, faces, and affiliations. He did this by repeatedly stating their names, locations, affiliations, customs and anything else he knew about them out loud until it was committed to his long term memory--a technique he had learned in the Academy. His nights were not spent scheming how to infiltrate and terrorize the American people. Instead, he dreamed of the time when he would return to his beloved country and all the memories those thoughts brought to his dreams. He often dreamed of Aleksandra. They would be climbing in the Sierras or sunning on the beach. He never dreamed of her being with him in this place. His dreams of her were far away and vague.
The town with the unlikely name Mary was a crossroads of road and railroad in Central Asia between the Islamic nations and the old Soviet republics. Near the site of the fortress at Merv, where Russia first claimed this desolate land of a few nomadic herders, Mary had become the destination for criminals, expatriates, terrorists, and anyone else wishing to live below the radar of 21st century law. Legitimate trade mixed freely with stolen contraband from Europe, arms and technical equipment from the dismantling of the old Soviet Union, and hashish, cocaine, and heroin from Afghanistan, Burma, and points beyond. It was here that Ali had come, following the trail of illicit arms, and rented a dirty little room upstairs over a Chinese restaurant and set up shop in the streets, bars, and other little hideaways where the people he sought to meet hung out. He wished that he had learned Russian at the Academy. He bought a Russian-English phrase book and began studying. He ditched his shalwar-qamiz for a shirt, jeans, and sneakers. It felt good. So did trimming his beard.
While in the mountains with the Pashtan, Ali had supported himself by hunting and guiding. He had quickly established himself as a superb hunter. The Pashtan didn't know that laisec surgery had given him eagle like 20/5 vision. With his superb vision, planning, and map reading skills, his hunts were nearly always successful. The horns, skins, and meat were easily traded for whatever he needed. By the time he reached Mary he had saved a small bag of money, about $7,000, he used to set himself up in the small room and marketplace. He didn’t have a space in the blue-domed white palace of the central market. Rather, he joined the rag tag stalls and tents that lined the road to Kabul. He had to dress warmly in the winter and the summers were unbearably hot. He started modifying weapons that he bought and sold in the marketplace. It was good money and established him as more than just a passing drifter.
The talk of the market was a man who they said, was more than he appeared. Like Ali, Ahmed Shah was a Pakistani who sold decorated copper goods in the market. Only he had an honored place under the blue domes selling to tourists. Rumor had it that Shah was the cousin of the most famous arms dealer in Pakistan, Omar Shah. Omar Shah had once bragged that he could sell the components for a nuclear bomb to anyone for $50 million. When Homeland Security and the Pakistani government got wind of this, they investigated and found that Shah indeed had, through his various connections, the ingredients and capability for building a centrifuge that could turn out weapons-grade uranium. He also had ways of obtaining plutonium from nuclear power plants in China, India, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics. With the approval of the Pakistani government, elite Rangers raided Shah's warehouses, markets, and supply chains, confiscating enough nuclear material for several bombs and shutting down his operation. Last word was that he had bought his way out of Pakistani prison and was now living in Malaysia.
When he learned that Ahmed Shah was selling arms on the side, Ali decided that he had to find out what Shah was up to. Ahmed hung out every evening in the Bougainvillea Coffee shop. Ali began to frequent the place, at first just watching Ahmed. Ahmed was very popular. During the evening, many men would approach him and give him greetings. Sometimes he would go into the back room with someone, emerging after a few minutes to return to his favorite table. After several days, Ali felt that he knew enough to approach him. He waited until Shah was alone, and then approached him, speaking in Urdu.
"Hello Mr. Shah. I'm Ali Rashid. I noticed you have a place in the market too and came to say, hello. I repair and sell small arms."
Ahmed responded in Urdu. "Yes, you’re that young Pakistani who has recently set up a gun shop in the market. Are you trying to compete with me?" A sinister narrowing of his eyes in displeasure melted into a broad smile that spread across his face.
"Only with my skills. I don't sell anything in decorative copper, except carved on gun handles and barrels."
"I'm being a poor host. Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?" Shah’s smile grew broader. It was obvious he was enjoying this encounter.
"Black coffee." Ali never did get used to all the sugar and cream.
"They tell me you're a hardened fighter for Allah from the hills. You seem to know your stuff well. Where are you from?"
"I was born in Peshawar. But spent most my youth with relatives in the tribal regions. I've become fairly good with small arms, so I've decided to see if I can make some money here. Too much competition back home"
"My family is from Rawalpindi. We lost everything and set up shop in Karachi after the separation. We've always dealt in arms. There's money to be had. I've made a fair amount myself. But not with those small trinkets you’re selling in the market. My real trade is in shipments. You seem to be a rather knowledgeable fellow. Strange that you would be hiding here though. I won’t ask what really brings you to this Allah forsaken place right now. Perhaps we can do business?"
With that, Ali bid goodbye. That night in his little room the walls closed in on him. He wished he was back out sleeping under the open sky. He knew he had hit it big. Shah was bragging. That was sure. But there was something in the way he talked about his family that kept running through Ali's head and kept him from sleeping. All the next day as he worked in his stall and talked to the occasional customer, he couldn't wait until evening when he could head back to the Bougainvillea and learn more.
Ali had barely settled into his usual table when he saw Ahmed wave to him to come over. Shah had a man who appeared to be Afghan with him. In Pashtan, Ahmed spoke first. "This is the honorable Sharif Mohamed. He runs guns for me throughout this area. Come with us, and I'll show you what I mean."
Ali followed the two men to the back of the coffee shop. They entered a small room with a table that could be used for private meetings. At the end of the room was a back door to a narrow alley that led behind other buildings crowded in this district. About twenty meters from that door, they entered the back door of another building. This building was much larger, and, to Ali's amazement, packed to the ceiling with crates marked in Russian. At a side entrance, men were loading some crates into a truck.
"We need you to go along and help Sharif deliver this shipment to Al Qaeda in the tribal territories. It should only take a week. There's a thousand dollars American in it for you. What do you say?"
Ali couldn't refuse. This was his first big break since taking his assignment.
There were three trucks in all, led by a jeep with a fifty caliber mounted on a tripod in the bed. One guy hung on to that machine gun for two days straight in the wind and dust while they bribed border guards and local officials so they could deliver their shipment. Ali was glad that he rode in the front seat and not have to take the pounding that guy did as they raced over rough, dusty roads to meet their deadline. Ali proved invaluable in the territories because of his knowledge of the chiefs and their languages. After explaining what they were about to Ali, Sharif let Ali do all the talking when they arrived at tribal checkpoints and settlements. Within two week, they were back, carrying $250,000 American for their effort. Shah was so happy that things went well that he gave Ali $3,000 for his services.
A few nights later, Shah was drunk and bragging again. This time, Ali was an honored guest at his table along with a few of Ahmed's cronies. "So you can see now that I'm not just a little trinket dealer in a dusty desert town. My family is the primary supplier of munitions for the Jihad from Morocco to Indonesia. Wherever there are Moslems in need of guns or bombs for their cause, we provide them. Our supply channels are underground and very efficient. We deal in of all types of weapons--even nuclear. How do you think Pakistan, China, and North Korea got the bomb? Through us! My older brother, Mustafa, was studying nuclear engineering at Moscow University when things started falling apart. With funding from my family, he moved into the republics and bought huge quantities of armaments, including nuclear. I was sent here to handle the shipments going to Pakistan. It was easiest in Chechnya, where Moslems manned the missile farms and power plants. In a few years I will retire to our private island in the Indian Ocean. If you work with me and stay as sharp as you have been, you can come with me and retire early--a rich man." His broad smile reeked with sincerity.
Ali played along with Shah's game. "OK, I'm ready to give it a try. But I don't believe all that nuclear camel dung." He laughed nervously at his own joke. Ahmed Shah shrugged his shoulders and smiled even more broadly.
That night, in his bed, Ali couldn't sleep again. He kept seeing nuclear bombs going off in his head. He knew he was onto something, and it was big. He was unsure if he could believe what Ahmed Shah had said, but if it was true, it was something he had to deal with.
Except for Moslem holidays, and the brutal winter, life in Mary was routine. Gradually, Ali learned about Shah's operation. He owned the Bougainvillea Coffee shop. It was a front for his family's operation in the arms trade. There was a steady stream of military armaments coming through Georgia and the former Soviet republics. RPGs, land mines, machine guns, mortars, SAMs, plastique, dynamite, timers, and detonators were all flowing through Mary to points throughout the Middle East. Half of Turkmenistan’s income appeared to be coming from illegal arms trade. Ali began to understand how the Palestinians, Chechnyans, and other terrorist groups got their arms. This dusty little fork in the road was the funnel for the largest arms trading the world had ever seen. The Soviet war machine had never really shut down; it had shifted its focus to supplying terrorists with armaments. Since the region was ninety-five percent Moslem, albeit warring factions, the Jihad had willing partners on all sides.
So Ali became part of the problem. Not only did Ahmed Shah trust Ali to lead shipments into the tribal territories, he started using him to help keep track of the inventories and shipments. Shah used the latest computers and the Internet to do business. Ali's ease with these high-tech elements helped him gain Ahmed's confidence.
Ahmed was drunk again and feeling in a good mood. "Ali, my good boy. I think it is time that I show you the source of our business. We will travel up to Georgia, eh, and see what we can find? There is a girl up there, Aleksandra--a real killer in more ways and one. They say she has taken over the Chechnyan arms connection. They call her Aleksandra the Great. I don't know. We seem to be doing pretty well with our contacts. Just want to check her out and see if she is for real. We did okay before she came into the picture. We will probably be doing okay after she's gone. We got the big one out without her,...." His voice trailed off and he paused as if he had said something wrong, and then fell silent. "We will leave in the morning."