The End of the World

It was starting to snow when the plane touched down. It had  crossed the vast lands of central Asia, flying west through the night. Somewhere near New Delhi it was struck by lightning, and dropped a few hundred feet. I thought it might drop a little more, and I peered out of the window. Above, the clearest velvet sky, an impossibly starry night. Below, the most wonderful display of fireworks—an electrical storm that lit up the clouds.

The passengers filed out silently in London, a zombie procession to usher in the dawn. By the time the pale January sun came up, Heathrow had become a zoo.

London was gripped in a snow crisis. The sort of crisis that makes Norwegians laugh, six inches predicted through the day. Snow is a bit like sex. You never know how long it’ll last, or how many inches you’ll get. The departure board was a sea of red. All around, distraught passengers were running around, searching for alternative travel. All we knew was that we were well and truly stuck.

High above the RPGs, the plane flies over the tribal areas of Pakistan's northwest frontier.

High above the RPGs, the plane flies over the tribal areas of Pakistan’s northwest frontier.

My bag tried to bolt for freedom, but someone captured it and pushed it slowly towards arrivals. And I mean slowly. Apparently the met guys had done a good job, and the unusual weather had been predicted a week ago. Accurately. In time, space, and quantity.

True to form, Heathrow was singularly unprepared. Bags from multiple cancelled flights converged on belt seven. Then belt eight. Then both. I was sandwiched between a woman in transit from Sao Paulo, and another who was leaving for Norway.

Cases on the belt were two deep, making it impossible to recognize individual items. Travelers were three deep, as more people poured from departures, realizing they weren’t going anywhere. The Norwegian woman looked forlorn. Stuck in London.

“Look on the bright side. You might be in Mali.”

She looked blank, probably unaware that French forces and Islamists are battling it out in sub-Saharan Africa, as civilian refugees languish in the embattled cities.

I know very little about Mali, but I do know that Ghadafi maintained a large contingent of Berber fighters during the war in Libya. When someone shot the mad colonel in the head, the Tuareg found themselves out of a job.

Armed to the hilt, they headed home and joined up with Al Qaeda-style radicals. A page straight out of the Taliban playbook: overthrow the government supported by the Quai d’Orsay, set up an Islamic state.

The usual geopolitical law of unintended consequences, since Ghadafi was a stabilizing influence in northern Mali, acting as a buffer against fundamentalist expansion to the south. I well remember the Libyan dictator ranting and raving that his internal opponents were Al Qaeda.

Geopolitics be damned, what we now have is Sharia law in northern Mali, and the shrines of Timbuktu systematically destroyed. The perpetrators are Ansar Al Dine, followers of the Wahabi doctrine. The tombs are not Christian, but U.N. World Heritage sites built by Sufi Muslims.

Worship at sacred funeral sites is seen as idolatry by Sunni fundamentalists—a winning combination of axes and AK-47s was used to level the shrines.

Timbuktu is also the birthplace of Ali Farka Touré, one of the greatest musicians in recent years. He was voted one of the hundred best guitarists in the world, and placed Mali squarely on the World Music map. African blues. After all, that’s where they came from. I can only imagine what these latter day Taliban are doing about that.

With all the planes on the apron, I caught a train to Scotland. The train was fast, but uncomfortable. I went through time travel: Darlington, Durham, Alnwick. Places I had last seen in my teens.

Heading north the old school way on the great escape train from Heathrow.

Heading north the old school way on the great escape train from Heathrow.

On the way back, the flight is a hundred minutes late out of Edinburgh, but at least it’s in the air.

The guy in the window seat orders white wine.

“I’ll have the red, please.” I was going to have tea.

The stewardess hands me a bottle and moves on, flashing her permagrin.

The guy turns to me.

“Hope we make up some time, I have a connection to Basle.” Deep Scottish brogue.

“Off to Switzerland?” I ask, fooled by the accent.

“Och no. Basra. Iraq,” he adds unnecessarily.

The guy does private security with a UK firm. Right now for ENI, the Italian oil giant, at a complex near the Kuwait border. With the In Amenas hostage crisis getting worse by the minute, I trade my newspaper for a good story.

“Ex-military?”

He turns out to be a veteran from the Black Watch regiment―known to his squad as Biscuit, for reasons that are both lengthy and confusing.

Biscuit did Iraq in 2003-2004, right at the bleeding edge. Basra, then Kirkuk. Then Afghanistan.

He tells me about the boys that died, guys paralysed from IEDs. About the Iraqi regular army soldiers, with no fight in them, and the Republican Guard, who fought to the death.

“What’s going to happen when the West pulls out?”

“They’ll just kill each other. They hate each other’s guts. Can’t understand why we went in. Fucking politicians.”

Biscuit scrounges another bottle from the stewardess, and his language gets increasingly colorful.

“How about the soldiers’ books about the war?”

“Mate o’mine wrote a book,” he ponders. “Lost both his legs.” He drew an imaginary line just below his groin. “Load a shit. Bunch of fuckin’ lies.”

“So how many people do security out there? Hundreds? Thousands?”

Biscuit thinks a moment. “Fuckin’ thousands. Easy.” His mates are ex-British army, South African ex-special forces, Ugandans. The whites do command and control, the blacks do the grunt work.

“Mainly Afrikaners, or English South Africans?”

He doesn’t know the difference.

“What are they called? The Dutch’ll have names like Jani Duplessis.”

Oh, yeah. Coupla guys called Jani.”

The job’s tough. Nine weeks out, three weeks home. He tells me candidly the three week leave is for UK tax reasons. His mates bought homes in Thailand, not Britain.

The guy who owns the security company operating at In Amena lives in Malta. It’s not just Starbucks that dodges UK tax. It’s the whole special forces industry.

AQIM, Al Qaeda In the Magreb, is the flavor du jour. And splinter organizations like Belmokhtar’s Those Who sign Their Names In Blood, the guys who attacked In Amena.

Mr. Marlboro, as he’s known, is a veteran Mujahid from the days of the Soviets. Like many others, his ‘Islamic’ outfit’s core business is kidnapping and smuggling, not Jihad.

There are so many guys like Biscuit, the market’s saturated. They’re in Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan―anywhere the military-industrial complex operates.

“We’re just waiting for Syria to settle down a bit, ya know, and we’ll be right fuckin’ in there.”

The same old game, The India Road. Instead of spices, energy. Western oil majors getting the oil out, getting the gas out. Oil products make up ninety-eight percent of Algerian exports.

We talk about the hostages at In Amena, the guys who got killed.

“Pretty dangerous work, right?”

“Well, that’s the job.” Biscuit shrugs. “Money’s just too fuckin’ good, ya know.”

I do the math. Luxury apartments in Bangkok start at ten million baht, three hundred grand US. Yup, money’s good.

In London, I go online to check in.

Flight cancelled.

I sneak out this morning up dawn’s crack, but it’s one of those trips. The plane can’t push back because the steps won’t move.

“I’m afraid we have a flat battery,” announces the pilot in a plummy British accent. I curse like my Scots friend.

Advanced aviation technology sorts the problem with a pair of jump leads. I could do with a jolt myself.

Apparently, I’m on the last flight out―from 9 am the snow returns. Until 8 pm this evening, it looks like lockdown London.

The early morning sun streams in portside at thirty-nine thousand feet. I close my eyes and recall my final effort to cheer up the Norwegian woman.

There’s worse things than being stuck in London, I told her. After all, Dr. Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

“Just think of all the shopping you’ll do.”

“I can’t do any shopping,” she replied. “I’ve run out of money.”

That did it for me. When the Norwegians run out of money, it really is the end of the world!

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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