The Swing – II


The Egyptian was slight in build and mild in manner. When he was a student at Cairo University, his chain-smoking earned him the nickname one-match. It was only later, when he returned from the United States, that everyone started calling him al-Muhandis, the Engineer.

Waali al-Muhandis loved school. He had a crystalline memory, and as a little boy collected prizes for his word-perfect recollection of suras from the Qu’ran—by the age of nine he could recite the first fifty-seven, up to al-Hadid, the Iron. Then he memorized the other half—when he turned twelve years old, Waali enraptured his parents by reciting the entire holy book, from al-Fatihah to an-Nas.

He had never forgotten the book, and he always began his work with the Shahadah.

La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadu Rasool Allah—There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.

But the child prodigy also had secular interests, and he found his true vocation—he was a tinkerer. Little Waali pulled apart radios and DVD players, anything with complex electronic circuitry, and wandered happily among the capacitors and transistors, logic gating and multiplexers. He was particularly fascinated with cellphones, miniature devices that not only received and processed, as a television did, but transmitted.

At MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Waali was called Al—no one like the Americans for shortening names. While he was working on his Masters’ thesis in electronic engineering, he took elective courses in chemistry—it helped him understand the intricacies of silicon and germanium, and the mysterious rare earths of cellphones, elements with names like ytrium and scandium.

But Al’s brain was a sponge—he soon became fascinated with complex organic chemistry, and the astounding capacity of materials to combine in different ways. Some reactions sucked in energy, yet others were exothermal—they could release huge amounts of heat in a very short time.

He admired America for its industry, its science and academic excellence. And he despised it for its policy, its support of the Zionists who murdered his people, and the hideous bombing of his Sunni brothers in Baghdad and Mosul.

It was after his return from MIT, a top graduate of their engineering program, that he built his first bomb. This one was for the Hamas, destined for a crowded bus in Jerusalem—his Palestinian mother, who had died of cancer while her son was in Boston, would have been proud.

It didn’t take long for Islamic radicals in Cairo to realize the potential of this quiet young man, with his intense eyes and thinning hair, Cleopatra-brand cigarette permanently dangling from his lips.

The last of their bomb-makers who had been this good was killed by Shin Bet in 1996, in an exploit worthy of James Bond. Yahya Ayyash had been a Palestinian electronics expert who built bombs for Hamas, a creative man who used acetone as a base for his devices. The Israelis planted a bugged cellphone on one of his family members, but the phone weighed half an ounce more than its commercial counterparts—when the Shin Bet was certain Ayyash was on the line, the RDX explosive in the device was remotely detonated and instantly killed the bomber.

After the Jerusalem bus attack, thirty-four dead in the crowded rush hour, one of the Hamas brigade leaders went to Cairo to meet the new man.

Shokran, my friend,” the Hamas man said. “It is a great pleasure to finally meet Waali al-Muhandis.”

Waali shook the man’s hand nervously, his other hand temporarily removing the Cleopatra from his mouth. This was the the first time anyone had addressed him as the Engineer.

The Hamas was well connected with other patriotic movements throughout the Islamic world, and al-Muhandis, as he rapidly became known, became a sought-after commodity. The young man began traveling in earnest, building the bombs that did not fail, and teaching others to do the same.

His new trade took him to other countries in the Mid-East, helping the Sunni in Iraq destroy the apostate Shia. Then Indonesia, with the Jemaah Islamiyah, and more recently in Kandahar. Friends of friends had requested his help in the Punjab, where the struggle of the faithful was usually against the Hindus.

The Engineer put down the soldering iron and looked at the assembled Afghan teenagers, three of the six not yet old enough to grow their first beard. Their eyes were bright, the young talibs excited by the danger of the explosives, the prospect of killing kufars. Al-Muhandis had been working with the students for three days, a crash course in improvised explosive devices.

But IEDs had come a long way since the first attempts in Iraq back in the early 2000s. Nowadays, payload stability, targeting, and triggering were far better, and the Americans were losing limbs and eyes.

At the back of the room, a senior Taliban commander sat, his AK-47 resting on his knees. The Engineer knew the man had sodomized the youngest boy two days before, and another had come in this morning with bruises and tortured eyes. Al-Muhandis had heard this was the Afghan way, and that Kandahar was legendary for it—women are for babies, men are for pleasure, the commander had told him as they drove the dirt road up to the village.

But for the Engineer, this was al kaba’r, a sinful act, and he loathed the self-satisfied look on the commander’s face, the pain in the boy’s eyes. For that, there must be retribution.

The journey to Lahore was difficult and dangerous. Either northeast to Kabul over the mountains and then across the border into Peshawar, or toward the southeast to Quetta. The commander had agreed to drive him the hundred and twenty miles to Pakistan through the southeastern route. The Taliban leader was a Barakzai, a member of the Durrani, and his tribesmen were spread all the way from Kandahar to Quetta—taking him across the treacherous border was not a problem, the commander said.

Al-Muhandis waved goodbye as the Toyota jeep sped away down the road, and prayed for forgiveness. As the jeep climbed the ridge, heading north, he pulled out his cellphone.

The Pashtun commander was glad to be rid of the fussy Egyptian and his disapproving looks. He crushed the Cleopatra the Engineer had given him and lit up a joint. He drew deeply on the hand-rubbed Manali black his cousin had given him in Quetta, and felt the familiar rush. He turned up the radio, laughed as the colors on the road grew brighter, and wondered which boy would take his pleasure tonight. Below his seat a cellphone rang, and the fighter’s hand went down, a puzzled look on his face. The Toyota seemed to disembowel itself, as mangled pieces of man and metal hurtled into the blue sky.


The Mother of Satan

The Engineer quietly recited the Shahadah before beginning work on the bomb. This was the difficult task, the cellphone detonator would come after—he could do that part in his sleep.

In most cases Waali knew about the target, and in some he actually examined the area where the IED would be deployed. That was important for choosing the type of chemicals to be used, and how they would be packaged and deployed.

But Lahore would be different—the Engineer didn’t know who the target was, or where the attack would take place. He did know his device must be portable, since it would be both carried and detonated by one man.

His journey from Quetta had been uneventful, just the way he liked it. After a short cab ride, the Egyptian had taken the bus east along the winding road to Multan, and then another bus to Lahore. He carried nothing but a small bag, his fake Jordanian passport, and a wad of money. A roll of afghanis and Pakistani rupees, but also dollars—despite the wars, the hatred of America, the greenback was still king.

For his work, his mission, he brought nothing—Lahore was a great city, the capital of the old Mughal empire. In a city of ten million people, the Engineer could easily find what he needed. The chemical products were easily accessible, used in a variety of industries every day.

“Will you use the fertilizer?” the mullah asked.

Al-Muhandis shook his head. He was well aware that many of the explosives in commercial and military use contained nitrogen, which was counterintuitive—after all, eighty percent of air was nitrogen, and the reactive bit was the other twenty—the oxygen.

“No, Maulana, I will not.”

“Ah, I thought there was no other way. Semtex, ammonium nitrate, nitroglycerin, TNT…”

“You are well informed, but no. Things have changed. Our enemies keep a much sharper eye on nitrogen now, on where it is sold.”

“I understand. I was up north, many years ago. Where I lost this.” The cleric touched the eyepatch. “It was always nitrogen then.”

“Also, there are nitrogen security scanners now, Hakim, it is risky. Your operation might be compromised.”

You are the wise one, my son. Please tell me what you need, and I will provide. There is no need to expose you, and I have pledged protection. Nobody knows you’re here.” The mullah cast his arm broadly, as if in a blessing, indicating the madrassa and the grounds surrounding it.

“Thank-you, Maulana, and thank-you for your Jihad in Afghanistan. Soon the sons of dogs will be defeated, just as the Soviets were beaten.”

“Prepare your list, my son. After prayers, I shall return.”

The mullah had delivered the necessary chemicals, and Waali began his grim assembly. The compound he was about to prepare certainly required one Shahadah, perhaps two.

On the marble top were the two components of TATP, acetone and hydrogen peroxide. Both could be found in any beauty parlor, where the kufar women polished their nails and painted their hair. But both had many other uses: acetone in plastics and pharmaceuticals, peroxide in household products and paper pulp.

The Engineer planned to combine the two compounds to make triacetone triperoxide, an innocuous-looking pile of white crystals. After his job was done, the mixture of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen—the elements that make up table sugar—would produce an explosive rated eighty percent higher than the power of dynamite.

For now, he set aside the electronic equipment: soldering iron and multimeter, and the three burners—sometimes a cellphone would be defective, and there was a reason the Engineer had a hundred percent success rate—he triple-checked.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

It would take him a day or so to prepare the explosive—both the chemicals and the apparatus were simplicity itself. He poured the acetone and stirred in the peroxide, keeping the beaker cool, close to freezing point. That was the secret. The Engineer planned to make several batches of the crystals—smaller amounts of the crystal were easier to deal with, but he knew that even one eighth of an ounce could blow off his hands.

The thermometer read five degrees centigrade as he very slowly stirred the liquids. The problem with TATP was that it was unstable at various stages of manufacture, not to mention deployment. Soon he would add the acid, drop by careful drop—any inadvertent excess, and the bomb-maker would watch in horror as the temperature suddenly shot up—then boom.

Storing the stuff was diabolical also; it was best stored damp—the dry crystals were much more dangerous—and the powder must be properly sealed, or it slowly vaporized. Waali had known a guy in Ramallah who stored the crystals in plastic pharmaceutical bottles—the ones with the child’s safety cap. The man was a good chemist, and he kept his bottles cool, waiting for the day when they would discharge their terrible mission in Israel. When it came time to build the package, the contents of the bottles were transferred to the bomb itself. But in the last bottle, the Mother of Satan had crystallized in the cap threading—when the bomber pressed and twisted, the friction was enough to blow off his hands. The heat triggered off a second, much greater explosion, which transported him directly to paradise—they’d found one hand, and that was all.

But the Engineer was the best in the business, and he knew that his precious crystals would be safe underwater. He wiped his brow, sweating profusely despite the arctic cold of the air conditioning. He craved a cigarette—he couldn’t smoke when he spoke with Lucifer—but that could wait until he finished his batches and left them to settle.

Night fell, and al-Muhandis left his beakers in the cooled water bath, taking one last look at the neat rows of colorless liquid. He would leave them overnight, and in the morning all would show their fruits—a white precipitate, the Mother of Satan itself.

On the evenings when he finished the dreadful potion, Waali hardly ate. He would sleep poorly, with heavy dreams in which white crystal swirled in his subconscious mind, and wild explosions lit up the horizon. Even so, with something as dangerous as this, he preferred to do the whole job—it might be safer to leave the cooking to someone else, but how could he be sure when he coupled the detonator that he wouldn’t end up like his friend from the West Bank?

The Engineer woke early for prayers. He was exhausted from his dreams, and felt a dull ache in his belly. Lack of food was part of it, but there was another reason—today’s work would be much more dangerous than the first—he had to purify the explosive.

He carefully filtered the mixture and stared at the damp crystals with apprehension. He muttered the Shahadah, his second today, shivering in the freezing room. He would collect the product into three lots, and then purify each one in turn—some of his method was just superstition.

Along with the crystals were impurities, and he could make the explosive far stronger through the purification process. He poured an organic solvent on the damp crystals, then used a separating funnel. The last part would be the worst—evaporating the solvent using a steam bath—after that, the TATP was ready for its dreadful duty.

Waali didn’t even notice the hours go by, so concentrated was he on the job at hand. He took off his mask and safety glasses, and contemplated his final product with satisfaction. The white crystals twinkled back at their maker. He smiled as he went out into the gardens—another nail in the coffin of the enemies of Islam.

He lit up a Cleopatra, his body shouting for nicotine. In the warm air there was a smell of freshly baked chapatis and barbecued lamb, and the Engineer’s stomach suddenly growled. He was always amazed at the way he shut everything else down when the Mother of Satan called—it was as if he was reborn when the whole thing was over.

Tomorrow he would open the burner and do the soldering work—cellphones made blowing up the infidel so much easier.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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