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Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Amaryllis Fox's eye-opening new book retells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists across 16 countries.

 The following excerpt was made public by the publishers of “Life Undercover, Coming of Age in the CIA” by Amaryllis Fox.

In the glass, I can see the man who’s trailing me.  I first noticed him a few turns back, his path-correlated with mine in the mess of Karachi back alleys.  Our reflection mingle in the tailor’s window.  He is horse-faced and tall.  His palms open and close as he walks.  “The security of the veil,” a poster reads above burqas and hijabs.

Ahead of me, the bus I’d planned to board comes and goes, covered in an ecstasy of pigment and pattern.  Every square inch is painted with bright shapes and swirls, intricate and infinite, like a Mardi Gras parade float, a diesel temple to the pleasure of the eye. It has the look of a free thing burdened, a slow-lumbering dragon, weighed down by its own beauty and the commuters that hang from its belly and back.  They are my favorite thing about Pakistan, these buses.  Against the dust and the smog and the honking of horns, they are startling, like the discovery of a kindred soul behind the otherwise dull face of a stranger.

It won’t delay me long, letting this one lumber by.  Another bus will come through in a few minutes on its way to M.A. Jinnah Road.  Better not give Mr. Ed the impression that I’m trying to lose him.  Nothing raises suspicions more than shaking surveillance.  It’s what always makes me laugh about the CIA operatives in the movies.  All the roof gymnastics and juggling of Glocks.  In real life, one chase sequence through a city center and my cover would be blown for life.   Better to lull them into a false sense of security.  Walk slowly enough for them to keep up.  Stop at yellow lights when driving.  Give them a good look each time I come and go.  In other words, bore them to tears.  Then slip out and save the James Bond business for when they’ve been left to tranquil sleep.

Let’s call my tail, Mr. Ed.  I can see Mr. Ed fiddling with cooking utensils at a market stall while we wait.  It’s not clear which flavor of surveillant he is. First, guess is usually the local service—a counterintelligence officer from the government of whatever country I’m in.  But in this case, I’m not so sure.  Pakistani intelligence operatives are good at what they do.  Their surveillance teams are usually six or seven strong,,.so that they can swap out the guy who’s trailing me every few turns to minimize the chance that I’ll notice.  This man seems to be alone.  Not only that, but there’s a foreign angle to his face.  Despite his traditional dress, the kameez worn long and loose over his trousers, he has the air of central Asia about him.  A Kazakh, maybe, or an Uzbek.  Most likely, he checking me out in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting.  Al Qaida has had an influx of central Asian recruits of late.  Putting newcomers to work as spotters is pretty typical.  Gives them a chance to learn the city while the group’s recruiters size them up.

Jodia Bazar
I watch him weave his way through the stalls that line the side of Jodia Bazar.  He picks up part of a carburetor and turns it around in his hands.  Something about the way he examines it makes me wonder whether maybe he’s of the third variety—an aspiring arms broker who knows I work with Jakab, the Hungarian purveyor of all things Soviet surplus.  Of course, there’s always the underwhelming fourth possibility: he’s plain old would-be predator, eyeing a 28-year-old American girl traipsing through foreign streets alone.  After all, there’s Occam’s razor to consider.  The simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Government or goon, any tail is cause to abort an operation.  No sense meeting a source or picking up dropped documents with an audience in tow.  Even harmless creeps can turn less harmless when they think they’ve witnessed something worth telling.  Luckily, I’m not on my way to an operational act.  Not until tomorrow.  Today is pure reconnaissance.

Jakab told me the intersection of Abdullah Haroon and Sarwar Shaheed.  That was all he knew, he said.  He wasn’t even supposed to know that.  He’d probed his buyers for the info, under the guise of selling them the right bomb for the job.  He’d need to understand the target, he told them to be sure the material would be enough to register on a Geiger counter.  Enough to win them the attention they sought.

When the next bus arrives, I board slowly and easily, as if I’m not headed to check out the target of a potential nuclear terror attack.  Mr. Ed climbs up top, to sit on the roof of the bus.  I take a seat in the women’s compartment.  Outside, the afternoon is fading into gloaming and the motorbikes begin to turn on their lights.  There’s time, amid the crush of evening traffic, to take in the buildings, most of them older than the country itself, monuments to a time when Pakistan and India were one, the playthings of colonists and kings. I feel the kinship of it, being a Yankee,  shrugging off of England’s yoke.  I can picture the men and women around me tossing crates of tea into the harbor in their kameezes and shawls.  We are rebel lands, they and us.  If only all that rebellion didn’t spill quite so much blood.

I can see the intersection emerge from the traffic and the donkey carts, up beyond the faded tarps, strung taut between buildings to lend shelter from the now-set sun.  On one side is the National Bank of Pakistan, a reasonable guess at their objective, I suppose.  After all, the mullahs cleared the twin towers as legitimate military targets, claiming that America kills Muslims as much by impoverishing the innocent as it does by tank treads on the ground.  But the building doesn’t feel right to me.  It’s concrete and uninspiring, postwar brutalism at its most scathingly bare.  It doesn’t exactly scream Western excess.

I wait until the driver slows and jump back into the dust of the city.  Mr. Ed lands softly on the far side of the bus.  I cross Abdullah Haroon Road (nee: Victoria Road) slowly enough for him to follow, and then it dawns on me as I reach the other side.  In front of me, set back slightly behind chained gates, is what looks to be a miniature castle, a tiny stone fortress amid the rickshaws and pigeons.  It’s the Karachi Press Club, the bastion of free speech and independent journalism, famed home to protest, debate, and the only bar serving alcohol in the country.  Dollars to doughnuts, this is their target.  Nothing like getting bombed to get you bombed in this town.

Karachi Press Club was ransacked by armed intruders in November 2018
From what Jakab said, this attack would be intended as a warning—a shot across the bow of any country where the press flows as freely as the booze.  Clean up Pakistan first, then turn attention to the infidel.  It’s an elegant positioning, but the truth is that it’s a lot easier to plan and execute an attack here than in Times Square.  Al Qaida has been working toward a nuclear capability since at least 1992, when Usama bin Laden sent his first envoys to Chechnya in search of fissile material lost in the crumbling Soviet shuffle.  But washed up nukes are elusive, expensive, and highly temperamental.  Makes sense they’d aim for a dry run close to home.

That means I’m looking at two scenes simultaneously: first, the potential attack in front of me and, second, the implications for a follow-up attack on U.S. soil.  Writers and thinkers from across the world come to speak at the Karachi Press Club, including Americans.  A ten-kiloton nuclear weapon would vaporize every building and every person I can see for half a mile.  Detonated outside the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, the same device would incinerate Times Square, Penn Station, Bryant Park, and the New York Public Library, plus countless condos, apartments, bodegas, preschools, and taxicabs in a blast burning hotter than the sun.  Because light travels faster than sound, the half-million or so people in that first radius would turn to vapor before they even heard a boom.  For another half-mile in every direction, radiation would kill most people within days.  Cancer would ravage their outer neighbors for years yet to come.

Terrorism is a psychological game of escalation.  It’s not the last attack that scares people.  It’s the next one.

Think it’s frightening to see our embassies hit overseas, as they were in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998?  Try watching a fortified destroyer blown up on active duty, as our USS Cole was in the Gulf of Aden two years later.  Think a strike on our military is scary?  How about a mass-casualty attack on our homeland, like the one we watched unfold in horror on a cloudless Tuesday morning the following September.

The question of Al Qaida since 9/11 has been where to go from there.  What could offer more haunting imagery than jetliners plowing into skyscrapers?  What could be more destructive than killing 3,000 people on a random weekday morning?  Eventually, the only thing left is a mushroom-shaped cloud.  Eventually the only viable escalation is a blast so bright, the few surviving witnesses will see its image burned on their retinas for the remainder of their lives.

Mr. Ed is watching a woman walk through the Karachi Press Club gates.  Her head is covered with a 1970s Pucci-style scarf.  The bottom of her kameez is patched with flowers.  The whole look is demure and Islamic with a joyful Partridge Family wink.  Beside the gates, a man sells flowers, cut and bunched.  He shouts discounted prices at drivers’ windows.  On the sidewalk behind him, there’s a sign for a children’s dentist.

I feel the horror of it froth inside me.  The evisceration.  The hideous, useless waste of potential.  I want to run at the horse-faced man, want to rush him and shake him and ask him how he can consider killing a woman who sews flowers onto her clothes.  How can he consider killing half a million like her?  But for all I know, he's a run-of-the-mill street stalker.  I’ll have my chance tomorrow.  One shot to tell al Quida why they shouldn’t detonate a nuclear weapon in a major city center.  One opportunity, face-to-face with the group that wants to bring this country to its knees.

Leave the man alone, I figure.

Then he takes out a mobile phone and makes eye contact with me as he dials.

Note: Amaryllis Fox’s book “Life Undercover, Coming of Age in the CIA” is available in bookstores and online.

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