CHAPTER TEN - AFGHANISTAN
Quetta, 28 March 2001.
The plane had started its approach to Quetta in the northwest of Pakistan, close to the Iranian border. Looking out of the window, Jamal Ali could see the town of Quetta below and the airfield. Apart from that, he saw the most incredible view of bleak dark rocks, unbelievable that this terrain could support life. It might be different after the monsoon rains, he thought, but he knew that the heavy, grey monsoon clouds which floated across for months in the summer would seldom shed their load here. This was not the desert as he knew it from his youth in Saudi Arabia. He could never live here.
He ran through why he was coming to this place and what he must do, what was to be discussed and agreed. It is my conscience which it prompting me, he thought. I must take the true way and this can no longer be in the company of Suleiman, my one true friend.
From Quetta he was taken north by helicopter over rugged, impassable terrain into Afghanistan. They landed in an open area bounded by barracks which looked as if they had taken a few hits from cruise missiles. He was told the story later that day, when he was introduced to the camp's mascot. The mascot was a skeleton wired together and suspended by a rope around its neck. Some months before, a commando team had attacked the camp, planting explosives and destroying many buildings. One of the commandos had been shot dead, probably by the friendly fire of another commando, Jamal thought, when the camp finally awoke and reacted. Was that not the chief cause of death of the attackers in the war against Iraq? His hosts insisted the dead man was an American, but apart from his fair skin, which he had now shed for his new role as camp mascot along with his other soft body parts, he had carried no identification. His broad toothy smile seemed to signify that he had known death was better than capture.
Jamal was led into a building, where a number of bearded men dressed in local garb were seated on ammunition cases and on the floor. They were consuming a meal of rice boiled with goat's meat. The rice was in a large aluminium saucepan next to a pile of chapattis. The men smoked, and Jamal hoped the ammunition cases did not contain explosives. Three of the men rose to meet Jamal. The others continued to eat, forming balls of rice with fingers and the thumb of the right hand, in a practised manner, disinterested.
"Salaam Aleikum," Jamal said in greeting. He would use Urdu until another language was proposed in situations like this. Urdu, and its sister Hindi, had grown up as the language of the soldiers and camp followers centuries before. With all the different tribal groups of the Indian sub-continent, and their multiplicity of languages Urdu had become the lingua franca. You spoke your own language to your community and Urdu to others. Their leader switched immediately to Arabic. Jamal knew of this man, but had never met him, although a number of his companies were recipients of Jamal's "charitable" donations. They had much in common. They had both grown up in Saudi Arabia and moved in affluent circles there in their youth. It was surprising they had not met.
There were no formalities. Each knew why the other was here. Time was not important as they conversed. They broke in the middle of the afternoon while Jamal was shown around the camp. Then the discussion resumed with just the two principals, and the afternoon turned to dusk as they left the barracks and climbed up into the surrounding hills, still just the two of them. Jamal began to voice his misgivings with regard to his own situation on the Board. They were following a narrow track created by a goatherd and his charges, but no goats were in sight. Sometimes they walked in single file with Jamal behind and then the track would broaden again.
"My group, inshallah, is generating more funds than ever this year," Jamal said. "I have distributed five times as much money this year as last year. This is because we have become much more efficient at moving funds. We have been able to establish our people within international banks and also to use their people for our purposes. The international bankers are driven by money and this makes them easy meat for us. They are naive and stupid, but very clever at what they do. This combination works well for us. Their police and regulators are left far behind, far far behind."
"I have appreciated the funds you have made available in Germany," the leader said.
"Suleiman has employed very efficient people, but now he has a secret scheme. It is on a scale which is not to my liking, which I think may threaten us, and you." Jamal continued.
"What is this grand scheme?" the leader asked.
"It is not for true believers to learn of the details of these financial schemes, but Suleiman may bring down one of the largest US corporations and take their money." For the moment this was as much as Jamal wanted to say, before he had a reaction.
"We are not thieves of the night, Jamal; we are holy warriors. We do not need to steal their money," was the leader's disdainful reply. "It is the will of Allah that we fight against those forces which threaten Islam, that we destroy their leaders. We will destroy their symbols of power. We have no need of their money."
Jamal was in agreement with this, and he elaborated.
"I think that Suleiman is wrong. There is an unbeliever who has proposed this scheme to him. Suleiman's mind is clouded. We should trade goods. That is our world. We should establish modarabas to buy and sell goods, even hashish, as has been done here for centuries. We should buy weapons and we should use plutonium as we have previously used the sword. We should respect the pillars of the one true religion and give to the poor, zakat. We should not sully ourselves with usury, with the dirty money, with schemes of the Crusaders."
"You are right, Jamal." The leader was almost wistful. "It is the true believer who will win the battle for Islam, the true believer. The practices of the West, you call them Crusaders, are ungodly. We will take the fight to them. Those to whom it is decreed will die at our hand and our martyrs will earn the rewards of paradise." They launched into a fervent discussion about the spread of Islam and the action to be taken, of Jihad, holy war, of their own Jihad.
Jamal knew that this was where his own allegiances must lie. In his mind, the two of them were ranked among the few who understood what must be done to further their cause. It was a private battle: even Islamic states would not openly give them the support their cause deserved. The two of them were fervent in their belief and certain of what they must do. Others, contemplating the actions of these men, would later claim that men like these had hijacked the cause with their extreme beliefs and their extreme measures.
Finally, they came back to Jamal's personal circumstances. He wanted Jamal to join him, and Jamal agreed. Jamal should distance himself now from Suleiman and his group. Then they discussed the specific steps Jamal should take. What it came down to was that, as soon as Jamal had set up his exit strategy from the Board, he should assume control of the businesses and plunder Suleiman's finances. They thought it would be right to eliminate Suleiman himself. That would be taken care of, if necessary, once Jamal had completed their plan. They talked through the steps they should take, setting an October deadline. In their eyes Constexo Energy was Suleiman's downfall. He had stepped outside the fold with a scheme that embraced the evils of the unbelievers. They were convinced that Suleiman had intentions that he had not revealed to Jamal. Jamal must break away: this was prescribed for Jamal's own Jihad.
Jamal slept at the camp that night. He left the next day by the same route as he had arrived. As the helicopter lifted off, he looked down at the camp below, disappearing behind rocky hills, grateful that his mission had been decided, glad that he did not have to carry it out from here.
From Quetta Jamal flew to Karachi. If he was going to take over the Suleiman Empire, he had to secure the underlying businesses. He was confident about retaining the "powder" trade. He was a frequent visitor to Peshawar and its hinterland. It was from here that their operations were managed. He knew the people well and he knew that he would have support from the friends he had just left. There was no problem taking control of this business. Where he felt less confident was in the gem trade. Landing in Karachi, he was picked up by his host's driver and taken to a house in KDA, traditionally a smart residential area of Karachi but now being challenged by the various phases of the Defence development adjacent to Clifton.
Gates swung open to allow the car through and it pulled up opposite the main door. A servant led Jamal through the house and out into a walled garden behind. Magnificent Bougainvilleas grew up the walls in the shade of young palm trees. One side of the lawn was covered by a red and blue striped shamiana, an awning intended to hinder the evening dew, rather than provide shelter from rain, which seldom came. The main part of the lawn was set out for croquet and a couple of mallets lay on the grass. A group of westerners were sitting at a table under the shamiana. When they saw Jamal Ali, they rose to leave, taking their empty Murree beer bottles with them. Jamal's host, a tall blonde Englishman walked across to greet him.
"Jamal, it is a pleasure to receive you here in my home, a pleasure and, indeed, an honour." He embraced Jamal.
"Thank you, David, it is most courteous of you to invite me."
"You will take some green tea, I am sure," David said, motioning to the servant to bring some for them both."
From formalities they moved on to discuss the political situation and debated who was likely to succeed the present military regime. David was much in favour of the military. They provide order in this chaos, he told Jamal. They then moved to the reason for Jamal's presence.
"David, Suleiman does not know I am here, and I would prefer it to stay that way. This is a personal initiative of mine. I want to ensure that we do not become too dependent on Suleiman. This business has become too important for that."
"You may rely on my discretion, Jamal. I also feel that you and I have a special relationship. It was you who brought the tanzanite connection."
David was the key figure in the Board's gem trading business, or some would say gem smuggling. He had traditionally placed their emerald and diamond stocks in the European market, as well as semi-precious stones. He travelled frequently to Europe in general and Hatton Garden in particular but he preferred to live in Karachi. He was doing nothing illegal here and considered it to be a good place to stay out of jail.
Some five years earlier Jamal had travelled to East Africa and spotted the opportunity to pick up tanzanite. Almost 90% of tanzanite was smuggled anyway, so it would be easy for the Board to step in and take a big position in the market. The Board had both the financial resources and the mechanics of transport and distribution in place. Since then commissions on tanzanite had become David's biggest source of revenue, and he felt that he owed this in some measure to Jamal. Apart from that, the two of them had become firm friends, even if they met infrequently.
"I am going to be blatantly honest, Jamal," David said, fixing Jamal with his clear blue eyes. "If you want the tanzanite business and the rest, I really don't mind. It doesn't concern me. I do my job and make my commissions. Who receives the proceeds of what I sell simply does not matter to me, as long as the source of the tanzanite is not compromised. As to the emeralds, I think you will find it more difficult. I have no control over what they do in Sri Lanka." David waved to the servant to bring some more tea.
"David, you have great understanding. You are wise beyond your years." Jamal smiled at him.
"Plan it carefully, Jamal. Suleiman is a powerful man in all senses of the word," David cautioned.
"I will," Jamal replied. "I will be honest with you, too. I believe we must separate this business from Suleiman's other activities. When it comes to the point Suleiman will be obliged to agree. He will have no choice. I too have powerful friends. But David the arrangements with you stand. I could not have a better or more trusted intermediary. You have to be aware of what is going on. I plan to set up a smooth transition with completion scheduled for October. What I have to develop is the practical steps which will allow this to happen, and that I am well qualified to do."
"I wish you well, Jamal. I have seen nothing but utter professionalism in all our dealings to date and I have no doubt that you will achieve your objectives."
After Jamal had left, David's friend returned from the side garden, where they had continued their conversation over a few more Murree beers. They had retired there as a matter of courtesy towards David's strict Muslim guest.
"Who was that guy?" a red haired oilman asked.
"Oh, I knew him years ago back in Saudi," David replied. "He drops in when he's passing through, a kind of family friend you could say. The Saudis are into jewellery, so I guess that's why he likes to meet me."
David was a well-respected buyer for the London jewellery trade.
Jamal flew up to Lahore that evening, where he was to attend a meeting of Islamic scholars. As the 747 took off from Karachi, he reflected on the events of the last two days. His immediate future had been mapped out in Afghanistan. The meeting with David had been the first step towards implementation and it could not have gone better. His personal intervention in the businesses was not sufficient, however. He would need to assemble a team to establish a command and control system for the diverse businesses of the Board. He did not know how Suleiman managed the business; that was never disclosed, but he, Jamal, would set it all up on a professional basis, without Suleiman's knowledge and against his wishes. The very last step, scheduled for October, would be to take over the central finances. This would be the most
difficult task. They would need to brainstorm a solution.
As the plane began its descent to Lahore, Jamal was disturbed by one aspect of the meeting in Afghanistan. He had always respected these people who were leading the faith. He had never questioned the rightness of their interpretation of the Koran; rather he had looked to them to help him in his understanding. But one detail kept surfacing in his mind to disturb him: the mascot, the skeleton. How can it be right to desecrate the remains of your enemy in this way, an enemy who was a simple soldier? This was not in tune with his understanding of the true way. He felt a sense of menace. Was there something beyond this that he did not yet understand?