A remarkable military thriller from one of the most acclaimed new suspense writers in years—“a triumph of the fiction of contemporary warfare” (Alan Cheuse, The Dallas Morning News). Khatar. It's a Somali word for 'dangerous,' and it's one that Colonel Michael Parson has heard too often on his present mission. His friend Sophia Gold has talked him into using his leave from the Air Force to fly relief supplies into Somalia in an antique DC-3 cargo plane.Somalia is infested with armed clans, pirates, poverty, and, increasingly, terrorism. Parson and Gold are about to face all of them firsthand. An al-Shabaab leader called The Sheikh has declared all aid a sin against God, and he launches attacks against planes and convoys to stop it. If that weren't bad enough, a Hollywood actress and activist has flown into Somalia to make a documentary, and, as far as Parson is concerned, she might as well paint targets on their backs. The mission becomes even more complicated when they encounter a wounded teenage al-Shabaab fighter, who might be seeking asylum--or a chance to kill.Not even Parson knows just how khatar his mission of mercy will become
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Praise for Sand and Fire
“Easily the author’s best novel to date. Military thriller fans should make Young’s work an essential addition to their reading lists.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Gripping . . . This page-turner offers thrilling action sequences and harrowing plot twists in abundance.”—Publishers Weekly
Fourteen-year-old Hussein felt little else as he rode in the back of a Nissan pickup truck along a dirt road south of Mogadishu. Five fellow al-Shabaab fighters traveled with him in the truck bed. One manned a Kord 12.7-millimeter machine gun bolted near the tailgate, and the rest brandished AK-47s. Hussein’s entire worldly possessions consisted of his AK, his sandals, a dirty cotton shirt and trousers, and the machete hanging from a rope belt in a leather sheath.
For a promised piece of fruit every day, Hussein had become a soldier of God. The older men had yet to give him his daily tangerine; rewards would come later if he and his brothers in jihad performed this mission well. Along with the fruit, he hoped to get a bowl of onion and potato soup. Just like yesterday and the day before that.
His mouth still watered when he remembered that day last week when the men fed him fried goat meat. Such feasts came rarely for the young soldiers of God. Al-Shabaab, or “The Youth,” faced many hardships inflicted by the infidels. These gaalos, the unbelieving foreigners, brought hunger, the death of parents and friends, and so-called medicine that only made diseases worse.
But today, the unbelievers would feel God’s wrath.
The truck slowed and stopped at a crossroads. Dust kicked up by the Nissan’s tires rolled in clouds and stung Hussein’s eyes. Thorn scrub littered the dunes that stretched from the crossroads to the beach. Beyond the beach, the Indian Ocean sparkled blue to the horizon. Seagulls wheeled over the surf.
The new boss got out of the passenger side of the pickup. Hussein knew him only as “the Sheikh,” a man who spoke of many things Hussein did not understand. But the Sheikh led the struggle now, and God gave him his words just as the angels had bidden Mohammed to recite the holy book.
“Out of the truck, my pups,” the Sheikh said.
Hussein and four of his comrades scrambled over the tailgate and hopped to the ground. One stayed behind to man the machine gun. The driver got out of the truck and stood beside the Sheikh. Hussein knew the driver as Abdullahi. Abdullahi would beat you for laziness or for grabbing at food. He wore a black kerchief around his head and neck, which left only his eyes visible. The Sheikh wore plain clothes like Hussein, and mirrored sunglasses.
Another al-Shabaab truck arrived, carrying only the driver. The driver remained inside and kept the engine idling.
“A nest of vipers has installed itself in Mogadishu,” the Sheikh said. He gestured with his right hand, index finger extended, as he often did during his sermons. “They dare to call themselves a legitimate government, with their sham elections and unclean money from the Americans and the British and the United Nations. The only legitimate government is that of God, of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia.”
At the mention of the Islamic emirate, the fighters cheered. Hussein cheered with them, raised his weapon high into the air.
“At any moment,” the Sheikh continued, “a vehicle will come this way. It will probably be from Mogadishu. We will stop the vehicle and give the occupants a test. If they pass the test, they may proceed on their way. If they fail, you will administer God’s justice. We will stand firm here at this crossroads and test the fidelity of travelers for the rest of the day.”
Hussein did not know all of these words. He did not know “administer” or “occupant.” For that matter, he did not know what “emirate” meant. But he knew his duty, and he would carry it out with righteous conviction.
As the Sheikh predicted, in a few minutes a car approached. Two men rode in a Mazda with a dragging tailpipe and rusted-out fenders. As the Mazda neared the gun truck, the other truck pulled across the road behind the car and blocked escape back toward Mogadishu. The boy manning the machine gun fired a burst over the car. The three rapid-fire shots sounded like hammer blows, and the heavy brass casings clanged onto the truck bed as if someone had dropped three wrenches.
“Halt!” the Sheikh shouted, needlessly. The Mazda had already skidded to a stop. The driver and passenger sat frozen. Both looked like men in their thirties. Neither wore a beard.
“Out of the car,” the Sheikh ordered.
Slowly, the driver opened his door. Not fast enough for Abdullahi. Abdullahi tore open the car door, grabbed the driver by the shirt, and slammed him against the hood of the car. Another of the al-Shabaab fighters yanked out the passenger.
Hussein trembled with anticipation. These looked like kafirs, those who denied God’s truth. Kafir was a new word for Hussein, one the al-Shabaab men had taught him. Kafirs lurked all around, and they deserved no mercy. Hussein would show none.
He would not hesitate to carry out al-Shabaab’s bidding. In its ranks he had found belonging and importance. No longer rabble of the streets, now he was a man of weapons. God rewarded his ferocity with tangerines and plums.
Already the kafirs begged for their lives.
“Brothers, brothers, who are you?” the passenger asked. “We have done nothing to you.”
“We have only a little money,” the driver cried. “You can take it. Just let us go.”
Abdullahi slapped the driver.
“You came from the direction of Mogadishu,” the Sheikh said. “What were you doing there?”
Hussein had seen the Sheikh do this before—toy with his victims the way a cat plays with a mouse. The question made both travelers look even more frightened. The driver glanced at his passenger, then turned to the Sheikh with pleading eyes.
“We are fishermen,” the driver said. “We have been repairing our boat.”
They didn’t look like fishermen. They wore the shirts and slacks of the gaalos, and leather shoes instead of sandals.
Abdullahi slapped the man again.
“You lie,” Abdullahi said. “You have repaired nothing in these clean clothes. You have worked in the offices of the infidel, stealing from the people.”
“No, no,” the driver said. “We are good Muslims, just like you, brother.”
“We shall see if you are faithful,” the Sheikh said. “Tell me of the Prophet’s Night Journey, exactly as the Quran tells it.”
“What, brother?” the driver asked. “I do not understand.”
“Because I am generous and kind,” the Sheikh said, “I will give you a hint. Recite for me Surah 17.”
“Recite?” the passenger asked. “What?”
“Recite for us,” Abdullahi said through gritted teeth, “Surah 17.”
“What is this madness?” the driver asked.
The travelers did not know the section of the Quran the Sheikh wanted to hear. Hussein did not know it, either, because he could not read. Nor could most of the al-Shabaab fighters. This did not trouble Hussein. Hunger left little space in his mind for irony.
“Then I will tell you,” the Sheikh said. He began to recite from memory.
“Glory to Allah, who did take His Servant
For a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque,
Whose precincts we did bless—
In order that we might show him some of our signs: for He is the One
Who heareth and seeth all things.”
The two kafirs must have figured out what lay in store. The driver began to weep. The passenger blubbered, “We have always been good Muslims. I have even made the Hajj.”
“You dare to brag of your pilgrimage to Mecca?” Abdullahi said. “That makes your sins all the worse.”
The Sheikh stepped back from the men’s car. He raised one arm above his head and barked an order:
“Give them justice.”
Hussein slung his AK across his shoulder and unsheathed his machete.
In the pilot’s seat of an ancient twin-engine DC-3 cargo plane, Michael Parson felt the aircraft yaw. One of the engines had quit. Instinctively, he pressed the left rudder pedal to keep the nose on heading. With his left boot feeding in rudder pressure and his right boot flat on the floor, he knew the right engine was the one that had failed. Dead foot, dead engine. Parson swore under his breath, then called to his copilot.
“Damn it, Frenchie, we got a problem. Feather number two for me, will you?”
“Merde,” the copilot said. “I’m on it.”
Copilot Alain Chartier usually flew much newer and faster airplanes with the French Armée de l’Air. Parson, a U.S. Air Force colonel, had met Chartier a year ago during a joint counterterrorist operation in North Africa. French Mirage jets, along with American aircraft and U.S. Marines, had put a hurting on some very bad people who attacked civilians with chemical weapons.
Today, at eighty-five hundred feet over Somalia, Parson and Chartier flew as civilians. Both had taken leave from their military jobs to volunteer for a few weeks as pilots for World Relief Airlift. They wore military-style desert flight suits with WRA patches on their right sleeves. On Parson’s left sleeve, he wore a U.S. flag, while Chartier wore the drapeau tricolore of France. Parson had plunked down eighteen thousand dollars of his own money to get a DC-3 type rating—so he could fly a seventy-five-year-old unpressurized airplane over hellholes in the Horn of Africa. He’d done it because he loved to fly. And because he’d do anything for Sophia Gold.
“Can’t believe the things I do to spend time with Sophia,” Parson muttered.
Engine failure hardly came as a surprise in an airplane this old, and it didn’t frighten him. As an experienced military aviator, Parson had seen far worse. Even if the second engine failed, the DC-3 would just become a big glider, and Parson could dead-stick to a survivable touchdown on the flat plain below. Just hold her at the pitch angle to get maximum lift over drag and let her settle to the ground.
The airplane’s third crew member was a Somali-American flight mechanic who looked as thin as the struts on a Piper Cub. He wore two flags on his left sleeve: the Stars and Stripes on top, and underneath, the banner of Somalia—a field of light blue with a single white star in the middle. His nametag read Geedi Mursal, Flt Mech, World Relief Airlift. He had just starting working full time for WRA after spending six years as a jet engine mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. Parson had known Geedi for about a month and had flown with him three times: not enough to know him well but enough to know he was dependable.
“I’ll go scan number two,” Geedi said.
“Thanks, Geedi,” Parson said.
Geedi unbuckled his jump seat harness. He kept on his headset; his interphone cord stretched long enough to keep in contact with the pilots as he disappeared into the cargo compartment.
Parson pushed the left prop lever to set a higher RPM, and he added power with the left throttle. Chartier placed his thumb and forefinger on the knob for the right engine’s mixture lever.
“Confirm number two,” Chartier said.
“Confirm,” Parson said, after looking to make sure Chartier hadn’t chosen the wrong control.
Chartier pulled the mixture lever to idle cutoff. He reached overhead and put a finger on the feathering button for the right engine.
“Confirm two,” he said.
“Confirm,” Parson responded.
Chartier pressed the button, and the right propeller stopped windmilling. As its blade angle changed, the prop slowed down until it stood motionless in the slipstream.
“Number two standing tall,” Geedi called from the back.
“Thanks, Geedi,” Parson said. “See anything on that cowling?”
“Leaking some oil.”
That told Parson little. If those old Pratt and Whitney radials weren’t leaking oil, it meant they didn’t have any oil. Some DC-3s had been upgraded with turboprop engines, but this one staggered through the skies on Depression-era technology.
“Everything still tied down good back there?” Parson asked.
“I’m checking now,” Geedi said.
The cargo compartment contained pallets of food. One pallet held several hundred pounds of Humanitarian Daily Rations, much like military MREs. Another consisted of hundred-pound bags of rice. Yet another pallet held boxes of cooking oil and bags of flour and beans. Charitable organizations had donated these relief supplies for Somalis returning home from Kenyan refugee camps.
From the start of the civil war in 1991, Somalis had fled their homeland by the thousands. For more than two decades, Somalia had no real central government. Armed clans and Islamic militants ran riot, and Somali pirates threatened maritime shipping. Now, at least, Somalia had a president and a parliament, but the country remained impoverished, unstable, and dangerous.
Adding to the chaos, neighboring Kenya had decided it could no longer host the world’s largest refugee camp. The Dabaab camp complex had housed nearly half a million refugees. Now they were heading home, usually on foot, across miles of dust-blown wasteland and thickets prowled by lions and hyenas.
Economic pressures played a role in Kenya’s decision, but so did politics. In a 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, terrorists from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab killed dozens of people. In 2014, al-Shabaab stopped a bus in northern Kenya, separated Muslim passengers from non-Muslims, and murdered twenty-eight. The terrorists said the attacks were retribution for Kenyan military deployment in Somalia. Now, Kenyan leaders wanted to wash their hands of the problems next door.
Cash-strapped governments elsewhere offered little assistance. Bad memories of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu left American leaders reluctant to commit troops to the region. Many politicians couldn’t find Somalia on a map, but all of them knew about the films Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips.
If help was coming from anywhere, it was from private donations. A few pallets at a time. In airplanes old enough for museums. Parson and his crew had picked up this load at the international airport in Djibouti. That’s as close as some big cargo carriers wanted to get to Somalia. Supplies had to travel the rest of the way in rattletraps flown by pilots with more guts than sense. Over the past year, Parson had made two previous short trips as a volunteer pilot for World Relief Airlift, but this was Chartier’s first flight with WRA. Geedi was WRA’s only paid staffer on the crew.
Chartier ran through the emergency checklist for a single-engine landing. He turned off the bad engine’s fuel valve. Closed the oil shutter. Turned off the failed engine’s magnetos.
“Guess we better tell Baidoa we’re limping our asses in on one engine,” Parson said. Baidoa was Parson’s original destination, and it was the closest airport with a fire department.
Chartier pressed his transmit switch mounted on the right yoke. “Baidoa Tower,” he called, “World Relief Eight Two Alpha with an emergency. Right engine failure.”
The answer came back in accented but competent English: “World Relief Eight Two Alpha, Baidoa Tower. We copy your emergency, will have equipment standing by. You are cleared for a straight-in visual approach, Runway Two-Two.”
“Cleared for the visual to Two-Two,” Chartier said. He released his transmit switch and said to Parson, “I am surprised they have any equipment to put on standby.”
“We’re lucky they even have a tower,” Parson said, “but that guy sounds like he knows what he’s doing.”
Parson had landed this DC-3 on dirt strips in Somalia with no facilities beyond a wind sock. At least this time, he had nearly ten thousand feet of pavement, and personnel to help with an emergency.
A dusty plateau of reddish soil and scattered vegetation stretched below. Acacia trees studded the terrain. The seed pods from acacias made good livestock fodder, and the blooms supported honey bees. But the acacias bristled with thorns. Everything about life came hard and painful in this part of the world.
Baidoa slid into view through the distant haze. Home to more than a hundred thousand, the city had suffered a tortured past. When militias blocked food shipments during a 1992 famine, Baidoa became known as the city of walking skeletons. Starvation killed up to sixty people a day. Aid groups and UN troops helped ease the famine the following year, but the city remained a battleground.
In 2006, the country’s Transitional Federal Government attacked Islamists holed up in Baidoa. Somali government troops, aided by Ethiopian forces, routed Islamic Courts Union fighters. Two years later, another terrorist group, al-Shabaab, laid siege to the city, and Baidoa fell temporarily to the militants. Ethiopian and Somali troops eventually retook the city. Somalia’s new government now controlled Baidoa—at least for the moment. But terrorists still fought to turn the entire country into an Islamist caliphate under sharia law.
Today, Parson just hoped Baidoa remained stable enough for him to land and get the engine fixed.
“All right,” he said, “let’s see if we can get this pig on the ground.” He throttled back on his one good engine and began to descend.
The airport lay southwest of the city, and Parson approached from the north. The DC-3 glided above the rubble of blasted concrete and cinderblock buildings. Other structures showed glimpses of life within: clotheslines draped with bright fabrics, smoke from cooking fires.
“Mon Dieu,” Chartier said, “That is a bleak-looking place. What if you always had to cook over a fire in this heat?”
The outside air temp gauge read thirty degrees Celsius. Mental math told Parson that meant eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit. Not as hot as the Iraqi desert, which Parson knew well, but plenty warm in a place without the luxury of air conditioning.
“At least they got something to cook,” Parson said.
“Gimme one-quarter flaps, will you?”
Chartier reached down between the pilots’ seats and pulled a lever until it clicked into a detent. Parson let some of the airspeed bleed off. The airspeed indicator, old enough to show miles per hour rather than knots, read 120. The luminescent paint on the needle had yellowed and cracked with age. Reminded Parson of the dashboard in an old hand-cranked car.
“Thanks, Frenchie,” Parson said. “Put the gear down.”
Parson started to tell Chartier not to call him “sir.” Their ranks held no relevance in World Relief Airlift. But Parson let the honorific stand. Military courtesy meant more than respect for those of higher ranks. “Sir” implied a respect for the overall institution, a regard for shared experiences, acknowledgment of an ordered brotherhood and sisterhood. Get a group of veterans together who’ve not worn a uniform in decades, and you’ll still hear “sirs” and “ma’ams.”
Chartier moved the landing gear lever, on the floor near the flap handle, from NEUTRAL to DOWN. The gear extended and locked, and Parson felt the increased drag slow the plane further. He shoved the throttle for a few more inches of manifold pressure to hold his airspeed.
Geedi returned to the cockpit and buckled into the jump seat.
“Cargo all secure, sir,” he said.
“Good,” Parson replied.
The tower called again. “World Relief Eight Two Alpha, you are cleared to land, Two-Two. Altimeter setting three-zero-zero-one.”
“Eight Two Alpha cleared to land,” Chartier answered. He dialed the new barometric pressure setting into both altimeters.
The altimeter needles swung through four thousand feet. Baidoa lay at a field elevation of eighteen hundred feet above sea level, so Parson knew he was roughly two thousand feet above the ground. The runway loomed straight ahead, centerline stripes faded nearly to invisibility. Parson saw no traffic on the taxiway, and only three aircraft parked on the ramp. He recognized an Ethiopian Airlines Dash 8 turboprop, along with a UN helicopter, and an Antonov An-24 from who knew where. Maybe bringing in the daily shipment of khat.
“I think we got the field made, now,” Parson said. “Full flaps.”
Chartier moved the flap lever again, and Parson pitched for ninety-five miles per hour. With the power almost back to idle on the operating engine, the old bird floated smoothly down to the pavement. Parson had spent little time in tailwheel airplanes, but he managed a smooth landing.
For all Parson’s grousing about the outdated aircraft, he loved returning to the cockpit. The responsibilities of a full-bird colonel had kept him on the ground for most of the last year. He took it easy on the brakes, let the DC-3 roll along and slow itself to walking speed. In the scrub brush off the runway, two derelict Hawkers lay in the dirt on collapsed landing gear. Artifacts of a defunct Somali air force, the old aircraft were subsonic fighter-bombers built by the British in the 1950s.
Parson shook his head. What a sad end for once-magnificent jets. The sight added to the aura of decay and anarchy.
Near the end of the runway, Chartier unlocked the tailwheel. Parson tapped the right brake to begin a turn, and he goosed the left throttle ever so slightly. The plane handled a little differently on the ground with a dead engine, but Parson used differential braking to make up for the loss of differential power. He rolled onto the taxiway while Chartier cleaned up the After Landing checklist.
“Geedi, does any of this look familiar?” Parson asked.
“Not really. My family moved to Minneapolis when I was little.”
Parson scanned the temperature gauges so he could watch the good engine cool down in idle before he shut it off. He kept the palm of his hand cupped over the engine’s throttle.
“Who the hell are those guys?” Geedi asked, pointing out the windscreen.
“Oh, boy,” Chartier said. “What a welcoming committee.”
Parson looked up. Four Somali men walked toward the airplane, brandishing automatic weapons. Three of them carried AK-47s, but one wielded a PKM, a belt-fed machine gun. Bandoliers of ammunition dangled from his neck. The armed men strolled casually, and they wore civilian clothes and ratty tennis shoes.
Alarmed, Parson wished he could take off on one engine. But if these guys wanted him to stay on the ground, they could riddle the engine—or the cockpit—before he ever got airborne. Parson pulled the left mixture control to idle cutoff, and the propeller spun down to a stop. Without taking his eyes off the gunmen, Chartier reached overhead and turned off the magnetos.
Underneath his flight suit, in an elastic belly-band holster, Parson wore a Beretta nine-millimeter. A lame defense against a PKM, but all he had. He unzipped the suit, drew the weapon, zipped his suit back up. Parson held the pistol low, below the cockpit windows, invisible to the gunmen on the ramp. Clicked off the safety.
“You’re armed?” Geedi said. “We’re not supposed to be armed.”
“Neither are they,” Parson said.