Dark Forces (Dan Shepherd #13) - Stephen Leather

The man’s name was Mohammed al-Hussain, a common enough name in Syria. But the Mohammed al-Hussain lying prone on the roof of the two-storey building was no ordinary man. He was a sniper, one of the best in the world. He had 256 kills to his credit, each one meticulously recorded in the small cloth-bound notebook he kept in his back pocket. Each entry detailed the nature of the target, the location and the distance. Almost all of his kills were Syrian government soldiers.

He was twenty-two years old, his skin the colour of weak coffee with plenty of milk. He had soft brown eyes that belonged more to a lovesick spaniel than the tried and tested assassin he was. His beard was long and bushy but his nails were neatly clipped and glistened as if they had been varnished. Around his head was a knotted black scarf with the white insignia of Islamic State, the caliphate that claimed authority over all Muslims around the world. His weapon was lying on a sandbag.

When he had first started sniping, he had used a Russian-made Dragunov SVD rifle, accurate up to six hundred metres. It was a lightweight and reliable weapon, capable of semi-automatic fire and equipped with a ten-round magazine. Most of his kills back then had been at around two hundred metres. His commander had spotted his skill with the weapon and had recommended him for specialist training. He was pulled off the front line and spent four weeks in the desert at a remote training camp.

There, he was introduced to the British L115A3 sniper rifle. It was the weapon of choice for snipers in the British SAS and the American Delta Force, and it hadn’t taken al-Hussain long to appreciate its advantages. It had been designed by Olympic target shooters and fired an 8.59mm round, the extra weight resulting in less deflection over long ranges. In fact, in the right hands the L115A3 could hit a human-sized target at 1,400 metres, and even at that distance the round would do more damage than a magnum bullet at close range.

The L115A3 was fitted with a suppressor to cut down the flash and noise it made. No one killed by a bullet from his L115A3 ever heard it coming. It was the perfect rifle for carrying around – it weighed less than seven kilograms and had a folding stock so it could easily be slid into a backpack.

It had an adjustable cheek-piece so that the marksman’s eye could be comfortably aligned with the Schmidt & Bender 25 × magnification scope. Al-Hussain put his eye to it now and made a slight adjustment to the focus. His target was a house just over a thousand metres away. It was home to the mother of a colonel in the Syrian Army, and today was her birthday. The colonel was a good son and, at just after eight o’clock, had arrived at the house to have breakfast with his mother. Fifteen minutes later, al-Hussain had taken up position on the roof. The colonel was a prime target and had been for the best part of a year.

The L115A3 cost thirty-five thousand dollars in the United States but more than double that in the Middle East. The Islamic State was careful who it gave the weapons to, but al-Hussain was an obvious choice. His notepad confirmed the benefits of using the British rifle. His kills went from an average of close to two hundred metres with the Dragunov to more than eight hundred. His kill rate increased too. With the Dragunov he averaged three kills a day on active service. With the L115A3, more often than not he recorded at least five. The magazine held only five shells but that was enough. Firing more than two shots in succession was likely to lead to his location being pinpointed. One was best. One shot, one kill. Then wait at least a few minutes before firing again. But al-Hussain wasn’t planning on shooting more than once. There were two SUVs outside the mother’s house and the soldiers had formed a perimeter around the building but the only target the sniper was interested in was the colonel.

‘Are we good to go?’ asked the man to the sniper’s right. He was Asian, bearded, with a crooked hooked nose, and spoke with an English accent. He was one of thousands of foreign jihadists who had crossed the border into Syria to fight alongside Islamic State. The other man, the one to the