Dark Forces (Dan Shepherd #13) - Stephen Leather Page 0,1

sniper’s left, was an Iraqi, darker-skinned and wearing glasses.

Al-Hussain spoke good English. His parents had sent him to one of the best schools in Damascus, the International School of Choueifat. The school had an indoor heated pool, a gymnasium, a grass football pitch, a 400-metre athletics track, basketball and tennis courts. Al-Hussain had been an able pupil and had made full use of the school’s sporting facilities.

Everything had changed when he had turned seventeen. Teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall had been arrested and tortured in the southern city of Deraa and thousands of people took to the streets to protest. The Syrian Army reacted by shooting the unarmed protesters, and by the summer of 2011 the protests had spread across the country. Al-Hussain had seen, first hand, the brutality of the government response. He saw his fellow students take up arms to defend themselves and at first he resisted, believing that peaceful protests would succeed eventually. He was wrong. The protests escalated and the country descended into civil war. What had been touted as an Arab Spring became a violent struggle as rebel brigades laid siege to government-controlled cities and towns, determined to end the reign of President Assad.

By the summer of 2013 more than a hundred thousand people had been killed and fighting had reached the capital, Damascus. In August of that year the Syrian government had killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus when they launched rockets filled with the nerve gas Sarin.

Al-Hussain’s parents decided they had had enough. They closed their house in Mezze and fled to Lebanon with their two daughters, begging Mohammed to go with them. He refused, telling them he had to stay and fight for his country. As his family fled, al-Hussain began killing with a vengeance. He knew that the struggle was no longer just about removing President Assad. It was a full-blown war in which there could be only one victor.

Syria had been run by the president’s Shia Alawite sect, but the country’s Sunni majority had been the underdogs for a long time and wanted nothing less than complete control. Russia and Iran wanted President Assad to continue running the country, as did Lebanon. Together they poured billions of dollars into supporting the regime, while the US, the UK and France, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the rest of the Arab states, supported the Sunni-dominated opposition.

After the nerve gas attack, al-Hussain’s unit switched their allegiance to Islamic State, which had been formed from the rump of al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State had attracted thousands of foreign jihadists, lured by its promise to create an Islamic emirate from large chunks of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State grew quickly, funded in part by captured oilfields, taking first the provincial Syrian city of Raqqa and the Sunni city of Fallujah, in the western Iraqi province of Anbar.

As Islamic State grew, Mohammed al-Hussain was given ever more strategic targets. He was known as the sniper who never missed, and his notebook was filled with the names of high-ranking Syrian officers and politicians.

‘He’s coming out,’ said the Brit, but al-Hussain had already seen the front door open. The soldiers outside started moving, scanning the area for potential threats. Al-Hussain put his eye to the scope and began to control his breathing. Slow and even. There was ten feet between the door and the colonel’s SUV. A couple of seconds. More than enough time for an expert sniper like al-Hussain.

A figure appeared at the doorway and al-Hussain held his breath. His finger tightened on the trigger. It was important to squeeze, not pull. He saw a headscarf. The mother. He started breathing again, but slowly and tidally. She had her head against the colonel’s chest. He was hugging her. The door opened wider. She stepped back. He saw the green of the colonel’s uniform. He held his breath. Tightened his finger.

The phone in the breast pocket of his jacket buzzed. Al-Hussain leapt to his feet, clasped the rifle to his chest and headed across the roof. The two spotters looked up at him, their mouths open. ‘Run!’ he shouted, but they stayed where they were. He didn’t shout again. He concentrated on running at full speed to the stairwell. He reached the top and hurtled down the stone stairs. Just as he reached the ground floor a 45-kilogram Hellfire missile hit the roof at just under a thousand miles an hour.

Dan ‘Spider’