Alik Zakayev’s palms would not stop sweating no matter how often he wiped them on his jeans. Being belowground again was putting him on edge. It reminded him of the Taldinsky coal mine in Siberia, where he had barely survived a cave-in ten years earlier, spending four days buried alive with six other men before rescue workers finally dug them out, all of them raving, half out of their minds with delirium and dehydration. He still had nightmares about it.
The smuggling tunnel he was in ran one hundred feet beneath the US-Mexico border between New Mexico and Chihuahua State. It was over three thousand feet long, six feet high, and five feet wide, complete with a concrete floor, incandescent lighting, ventilation ducts, and a drainage system to pump out any gathering groundwater. Of the fifty-five migrant workers pressed into service by the deadly Castañeda cartel to work belowground for weeks on end, eleven of them had died during the five-month construction, and the rest were murdered upon completion to ensure its secrecy. The passage had been in service for almost fif
teen months now, and so far more than one million pounds of marijuana had been smuggled through it into the United States.
The tunnel was accessed on the Mexican side of the border from inside an industrial warehouse, but its genius lay in the exit point on the American side: it opened up into the space of an exposed corral where cattle were regularly loaded onto semi–tractor trailers for transport to a processing plant sixty miles to the north. On loading days, special trailers with trap doors in their bottoms would park over the tunnel’s opening, and the fifty-pound bales of marijuana would be loaded from below into modified forward compartments while the cattle embarked at the rear. After the cattle were off-loaded at the plant some ninety minutes later, the marijuana would be dispersed into waiting employee vehicles.
Zakayev had been all too correct about being a marked man in his home country. Upon his release from Guantanamo Bay, he’d flown on a direct route to the capital city of Grozny in the Chechen Republic. Chechen officials took him briefly into custody for routine questioning. After his release, he went immediately to his brother’s house, where he learned that a black van had been parked across the street the entire night before with the engine running. This confirmed the worst. His next contact was with the Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade, which took him under its protection that same evening. Within a week, he was spirited out of Chechnya to Germany. There he received an intrepid assignment. Three weeks later, he arrived in Mexico posing as a tourist on a German passport obtained in Bad Tölz from a master Chechen forger working as a printer in the state of Bavaria.
Zakayev’s American attorney had been correct to assert that Zakayev was not involved in the Boston bombings. He had never even heard of the Tsarnaev brothers before their faces were plastered all over the television. However, this did not mean he wasn’t part of the jihad, and no one knew this better than the Russian SVR (foreign intelligence service). Six months after the Boston attacks in April 2013, Russian police had snagged Zakayev in Moscow, where he’d been in the midst of pulling reconnaissance for a planned attack on the city’s subway system.
Though the SVR had been unable to produce any actual evidence against him, it knew that he was a member of the RSMB, and so the agency concluded rapidly Zakayev could not have arrived in Moscow
with any good intentions. Within forty-eight hours, they had revoked his visa, trumped up an ambiguous story about an alleged relationship with the Tsarnaev brothers, and promptly turned him over to the CIA as a gesture of interservice cooperation. Zakayev’s subsequent five-month stint in Guantanamo Bay had not only steeled his resolve to continue with the jihad but also served to switch the focal point of his disdain from the Russian Federation to the United States.
Now he was deep below the border between Mexico and the US, only weeks away from striking the single greatest blow against Western democracy the world had ever seen. In sha Allah! God willing! It was a good time to be a Muslim, a proud time, a proud time to be a part of the jihad. Where Osama bin Laden had broken a cricket bat across the shins of the pig Uncle Sam, Zakayev and his RSMB compatriots were poised to bring him right to his knees, and the Western world would never again be the same.
The Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade had been established in 1999 by a Chechen terrorist named Shamil Basayev, and though the brigade had briefly faded after his death in 2006, it suddenly reappeared in 2010, carrying out a series of suicide bombings in the Caucasus. By 2013, the RSMB had shifted much of its focus from Russia to the West in order to garner financial support from its Al Qaeda allies.
Zakayev was the only Salafi in the tunnel tonight; the only Chechen. There were five Mexican Castañeda cartel members with him helping to move a seventy-five-pound bomb through the tunnel on a four-wheeled dolly cart. The Castañedas were blissfully unaware of what type of bomb they were helping to move, assuming that it was a conventional bomb similar to those used in the Boston attacks. They had no idea that it was a stolen Russian RA-115 “suitcase” nuke with a two-kiloton yield. If they had known this, they would have quickly killed the Chechen and taken the device for themselves, regardless of the money that Zakayev’s people had paid them for their help.
One of the Castañedas spoke English. His name was Javier, and he had been working the tunnel since its completion. “We are exactly under the border now,” he said, “a little more than halfway across.”
“Good,” Zakayev said pensively, increasingly eager to be out of the dimly lit tomb.
Javier’s four helpers swore at the dolly as they wrestled to keep it rolling along. The awkward contraption did not have proper rubber wheels, and the large metal casters seemed to lock up every few feet, stymied by the tiny pebbles that fell constantly from the tunnel walls.
Javier kicked the corner of the dolly to get it rolling again and grinned at Zakayev. “Do you know the other Chechen we took across last week?”
Zakayev took his eyes from the bomb and stared at Javier in the shadowy light of the tunnel. “What other Chechen?”
The Mexican pointed at Zakayev’s face. “A blue-eye like you. He arrived with a green case like this one. We had a better cart last week with better wheels, but someone up above took it away.” He shrugged. “Who knows why? In Mexico, things come up missing all the time.”
“Did this other man give a name?” Zakayev asked.
Javier wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “No, he didn’t speak much at all. He was very serious all the time. A man of about fifty.”
Zakayev knew at once who this other man had to be. “Kashkin,” he muttered, scratching his groin, where a nagging fungal infection continued to plague him. The fact he had not been informed that Kashkin had already crossed into the US with the other RA-115—both weapons purchased from a retired KGB agent—did not surprise him. Kashkin was a consummate loner and professional, and now that Zakayev knew he was involved, he realized that this entire mission was probably the old man’s brainchild.
The tunnel lights dimmed and went out, throwing the passage into pitch blackness for three long seconds before they came back on again.
“Is that normal?” Zakayev asked, feeling a cold sweat break out across his back.
All five Castañedas stood watching warily up and down the tunnel.
“No,” Javier said, whispering orders to his men in Spanish: “Armas arriba!” “Guns up!”
The four men quickly unshouldered their AK-47s, two of them facing northward, two facing back the way they’d come.
“What is it?” Zakayev whispered. “Why did the lights go out?”
“I don’t know.” Javier drew a pistol from the holster on his hip and stood chewing the inside of his cheek, his obsidian eyes showing like
black glass as he stared ahead up the tunnel. “It could be gringos to the north, federales to the south—or both—or nothing at all. We have to wait and see.”
Zakayev got to his knees beside the bomb, threw back the tarp, and unlocked the lid on the footlocker-sized green aluminum box, pulling out a trigger mechanism attached to the RA-115 by what looked like an old-fashioned telephone cord. He flipped a switch on the side of the mechanism and depressed the trigger grip with all four fingers, holding it like a pistol against his leg. The green light on the side of the mechanism beeped once and then turned to red.
Seeing this, the four men with AK-47s bridled uneasily, jabbering away at Javier in hushed Spanish.
“What is that?” Javier asked, his eyes even more wary.
“A dead-man switch,” Zakayev replied. “If I am killed, the bomb will detonate.”
“Turn it off!” Javier ordered at once.
“No,” the Chechen said quietly, locking eyes with the Mexican, his gaze set, ignoring the four AK-47s now trained on him from just a few feet away. “I will not be taken alive, and this bomb will not be captured. So for now, it’s as you say—we have to wait and see. If this is nothing, I will deactivate the switch, and we will continue the operation.”
But Zakayev knew it was not nothing, and he began to pray silently to Allah, his ears tuned to the gathering silence.