Arguably the most effective sniper rifle in the world, the Barrett M107A1 50 calibre was fitted snuggly into his right shoulder. His right forefinger loosely nursed the trigger but as yet he still had the safety catch on. It was not time yet. The Barrett was not standard issue in his nation's forces, but it was his weapon of choice. And he had a choice because he was a special operative on a very special operation.
The maximum range of the rifle was phenomenal - over 7,000 yards or four miles. But this had to be a single, high-precision shot, so he was working within the effective range which was still 2,000 yards or over a mile. He would not be taking the shot for some hours but he needed to be in position long before his target would appear and in the meanwhile the camouflage netting completely disguised his presence as he lay just below the crest of the low hill overlooking the hotel on the edge of the Swiss village. There had been a recent fall of rain and his nose was inches from the pungent smell of the earth.
It was never have supposed to have been like this. He had intended to do his national service as an infantryman and then become an engineer in civilian life. But his keen eyesight and cool nerves had made him a crack shot and he had been assigned to special sniper duties to take out leaders on the battlefield which was usually an enemy village or stretch of desert.
He had been good, exceptionally good. So he had been persuaded to become a professional soldier and, following intensive training, been reassigned to special operations working anywhere in the region and, if necessary, out of region.
He was out of region now, all right. He had never been to Switzerland before and marvelled at the very different terrain to his own country. Not that he could see much of it now. The sun was rapidly setting. The sky soon bled bright red streaks as if a majestic augury of things to come. Once darkness had blanketed the area, he edged onto the ridge and took in the scene below, noting the location of each building, each road, each feature that might block or complicate the shot. His weapon nested on its bipod as he waited for his target.
He positioned the state-of-the-art night vision telescopic sight to his right eye. He slowly and gently swept the whole area in front of the hotel, noting especially the entrance to the hotel forecourt, the position of each member of the hotel's security staff on and by the wide steps up to the double door, and the location of each car in the front car park.
The lights in the hotel blazed in welcome allure as various guests arrived and reception rooms filled. And then a dreamlike apparition appeared before him. The object of all this activity appeared at the main entrance and stood for a few seconds at the centre of the open doors. He just knew it was her: the confident way her gaze embraced the wide steps and car park in expectation of a celebration with her as the focus. She was wearing a long, white diaphanous dress and the bright lights in the hallway behind her illuminated her svelte figure.
"Concentrate! Concentrate!!" He issued a silent instruction to himself. And then she was gone and the doors were closed once more. She was waiting. He was waiting. Neither would have to wait long.
His briefing for the operation had been given orally by his commanding officer with none of the supporting files or photographs allowed out of the CO's office. It was explained that his nation's prime enemy was now closer to acquiring nuclear capability than the world's media understood. The target of the operation was the head of the nuclear programme.
"In his own country, he is heavily protected and we've never been able to get to him with special forces or drones", explained the officer. "He very rarely leaves the country but we've just learned that he's going to do so."
"Why – and where?" he had asked.
"It's his daughter's 21st birthday. She's a student in Geneva. There's going to be a special reception in a private hotel in a remote location. We have a good source. It's a unique opportunity to take him out."
"But won't he simply be replaced?"
"Not for nothing is he known as the father of the nuclear project. Nobody else has his knowledge and authority and the trust of the regime. Of course, he'll be replaced. They'll promote his deputy. But that man doesn't have the same influence. The whole project will be put back years."
There was a break in the conversation.
Then he had inquired: "Is there any other way?"
"What? Of killing him?"
"No. Of stopping the development of a nuclear capability."
"We've run endless scenarios. Their nuclear facilities are too dispersed and too well guarded for special forces. There are too many facilities and they are buried too deep for bombing to be more than partially successful. We don't yet have the capability for serious cyber sabotage. No. You have to do this. Lives – conceivably millions – depend on it."
He had still not been totally convinced and suggested: "But, even if they achieve a nuclear capability, they would never use it, would they? That would be madness. We would obliterate them."
The CO looked pained but patiently continued his lecture: "It may be madness – but some of their leaders are mad. We can't assume that they would never launch a first strike. They have never ruled it out." And then he added: "Neither have we." He looked hard at his junior colleague: "I repeat. You have to do this. And you have to succeed. We will only have one chance and you will only have one shot. Do it. And do it right."
He could hear a convoy of cars and then see them winding through the village to the hotel on the outskirts. He slipped off the safety catch. He studied the scene through his telescopic sight. The cars glided into the hotel forecourt and the first one braked at the foot of the stone staircase. Doors quickly opened in all three cars and burly men speedily took position around the rear inside door of the leading car. They looked anxious and stared left and right, behind and ahead. But there was no way they could see him and they would never know of his presence until his bullet had left the chamber and was speeding its way into their boss's head.
This was the worst possible time, but a conversation that he had been pushing to the back of his mind insistently forced itself into his consciousness ...
One night, he had been reading a book to his daughter as part of her routine for getting to sleep. He had had to explain and simplify some of the niceties of the narrative that was a little beyond a five year old. It was all about good people and bad people really. He just had to clarify who was which. Suddenly his daughter had quizzed him: "Daddy, are you a good man?"
"Of course, honey" he had assured her. "And you are a good girl - which is why you'll go to sleep now."
But she was not quite finished and followed up one question with another: "But, daddy, what is a good person?"
He was tired and could do without this inquisition, but he was one of those modern parents who felt that it was important to answer honestly every question from one's child.
"Well sweetheart, I guess a good person is someone who does good things."
And then came her killer blow: "And do you always do good things, daddy?"
He hesitated. He never lied to his daughter but there was no way he could tell her the truth – now or ever. He contented himself with a brief explanation: "Sometimes I have to do things which aren't good but I do them for a good reason."
Fortunately her eyes were now closing and he was spared any further inquisition into his dubious morality.
His target had now left the leading vehicle and began ascending the hotel steps. He had the cross hairs of his sight on the man but the bodyguards and hotel staff were moving all around the figure and he did not have a clear shot. He only had seconds now to make a decision. Then the scientist was clear and racing up the steps. It was a clear shot. But then it wasn't as the object of his rush flung her arms around him and kissed him on each puffy cheek. The daughter broke away and went on ahead of him. Another second or two and the target would be through the hotel doors and into the sanctuary of the birthday reception.
His heart beat quickened and he willed it to be calm. He could do this. The target had reached the top of the stone staircase and fatally he paused before the door. It looked as if he was straightening his clothes before making a grand entrance and welcoming his guests. He was probably wearing a bullet-proof vest and making himself more comfortable before becoming the centre of attention. Too late. His overweight body was silhouetted against the door entrance. His bald head was in the centre of the cross hairs and the trigger was being gently squeezed.
In spite of the suppressor, once the .50 BMG cartridge left the barrel, his presence had been dramatically announced and he did not wait to see the bullet hit the target. He could not afford to be caught in this country – not simply for the sake of his own safety but in order that the assassination could be the subject of plausible denial by his country. So he slammed the bipod closed, flung the rifle over his shoulder, and raced down the hillside to his waiting lightweight, high speed motorcycle. In twenty minutes he was at the small airfield where an executive jet – with false markings and a misleading flight plan – awaited.
It was three days later and, for varying reasons, each of the countries involved was maintaining a news blackout on the incident. He reported to his commanding officer for a debrief and was immediately advised that that the renegade state was about to make a media announcement denouncing the assassination of their chief nuclear scientist and announcing the promotion of his successor.
"So he's dead then" he asserted with quiet satisfaction.
"Yes" agreed the CO laconically. And then he added: "It was a brilliant shot. You did well."
"Was anyone else hurt?" he asked.
"So it was a complete success then" he pronounced with barely suppressed pride.
"Not exactly" he was informed.
He was confused and sought explanation.
"I've just been told by my superiors that the guy was about to defect. That's why he went to Switzerland. It was his daughter's birthday but it seems now that the elaborate celebration was just a cover so that he could seek asylum. Pity. We could have learned so much from him."
He was shocked and almost shouted: "But didn't we know about the defection plans?"
"Apparently higher command knew but it seems that winning him over was such a delicate operation that it was kept so secret that nobody thought to tell me or my minister. We're supposed to be on the same damn side but inter-departmental rivalry seems to trump that."
As the initial shock of this news ebbed slightly, he tried to salvage some sense from his high-risk operation and asked: "But their top man is out of the equation, right? His deputy is going to take over. The nuclear project is seriously compromised, isn't it?"
The officer did not respond as quickly as he expected or in the manner he anticipated.
"Well ... things have not gone quite as we thought. The deputy stays in place. Instead the new person in charge is going to be the son of the man you shot. He's a MIT graduate physicist so he's got the special knowledge. And, thanks to you taking out his father, he's now got the special motivation."
He almost spluttered his next question: "MIT! How can his son have a top American degree?"
"Ah, this was before the change of regime. In those days, the Americans didn't see a problem. Thought it could even be an advantage to have that sort of connection."
He persisted with his questions: "And this son? Did we know about him?"
"Of course" the officer responded, somewhat intemperately.
"And we didn't think that he might be chosen to replace his father?"
"No. We judged that he was too young, too low in the hierarchy. He's not even a party member. We never imagined that the regime would make such a bold choice of successor."
The sniper looked disconsolate. He stated as much as asked: "So the operation was a failure then?"
"Not exactly" his superior asserted.
Trying - without complete success - to hide the condescension in his voice, he responded: "What do you mean 'Not exactly'?"
"Don't be impertinent, young man. This is a war. In a war, things don't always go according to plan. We make the best decisions we can on the basis of the currently available evidence. We can never be totally sure how such a risky operation will go. We can never be sure of all the consequences. Sometimes there are consequences that are unanticipated and unintended. That's life. Deal with it."
He tried to take in all that had happened and all that he had learned. There was no more to be said. He moved to the door. Then he turned to his officer and asked one final question: "So, if it was not a success and it was not a failure, what was it?"
His CO looked at him with new patience and understanding: "Look, son. The stakes are huge here. We had to try something." He paused and then smiled sardonically. "I suppose you could call it a shot in the dark."
Published on 8 April 2011
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