Golden Serpent

Mark Abernethy


Zamboanga City, southern Philippines, June 2002

John Sawtell sopped gravy with a bread roll and kept one eye on the Cubs-Yankees game. Catering grunts cleared out bain-maries and wet-mopped the service area while the late eaters dragged it out in the demountable cafeteria, avoiding the thirty-six degree heat of early evening. The offi cers’ mess was almost empty except for two white guys in clean woodland-cam fatigues sitting three tables away.

Sawtell kept his eyes on the pitcher’s wind-up and away from the white guys – secondees dropped in from Langley with bullshit ranks. Sawtell’s US Army rank of captain was real. Yet here he was, spending whole days in meetings with these blue-eyed boys. He’d now heard enough about paradigm shifts and ‘the big picture’ to last him a lifetime.

Most of Sawtell’s Special Forces Green Berets were working-class men who needed solid leadership, not weasel words. Sawtell heard what his men had to say about some of the intelligence briefi ngs, especially from the guy they called ‘Pencil Neck’. He glanced across the mess and chuckled: everyone on an army base got a name, whether they liked it or not, and Pencil Neck’s was a good fi t.

Pencil Neck had lectured the men on the cultural sensitivities of the Muslim Filipinos. But Sawtell’s men were fresh from Kandahar, and they didn’t much care about which way to point a Muslim’s ass when you buried him.

Sawtell wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, took a draw of iced water, kept his eyes on the game.

The analogue clock above the chow line said it was 8.43 pm local. He threw the napkin on his plate and walked into the blistering evening heat.

The black carpet of the Sulu Sea sparkled through palm trees as Sawtell came off the concrete parade ground and entered the Command Centre.

The air-con was like a wall coming out of the windless humidity.

He ran a hand over his stubbly head, felt the damp of perspiration.

An MP looked up briefl y, but didn’t react. The real anti-terror work was done on the perimeter, from bullet- proof glass cages, pop-up bollards and a mean-as-hell MP detail trained at Fort Bragg.

He moved down the narrow hallway, the fl oor fl imsy beneath his size 13s. From this demountable, perched in an old schoolyard above the city of Zamboanga, the United States controlled the South-East Asian end of its War on Terror, codename: Operation Enduring Freedom.

For six months US military advisers had supported the Philippine Army Scouts and their Navy commandos, the SWAGs. It was a joint operation, so the locals clung to their own name, Balikatan 02-1, but the result was the same: hunt tangos, catch tangos, put tangos out of business.

Sawtell’s Alpha company had already been involved in two full-blown battles in their fi rst four months in Zamboanga. He’d lost two men. He didn’t feel like an adviser – he felt like a commander in a war zone.

As Sawtell made his way down the trailer towards his offi ce, a Signals corporal called Davis emerged from a room fi lled with computer screens.

‘Something just in, sir,’ said Davis, then turned back into his room. Sawtell followed, stooping his footballer’s frame to look at Davis’s screen.

Davis pointed to a secure memo from CINCPAC in Hawaii, dated two minutes earlier. The header on the memo was a bar of letters and numerals. They gave Sawtell the order to chase and catch or kill

‘Number One’.

Sawtell read it again. ‘Shit!’

‘Number One’ was code for the most dangerous man in South-East Asia, Abu Sabaya, the senior terrorist in the Abu Sayyaf organisation.

Sabaya – born Aldam Tilao – was responsible for hundreds of kidnappings, bombings, assassinations, executions, massacres and extortion rackets around the southern Philippines and Malaysia.

One attempt to free eleven foreign hostages from Sabaya’s stronghold on Basilan Island had led to a forty- two-hour gunfi ght between Sawtell’s Alpha company and the rebels. Two weeks earlier, Sawtell’s Berets and Philippine Army Scouts had stormed the terrorists in the jungle boonies behind Sibuco. Sabaya got away, but not before killing most of his hostages.

Sawtell rubbed his jaw as he stared at the screen. Sabaya looked like a movie star and enjoyed enormous loyalty from the local villagers.

He was almost impossible to track, and if he’d been pinpointed, they’d got incredibly lucky. Either way, Sawtell’s boys would want a shot at this.

‘Get CINCPAC, tell them “confi rm”,’ said Sawtell, turning towards the door.

Davis turned. ‘Sir, there’s more. We’ve got eyes.’

Sawtell followed Davis’s fi nger to a larger screen. It was black with bright green lines on it. ‘Sir, we had an AWACS in the air when the memo came through,’ said Davis sheepishly. ‘I took the liberty of asking them to give us a lock.’

‘On his boat?’

‘Umm, no, sir.’

Sawtell didn’t like coy. ‘What is this, Twenty Questions?’

‘Sir, the AWACS has eyes on a pizza box.’

Sawtell gave Davis a quick look, then focused back on the screen.

‘Show me.’

Davis pointed his pen at a cigar shape. ‘That’s Sibuco Bay, sir. It’s real time. And that thing moving – that’s Number One’s pizza order.’

‘Are they on the water?’

‘Roger that. Slower craft, just started moving, perhaps to Number One.’

Sawtell stared at the screen. If Sabaya was anywhere near that boat, he’d bail pronto if he heard one hint of helo engine. They’d do this by sea.

‘Print it,’ said Sawtell, nodding at the memo, ‘then get it to the locals asap.’

As Sawtell moved away he almost crashed headlong into the CIA white boys rushing in, obviously tipped off through their own channels.

‘Be ready in fi ve,’ said Sawtell as he passed them. ‘Only one of you though. And come loaded – this is for real.’

Pencil Neck tried to take control.

‘Captain, where’s the colonel?’

‘Don’t know, but give him my regards when you fi nd him.’

Colonel Dave Henson couldn’t make a decision without making seven phone calls. Which was a shame, since Colonel Henson was technically in charge of Enduring Freedom.

Sawtell moved through the centre of the white guys and said to the staff sergeant at the desk, ‘Give me a fi ve-minute call on Alpha and Bravo. Green for Go.’

As he pushed through the demountable’s front door and into the tropical heat Sawtell saw Davis fl y out of a side door and head to the Filipino area of the compound. The locals would get to lead the op – as politics dictated – but the Berets would be there every step of the way.

Abu Sabaya! thought Sawtell to himself, the adrenaline now racing.

Abu fucking Sabaya!

The Philippine Navy SWAGs were waiting at the fenced-off military annexe of Port Zamboanga when the Green Berets’ Humvee convoy arrived. Floodlights lit the huge wharf apron and the hangars. Sawtell issued orders for the sergeants to load the boat, then he made for the fi rst Navy vessel, a forty-foot open-deck powerboat painted in matt olive. It was fi lled with camo-fl ashed Philippine special forces dressed in black fatigues – the

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