Wednesday, 11 December 2013

In Media Res - Luc (PBEM)


Prior to Alain Winants taking over from Koen Dassen in 2006, the Belgian VSSE had a series of “agreements” with foreign terrorist organisations. In exchange for not attacking Belgium, the Belgian Secret Service agreed that Brussels would be “neutral ground” and that whilst terrorist organisations might be watched, they would not be arrested. Dassen also offered the services of the VSSE to actively prevent other foreign agencies from capturing and extraditing terrorists from the capital.

With the humiliation of Fehriye Erdal's escape and the open letter to the King from the Algerian GIA highlighting these activities, Winants decided that he could no longer stomach the humiliation of these agreements. Alongside several EU countries he worked to create a wholly secret cell-based organisation tasked with hunting down and bringing to justice those who would take part in terrorism. This original concept has been expanded to include counter-intelligence operations throughout the EU and other associate nations.

“Working Group 15” is the name used among the Belgian cell, headed by Luc. He has four colleagues, two of whom were VSSE and two who previously worked for the Federal Police. The unit is based on the NATO “Gladio” stay-behind units from the Cold War and was formulated in 2006 alongside the authorization of “Special Enquiry Methods” (wiretaps and covert entry) within the VSSE.

The team shared a close-knit camaraderie but were only called upon to work as a team when necessary. One of the more recent instances where the team worked together was in late 2010 on the trail of Fehriye Erdal.

Working Group 15 Team Members:
1: Edouard Sauvage (M, 51) – former VSSE Counter-Intelligence Officer.
2: Nicholas Renaud (M, 36) – former VSSE Case Officer.
3: Nicolene Schenk (F, 37) – former Federal Police Investigator.
4: Tom Spiker (M, 32) – former Federal Police CGSU Operator – aka Group Diane.

14:38 (GMT +1), 23 December 2010

Brussels, Belgium
Office of Alain Winants, Ministry of Justice, Brussels
“Mr Winants will see you now” says the curt secretary outside the wood-panelled office of the Director of State Security.

Luc thanks her with a smile and opens the door to Winants' office. Marie's known him for four years now and still calls him 'M. Maréchal', if she calls him anything. No-one at the VSSE, excepting Winants himself, has gone untouched by the investigation; you'd expect a degree of resentment, even from those confirmed to be clean.

Even though it is early afternoon, Winants has already placed a bottle on his desk along with two glasses. He greets Luc with a smile, shaking him by the hand.

“It is good to see you again my friend, we don't get to do this often enough.”

Luc eyes the bottle of Fernet Branca. He can't tell whether it's the same bottle that Winants proffered at their first meeting back in 2006, most of which Luc spent feeling as though he'd been kicked in the throat with a liquorice boot. The bottle and the two glasses have been sitting on Winants' desk at every meeting since. Luc's never asked whether everyone gets Fernet, but he has his suspicions.

"Good to see you too, Alain. No, I'm fine, thanks."

Luc lowers himself into a chair. Winants shrugs and sips the glass of dark liqueur with every sign of enjoyment before taking a seat.

“I have asked you to come to me today because it is important. We have the chance to finally clean the stain from our nation's honour. A friend of mine, Mehmet Başbuğ, has reached out to me just this week about a suspected DHKP-C operation in Eastern Turkey. They have a man on the inside who says Erdal is running with her old friends and there is a chance that if we are in the right place at the right time, we can make sure that Erdal doesn't get the chance to embarrass us any further.”

Luc leans forward, on point. The past four years have seen dozens of leads on Erdal's location and seven - seven! - known snatch attempts, including several by foreign agencies. Some have been set-ups, some have been genuine opportunities; all have failed. Following the last attempt, more than a year ago (by British operatives in Limassol, reportedly a failure by the slenderest of margins), further leads have been few and far between. The prospect of finally running his target to ground has him restless.

Winants continues.

I want you to go out to Turkey, a place called Erzincan. There is a liaison from the MİT Directorate of Operations, İskender Balik, who will meet you out there. I called in a favour to get your team to be the lead on this. They will get you pointed in the right direction on the ground but once you're there I want you to make sure Erdal and the DHKP-C are stopped by any means necessary.”

He lingers on the “any.

If Erdal manages to pull off anything back in Turkey fingers will point at us. I won't allow our country to be mocked and shamed once more. That idiot Dassen might have allowed these scum to swan around our capital city at will but I will not tolerate it. I trust you to get the job done. Have Marie outside arrange anything you need and contact your team. I will ensure there are sufficient funds to cover your travel and operating expenses. Make sure Luc. Make sure that they are stopped. The British nearly got her in Cyprus last year, now it's our turn.”

"Don't worry. This time, we'll bring her in."

'Bring her in' - letting Winants know that he's heard and understood, and that termination will, nevertheless, be a last resort. Luc has the necessary training but is not, by temperament, a cold-blooded killer. He's not sure about Winants. Although someone who drinks Fernet with that much relish can probably kill a man without blinking.

Winants finishes his drink and looks out the window over the Boulevard de Waterloo.

“Good luck my friend”.

Luc swallows a glib response. Judging by past performance, they might need it.

21:38 (GMT +2), 2 January 2011
Erzincan, Turkey
Upstairs floor of a Safehouse in the İzzetpaşa District
The team have been watching the building opposite for over a week now. Watching the coming and going of vehicles and people, photographing and recording them as they mingle. Erdal has not yet been spotted but İskender has assured Luc that she will show. Their infiltrator insists that she has been seen in the area and every bit of intel they have gathered points to this house.

The room smells of stale air and strong coffee. Luc stretches his shoulders, flicks on the penlight and studies the sketches for the tenth time. The MİT's infiltrator has done well so far: the team have floorplans of the building, audio surveillance inside and unscrewed hinges on an otherwise securely-locked roof hatch. What they don't have - yet - is Erdal. But today's video surveillance and traffic analysis looks promising; more activity, more people going in and staying in, conversations infrequent and focused on preparations for 'tonight'. It doesn't take a roomful of intelligence agents to work out that something's up.

Near the window, Edouard grunts. Luc pads across the darkened room, picking his way past the piles of gear and other occupants. Standing back from the window in the shadows of the room, Edouard nods at the street below, where a battered 1980s Mercedes E-Class is slowing in front of the building opposite. The car has a dented and dust-streaked chassis, mismatched hubcaps and - Luc "hmm"s thoughtfully - newspaper tacked to the inside of the rear windows. The garage door to the left of the building rattles upwards to admit the vehicle; the interior is dark, but before the door clatters shut, the low-light surveillance equipment picks up two men with distinctive bulges under their jackets (Notice).

Near the back wall, one of İskender's men - Kemal? - adjusts his headphones. "Target on site".
Around the room, the others get to their feet, adjusting their gear. At a nod from Luc, they move out.

Four minutes later, following a roundabout but unobtrusive route through several alleys and a silent climb up a well-placed ladder (Infiltration), Luc, Nicholas, İskender and Sami (another of İskender's men) are prone on the roof of the building next to the target location. Edouard and Nicolene are at the front door of the safe house, ready to move on the front of the building to provide support or prevent escape as necessary. Tom and a third MİT goon wait by the featureless metal door at the rear of the building.

Luc briefly runs through the op in his head. It's a black-bag job, intended to minimise the risk of tipping off DHKP-C's watchers - at least two previous attempts to snatch Erdal failed after someone got spooked. Luc and the other three go in quietly through the hatch, effect silent takedowns of anyone else in the house and then - Luc feels the weight of the suppressed Sarsilmaz K2 pistol holstered at his thigh - get the drop on the target and whoever she's meeting. Erdal gets whisked off for interrogation, her fellow DHKP-C members are dumped in a cell somewhere, and Luc's four-year hunt is over. Nothing to it, Luc tells himself.

On comms, Kemal confirms that the audio surveillance suggests four individuals on the top floor, two on the ground floor (one in the garage, one in the room facing onto the street) and another four with Erdal in the kitchen, at the back of the ground floor. All are presumed to be armed. Luc gives the signal to move.

İskender's infiltrator has done his job. Thirty seconds after the hatch opens, two of the guards on the top floor are down: Luc takes one in a chokehold as he walks towards the bathroom (Hand-to-Hand), İskender and Sami peel off into one of the other rooms and confirm target down seconds later. Two left, both in the bedroom at the end of the hall. Luc and Nicholas head in, quick and quiet.

One unarmed man looking out of the window, facing away from the door - Nicholas locks out an arm, applies a chokehold and vices tight. The other one, at the far end of the room, shotgun coming up and mouth opening to shout a warning. Luc moves fast, punches him in the throat. His hands go to his neck, the shotgun falls. Luc catches it, takes a step back, clubs him in the temple with the stock and catches him with one hand as he falls, lowering him to the bedroom carpet without a sound (Hand-to-Hand). He leaves the shotgun, after removing the magazine. It's a brand-new Yildiz P56 - an oddly expensive piece of kit for a terrorist (Shooting).

İskender and Sami come into the room; İskender nods. Luc notes clearance of the top floor over the comms and moves downstairs with Nicholas, testing each step for creaks (Infiltration). After a few seconds, İskender confirms that the top floor is clear; he and Sami leave the bedroom and follow Luc down.

The team splits: the Turks head for the garage, Nicholas heads for the front room, and Luc - once they confirm success - begins to prep the fibre cam (Electronic Surveillance). With the rest of the house clear, they can take a moment to check the position and number of targets in the kitchen before they storm in.

The others return and Luc leads the team down the hallway, step by careful step, towards the kitchen (Infiltration). İskenderlooks tense; not a surprise, given the circumstances, but the slightly unfocused look in his eyes and the tilt of his head suggests that he's listening to something on comms, something going to him only (Notice).

As they close in on the doorway, Luc hears voices: one female, three or four male, clearly in the middle of a conversation. As Luc gets close enough to make out words, he hears one of the male voices swear quietly, before another says "No wonder they're after you. Küçük was a devious bastard, but this...". At the mention of 'Küçük' (where does he know that name from?), Luc sees İskender tense (Notice). The woman's voice goes on: "That's not the worst of it. There was another - an old man. I saw him in Ankara, speaking to-".

Luc senses movement, but isn't fast enough to stop İskender bursting into the room, gun drawn, with Sami on his heels. Luc and Nicholas, frozen for a moment, are roused by a shout and four sharp cracks. Guns out and raised, they follow the Turks in.

Time slows with the adrenaline rush, and Luc takes in the scene. To the right, worktops and an oven line the wall, with a row of cupboards above and a fridge in the corner. Ahead, sitting at a table scattered with crumbs and empty plates, Erdal is half out of her chair, alarm beginning to cut through an expression of bone-deep fatigue. The sight of her, run to ground after four years of exhausting effort, leavens his anger at İskender with a powerful sense of satisfaction.

Two of the men sitting with her are down, hit in the chest and head, while the third is stock-still in his seat, covered by the smoking guns of İskender and Sami. And standing against the wall three metres to the left of the door, just where a hasty entrant to the room would miss him, is a fourth man, an MPE MP5K submachine gun rising to point at İskender's back.

Luc pivots smoothly and, with another crack, puts a bullet through the man's forehead (Shooting). İskender flinches; he pales slightly as he glances left and sees the body sliding down the wall.

Two minutes later, Erdal and the surviving DHKP-C member are zip-tied and gagged. As İskender pulls a hood over Erdal's head, Luc tells Nicholas and Sami to gather the audio bugs from the rest of the house and bind the unconscious guards upstairs, while Luc and İskender haul Erdal to the front door. Nicholas heads upstairs, while Sami, leaving the back room a minute later, moves to the front room. Over comms, the rest of the team acknowledge completion of the op and head for the safe house to pack up. Edouard confirms that the van is 30 seconds away.

As they heft Erdal upright, İskender meets Luc's eyes. "Thank you, my friend". Luc asks İskender what the hell he thought he was doing, moving without warning the others. İskender half-smiles and shrugs. Luc doesn't intend to let this go, but they've reached the front door and he can hear an engine rumbling on the other side. İskender opens the door to reveal the open side-door of the van, idling about six inches away from the front of the house. Luc and İskender pass Erdal to the men reaching from the van and İskender climbs in after her. 

At that moment, Nicholas' voice comes over comms. The men they'd left unconscious are dead - a single stab wound on each. Luc's eyes widen: moving to the door of the front room, he sees Sami crouched over the body of the guard, wiping a short blade on the guard's shirt. Luc snaps round to look at İskender, who shrugs again: "No witnesses". Sami jogs past Luc and climbs into the van, sliding the door shut. The engine fades into the night, leaving Luc with a nagging sense of anticlimax and a rapidly lengthening list of questions.

11:06 (GMT +1), 3 January 2011
Brussels, Belgium
Office of Alain Winants, Ministry of Justice, Brussels
"All of them. Stab wounds to the heart or behind the ear. İskender and his man must have been finishing off the ones we left unconscious."

Winants frowns and looks down for a moment.

"I spoke to Mehmet last night, after I got your message. It seems that the briefing initially provided was... not entirely accurate. Erdal had become aware of certain things; highly sensitive information regarding a number of important people. As one might expect, those people were not happy about her continuing to be on the loose while in possession of this information. She appears to have arranged the meeting with other elements of the DHKP-C in order to tell them what she knew, so that the information would not be lost if she were to be killed or captured."

Luc thinks back to the fragments of conversation that he had overheard; to Kemal, sitting in the safe house with his headphones; to İskender's private comms and his increasing agitation.

"By the time we got into position, she'd already told them too much. İskender and Sami killed the others in the kitchen to ensure that the information stayed with her alone."

Luc pauses.

"But why kill the guards upstairs? They couldn't have heard anything dangerous."

"No. However" - Winants sighs heavily - "it appears that there was another reason to eliminate witnesses. Erdal's capture will not be made public."


Winants steeples his fingers and examines them as he speaks.

"Mehmet did not go into detail, but the logic is not difficult to follow. Following the efforts of your Turkish friends last night, I would guess that there are at most twenty people who know that Erdal has been captured. If her capture were to be made public, it would set in motion a formal process; the police would become involved, lawyers would be briefed, the press would be circling like flies around shit and, eventually, there would be a trial. Given the sensitivity of what she knows, I imagine that this was thought to be too risky and too difficult to control."

Winants returns his gaze to Luc.

"She evaded us for four years by, among other things, restricting her communications to the bare minimum, even within the DHKP-C. As things stand, everyone on the other side who knew that she'd been taken is dead. I suspect anyone in the local cell who might have been aware of her visit will shortly disappear as well. It will be quite some time before her lack of contact with others becomes suspicious. In the meantime, the assumption of the DHKP-C, the police, most of Turkish intelligence" - Luc raises an eyebrow - "and the rest of the world is that Erdal is still a fugitive. She will be held in secret at a secure location, where she can be interrogated or otherwise dealt with at leisure, while the people who are so concerned about her can maintain the maximum possible degree of control."

As Luc is digesting this, Winants sits back in his chair and spreads his hands.

"But that is not something that you need to concern yourself with. Your hunt is over, my boy! How do you feel?"

Luc shrugs.

"Deflated, to be honest. We finally track her down after four years, pull off what would have been a bloodless op if not for that bastard İskender, and now... nothing. The VSSE - hell, the country - finally gets the chance to absolve itself and no-one will ever know."

Winants smiles.

"Come now, you know that's part of the job. Fighting evil, protecting the public from things that go 'bump' in the night" - Luc chuckles - "unsung heroes saving the world from the forces of darkness. It's what we get for working in the shadows. Now..."

Winants reaches into his desk drawer; Luc hears the clink of glass.