Post 51 – Khalad and Rashid say that Islamists want to nuke London – #extract from DARK CLOUDS

Chapter 1

A bomb has exploded outside the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris and there are many casualties. I get the story in London where a TV journalist is reporting from the scene.

‘The victims are mainly women and children,’ she says. ‘Innocent young choristers who were gathering with their parents and teachers for a singing festival that was to be held this evening in the Montmartre church.’

Is Osama’s ghost targeting Paris? I hold my breath and feel ill while I wait for an explosion. I’m also choking with the dust that enveloped Manhattan and seeped into my apartment on the Lower East Side when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.

The TV journalist has moved on to a guy with a rucksack that a tourist caught on video outside the old church. ‘Intelligence sources here think he may be an Algerian,’ she says and I’m nodding. I’ve seen people with similar features in North Africa and the Middle East. He hasn’t shaved and he looks nervous. ‘Already,’ the reporter adds, ‘there are crowds gathering outside the Presidential Palace on the Grande Rue du Foubourg Saint-Honore and they are angry about what has happened today …’

‘These people are barbarians!’ an elderly woman shouts. She is clinging to the President’s front gates and the cops are reluctant to pull her off. ‘We don’t want them in France!’ she yells. ‘You listen to your voters, Monsieur President …the murderers must be dealt with …now … do you hear me? Immédiatement!’

It’s an emotional response. But I can see where she’s coming from, and I’m homing in on angry Islamists in the ToraBoraMountains when my phone rings.

‘Rudi?’ an American woman asks.

‘Lowenna – hi!’

‘You got the news from Paris?’

‘Sure – it’s bad.’

‘Of course …but we want feedback. You know … interviews with people around the church and local colour stuff. Can you get over there and see what’s happening.’

No problem. I’m a freelance journalist in London and my commissioning editors are mainly in New York. I’ll get a flight, or take the train, but not just yet.

‘I have contacts here I need to speak with,’ I tell Lowenna. ‘They’re Muslims, and they could be helpful.’

‘OK,’ she says. ‘But we’ll need something from Paris, Rudi … we’re relying on you.’

I have a missed call and a message from Khalad asking if we can meet in Hyde Park. I text to say I’m on my way and I feel better when I see kids playing in the Square’s communal gardens. The sun’s come out, and for a moment I think England is a good place to be.

London is my adopted city. I’ve temporarily swapped my apartment on the Lower East Side in New York for a writer’s place in Islington, where I’m starting to fit in.

Unfortunately, I get a Montenegrin driver at the cab office on the Upper Street.

‘I am not a Muslim,’ he says with a menacing scowl.

‘Right – ‘

‘But you know what we did with these people in Bosnia and Kosovo.’

I have cuttings library images of Islamic Yugoslavians being lined up and shot on the orders of Slobodan Milosevic and his ruthless cronies. It happened while I was a student in California, but the mass graves stayed with me. I also knew that quite a few Montenegrins had helped the Serbs to murder anyone they could find who worshipped Allah.

‘Yeah – well, it wasn’t our problem,’ the facially scarred driver tells me. ‘They brought it on themselves. If they had behaved properly, we might not have killed so many of them.’

I have a choice. I can either listen to this fuckwit or tell him to stop and get another cab. I get a break when my phone rings and another American magazine editor asks how much of the Sacré Coeur has been destroyed … and is there any truth in the rumour that the French President has been photographed with yet another mistress?

I don’t have any details on the church, but I’ve got wads of stuff on Monsieur le President. Most of it is juicy but embroidered speculation.

‘I’ll e-mail you a full piece on the explosion tonight,’ I promise. ‘And I’ll call you from Paris tomorrow.’

This and a couple of queries about whether or not there are any clear al-Qaeda links to what happened in Montmartre gets me to the Bayswater Road entrance at Hyde Park. I wanted the gate opposite the Hilton, but I’m on the phone to a travel agent when Mister Montenegro pulls up in a car park by the Serpentine. I’ve got a flight to Charles de Gaulle in the morning, and I pretend not to notice when my driver sneers at the three pound tip I’ve added to the fare.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There are roller-skating nutters, delinquent skateboarders and Arabic pensioners by the lake, and I’m thinking of thousand year old clashes between Christian crusaders and civilised Islamic empires when I finally get to the riverside café.

Khalad Hassan waves as I stumble on the steps and he’s grinning when I get to his secluded patio table.

‘Are you all right?’ he asks.

‘Yes – just about …but I could do with a break … maybe on another planet.’

Khalad is a Tunisian engineer, presently taking an accountancy course at LondonUniversity. We met at a Muslim forum for interested outsiders where I was collecting material on relations between Islamists and Westerners since 9/11. He was surprised that anyone should want to do this, but we’ve met several times over the past couple of months.

‘This is terrible, what has happened in Paris,’ he says. There are pictures on his BlackBerry of crumbling masonry at the entrance to the Sacré Coeur cathedral. He’s also got one of the nervous Algerian and his suspect rucksack.

‘Is he the bomber?’ I ask when a Polish girl’s taken my order for coffee and a crayfish sandwich with salad.

‘I don’t know. It’s possible,’ Khalad answers, shaking his head. ‘Everything is changing now, Rudi … it’s not good.’

~~~~~~~~~~~~

In August 2001, I spent two weeks in the Hamptons with Faria Bailey. She was twenty-four and had just got a job as a lawyer at the World Trade Center in New York. We were in love. I’m sure of that, although cautious friends had alluded to differences between us. ‘Her mother’s a Muslim, Rudi – there’s definitely a culture gap between you.’

No way – I couldn’t accept this. We were made for each another. We knew what the other was thinking most of the time, and it was great. We were going to get married and have kids. I had already bought a copy of the Koran, and I thought the Islamic Turks were more civilised than lumpen Christian crusaders who had gone out to subdue them.

Life was good, and I was kissing Faria in a dream when Mohammed Atta flew American Airlines flight 11 from Boston into the North Tower on that fateful Tuesday. Faria’s office was destroyed by the hijacked plane and they never found her body. My world imploded that evening. I wandered around in a daze for quite a while afterwards. I was angry, but I didn’t know who to blame. I still don’t, and it’s been helpful to talk with people like Khalad. Only now, he’s uncertain and I’m concerned.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

‘Are you seeing Rashid later?’ he asks.

‘Yes – I hope so.’

‘He wants to speak with you, Rudi.’

‘Right – ‘

‘I think he needs an intermediary.’

This is not looking good. I saw Khalad as a solid rock guy. Someone I could talk to, who made me feel confident about the future. Rashid was the same. A gently gay Kashmiri. OK, he had written a book, Our Abyss, which was about different perspectives between Muslims and the West. But he liked playing cricket, and he kept telling me how pleased he was about the tolerance he had experienced in the UK.

‘What’s happening?’ I ask Khalad when my sandwich and coffee arrive and the Polish girl grins.

‘There is a lot of pressure,’ he says as she sashays off.

‘Who from?’

‘The activists, Rudi … they’re getting bolder.’

For most of the time since the towers collapsed, I kept thinking it was a one off gesture by lunatics. I was convinced that Mohammed Atta was mad. And as for the deceased Osama – well, maybe having so many rich, layabout brothers and sisters confused him. My theory was that he needed to stand out from the crowd, and 9/11 was his calling card.

‘So blowing up the Sacré Coeur this morning is a new beginning. Is that what you’re telling me?’

Khalad’s embarrassed. His eyes are on the table and he’s coughing.

‘I think it might be better if we don’t meet for a while,’ he says.

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s dangerous, Rudi – for both of us.’

I have a UK Home Office contact. He’s been helpful with a few off the record briefings for features I’ve sent to editors in New York. If I said I knew a wobbly Tunisian who might be able to finger a few dodgy jihadists, there could be a quid pro quo. Khalad might spill the beans, and in return there could be a cute little cottage in the West Country, a new identity, and occasional flights to and from Tripoli for discreet family visits.

‘I appreciate that something’s worrying you,’ I say and Khalad nods. His hands are shaking. His dark eyes are flitting nervously from one side of the Serpentine to the other.

‘There is a feeling,’ he tells me, ‘that unless we do something dramatic, you won’t take us seriously.’

Sure – I can see where he’s coming from. No one’s listening just now and Muslims are getting frustrated about a whole range of issues. In Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – all over the place, I guess. A lot of my people don’t understand what the fuss is about. We lost almost three thousand on 9/11 for Christ’s sake! That was a pretty forceful Islamic gesture. It made an impact, and now Khalad’s saying they want an even bigger bang.

‘So you’re going to assassinate Her Majesty, or maybe put something nasty in my President’s soup?’

I’m getting a small smile, but his hands are still shaking.

‘I don’t agree with some of the ideas that have been mentioned,’ he tells me. ‘But there is talk, Rudi, of an escalation.’

‘In what way?’

‘I’m not sure … but possibly with … well … radiation.’

 Oh no, man – get real, please! I mean, what’s the point? You’ll become the universal pariahs. We’ll hit Iran, Pakistan and anywhere else where they make nuclear noises. We’ll go in hard, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll create a new, much larger Guantanamo. We’ll intern everyone who’s ever knelt in a mosque or dared to ask Allah for guidance against us.

‘I must go,’ Khalad says, getting up and extending a light brown hand. ‘Please don’t mention our meeting to anyone, Rudi … and be careful if you talk to Rashid.’

I want to grab at the lapels of his jacket and hold him. He can’t leave me with all of this stuff. I won’t go there. But he’s slipping away, and the Polish girl’s eyes are twinkling with a bill.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I walk to GreenPark and down onto Pall Mall. There are police sirens in Trafalgar Square and there’s a helicopter hovering around Whitehall. A royal flag flutters over BuckinghamPalace, but outside Downing Street, riot police are keeping Nationalists and their opponents apart.

‘Fuck off back to your mama’s tits!’ a bald-headed guy with a swastika on his jacket shouts at a bemused boy. The lad’s got a placard that says PEACE IN IRAN and his mouth opens when a cop grabs him, shouting, ‘Get out of here, you little shit! Go on – piss off!’

The helicopter’s moved back towards the House of Commons. I’m looking for a way through the opposing demonstrators when I see police motor cyclists. They are leading the way up Whitehall for an official looking car. The guy in the back seems unsure about how he’s meant to respond to the noisy crowd. He tries waving, looking ahead and nodding seriously. He eventually settles for a foolish grin, and his arm’s moving up for a sort of presidential gesture when a girl throws an egg at his car.

Security’s tight at the Parliament buildings, and I’m trying to work out how nuclear explosions might affect people when a big-bellied Somali with bad teeth runs a hand between my legs and then another across my bum and up along my back.

‘Go through the door over there,’ he says when he’s checked the name and details on my press card. ‘The terrace is straight ahead.’

The building is impressive and entering the Great Hall of the House of Commons is like walking into a really big budget Hollywood movie set. I’m waiting for people in wigs and knee breeches to appear, with maybe Harry Potter floating down from one of the stained glass windows on a broomstick. I’m onto guys in masks and white protective clothing with radiation sensors when another overweight attendant appears sucking in on his teeth. He checks my name on a guest list and then gestures with a limp wrist towards a huge open door at the end of a corridor.

The sun is slipping away over West London. But there is a do on the House of Commons terrace, where MPs and officials from all parties are entertaining members of the British Muslim League. Unfortunately, it’s a strictly no booze event, so when I’ve tried a couple of Indian canapés and washed them down with a plastic glass full of grapefruit juice, I start to mix in with the guests.

 Most of the Muslim League people are serious looking guys who keep nodding whenever an MP or a Whitehall official speaks to them. They’re accompanied by a few token women in traditional dress: Respectful family members who smile and bow with a tentative smile if anyone makes eye contact. The message all round is to do with peace, harmony and inter-racial tolerance in a welcoming and inclusive Britain. It’s all OK, but there is a junior immigration minister I’ve met once before, who complains about the absence of alcohol.

‘They could at least have had wine,’ he says irritably. ‘If they put it in white plastic cups and didn’t make a show with the bottles, no one would be offended, would they?’

Absolutely, Minister. You’re right, of course. But he’s moved off and a smiling, freckle-faced woman is homing in on me. She’s wearing a smart, tailored suit and she’s got an official looking badge with lions and a crown pinned to her jacket.

‘Rudi!’

‘Mairead – ‘

‘I’m so glad you could come,’ she says. ‘Rashid Kumar’s been looking for you … he’s a bit down this evening, which is understandable I suppose in view of what happened in Paris.

‘Ah – ‘

‘There he is now – over by the balustrade … look, he’s waving at us!’

Mairead is a senior communications adviser with the Government. She’s an attractive but formidable woman who knows exactly what has to be done in most situations, and I’m trying to psych myself up for a challenging meeting when she takes my arm and steers me over towards the Kashmiri author.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she says when we’ve grinned at each other. ‘And perhaps we could get together later, Rudi … I’d like to talk with you about what’s happening in Iran.’

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

‘She’s such a live wire,’ Rashid says tentatively as Mairead strides off. ‘But I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.’

I agree. Her red curls are fantastic, but she’s got fierce eyes, and she has a reputation for charming and then crucifying her opponents. Ideally, I’d spend ten minutes gossiping about Mairead and one or two people I know who’ve been involved with her. It would make for a nice bit of harmless chat, but Rashid’s gripping onto the balustrade beside the river.

‘What happened in Paris is outrageous,’ he says after a moment’s silence. He’s looking straight ahead, but a small vein on his neck is pulsating angrily.

‘Yes – it is … but these incidents are becoming more frequent. It seems that the gulf between us is widening, Rashid.’

He has turned towards me and I can see tears trickling from his eyes.

‘It’s going to get worse, Rudi … the next step is nuclear.’

‘You’re sure about this?’

He’s nodding, and I feel it’s best to just let him talk. All around us, Muslim League guests, politicians and their advisers are looking on the up side. They’re considering ways forward with ethnic minorities becoming more involved in the affairs of their adopted country. There would be special committees and legislation to embrace everyone and make them feel good about what England has to offer. It’s a noble scenario, but I’m thinking of radiation in London’s subway system and other worst case scenarios. What would happen if a nuclear device exploded and we had mini-mushroom clouds enveloping Times Square, the Champs Elysee and Oxford Circus?

‘I need your help,’ Rashid says.

‘Sure …’

‘I have become more involved than I ever intended to with activists … I want to get away from these people, Rudi. I must talk with someone … can you arrange a meeting with whoever it is I need to see?’

He seems lost and I’m wary about being too accommodating. I have a few contacts who could assist him if he wants to cross over. But there are implications if one suddenly decides to disappear.

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I ask and he nods.

‘As soon as possible …could we meet again on Thursday?’

‘Yes.’

‘But now I must go.’

He’s squeezing my hand and I’m worried. It’s selfish, I know. I’m being neurotic. But what if one of these nice Muslim League guys is an activist? If I’m seen with a collaborator, I could be in trouble.

‘Rashid …’

‘We’ll speak in the morning, Rudi … I’ll call you.’

I’ve got to go to Paris. I’ve already booked my ticket. My commissioning editors need colour pieces from the carnage in Montmartre. But the author of Our Abyss is scuttling away. As a Kashmiri, he fits in easily enough with the mainly Asian Muslim League guests. His blue blazer and minor public school tie may be a little out of place, but he’s gone, and Mairead Corrigan is returning. She’s waving at me, and she’s holding the elbow of an ass- licking ministerial assistant who wants to talk about my President’s position on nuclear threats to Israel from Iran.

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