The Sahara Intercept

The Secret Cold War Series continues with a fast-moving adventure filled knife-edged tension and Cold War intrigue.

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1980: Ross Brannan is back and out for revenge — determined to hunt down the traitor, J. Andrew Marsden — at any cost. The Škorpion Brigade, a band of German terrorists, teams up with Libyan Dictator Gadhafi and rogue ex-CIA operatives in an explosive plot to obtain nuclear materials.

Marsden is rumored to be in Libya. Ross and a multi-national team are dispatched to find Marsden's base of operations. In an instant the mission is compromised, and Ross is propelled on a roller-coaster ride across Africa in a heart-stopping tale of action, adventure, and suspense.

The Sahara Intercept is filled with stunning double-crosses and twists of plot as this fast-paced story moves from the streets of Rome to the sands of the Sahara, and finally, to an epic showdown on the Syrian border.

An excerpt from Chapter One of The SAHARA Intercept:

Chapter 1: Unit 8200

Thursday, 26 June 1980, Tel Aviv, Israel

El Al forces passengers to travel unarmed. That’s why I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport, site of the 1973 Lod massacre, without my Walther PPK pistol. Always thought the best way to stop a hijacker was to blow his head off.

This was a routine trip. But then it never hurts to practice situational awareness. Not paranoia, a prudent attention to details. The most important things: blend in, keep a low profile, and don’t project an image someone will remember. The key: act confident and natural, like you belong. Resolute in my ability to spot imminent threats, I strode into the main lobby.

"Mr. Ross Brannan?"

A young woman dressed in a crisp-pressed olive-green army uniform, stood before me. Her self-assured smile and deep penetrating green eyes enhanced by the 9-millimeter Uzi slung over her shoulder.

"That's me." How did she pick me out?

"Shalom, welcome to Israel. I am Tamara Alon, your escort." The way she said escort was both sexy and suggestive.

She seemed pleasant enough and not bad looking. "Thanks. How did you know who I was?"

"They showed me your picture." She paused with an intriguing grin. "I watched for the cowboy from the movies."

In the past, what some people thought was a faint resemblance to Steve McQueen had proved socially useful with the ladies. Not much use if you're trying to keep a low profile. I changed the subject. "What now?"

She smiled an open friendly, even inviting smile. "I will drive you to the hotel."

"Is it far?"

"Oh, no, nothing in Israel is far away, we are such a small country. O only thirty kilometers, on the beach near Camp Glilot."

Beach, maybe this won't be so bad.

As we exited the airport terminal, she brushed against my hip. "Is this your first visit to Israel?"

"First time," I lied. In fact, my second visit. The first, officially unofficial, the less said, the better.

"If you wish, I can show you the sights later." There it was again, a sultry suggestive tone. "Do you like to dance? I know all the popular discos."

Oh, man, gotta watch out. Is she coming on to me, or is this some sort of honey trap? Don't need to look for trouble — its right beside me.

Torn between expectation and sound judgment, I stammered, "Sorry, I can't. I … I'm married." My sixth sense told me to be wary.

"We can still have a little fun, can't we?" Her eyes came alive. "We can go for a swim at the hotel."

The way she said it, an inflection that suggested there's more to come, made me tingle. My situational awareness shoved aside and stomped to the ground. I imagined her in a bikini.

Gotta get this under control. "No, we have a new baby and…"

"Very well." She switched off the charm in an instant. "Here is the jeep."

We left the airport in silence. The open jeep, not air-conditioned. I started to sweat. Living in Albuquerque, I sweat a lot, but Tel Aviv was hotter than Wyatt Earp's pistol at the O.K. Corral. A trip to Alaska or some cool place would've been preferable, but no, I was in Israel, the Middle East — the hot dry Middle East.

Hopelessly distracted, I tried to refocus. As we approached downtown Tel Aviv, I asked, trying to break the tension, "How long you been in the army?"

"Eighteen months," she said without emotion, "Only a few more to go."

"Then what?"

"I am undecided." She paused as if to contemplate her future for the first time. "Perhaps modeling or whatever."

"You should do well." She probably will. "I'll look for you on the cover of Vogue." When do I ever read Vogue? Lisette doesn't even read Vogue.

"Oh, thank you." The smile returned. "Tell me about your wife."

"She's French."

"Oh la la? Do you live in Paris? How did you meet?" She started to bubble again. "Oh, I love Paris."

"We met in Africa, in Kenya, on Lamu Island."

"You were married in Africa?" Her astonishment appeared real.

I laughed. "No, we were married in Mexico, Baja California."

"You live in Mexico? How strange."

"No, we live in New Mexico, north of the border."

"Now I am confused."

"New Mexico is in the United States, next to Texas."

"You are a cowboy?"

I gave up on the geography lesson. "Yeah, I guess you could say so." Tamara responded with a silly smile and concentrated on the evening traffic. At least she didn't ask if I rode a horse. "Where's my hotel? I need to clean up before I check in with your people."

"Further on, close to the unit." She stared straight ahead, all business again. "I will come for you tomorrow at 0900."

Friday, 27 June 1980, North of Tel Aviv, Israel

The headquarters of Israel's signals intelligence service, Unit 8200, lay only a half mile down the road from the seaside hotel. Tamara ushered me through the security checkpoints and down into the bowels of the center. Her demeanor, all proper and military, with none of yesterday's flirting.

A balding average sized man, about my age, wearing an olive-green uniform sat behind a cluttered desk. He stood to greet me. "Shalom, I am Major David, welcome to Camp Glilot." He motioned for me to take a seat. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."

He spoke English with a slight BBC accent. At first glance, one wouldn't give him a second thought. Up close, he had presence, an aura of poise and authority, a natural leader. He didn't reveal his position in the organization.

I decided to be cautious too. "Ross Brannan from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico." I didn't tell him whom I worked for: The Special Signals Research Project, a joint venture of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. He doubtless knew anyway.

The SSRP, located at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C., focused on clandestine ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) collection involving Soviet radar and telemetry signals. Our mission was to deal with situations where conventional methods proved neither effective nor practical. My unit, Detachment R-1 or Raven-One, was stationed in Albuquerque. A matter of hiding in plain sight, camouflaged as a routine and dull Air Force outfit doing mundane research on radio propagation and antenna testing.

"Your engineering specialty is electronic warfare?"

"No. I'm not an engineer, a signal analyst. Learned everything I know in the military." I had spent eleven years in Army Security Agency as an electronic intelligence analyst and intercept operator, travelling the world collecting data on enemy radar systems to aid in development of effective countermeasures.

"Oh, you were an intelligence officer?"

"No, an enlisted man."

Had the impression he expected someone else. My boss Colonel Wilson called two days ago, with the news: pack your bags you're going to Israel. He said they needed some help analyzing a radar signal and didn't give any details. He wanted me to approach the problem with no preconceptions, to keep an open mind. Even so, I had a preconceived notion: another waste of time, it usually plays out that way.

The major nodded. "I was informed you are one of the best."

"Suppose that's why I wasn't an officer."

My answer prompted a wry grin. "Good. That is the way we train our people. We prefer young soldiers schooled in our ways, not prima donna academic types. We stress teamwork along with individual initiative. Like your service, we take only the select few."

"Believe me, I understand. That's why I'm a civilian." I loved my army job but grew tired of bureaucratic runarounds and broken promises. My civilian job paid a lot more, not getting rich, but doing okay. Now I was married, had a baby boy, and settled down. I glanced around, wanting to explore the place. "Nice facility you have here."

"Yes, I would conduct a tour, but our security protocols will not allow."

"Sure." Should've known. "What do you have for me?"

I wanted to get it over and go home. I didn't feel comfortable dealing with the Israelis. Something to do with the U.S.S. Liberty, the intelligence collection ship their forces attacked during the 1967 war. I worked with a guy who had been on board and I never did buy the official versions of what happened. I doubted if Major David had anything to do with the incident, but it bothered me, nevertheless.

"Yes, the matter." He hesitated a few seconds. "Our collection site intercepted a signal with an atypical element two weeks ago." He noticed I was about to ask and answered, "The azimuth pointed deep inside Syrian territory. Our analysts examined the parameters and failed to come to a firm conclusion as to its function."

"What band was it operating in?"

"E band. The signal seemed to be in conjunction with a Soviet 2K12 air defense system."

"The SA-6."

He nodded. "Correct."

I continued, "The fire control for the SA-6 is I band. Could it have been emitting from a P-40 Long Track early warning radar?"

"That was our first assumption, but the signal exhibited somewhat different characteristics."

"Like what?"

"The base signal produced an almost perfect sine wave, except it changed to a saw tooth pattern at short random intervals."

A quiver of anticipation ran through my body. "Have you been able to check the third harmonic?"

His face lit up in astonishment. "No. What do you mean?"

"Let me examine your tape."

A harmonic is a signal whose frequency is a multiple of the frequency of the base signal. Nearly all signals produce energy at harmonic frequencies unless the signal is a perfect sine wave. Square waves, saw tooth waves, and triangular waves have large amounts of energy at harmonic frequencies.

Halfway through the tape, I hit the jackpot. The signal had Marsden's fingerprints all over it. J. Andrew Marsden, the electrical engineer who defected from the Cochise Project at Fort Huachuca and took his secrets to the Soviet Union — the rat-bastard that shot me and killed a policeman in Mexico — the one person I would kill on sight. Last year Marsden disappeared into the woodwork and now he was back. I trembled in expectation.

"Are you familiar with this signal?" asked the major.

"Not at this frequency, but I have a good idea." I struggled whether to tell him the whole story. Wilson sent me with no guidelines. What was I authorized to say? How much should I reveal?

"What is the significance of the third harmonic?" he asked with an edge to his voice. He seemed to understand I was holding back.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I reckoned Wilson sent me for a good reason. "If this is what I think it is, the third harmonic contains random micro bursts with missile guidance instructions."

The major's face tensed with suspicion: "It is impossible to—"

"No, I worked with the inventor J. Andrew Marsden before he defected. Marsden developed a method to embed a guidance signal within the third harmonic. He was able to produce harmonics with enough power to carry the signal by changing the waveform to a saw tooth pattern at short random intervals."

His brow furrowed in disbelief as I continued, "Unfortunately, we were unable to maintain adequate signal stability to produce a reliable and workable system."

"You say, this harmonic provided guidance—"

"They contain the entire set of missile guidance instructions. The main tracking system never switches to the guidance mode. All the instructions are hidden in the acquisition signal."

"Your air force has this system?"

"No. We were never able to achieve a stable signal. But the Russians were working on the same concept and Marsden provided the missing piece of the puzzle."

"You have collected this signal by satellite?"

"No. The only way to collect the entire set is during the combat acquisition and tracking phase. The chance of picking the signal up by satellite intercept is slight."

"A clever deception. So, you worked with this Marsden?"

"Yeah, and if I ever catch up with the SOB again, I'm going to carve him up in little pieces." I took a deep breath, no use telling him everything. "Is there a chance I can go to your intercept site?"

April - This Month in the Cold War

3 April 1948 — President Harry S. Truman signed the European Recovery Program proposed by Secretary of State George C. Marshall. The Marshall Plan was intended to stop the spread of Communism and restore the economies of European countries devastated by World War II. Over four years, the program distributed $12 billion to the nations of Western Europe.

4 April 1949 — Twelve nations signed the treaty creating NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a common military alliance against the threat of expansion by the Soviet Union into Western Europe.

5 April 1986 — A bomb exploded at a popular discotheque frequented by American military personnel in West Berlin, killing two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman. American intelligence analysts attributed the attack to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Nine days later, President Ronald Reagan ordered a retaliatory air strike against Libya.

12 April 1961 — Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

14 April 1986 – U.S. warplanes, on orders from President Ronald Reagan, bombed the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the April 5th terrorist bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin.

17 April 1961 — The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba undertaken by a Central Intelligence Agency sponsored paramilitary brigade. The attempt to overthrow Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba failed.

20 April 1978 —A Korean Airlines commercial airliner traveling to Seoul was shot down over Soviet airspace and forced to make an emergency landing on a frozen lake near the Finnish border. The incident killed two of the 109 passengers and crew members aboard.

26 April 1986 — An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, caused a meltdown of the nuclear fuel and spread a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. The Chernobyl accident is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties.

March - This Month in the Cold War

4 March 1950 — US Navy PB4Y2 was shot down over the Baltic Sea by Soviet aircraft. The Soviets claimed that the plane had violated Soviet airspace. Later that year. the US claimed at least one member of this aircraft's crew had been sighted in a Soviet prison camp. The Soviets denied the claim.

26 March 1979 — Thirty years of warfare between Israel and Egypt ended with the Camp David Accord signed by Prime Minister Begin of Israel and Egyptian President Sadat.

31 March 1991 — The birthplace of Josef Stalin, the Soviet Republic of Georgia, voted to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Following the vote, Soviet troops were deployed under a state of emergency.

January - This Month in the Cold War

January 1, 1959 - Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and established a Communist dictatorship.

January 23, 1968 - The American ship USS Pueblo was seized by North Koreans in the Sea of Japan.

28 January 1964 - An unarmed United States Air Force T-39 Sabreliner on a training mission was shot down over Erfurt, East Germany by a Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19.

January 30, 1968 – The Tet Offensive in Vietnam began when North Vietnamese troops attacked provincial capitals and major cities in South Vietnam.  Attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and the presidential palace were repelled.

Flying in Nepal

January 1974: All flights from Lukla had been canceled because of the oil crisis. That meant we had no way to get back to Kathmandu, except to walk out. We couldn’t go back the way we came in because the passes might be snowed in by the time we get there. The only other way to walk out is to go south down the Dudh Kosi river valley, a very long trip. Our only other option is to try to fly out of Sangpoche airport at the Everest View Hotel.

We headed down the valley and went straight to the Hotel to book a flight out. We were put on the waiting list and had hot chocolate at the hotel. Then we trekked back down the hill to the International Footrest Hotel in to wait.

We expected to wait several days for a flight out. The hotel had a daily flight to bring in supplies and to fly out laundry. The situation was also complicated because three of the four pilots that are qualified to land at Sangpoche had quit.  It snowed the day of our flight and we were delayed for two days until they cleared off the runway.

The legendary Swiss pilot Captain Emil Wick piloted the single-engine Pilatus Porter. He was probably the greatest living mountain pilot. He was known for his outrageous sense of humor and had flown climbers into remote mountain airstrips in Nepal. He had the distinction of being one of only two people to descend an 8000-meter peak without climbing it. This was after he crashed a Porter while delivering supplies to a Dhaulagiri expedition in 1960.

The Pilatus Porter is Swiss made and powered by a single turboprop engine. It was built for landing on glaciers in the Alps. It is much praised for its excellent handling and short take-off and landing capabilities that made it ideal for mountain flying.

At Sangpoche airport, about 11,400 feet in altitude, one must make a landing and take-off in less than 1,000 feet. At the uphill end of the runway is a cliff and at the downhill end of the runway is a 1,500-foot drop down into the valley.

As we are loading up Captain Emil told us about some of his strangest flights. One time he had to fly a Yak out. It took up all of the spare room. Another time he flew out a leopard that was headed to a zoo in Japan. He said the leopard started growling so he gained altitude till it went to sleep in the thin air. Our gear was weighed and carefully loaded the plane because weight is critical at this altitude. We took off down the runway, going airborne about halfway. At the end of the runway he banked right and we were on our way for a spectacular trip back to Kathmandu.

An excerpt from the Iranian Intercept

Tuesday, 19 December: Dudh Kosi Valley, Nepal

Flying in the Himalayas is a fusion of wonder and fear. The awe-inspiring panorama of the high mountains acts as a powerful drug subduing the senses, blocking out the inescapable reality that death awaits those who linger in its spell. The hypnotic trance may lure the unsuspecting to the side of a cliff. Engine failure results in a harrowing decent to the rocks below. Wind shear, an invisible, unexpected, and deadly force, might at any moment, plunge the frail craft into the void.

Following the valley of the Dudh Kosi River, as it closed in narrower and narrower, was akin to flying into the jaws of a mythical monster, the jagged mountains forming its teeth. The small aircraft continued on its way skirting rough walls, pummeled by bursts of turbulence, straining to maintain its course. I searched the valley walls for our destination.

No one spoke. The furious roar of the propeller and the low rumble of the slipstream rushed past the cockpit.

The pilot broke an awkward silence, "Can you see it?"

I pressed forward in the harness, straining to find it. "No, just the mountains."

He pointed. "There at one o'clock, past the village, up the side valley. Namche Bazaar."

"All I see is a small brown spot."

"That's it."

Ahead, a gash on the side of the ridge appeared about three kilometers away. A twinge of anxiety welled up as I awaited the approach and landing on such a tiny speck. Further up the valley, low cloud cover was beginning to form, merging the valley with the white slopes of the mountains.

I was about to seek reassurance from the pilot when the brawny man behind me leaned forward and spoke to the pilot.

"Es ist so klein." I could smell his fear. He asked if it was safe. "Ist es sicher?"

The pilot answered, "Ja Ja, kein Problem." He asked the man if he was okay. "Ist alles in Ordnung?"

"Ni —Nien."

"Machen Sie sich keine Sorgen." He told him not to worry.

"Mir ist schlecht."

He brusquely told him, "Bitte nicht erbrechen," not to throw-up.

"Ich bin krank."

"Hörst du mich — nicht erbrechen."

The pilot leaned towards me. "These guys from the east are not so tough. He says he is sick."

"The east, what do you mean?"

"One of the eastern lands. Can tell from his accent." That simple comment should have set off alarm bells, but the enormity of the spectacle before me short-circuited my internal warning system.

He banked right and changed course up the new valley. Ahead, at 12,500 feet, lay the world's highest airport. Syangboche airstrip, less than 400 yards in length perched on a ledge 1,500 feet above the river below. It would be like landing on an aircraft carrier.

The pilot, a confident and cheerful Swiss, a legendary mountain flyer, tracked the edge of the cliff to our right as he fought the turbulence.

"The clouds are closing in. I must take off again as soon as we load up. Hope the bastards are ready for me. I do not stay for long."

The small plane trembled as turbulent air threatened to drive it into the rugged cliff looming above. The single engine Pilatus Porter banked to the left to begin the final approach. A fierce gust shook the small craft causing it to slide away from the postage stamp sized landing strip. We drifted straight towards a rocky ridge. He dipped the nose, eased the throttle forward, gained speed, tracked right, and then left again. The aircraft was back on course. We would land on an up-hill grade that ended at a jumble of rocks below a small cliff.

Another wind shear shook the craft as he eased the throttle back to idle, deployed the large flaps, and brought the nose up for landing. The aircraft shuddered as it decelerated below forty-five knots and gently touched down with a slight thud. With full brakes and reverse thrust, the Porter achieved a remarkably short rollout after landing, with plenty room to spare. The brawny man let out an audible sigh of relief.