DEAD CENTRE II
Even The Wrong Can Be Right Sometimes!
1 BANGKOK, THAILAND
Michael Adams, a medium-ranking civil servant at the British Embassy on Wireless Road in Bangkok, put a hand over his left ear and tapped the table top between himself and his Thai assistant, Jenny, who was sitting opposite him. She noticed the movement out of the corner of her eye, smiled, pushed the pause button on her wireless headset and waited for Michael to say something.
“What’s that racket? We’re not expecting visitors today, are we?”
“Not that I know of, Mike.” She was allowed to be informal, when they were alone at work, as they were now, or at the home they shared not far from the Embassy. They had been working together for two years and were making plans to get married before the end of the year. She reached out and put her left hand on his.
“Shall I phone down to find out what’s happening?”
He, smiled, took her hand in his and nodded back, the sound of rotor blades was deafening in the small top-floor office, where they were processing suspicious visa application forms.
As she started to move her right hand towards the telephone, he mouthed the words, “Yes, please, you beautiful…” but he didn’t get the chance to finish the sentence or return her adoring smile.
There was a loud crash directly above them, which sent a spray of small, sharp pieces of masonry to cut their faces and something flashed before their eyes a millisecond before it took their conjoined hands off, cut the desk in two, thus breaking their legs and disappeared through the floor.
As large lumps of concrete hurtled down on them from above, there was a terrific explosion from one of the floors below, which squashed them like mosquitoes, first against the walls behind them and then against what was left of the ceiling and the roof. If they had been alive, like a few in the building still were, they might have witnessed a second reinforced, fifty-gallon drum plummeting through the same hole and exploding into an inferno of flames. There was no need for a third, no-one had survived the last one, but Mike and Jenny were already on their way to Heaven still holding hands, still unaware of what had befallen them and all their colleagues.
“Have the Americans got any more intel than we have?” asked the Prime Minister, Huw Lloyd, of his Foreign Minister, Richard Wilkinson at an emergency meeting at nine thirty am, about forty minutes after the events had occurred.
“No, sir, or they’re not saying anything yet, but I suspect that they’re just as much in the dark as we are.”
“What happened to them exactly?”
“No-one’s saying exactly, sir, but it looks like they took a barrel bomb of high-explosives through the roof, like we did, then they tossed the pilot out, who was an American national working in Bangkok, and plunged the helicopter full of fuel in through the hole, causing pretty much the same level of damage that we sustained.”
“You mean no survivors there either.”
“I’m afraid it looks that way, sir, only those who were lucky enough to have been on leave.”
“Damn it all and these two embassies were right next to each other?”
“No, not quite, sir, but not far apart… Ours was on Wireless Road, theirs was over the junction and down the road opposite, both in Lumpini, in the centre of Bangkok.”
“That was bloody stupid planning, wasn’t it? Just asking for trouble, if you ask me.”
“Yes, sir, but those embassies have been situated there since before the invention of aircraft, sir.”
“Oh, I see… Are there any more details, Richard?”
“No, sir, we’re working on it, but Thailand was not deemed a high-security risk and the bombs took out all our people on the spot. The Thai authorities are putting the fires out and have cordoned off the area, and we have people on the way, but it will be tomorrow before we know a lot more.”
“What a catastrophe, and in election year too! Two big embassies close together like that looks like a disaster waiting to happen, doesn’t it? No-one has claimed responsibility then yet, I take it?”
“We have had a few phone calls, but they were from the usual lunatic fringe groups who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. I’m afraid it looks like we’re dealing with ISIS or Al-Qaeda.”
“I wasn’t aware that they had any connections with Thailand.”
“No, nor were we, sir, but there are the Muslim Separatists in the south. It’s only a hypothesis at the moment, but it’s the most likely thread we’ve got.”
“Have you told the Americans that idea yet?”
“No, sir, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have come up with it as well.”
“Fair enough, well, get me as much info on Muslims in Thailand as you can, and keep me informed on everything that comes in. If you can get me something to read for now and tonight at home, so much the better. Get someone onto it right away, Richard. Right away, do you hear?”
“Yes, sir, I’ll start at once.”
“Oh, one more thing before you go, I want a meeting in here at three o’clock this afternoon with all the specialists we’ve got including MI6.”
The Commissioner-General of the Royal Thai Police, Police General Phao Dhanaranjata called the first crisis meeting concerning the two attacks also for four thirty pm, which was thirty minutes after the news of the bombings had reached him. Eye-witnesses, who included on-duty police officers, officials at other embassies in the area and local residents, put the timing of the attack on the British Embassy at three forty-eight p.m. and the second on the American Embassy just four minutes later.
The Fire Brigade reported that the fires in the buildings were under control, but still burning and that the areas were still too hot to enter, not that they had the authority to do that anyway, since the embassies were technically on foreign soil.
The police reported that the areas had been cordoned off for fear of secondary explosions and the Thai Foreign Office reported that their ambassadors in London and Washington had requested a list of all Thai nationals who had worked in the embassies, and were standing by to pass on any reports from Bangkok they had to the British and American governments.
The Commissioner-General was assured that everything was being done that could be and that the foreign governments would send the lists of employees later that day. He knew from experience that he would be required to launch his own investigation into the terrorist attacks, but that the British and the Americans would want the freedom to make their own enquiries as well.
He had no objections to that per se, so long as their people realised that they were on his patch and gave him the respect he deserved. His first move was to find out who owned the helicopter, so he ordered one of his deputies to get on with that, while he worked on his speech for the news bulletin.
It was a priority, as the news crew from Military Channel 7 were already outside waiting and they would have to be told something quickly, although it had to be done properly, as this was his first time on the world stage and he wanted to look competent and efficient.
As it happened, the first hurried news report of the attacks had already been televised. Some witnesses had taken footage of the helicopter hovering over the British Embassy and followed it on its deadly mission, so it had taken a simple phone call to trace the owners of the aircraft from the call-sign that was stencilled on its fuselage. It was owned by a local company called Bangkok Aerial Photography Limited, that leased helicopters with pilots mostly for the purpose of aerial photography. Some people were trying to sell their videos, while others had just uploaded them to YouTube for the world to see and copy, which many TV stations did without scruple.
The police chief’s statement and appeal for information was tagged onto the end of that coverage.
The people of Thailand were horrified and outraged that such atrocities could be perpetrated on Thai soil, or at least on Embassies in Thailand.
The four men seated at one end of the large table in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, for which the abbreviation was COBRA, in Number 10 were the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary for Defence, Toby Smythe, the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Roderic Jones, and the Chief of MI6, Sir Arthur Tobin. Richard Wilkinson handed out a sheet of paper to each man and put one before the empty seat at the head of the table for the P.M. who was due any moment.
“Chief, is it true that one of your men in the Embassy was Michael Adams?”
“Yes, that’s right, Toby, did you know him?”
“Not well, but we did have occasion to meet… twice, I think. He struck me as a good man. Commiserations, old man.”
“Thank you, Toby. People said he was solid. Just put in for leave to get married apparently… A girl in the office, a Thai, bit of a stunner by all accounts…”
“Order, gentlemen,” said the Foreign Secretary tapping the table with his knuckles. “Thank you. I apologise for the paucity of intel, gentlemen, but that’s all we have at the moment. However, there is more information coming in all the time. The time difference doesn’t help…”
“Yes, that’s one of the gems of information you include on this fact sheet, they’re seven hours ahead of us,” said the head of MI6 somewhat shirtily. “All this stuff has been on the television several times since it happened.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, Arthur, but all our bods were killed in the attack. It was a total wipe-out in our embassy and the Yanks’.”
Suddenly, the doors opened at the far end of the room and the P.M. entered with his entourage.
“All right, you may leave us now,” he told them. “Tell all concerned that we are not to be disturbed for anything. This meeting has top priority.”
He watched as his staff left the room.
“All right, gentlemen, let’s get down to business. Richard, you put this meeting together, so why don’t you start?” He pulled his fact sheet towards him, read the few lines of information on it and turned it over looking for more, while the Foreign Secretary cleared his throat. He raised his eyebrows at those who were watching him and pushed the useless piece of paper away again.
“Yes, well, gentlemen, this is very much a preliminary meeting in order to pool what small amount of detail we seem to have and try to come up with a strategy. We have arranged for a team of MI6, police and military intelligence officers to fly out to Bangkok later today along with a skeleton crew as temporary replacement embassy staff. Needless to say, we applied for the necessary visas and diplomatic immunity as if they were all routine embassy staff and all the paperwork was approved as such.
“The Thai authorities are cooperating and have already allocated them office space in a building not far down the road which is being used by VFS.Global, a government joint venture initiative which deals with the preliminary processing of visa applications. This building had not been targeted or damaged in any way, but most of the staff there were local Thais…”
“Excuse me for interrupting, Dicky, but are you suggesting that the perpetrators avoided that building because most of the employees there were Thai?” asked The Chief.
“Not at this point, Arthur. We think that the targets were always the two embassies themselves, but it is worth bearing in mind, perhaps. Anyway, we had people study the footage available to us and the three bombs appear to have been modified two-hundred-and-fifty litre oil drums – IED’s. The first one on each embassy appears to have been filled with high-explosives, and the second one on our embassy with high-octane fuel. The same effect was produced on the American Embassy by crashing the helicopter thorough the hole caused by the IED…”
“Wasn’t the roof reinforced?”
“It had indeed been reinforced, Toby, but I’d like you all to watch this video. Now, please,” he said turning to an army intelligence technical officer who was manning the video equipment. “Tech staff have enhanced the image as much as they can, but blow… enlarging it like this brings its own problems.
“OK, here you see the helicopter swinging into position over our embassy, the first to be hit, then you see what looks like two men rolling a drum out of the side door. It has been estimated that the craft is between one hundred and fifty and one hundred and seventy feet above the building at this juncture. Now watch carefully, within ten to fifteen feet, the drum, which had been rolled out on its side, had righted itself. Freeze frame! Pay particular attention to the underside… you will notice an arrowhead-type construction.
“A two fifty litre drum full of explosives could easily weigh two hundred and fifty kilos, but the weight added to make it right itself and come down on its tip, could have made the drum weigh three hundred kilos. Three hundred kilos per square inch on impact… I’m afraid I don’t know what that would increase to after having fallen a hundred and fifty feet, but I know of no pitched roof that could withstand an onslaught like that and anyway, it is obvious that neither ours nor the American’s were able to.
“Did the terrorists know that or did they just chance their arm anyway? Who knows? Was sensitive information about the roof’s construction passed on? We don’t know? Certainly the maintenance men would have known about the condition of the roof or indeed roofs. OK, roll. As soon as the IED is dropped, the helicopter moves over a little, then after the first blast it returns, drops the second drum of fuel and flies off to the American Embassy a minute or so away.
“They drop an IED, move away over the rear garden to avoid the up-blast again and throw something out as the drum detonates. It was later discovered to be the American pilot who had been flying the helicopter for the terrorists for the company they had hired it from.
“He had been shot through the back of the head, so there must have been a replacement pilot, at least of sorts on board, because then the chopper returns to the gutted roof and dives in through the hole created by the IED producing the same kind of inferno as at our mission.
“This is reminiscent of 9/11 as I am sure you will be aware.
“Thank you,” he said to the technician, “you may leave us now.
“Well, gentlemen, that’s all I have.”
“Thank you, Richard,” said the P.M. “Anyone got anything to add? It’s a rum do and no mistake. I imagine that the Americans were the real target, but we were so close that the miscreants couldn’t believe their luck. Two birds with one stone, eh? And a leased one at that, though I bet no-one pays the invoice. Oh, was it leased or stolen?”
“Almost certainly leased, Prime Minister. We know next to nothing, we have no-one there but a BBC correspondent, so we are at the mercy of the Thai authorities and the media for our local knowledge. The Consuls in Chiang Mai and Pattaya have been told to get to Bangkok post haste, but they are old men and not trained for this kind of work, still they can help out with processing visas. They should be there in about three hours,” replied Richard checking his watch automatically with the clock on the mantelpiece.
“Anyone got anything to say? Chief?” he asked addressing the head of MI6.
“No, not concrete news really, all our three operatives were taken out. I can only say that we had no wind of an imminent terrorist attack. Thailand is a very peaceful country except for its internal problems with the Muslim Separatists down in the south by the border with Malaysia. It’s their Irish Question, but it has been kept local. Other than that, Thailand is a very important rock in between the Communist-inspired eastern countries like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and the junta in Myanmar, er, old Burma.
“There haven’t been any issues that have concerned us since the Seventies and Vietnam. I’m afraid we were very much a soft target. It means we’ll have to re-evaluate our embassies in other countries as well, or this could become an epidemic. I’m afraid that the consequence of these attacks could be a series of others by the same group, or even copycat bombings.”
“I take it that we are all suspecting that Al-Qaeda or ISIS were behind it.”
People nodded their heads and looked at the sheet of paper with their notes before them.
“It seems that that is the general consensus, Arthur, yes. All right, I have a small bit of news, or non-news to add. I just got off the phone with the American President and he says they don’t know anything either… make of that what you will. OK, that’s it for now then, gentlemen, thank you for coming. You know that it is impossible to overstate how important this is – absolute top priority, especially in light of possible future attacks on other embassies, as Chief just pointed out.
“Richard, you will forward any new information as and when it arrives, won’t you?”
“Yes, sir, the moment I get it typed up.”
“Good man, I want to see you all back here at fifteen hundred hours today, gentlemen, let’s see how fast we can work on this one. Talk to anyone you need to to get a result. I will be available for consultation for the rest of the day in my office. I have already cancelled all my appointments. I will not insist that you all do the same, but this job takes precedence.
“Let’s get weaving then.”
The same five men took the same five seats at the same table at three o’clock that afternoon. The Foreign Secretary chaired the meeting again.
“All right, gentlemen, because of the sort of people you are and because we have all kept in close contact with each other since this morning’s meeting, I know that most of you have something to say now, so I propose to go around the table one by one.
“Arthur, I think you would like to go first, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, Dicky, thank you…” He smiled as a flashing light on his muted mobile phone lying on the desk before him interrupted him. “Excuse me, PM, this is relevant.” He read the message in silence and then explained, “One of the Firm’s top men, James Young, has just boarded the fourteen fifty-five British Airways scheduled flight for Bangkok. He will arrive at oh-nine ten local time tomorrow, er, that is 0h-two ten here.”
“Excellent, Arthur,” said the Prime Minister, “please continue.”
“Well, to be honest, sir, the rest of my news is not so good. We have operatives in the embassies of all the surrounding countries, and I could get them to fly to Bangkok without a problem, but none of them has much local knowledge and no Thai language skills. It appears that Thai is a one-off language – – only Thais speak it… a bit like Welsh.
“Lao is similar, but different, like Bretagne is to Welsh. In short, we’ve got four units in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia, all the neighbouring countries but none of them is any sodding use to us. Young can’t speak Thai either, but he’s very resourceful. We are trying to work out something with Army Intelligence, but we’re not sure yet… they sometimes work on exercises with Thai troops or train them in the use of British weapons.
“Perhaps Toby can enlighten us further on this one.”
“I’m afraid not, gentlemen, not at this precise moment, anyway. I can only confirm that word has gone out to the three armed forces and all their regiments including Special Forces, looking for Thai speakers, preferably with local knowledge, but I doubt that we’ll hear any more today.. Sorry.”
“All right, thank you, Toby. Roddy?”
“I can confirm what Toby just said, and I have details of the flight of replacement personnel to the area. A Merlin helicopter from RAF Benson, will fly to Stanstead Airport in the city this afternoon to take twenty-five staff chosen by Dicky and Arthur to Boscombe Down, where an RAF Voyager will be waiting to fly them non-stop to Bangkok. They should arrive at two pm local tomorrow… we have already obtained all the necessary clearances.
“Our only problem here, but it might not be a problem, is sensitive surveillance and communications equipment. Thailand likes to keep up an image of neutrality so it officially denies entry of many types of technical gear into its country. However, the place is so corrupt that it has never been a problem before. We thought we’d load up the transporter with a few military pallets and cargo boxes and play it by ear. If it’s no go, then we’ll take them elsewhere.
“That would leave our people in Bangkok vulnerable though. Dicky, would you like to pick up the story?”
“Sure. The personnel that we have selected are, a new ambassador, twenty-one replacement embassy staff and the usual team of three of the Chief’s men. Then we have Agent James Young who is not directly attached to anything, he’s a floater, ostensibly an ordinary tourist with dual Swiss and British nationalities, which the Swiss will back us up on, but we can attach him to the embassy staff at any time it is felt expedient to do so.
“Then there is the secure communications problem. We have conducted bi-lateral talks with the Swiss and they are happy for us to use the equipment in their embassy, until we can get ourselves sorted out, as long as we keep quiet about it. Apparently, they don’t want the Thais to know that they have broken their embargo, although as far as I am concerned, the Thais expect everyone to have broken it for years. Still, we have to respect their wishes
“Young will send us his preliminary report from there at eleven am tomorrow morning, that is six pm Bangkok time, if all goes well.”
As the powers that be in the UK were taking their seats in Number 10 Downing Street, so was Agent James Young of the Secret Intelligence Service taking his in Business Class aboard BA Flight 1954, which was on time and due to take off in ten minutes on its eleven-hour voyage to Thailand. He had never been there before, and, despite the circumstances of his visit, he was looking forward to it, but then he relished every challenge.
A charming air hostess of the cabin crew took his only piece of luggage, a leather holdall and stowed it away for him. He thought he recognised her from other journeys, but her calling him by name was no guarantee of that.
“I hope you have a pleasant flight, Mr. Young. Drinks will be available in about twenty minutes, but if you need any help with anything at all, please push the button overhead. My name is Suzanne.”
“Thank you very much, Suzanne, I shall be sure to do that.” They smiled at each other, then she turned to walk up the aisle in front of him. He watched her bottom travel up the aircraft in her tight skirt then closed his eyes.
‘I can wait twenty minutes,’ he thought, ‘we’ve got half a day ahead of us’.