War is an endeavor that requires many resources, the greatest of which is money.
While the focus is usually the armed conflict, it is the economic and espionage activities that often exert a greater effect on the outcome. This was Dave Morgan’s work.
Friday, 3 May, 2013; Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam, 22:45 Hr.s (UTC +7)
Morgan is a spy, assassin, saboteur and thief. He works in the little known world of “economic warfare”, a recently coined term that describes attempts to control and disrupt the financial operations of an adversary. Of course “Dave Morgan” is not a real person. He is a man who uses that name. There are four layers of identities. Firstly, he is Morgan; Australian passport, real estate consultant, moderately successful, 43 years old. A decidedly average man, neither ugly nor handsome, tall nor short. In every way, unremarkable. Secondly, he is still Dave Morgan, but now working for a federal law enforcement unit of the Australian government. Thirdly, the name Dave Morgan disappears altogether, to a second name, and he works for a company called NSR Solutions, the one who actually pays him. It is a shadowy think tank organization that appears to contract with mundane government agencies from a number of countries. The joke among the operations crew at NSR is that it stood for “Non Specific Response” for the description they would provide if ever asked what they actually did. Then there is the bottom layer, an agency that seeks the truth because, as their motto says, it will “set you free”.
Dave Morgan walked the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam around the lake just south of the Old Quarter on his way to a performance of the famous Thang Long Water Puppets. The water puppets are an attraction that has long been popular among tourists. It appears in the Lonely Planet travel guide for Vietnam. Puppets controlled by rods and wires act out the universal drama of love and loss in a pool of water to a score played by a live orchestra. They perform odd dances with their mechanical arms and jaws flapping in unison to music. Central to the performance is the curious theatric element that they, by virtue of their suspension on water, take on an uncanny reality. The theater itself is stereotypically Asian in appearance, with a décor made largely of reds and golds and plenty of dragons. As the orchestra played to the oddly dancing puppets Morgan found what he was looking for in the audience.
His target was the Malaysian, Mr. Leechong Ng (last named pronounced roughly, “nuug”). Ng is a facilitator, counterfeiter and covert funds transfer specialist. Among other nefarious financial activities he launders money into and out of North Korea for the Communists. Legitimate commerce between other countries and North Korea was hobbled by a long list of economic sanctions that made trade difficult for Pyongyang. That made business even better for Mr. Ng.
Leechong Ng is also skilled at operational security. If he weren’t the British, Germans, French or Israelis would have killed him already. But it was better that he was alive, at least for the next hour or so.
Ng communicates with his clients using a number of clandestine techniques. Most of them are decidedly low-tech. Because they are so simple they are impervious to eavesdropping, spy satellites, internet worms and other 21st century surveillance assets. Stopping Ng and his flow of cash to the North Koreans was a simple and old school matter of spy craft.
About as fancy as Ng ever got was opening a Yahoo! or Google e-mail account, collecting some spam and sending some traffic to make it look legitimate, then writing coded messages to associates and clients and never sending them, simply saving them in the “draft” box. He communicated the account log-ins, also coded, to his contacts and they accessed the e-mail box without ever subjecting the unsent messages to the scrutiny of signals surveillance. Another low tech habit Ng had was to maintain a coded, written list of the transfer accounts of his clients, concealed on his person in a bent-corner Moleskine notebook.
Dave Morgan had two objectives tonight: Obtain that coded list of accounts and kill Leechong Ng.
While state sponsored murder of foreign nationals had, for a long period, been an illegal activity forbidden by Executive Order 12333, that directive had been revoked by former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then, the operational team at NSR Solutions joked, “The rules are, there are no rules.” It wasn’t far from the truth.
The U.S. knew that Ng was brokering a massive funds transfer to North Korea in the next 72 hours. If the interdiction went smoothly not only would the transfer not happen, but additional funds destined for North Korea would be seized by the United States intelligence community. More importantly, Ng, being quite dead, would no longer be operational. North Korea would not be able to afford to keep fighting. They couldn’t pay for fuel for their vehicles, ammunition or any of the other very expensive things that make war happen. Since countries tend to negotiate more when they have less, this operation would strengthen the position of countries seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. At the cost of one life, thousands would be saved, perhaps millions.
The show ended and the Vietnamese orchestra took their bows. The crowd filed outside chatting about the experience in six or eight different languages. Morgan sat at the back of the theater during the performance and pretended to examine a large postcard while chatting up some Australian girls who carried hemp purses and looked like the type to stay in youth hostels. He saw Leechong Ng file down the aisle toward the central exit. Once he was out of the theater Morgan followed.
Ng was staying at a hotel across the lake. The promenade around the lake was brightly lit and a bad location for the strike. The day before Morgan had done a reconnaissance of Ng’s hotel, the hotel lobby, the entrance to the narrow hallway that accessed the guest rooms and the only small public bathroom on the first floor of the hotel. He also surveyed the exterior of the hotel and even gained access into an administrative building next to Ng’s hotel to see if he could get a sight line across to Ng’s room. No luck.
Morgan had two options for hitting his target: Between the theater and the hotel or in the hotel hallway itself. Those were the only areas Ng would be isolated enough so that Morgan could strike and also have time to find and remove the bank information from Ng.
To the convenience of Morgan, Mr. Ng turned right, walking north from Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake and toward the Old Quarter. A series of small shops lined the Old Quarter, their booths spilling out into the street itself. Some of the streets were narrower and darker. The vendors had largely folded up for the night but a few remained as they folded their fabric awnings and cranked down the caged fronts of their shops. Ng apparently had a taste for a late night Vietnamese coffee, a craving that would prove fatal.
The business of murder is an ancient and unsophisticated one. Unlike the fancy “assassination canes” and silenced pistols in the basement museum of the organization he actually worked for, Dave Morgan usually worked with much simpler, less exotic methods.
Morgan’s (cover) reason for visiting Vietnam was a holiday to explore the local cuisine and its preparation. As part of his cover he attended a series of displays on indigenous food preparation and purchased a new (counterfeit) North Face daypack from a street vendor, a set of nesting wooden bowls with a matching cutting board, a special spoon for eating Asian soup and a nicely made, full tang, stainless steel hollow ground kitchen knife with a partially checkered handle made of non-slip Pakkawood composite. Morgan was indifferent about all of the items except the knife, which would be his weapons system. The blade had to be long enough to pierce the heart of his target from the back with one insertion. The handle had to be non-slip enough so that, if for any reason, his hand were wet (from rain, perspiration or his target’s blood) it would not slip. The knife also had to be locally available and locally used, so it would not be conspicuous as a weapon used in a precision military strike.
Some areas of the street were darker than others, drowned in the darkness of the shadows from buildings above and left out of the intermittent streetlights, many of them burned out in the Old Quarter. Morgan saw, a quarter of a block in front, a dark area. This is where he would strike the target.
At the same time as he increased his walking pace he slid his right arm out of his backpack strap and rotated the pack to his chest, opening the zipper slightly and withdrawing his knife from the paper packaging. He concealed it momentarily behind his forearm with a reverse grip, as was often espoused by devotees of the Krav Maga combat system. His brisk gait closed the distance with Ng from behind. The two converged at the outer edge of the dark shadow area. Morgan deftly reversed grip on the knife, now holding it the way a chef would, the blade being an extension of his forearm, no longer reversed behind it.
The simplest techniques are the best, and a variation of one Morgan had learned decades earlier in Army advanced individual training was the one he would employ; the “rear strangle take-down”.
His left foot led, stepping up to Ng’s left foot from behind. His left forearm wedged violently under Ng’s chin from behind. Knife blade parallel to the ground. He thrust quickly forward with a pointed incision, withdrawing with equal speed, and like the arm of a large surging machine, repeated again. His right knee came forward and collapsed Ng’s knees forward. Ng was dead by the time his head hit the street. Morgan wrapped his arms under him, avoiding the wound to keep his clothes fresh, and dragged Ng back to the alley immediately to his left. Being an Asian man, Ng was relatively lightweight and easy to heft into a trash container. Morgan rifled Ng’s pockets, found a small bound flip-top , reporter style Moleskine notebook with a rubber band around it, and left.
Three streets down a poultry shop would discover one extra knife in their kitchen inventory the next morning, and Morgan would already be flying out of Hanoi. Four days later the U.S. would seize over $500M in assets in a Jakarta bank destined for potential transfer to North Korea, and begin surveillance on three other bank accounts of similar size.
North Korea would find it increasingly difficult to afford to fight.