By Tom Demerly.
NOTE: This story is fiction based on news accounts. It does not contain factual depictions of any events from official sources.
10:17 Local (15:17 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States.
Bob Davis felt a chill race up his spine and down his arms. He saw his hands tremble on the desk in front of him. His ironic sense of humor kicked in when he thought, “Well, Bob, that’s why they call it terror-ism.” He looked at the two men sitting across from him, their mouths moving, but he didn’t hear the words for a second. He forced himself to tune back in to their meeting despite a feeling that this couldn’t be real. It was like walking onto the pages of a Clancy novel.
“…Possibly V-IED’s in the parking lots, ah, that means vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, a car or truck bomb, like Timothy McVeigh used on the Federal Building, if you recall… There could be some form of crude, locally produced chemical weapon; chlorine gas, something like that. Those have big shock value with the media. There definitely will be explosives and assault weapons used. They can source that equipment locally and may already have from gun shows around the Midwest. We have agents from the Bureau and the ATF at those shows. Even the NRA people have been helping us, but we can’t catch everything.”
Davis manages operations for the Mall of the Americas in Bloomington, Minnesota. Over the past eight years he has seen women give birth there, the most elaborate shoplifting schemes every devised (and busted), a ring of prostitutes operating in the mall and a coyote that somehow made its way inside the giant shopping center on a busy Saturday night. This was the first time he sat across his desk from two FBI agents getting briefed on plans for a possible Al Qaeda style suicide attack on his mall during Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the busiest mall in the United States.
Davis was being briefed by the FBI about possible terrorist attacks at the Mall of the Americas two days after a pair of U.S. special operations raids, one in Libya, and one in Somalia. Sixteen days earlier Al Shabaab militants attacked the Westlake Mall, a U.S. style shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya. The FBI men told Davis it was a miracle only 67 people were killed in the Africa mall attack. Based on the damage to the mall, they felt the toll would have been higher. “Westlake was a test run for Al Shabaab. It was training for them, a field exercise. They won’t make the same mistakes twice.”
The two FBI agents pulled up a file on their tablet computer. “Our estimates of casualties here at Mall of the America in a Black Friday attack are between 400 and 800 killed.” Davis felt the grip of what an attack would mean. The country, the economy, Minnesota, his community, his tenants, his family, his job. He remembered the economic impact from the 9/11 attacks. He was 40 years old then, working for the Taubman Centers back in Michigan. They managed a large number of shopping malls around the U.S. The 9/11 terror attacks had gutted the company’s occupancy in the next five years when the economy tanked. And that hadn’t been a direct attack on a U.S. shopping center. What the FBI agents were describing to Davis now could sink the shopping mall industry in the United States.
“The real damage, though,” Continued the larger agent with the iPad, “will be the broader economic impact on U.S. business. Retail for the holiday season would be destroyed. Even the e-commerce guys, like Amazon.com, would take a hit since people would not only be afraid to shop at a mall, they would be afraid to shop, period, because of concern over another economic crash. This is the new 9/11. It really would be Black Friday”
Bill Davis had one question for the two FBI men, “So, what do we do to make sure this doesn’t happen?”
“Well,” The smaller of the two FBI men said, “We think we may have reduced the capabilities of the attackers to execute their previous plans, but we still need your cooperation here at Mall of the Americas, Mr. Davis.”
“I’m all ears guys.”
02:45 Local (23:45, 2 October UTC), Thursday, 3 October 2013, Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, Headquarters, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).
Nine men were arrested in Africa following the Kenyan mall attack. It took a few days for… the authorities… to extract information from those nine men. Taken one at a time none of them provided anything that seemed of much use. But each minor detail they provided, from how they paid for their meals to how they learned to use their weapons, began to congeal into a pattern. When that pattern was fit against the sides of other patterns, now electronically in a basement in Langley, Virginia, there was a horrific conclusion: The U.S. was next.
Once that conclusion was reached the Director of National Intelligence was briefed. He briefed the President, a man deeply embroiled with a domestic political battle when Congress refused to approve economic changes forcing a shutdown of some government offices. The President and his staff were busy with, among other things, trying to manage the first ever White House online flaming campaign via e-mail and social media. Their target was Congress and their intent was to depict them as uncompromising and unreasonable. To his credit as Commander in Chief, when the briefing materials on the Nairobi attacks reached his desk, the President did not delay. He set the wheels in motion via Admiral William H. McRaven at MacDill AFB. McRaven is the ninth man to command the United States Special Operations Command at MacDill, a unified command that coordinates the training, equipment, doctrine and employment of all U.S. special operations units.
McRaven’s units include some of the most sophisticated military intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities in the world. These operate organically to the special operations community, from the field around the world back to MacDill, largely for the purposes of mission planning. The strategic intelligence may flow upward from McRaven’s units, or downward from Langley, but flow it did, in both directions. When the intelligence McRaven’s units had collected was collated with the information garnered from the West Lake Mall attack in Kenya the picture was crystal clear.
A big part of that picture pointed back to a beach house in the Somali coastal city of Barawa.
Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, had been training local indigenous forces in the region. They also collected intelligence from them during training. Both special operations and CIA operatives joined the activities related to Somalia at Camp Lemonnier to help with data collection and facilitate better, more context-based interpretation of intel. SPMAGTF Recon Marines had even conducted beach reconnaissance of some areas of the Barawa, Somalia coastline. That hydrographic survey data, combined with signals intelligence, some limited HUMINT (human intelligence from operatives on the ground in the target area), satellite and drone images merged with data from the West Lake Mall detainee interviews.
Back at Camp Lemonnier, at MacDill AFB in Florida, on a ship off the coast of East Africa and in Langley, Virginia, planners held a web conference to review the final plans for a direct action mission to interdict the capability of Al Shabaab to carry out their planned U.S. mall attack.
It was Thursday night. The raid on Barawa was a “go”.
03:50 Local (12:50 UTC), Saturday, 5 October 2013, 473 meters off the coast of Baraawe, Somalia.
High tide hit the rocky beach off Baraawe, Somalia at 04:38 hours under a dim, waxing crescent moon. Just before high tide the incoming tidal current urged the twelve combat swimmers of the Naval Special Warfare Combat Interdiction Group (formerly “SEAL Team 6 or “DEVGRU”) toward the rocky outcrops that lay just off the Somali coast. Swimming along the surface was easy; the black African waters were warm. High clouds filtered what little moonlight there was.
The assault team had left their F470 CRRC boats almost 2 miles off shore to prevent visual detection of the assault boats from land. The boats used sound suppressed motors that were extremely quiet. After dropping off the combat swimmers the rigid inflatable boats immediately turned back out to sea for recovery on a U.S. Navy ship that was even now steaming back toward the coast after the insertion.
The first element of the combat swimmer/assault team would hit the beach, remove their swim fins and floatation vests then cross inland on foot less than a kilometer south of their target, a large beachfront villa on the southern edge of Baraawe. They would turn immediately north toward the objective. This first six-man element of the team moved inland approximately 400 meters toward the concealment of low scrub. The other six-man element lay prone in the gently lapping waves of shallow water just off the beach until the flanking assault element was in place. A series of clicks on their updated, secure AN/PRC-126 radios would signal the first assault team was in place. Then the two teams would move toward the target, a two-story villa where the objective, a high value personnel target named Ahmed Abdi Godane, was supposed to be located.
The two elements of the assault team were in place. The wind was gentle coming just barely off the ocean, it was 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun would not rise for another hour and forty minutes. Each member of the second assault element heard the clicks in their headset when the first element got into position. They responded with a single click of the mic button. Then each team member checked right, then left, clearing his field of fire and began a low, quick advance across the beach, trending right or north to the target.
The building was surrounded by low walls on three sides and a high wall at the back. It made sense to go over the lower sections of the walls, enter the courtyard section, assault any threats that were providing security and then conduct the entry. Once the entry began, speed and violence of action was their primary tactic. They had to overwhelm what security may be in place quickly, assault the target building and secure the objective, detain Ahmed Abdi Godane or neutralize him, then exfil the target area. The primary extract route was by helo extraction near a defensible LZ south of the target area. The secondary extract was back out to sea.
Overhead surveillance by an RQ-170 Sentinel drone would provide a live video feed to the command center back at MacDill and help give the Naval Special Warfare operators on the beach a high degree of situational awareness via radio. What the Sentinel video showed now was troubling. There were more personnel between the insertion point and the objective than normal. Within the walled compound itself, no less than eight hot targets could be seen, some of them milling around from target to target as if they were spreading information. Outside, there were more than ten hot spots between the insertion point at the beach and the objective. The insertion would almost certainly involve contact earlier than they planned.
A common feature of operations in this region is that its difficult to tell who is a combatant and who is not from overhead surveillance. The hot spot on the drone feed may be a fisherman rigging his boat to go out at first light, or an insurgent walking a security perimeter armed with an automatic weapon and grenades. Until the assault team got eyes on they would not know from the drone feed. They didn’t have to wait to see to find out.
The insurgents initiated contact with one man firing a single round at one of the SEALs as he moved to a concealed position across the beach to establish the flanking position. The single round alerted every other sentry. The SEAL’s weapons were suppressed. When another assault team member put two rounds into the insurgent it didn’t make enough noise to be heard back at the compound a couple hundred meters away. Nonetheless everyone in the compound was alerted by the single shot, then the silence. Now they were coming outside the wall.
The assault team worked an “L” shaped hasty ambush on the objective, both teams directing controlled fire toward targets they could see. When the volume of returning fire began to increase the SEAL assault team leader radioed for a pair of Viper gunships from an assault ship orbiting off the coast to swing inland for fire support.
The Viper gunships, an upgraded version of the AH-1 Cobra helicopter, overflew the target from the ocean. They banked hard and attacked facing back out to sea to avoid collateral damage from their guns. When the rounds from the AH-1Z Viper ‘s 20 mm cannon hit the compound the result was like cracking open a hornet’s nest. The pilot and gunner could see personnel and vehicles scatter through their Thales Top Owl helmet imagery system. White streaks showed the path of gunfire reaching into the dark to find the assaulters.
Special operations is a fragile craft with a courageous heritage. But the reality is lightly armed men are flung against sometimes heavily fortified targets in inferior numbers. Their primary advantage is speed and violence of action. If their objective is compromised before it can be overwhelmed their chances of success evaporate by the split second. The SEAL assault force commander on the beach knew this well, having operated on both sides of this double-edged sword for a decade. He knew he had men inland a few hundred meters who risked being cut off from the sea extraction route and that securing a landing zone for extraction was, at best, an iffy proposition now.
The assault was compromised before it began. He signaled for mission abort and emergency extraction.
This contingency was well drilled. The beach fire team put 40 mm grenade fire on the target while the inland team broke contact, peeling back toward the sand and the sea. Each man covered the next in a modified version of the classic peel maneuver to break contact. The Vipers overflew the target at high speed and low altitude, this time flying inland and banking left or south, the opposite direction as before, then paralleling the beach on a gun run to cover the SEALs.
Only twenty-five minutes after the first assault element crossed the beach the team was back in the water as their assault boats raced back inland to recover them. After a twenty-minute swim to the east and south the recovery boats spotted the infrared strobes of the assault teams and the recovery was completed. The Vipers left their orbit along the beach just before the SEALs were picked up off shore and the assault force collapsed back out to sea as the sun lit the horizon an angry orange. It would be hours or even days until U.S. assets would know if the target had been compromised in the raid.
The raid on Baraawe to capture Ahmed Abdi Godane did not go as planned. It also was not a failure. While the primary objective was not achieved it may have killed or wounded Godane. If not, it sent a clear message to Godane and his men: The U.S. will cross the beach to get you before you can get us. Regardless of the results on the beach that night in Baraawe that message was sent and received loud and clear.
10:58 Local (15:58 UTC), Monday, 7 October 2013, Administrative Offices, Triple Five Group, Mall of the Americas, Bloomington, Minnesota, United States.
“We’ll have teams of agents operating undercover all the way from the parking lots to the inside of the mall itself.” The FBI agent told Bob Davis. “We need to put some of our people under cover as store employees and mall workers over the weekend too. Prior to the weekend we’ll be installing some additional surveillance equipment outside and inside the mall. We’re pretty sure we know what we’re looking for and this surveillance should prevent any operatives from gaining access to the mall.”
Davis thought he should be reassured. The thought of installing security checkpoints at the entrance and exit to the mall was unthinkable. It would ruin business and attract the wrong kind of media. This softer approach seemed much less… obtrusive. He hoped it was enough. He noticed his hand shake again.