Operation Caribe - By Mack Maloney


Off the coast of Somalia

THE OH-6J ATTACK helicopter circled the mega-yacht twice before landing on its stern-mounted helipad.

The copter was armed to the teeth with a .50-caliber machine gun attached to each side of its fuselage, small winglets holding mounted rocket pods, and a 30mm cannon that jutted out of its nose. The copter was painted ghostly gray; a decal on the pilot’s door identified it as Bad Dawg One.

Six vessels were anchored around the mega-yacht. Crews from four Kenyan patrol boats, a French destroyer and a Spanish minesweeper anxiously watched the copter land. A U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser, the USS Robert J. Messia, lurked nearby. A forest of antennas sticking out of its bridge was the only hint that the cruiser frequently engaged in intelligence operations.

An enormous black-and-green vessel ten miles away was barely visible in the haze. It was a supertanker of sorts, but it was not full of crude oil. Rather, it was an LNG carrier—as in liquefied natural gas. The ship was more than a thousand feet long, with five large geodesic dome shapes protruding from its deck. These domes contained 500,000 cubic feet of highly explosive LNG. The ship sat at anchor, no other vessels anywhere near it.

The rotors on the OH-6J finally stopped spinning and five men climbed out. They did not look like military types. Each wore his hair long and sported a stubbly, rock-star beard. One had earrings dangling from both lobes; another’s open shirt revealed tattoos of ammunition belts crisscrossing his chest. The copter’s pilot had a black patch over his left eye. One man walked with a prosthetic leg. A fifth man was missing his left hand.

Colonel Omir Zamal of the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, Saudi Arabia’s version of the CIA, was waiting for them. A large man stuffed inside desert battle fatigues, he was surrounded by heavily armed guards. Indeed, there were armed men scattered all over the huge yacht’s upper decks.

Zamal’s aide was standing next to him. At first sight of the five men alighting from the helicopter, he whispered to his boss: “Are these the people we’ve all been waiting for? Or have they just escaped from a carnival?”

Zamal approached the men and offered only the briefest of introductions; there were no salutes, no handshakes.

“What’s the situation?” the man with the eye patch asked him.

Zamal indicated the huge LNG ship in the distance. “The pirates who seized it are definitely Somalis,” he said in heavily accented English. “They killed six members of the crew when they came aboard, and now they’re threatening to blow up the ship if their demands are not met.”

“And what are the demands?”

“Two hundred million dollars,” Zamal replied starkly. “In cash.”

The man with the earrings let out a whistle. “Now, that’s some serious coin.”

“How much is the ship worth?” the man with the patch asked, studying the LNG carrier through an electronic telescope held up to his good eye.

“More than a billion dollars,” the Saudi officer said. “With the LNG on board? Maybe another hundred million.”

“They picked the right ship to swipe,” the man without a hand said.

“These pirates were well-prepared,” Zamal told them. “They brought lots of food and water on board with them. They also brought ammunition, military radios, batteries, even a satellite dish so they’re able to monitor media broadcasts and listen in on military communications, including NATO radio traffic.”

“They’re smart,” the man with the tattoos said. “And that’s scary.”

“It gets worse,” Zamal said. “They’ve rigged the ship with explosives—lots of them. So blowing it up is no idle threat. And they did not plant these explosives in any haphazard fashion. They put them in just the right places to cause the most damage in the shortest amount of time.”

“How do you know that?” the one-eyed man asked.

“Because they posted a video of it,” Zamal replied. “On YouTube.”

“You’re kidding.…”

The officer snapped his fingers and his aide pulled out a BlackBerry. He punched up a video that showed a collage of shadowy figures placing explosives below the LNG carrier’s decks.

“They must have studied the structural stress points of this type of LNG tanker,” Zamal explained. “Our experts tell us those charges are planted in such a way that if they blow up, they’ll instantly ignite the liquefied gas. If that happens, that ship will light up like the sun and everything will be gone in about two seconds.”

“How many crew are left alive on board?” the one-eyed man asked.

“Just six now,” Zamal said. “It’s a highly automated ship. Computers and GPS take