BRUSSELS, JANUARY 15
Nufar was focused on three laptops that were connected to one another with a tangle of cables. Assaf and Batsheva were leaning over her, casting a shadow over the screens.
“Give her some space,” Ya’ara said. “We can’t afford to make any mistakes now.”
The logo of the Belgian Prison Service appeared in the corner of the screen of the laptop on the left. Nufar had finally managed to hack into the organization responsible for the incarceration and security of Osama Hamdan, the murderer from Brussels’s main synagogue.
When Nufar had suggested the idea of a cyberattack on the prison service’s computer network, Ya’ara was skeptical.
“It’s a state-run security organization of a European country, I’m sure its computer network is well protected,” she said. “And how would we do it anyway? Do you know how to? To assess the risks? To avoid detection?” She thought she was asking rhetorical questions and expected to see Nufar hang her head in defeat on hearing them.
“Look, Ya’ara, it can definitely be done. I know this wasn’t the reason you recruited me, but during my military service and then also as a student, I built on the computer know-how I acquired as a young girl. There isn’t an economist or businessperson out there who knows their way around computers as well as I do. Well, that was the case at least during my time at INSEAD. And yes, I admit my know-how isn’t systematic, but I can usually rely on my intuition to help me out. So I think I know how to approach this. We’ll need to identity their system’s weak spots. Someone always makes a cyber-security error somewhere. And we’ll need some luck, too.”
“Luck is good. I’m all for luck.”
“And I can’t guarantee success.” Following the brief speech she had just given, Nufar continued suddenly in a more cautious tone of voice. “But I should give it a try. We’ve been racking our brains for a week already in an effort to find a way to get the information we need. I think this is the way to do it.”
Ya’ara nodded, hoping that her highly intelligent cadet wasn’t going to expose them all due to some rookie mistake.
And now, from the business center of the Hilton Hotel at the Brussels airport, Nufar began wandering through the computer system of the Belgian Prison Service’s central headquarters.
“It could take hours,” Nufar said to them. “Give me some breathing room. I’ll call you over when I come across something interesting.”
“Coffee, anyone?” suggested Assaf, who had decided to contribute, in some way, to the war effort.
A few minutes later, he served two cups of coffee to Nufar and Ya’ara. Batsheva, for her part, was drinking hot chocolate in the hotel lobby, sitting with one leg crossed over the other, waiting for more exciting news.
- • •
Nufar turned up a piece of relevant information after a little more than two hours of searching. Hamdan was scheduled to appear in court in Brussels for a remand hearing in two and half weeks’ time, on February 9, at eleven in the morning. The precise courtroom for the hearing had yet to be determined. But detailed sketches of the layout of the courthouse, which were found in a folder belonging to the unit responsible for escorting prisoners, showed exactly where the security vehicles entered the building, as well as the location of the detention cells in which the prisoners were held until it was time for them to be brought up to one of the courtrooms. There was a gap of about five or six meters between the closest parking spot for the security vehicles and the steel door leading to the detainees’ enclosure. Ya’ara believed that if they could just find a clear line of sight from some elevated point outside the courthouse onto the few meters the prisoners were required to cross on foot before entering the building, they’d have their opportunity.
“Okay, guys,” she said, “we’ll go out into the field. Some things need to be seen firsthand. Assaf and I will go out together. Batsheva, you’ll stay here with Nufar until she decides she’s finished with the computer system. Help her afterward to pack up all the gear. Join us when you’re done and have returned everything to the apartment.”
They were renting a large and well-equipped apartment on Avenue Louise. Brussels, the capital of the European Union, excelled in the field of furnished apartments for short-term rentals. Expensive, but discreet and convenient. The city was always full of diplomats and experts who were there for conferences and seminars and debates that were part of the extensive and intensive activities of the Union’s institutions. Ya’ara had even casually said, despite not being asked anything, that she and her group would be in the city for several weeks in the framework of a project dealing with European legislation on the environment. The girl at the real estate agency simply nodded her head politely and disinterestedly. The only thing that interested her was the credit card.
- • •
The court building overlooked the square. Its golden dome shone in the winter sunlight that was coming through a rip in the clouds. It was an immense and grandiose structure built of stone and marble when Belgium was still a small colonial empire, committing and concealing its crimes far from home, in the Congo. The building was surrounded in part by scaffolding, an integral feature of a round of renovation and maintenance work that appeared to be going on forever. Ya’ara and Assaf scanned the area around them in frustration. They weren’t able to spot any tall building within reasonable range from which the inner courtyard would be visible.
“If you were thinking of a sniper operation,” Assaf said, “I wouldn’t bet on a distance of more than four hundred meters. And I can’t see a single vantage point that comes even close to that range. We’re going to need a helicopter.”
“A helicopter is a little over the top,” Ya’ara responded. “But what about a small model aircraft that can be remotely controlled?”
Assaf pondered Ya’ara’s idea, while she let out a deep sigh of frustration. The idea, in theory, was a good one. It was her job, however, to explain to Assaf that they were reaching way too high. Yes, in Holly-
wood movies, multirotor drones that could stay in the air for hours instead of minutes were already operational, and served terrorists of all kinds. But the basic notion, in fact, requires development and training and, above all, absolute precision. It isn’t something that can be put together in an instant without prior know-how, without a laboratory that could develop its own product, or, at the very least, could take a commercial product and adapt it for the purpose of carrying out an operational mission. It couldn’t be done without achieving absolute control over the aerial vehicle, without intense training, mishaps, minor accidents, more training, more mishaps, tests, proof of feasibility, proof of durability—they were all essential elements. You wanted a small unit that would be starting from scratch, she told herself. This is the cost.
“We need to recruit a Q,” she said. “We need a genius—male or female. A super-nerd with outlandish ideas and magical hands.”
“First, finish with us, your cadets. And then we’ll set up the tech division.”
“Truth is I have someone in mind. The connection is a little tenuous—a friend of the brother of a girl who was on the team with me last year. Dima. He did a little work for us back then, too. Without being aware of its true purpose. We didn’t tell him then that he was aiding the forces of darkness. I have a feeling he’d be an excellent candidate.” And he’s the only candidate I have, she thought. Nufar’s skills were impressive, but Dima, as she had learned on a previous occasion, was truly the computer whisperer, and his abilities spilled over into other fields of technology, too. After deciding to contact him, she knew she had deleted one task from the long list that awaited her after the current operation.
They continued to walk around the court building, like two tourists, in the hope that the site itself would spark some kind of idea.
“How are things going for you, up to this point?” Ya’ara asked.
“The course? It feels like I’m on a rollercoaster. Yes. The world you’ve shown us is amazing. Amazing and very cold,” Assaf responded, frozen drops of rain pricking into the back of his neck. The sun that had appeared earlier was just an illusion, and all trace of it was gone. Ya’ara wondered nevertheless if Assaf was talking only about physical cold.
“What about home?”
“Are you coping with the longing, the distance?”
“Look, this is a training period. I hope things will be a little more flexible in the future. That we won’t have to be away for so long. Tali and I have agreed to give it a chance, to take a deep breath. It’s working for now. I miss my children more than I thought possible, but when we were on that break just now, I couldn’t wait to get back to Europe. I couldn’t believe it, but I wanted to get back to what we had in Bremen.”
“Yes, I felt the same. I started to lose my mind after four days. Come now, let’s focus. We need to find another way. And when you have eliminated the impossible . . .”
“I know,” Assaf interrupted, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I love Sherlock Holmes,” he added, almost apologetically.
“Nice,” Ya’ara said. “But books are one thing and reality is another, and right now I can’t see a way of taking him out from afar. Not in the framework of the timetable we’ve set ourselves. I can’t afford to allow the operation to continue for an entire year. Our unit is supposed to function differently. To generate a series of incidents and continuity. And that you can’t achieve with operations that go on forever.”
Assaf nodded. They were walking down streets of gray, a cold, pestering rain coming down on them. Ya’ara tightened her coat around her body and her mind conjured up the image of a drone, a miniature flying saucer of sorts, like something out of a sci-fi movie from the 1960s or ’70s, relaying all she could see in real time, armed with a tiny explosive charge, hovering almost soundlessly at a height of a few dozen meters, diving down rapidly onto its target.
It’s not such an absurd idea, she thought. We’ll set up a small tech unit. I’m sure that the PM will give us go-ahead to do it, and it’ll be easy to recruit the personnel. They continued to make their way through the winding streets toward the Grand Place, Assaf walking beside her, watching her think. Intently watching her think.