The Unseen War in Ukraine

The hit, deep inside the Russian client state of Belarus, had required a tremendous amount of planning in a very short period of time. The target would be moving soon. Once the window had closed, no one knew when or where it would open again. The final go/no-go call was left to the team leader, Scot Harvath.

The opportunity was too juicy to pass up. Faisal Al-Masri was a big fish. Taking him off the board would have global repercussions. After reviewing all of the intel, Harvath had given the mission the green light. Al-Masri was one of the highest-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the head of Iran’s drone program.

The fact that the Israelis, who were exceedingly good at what they did, had tried and failed—not once, but twice—to take him out wasn’t lost on Harvath. The man was particularly smart when it came to his security. In other areas, however, he had been making nothing but bad decisions. In Iraq and Syria, under his orders, IRGC drones had been targeting Americans.

U.S. military members, diplomatic personnel, and civilian contractors had all come under attack. For that, Al-Masri had earned himself a VIP position on the CIA’s kill list. But his problems didn’t end there.

He and the IRGC had been selling their Shahed-136 drones to the Russians, who in turn had been using them against civilian sites and critical infrastructure across Ukraine.

With winter approaching, Russian President Fedor Peshkov had stepped up his attacks on hospitals, schools, power stations, water treatment facilities, bus stations, train stations, and rail lines. His goal was to terrorize and demoralize the people of Ukraine, making them as miserable as possible.

What he ended up doing, however, was pissing them off more. When Ukrainian Intelligence learned that Al-Masri and a team of ten drone instructors were headed to Belarus to train Russian forces, they passed that information on to the CIA.

Knowing that they would likely be blamed for anything that happened to Al-Masri and his team, the Ukrainians had only one request—that the strike be audacious. Harvath was happy to take it under advisement. America’s hit a few years back on the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, hadn’t exactly been low-key.

They’d used a Hellfire missile on his motorcade and splattered him across four Baghdad neighborhoods. As fitting as it would have been to also take Al-Masri via a drone-fired weapon, the United States didn’t have anything in the skies above Belarus. Harvath and his group were going to have to be more creative.

They were also going to have to assume a lot more risk. Al-Masri and the IRGC instructors were being protected by the Russian National Guard and officers from the Federal Security Service, also known as the FSB, successor to the KGB. In theory, they would be alert, disciplined, and well practiced in close protection.

But in reality, they were still Russians, which meant they were prone to being lazy, undisciplined, and assigned at the last minute to work they were unqualified for. President Peshkov placed little value on the lives of his citizens. He had been feeding his people nonstop into the wood chipper that was the war in Ukraine.

What kind of talent he had in reserve that he could assign to protect Al-Masri and his people was anyone’s guess. Not that the level of talent being fielded by the Russians would have any impact on his operation. He didn’t plan on getting in a gunfight. There were too many of them. Instead, he was going to take them in transit.

Because of the sensitivity of this operation, the CIA didn’t want any official fingerprints on it. They wanted the United States to maintain full deniability. That’s why it had been given to Harvath and his team at the Carlton Group—a private intelligence agency named after its founder, Reed Carlton.

A legendary maverick at the CIA, Carlton had come up with the vision for and had helped establish the Agency’s famed Counterterrorism Center. Unhappy with what he saw as the growing timidity of management, and choking to death on the bureaucracy and red tape, he decided to give retirement a whirl.

While Mrs. Carlton had enjoyed riding off into the sunset, being out of the game drove Mr. Carlton insane. America’s enemies were only growing more dangerous and more emboldened. Something needed to be done. And so he had done it. He started his own organization. With the rise of private military corporations, Carlton had seen the next wave of opportunity as the creation of private intelligence agencies.

He had made a big bet and it had paid off handsomely.

Despite his violent passing, the organization he had founded not only lived on but was thriving, accepting some of the most dangerous assignments the CIA and the White House could throw at it. At the center of it all was a highly skilled team of former spies and ex–Special Forces operatives.

Harvath, who had distinguished himself as a U.S. Navy SEAL before being brought to the White House to help bolster their counterterrorism expertise, eventually caught the attention of Carlton. The “Old Man,” as those who had known him best called him, had handpicked Harvath as his successor and had taught him everything he knew.

He had taken an apex predator and had made Harvath even more cunning, more deadly, and more resolved to take the fight to America’s enemies. In essence, Carlton had enhanced an already exceptionally lethal weapon only to realize that he couldn’t control it, at least not fully. When Alzheimer’s kicked in and his health began failing, he had asked Harvath to take over for him and run the organization.

To everyone’s surprise, including Carlton’s, Harvath had said no. He wanted to remain in the field, to keep hunting bad guys, and to make sure that America’s enemies had a constant reason to lose sleep at night. In short, he didn’t think anyone could do better at his job than him. To a certain degree, he was right. He had learned a lot of things over the years and had an impressive set of skills.

He was very good at what he did. He was also getting older. He was now working out twice as hard and taking a range of performance-enhancing drugs just to keep up. Bumps and bruises that he never used to feel often hurt like hell and were lingering much longer than they used to. Recovery time from serious injury was bordering on ridiculous.

The long and the short of it was that there was only so much more he could take. As his current superior, Gary Lawlor—the man who had been brought in to run the Carlton Group—was often heard to say, Harvath was a selfish prick who should have been spotting and developing the next generation of talent, not running around the globe kicking in doors and shooting bad guys in the face.

Harvath possessed a vast wealth of knowledge. To risk it by going downrange and constantly putting his life on the line was not only foolish, it also spoke to some sort of deep-seated issue that probably required professional help. Having heard it all countless times, Harvath let it roll off his back—though the “prick” comment stung, just a little bit, coming from Lawlor, whom Harvath had known for a very long time.

Gary’s choice of language notwithstanding, Scot wasn’t going to step off the field and hang up his cleats until he was good and ready. And right now, he wasn’t ready. Though he was beginning to think that he might be getting closer. For the moment, however, the only thing that mattered was the Al-Masri operation.

The plan was unconventional, right down to its codename, and that was exactly what he had loved about it. In an old thriller film called Ronin, a group of ex-spies and former Special Forces members are hired to conduct a dangerous assignment. Among them is a British man who lied about his background, claiming to have been with the SAS.

An American who used to work for the CIA—played by Robert De Niro—pushes the Brit on his tactically unsound plan for an ambush. When the Brit starts to stammer, De Niro presses harder, demanding, “What color is the boathouse at Hereford?”—a reference to the training facility for the SAS.

The imposter is unable to answer and exposes himself for the fraud that he is. The film was a favorite around the Carlton Group offices. So, when it was proposed that the team structure a similar ambush to what the phony SAS character had suggested, “Operation Boathouse” was born. But instead of placing shooters across the road from each other, they were going to use explosives.

The Iranians were training their would-be Russian drone pilot students at a village in Belarus called Mykulichi. Iranians being Iranians, however, they wanted to take full advantage of being away from the watchful, disapproving eyes of the mullahs back in Tehran.

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