The Panther - Chapter One
A man wearing the white robes of a Bedouin, Bulus ibn al-Darwish by name, known also by his Al Qaeda nom de guerre as al-Numair–The Panther–stood to the side of the Belgian tour group.
The Belgians had arrived in a minibus from Sana’a, four men and five women, with their Yemeni driver, and their Yemeni tour guide, a man named Wasim al-Rahib. The driver had stayed in the air-conditioned minibus, out of the hot August sun.
The tour guide, Wasim, spoke no French, but his English was good, and one of the Belgians, Annette, a girl of about sixteen, also spoke English and was able to translate into French for her compatriots.
Wasim said to his group, “This is the famous Bar’an Temple, also known as Arsh Bilqis–the throne of the Queen of Sheba.”
Annette translated, and the tour group nodded and began taking pictures.
Al-Numair, The Panther, scanned the ruins of the temple complex–over an acre of brown sandstone walls, towering square columns, and open courtyards, baking in the desert sun. American and European archaeologists had spent many years and much money uncovering and restoring these pagan ruins–and then they had left because of tribal suspicion, and more recently Al Qaeda activity. Such a waste of time and money, thought The Panther. He looked forward to the day when the Western tourists stopped coming and this temple and the surrounding pagan ruins returned to the shifting desert sands.
The Panther looked beyond the temple complex at the sparse vegetation and the occasional date palm. In ancient times, he knew, it was much greener here, and more populous. Now the desert had arrived from the East–from the Hadhramawt, meaning the Place Where Death Comes.
Wasim al-Rahib glanced at the tall, bearded Bedouin and wondered why he had joined the Belgian tour group. Wasim had made his arrangements with the local tribal sheik, Musa, paying the man one hundred American dollars for the privilege of visiting this national historic site. Also, of course, the money bought peace; the promise that no Bedouin tribesmen would annoy, hinder, or in any way molest the tour group. So, Wasim wondered, why was this Bedouin here?
The Panther noticed that the tour guide was looking at him and he returned the stare until the guide turned back to his group.
There were no other tourists at the temple today; only one or two groups each week ventured out from the capital of Sana’a, two hundred kilometers to the west. The Panther remembered when these famous ruins attracted more Westerners, but unfortunately because of these recent reports of Al Qaeda activity in this province of Marib, many tourists stayed away. He smiled.
Also because of this situation, the Belgians had arrived with an armed escort of twenty men from the National Security Bureau, a para-military police force, whose job it was to protect tourists on the roads and at historic sites. The tourists paid for this service, which was money well spent, thought The Panther. But unfortunately for these Westerners, the policemen had also been paid to leave, which they were about to do.
Wasim continued his talk, “This temple is also known as the Moon Temple, and it was dedicated to the national god of the Sabaean state, who was called Almaqah.”
As the Belgian girl translated, Wasim glanced again at the bearded man in Bedouin robes who was standing too close to his tour group. He wanted to say something to the man, but he was uneasy about him, and instead he said to his group, “This was one thousand and five hundred years before the Prophet Mohammed enlightened the world and vanquished the pagans.”
The Panther, who also spoke English, nodded in approval at the guide’s last statement.
He studied the Belgian tourists. There were two couples in their later years who seemed to know one another, and who looked uncomfortable in the burning sun. There was also a man and a woman, perhaps in their early twenties, and The Panther saw they wore no wedding rings, though they were obviously together, sometimes holding hands. The remaining man and woman were also together as a couple, and the girl who was translating appeared to be their daughter or a relative. He noted, too, that the women had covered their hair with hijabs, a sign of respect for Islamic custom, but none of them had covered their faces as required. The guide should have insisted, but he was a servant of the non-believers.
They were all adventurous travelers, thought The Panther. Curious people, perhaps prosperous, enjoying their excursion from Sana’a, where, as he knew, they were guests of the Sheraton Hotel. Perhaps, though, this excursion was more difficult and adventurous than they had been told by the tour company. So now, he imagined, they might be thinking about their hotel comforts, and the hotel bar and dining room. He wondered, too, if a few of them were also thinking about security matters. That would be an appropriate thought.
Again Wasim stole a glance at the Bedouin, who had intruded even closer to his small tour group. The man, he thought, was not yet forty years of age, though the beard and the sun-browned skin made him appear older. Wasim also noticed now that the man was wearing the ceremonial jambiyah–the curved dagger of Yemen, worn by all males in the north of the country. The man’s shiwal, his head covering, was not elaborate nor was it embroidered with costly gold thread, so this was not an important man, not a tribal sheik or the chief of a clan. Perhaps, then, the Bedouin was there to ask for alms from the Westerners. Even though Wasim had paid Sheik Musa to keep the tribesmen at a distance, if this Bedouin asked for alms, Wasim would give him a few hundred rials and tell him to go in peace.
Wasim again addressed his group. “This temple is believed by some who practice the American Mormon faith to be the place to which the Mormon prophet called Lehi fled from Jerusalem in the sixth century before the Common Era. It was here, according to Mormon scholars, where Lehi buried the prophet Ishmael. And when this was done, Lehi built a great ship for himself and his family and sailed to America.”
Annette translated, and one of the male tourists asked a question, which the young girl translated into English for Wasim, who smiled and answered, “Yes, as you can see, there is no ocean here. But in ancient times, it is believed there was much water here–rivers, perhaps–from the Great Flood of Noah.”
The young woman translated, and the Belgians all nodded in understanding.
Wasim said, “Follow me, please.” He ascended fourteen stone steps and stood before six square columns, five of which rose twenty meters in height, while the sixth was broken in half. He waited for his group to join him, then said, “If you look there to the west, you will see the mountains where the local tribes believe the Ark of Noah came to rest.”
The tourists took pictures of the distant mountains and didn’t notice the bearded man climbing the steps toward them.
Wasim, however, did notice, and he said to the Bedouin in Arabic, “Please, sir, this is a private tour group.”
Al-Numair, The Panther, replied in Arabic, “But I wish to learn also.”
Wasim, keeping a respectful tone in his voice, replied to the Bedouin, “You speak no English or French, sir. What can you learn?”
The Panther replied in English, “I am a poor man, sir, who comes to entertain the tourists in my finest tribal robes.”
Wasim was taken aback by the man’s perfect English, then replied in Arabic, “Thank you, but Sheik Musa has assured me–”
“Please, sir,” said the Bedouin in English, “allow me to pose for photographs with your Western friends. One hundred rials for each photograph.”
Annette heard this and translated into French for her compatriots, who had seemed anxious about the exchange between the two Arabs. Hearing now what this was about, they all smiled and agreed that this would be a very good thing–an excellent souvenir photograph to take home.
Wasim acquiesced to his clients’ wishes and motioned to the Bedouin to proceed.
The Belgians began posing alongside the tall, bearded Bedouin, individually at first, then in small groups. The Bedouin smiled for each photograph, and he was very accommodating to the tourists as they asked him to move around the temple to set up various shots with the ruins in the background.
One of the older men asked him to draw his dagger, but the Bedouin explained almost apologetically that if the jambiyah is drawn, then it must be used. On hearing the translation of this from Annette, the older Belgian said to his compatriots, “Then we will not ask him to draw his dagger,” and they all laughed. But Wasim did not laugh.
Wasim glanced at his watch. Though they had left Sana’a at eight in the morning, the bus had not arrived at the nearby town of Marib until after noon. The tourists had lunched, too slowly he thought, at the Bilqis Hotel tourist restaurant, and there Wasim had to wait too long for Sheik Musa, who demanded two hundred American dollars, saying to Wasim, “The other tribes are making problems, and so I must pay them to allow you safe passage on your return to Sana’a.”
Wasim had heard this before, but he explained to the sheik, as he always did, “The tourists have already paid a fixed price to the travel company in Sana’a, and a price for the police escort. I can ask no more of them. And there is no profit for me if I give you more money.” But, as always, Wasim promised, “Next time.”
The sheik and the tour guide from Sana’a had agreed on the one hundred dollars, but Wasim had decided there would be no next time. The road from Sana’a to Marib was becoming unsafe, and it was not only the tribes who were restless, but also this new group, Al Qaeda, who had entered the area in the last year. They were mostly foreigners–Saudis, Kuwaitis, people from neighboring Oman, and also Iraqis who had fled the Americans in their homeland. These people, Wasim thought, would bring death and unhappiness to Yemen.
In fact, Sheik Musa had said to Wasim, “These Al Qaeda people are becoming a problem. They are attracted by the American oil wells and the American pipelines, and they gather like wolves waiting for a chance to strike.” The sheik had also told Wasim, “You cannot buy those people, my friend, and the police cannot protect you from them, but I can. Three hundred dollars.”
Again, Wasim had declined to make the extra payment, and Sheik Musa had shrugged and said, “Perhaps next time.”
“Yes, next time.” But Wasim was now sure there would be no next time.
Wasim al-Rahib, a university graduate with a degree in ancient history, could not find a job teaching, or a job anywhere, except with this tour company. It paid well enough, and the Western tourists were generous with their gratuities, but it was becoming dangerous work. And also dangerous for the tourists, though the tour company would not say that. All the guidebooks–written years ago–said, “You cannot leave Yemen without seeing the ruins of Marib.” Well, Wasim thought, they would have to see them without him.
Wasim watched the tourists, talking now to the Bedouin through the English translation of the young girl. The Bedouin seemed pleasant enough, but there was something unusual about him. He did not seem like a Bedouin. He was too at ease with these foreigners, and he spoke English. Very unusual, unless perhaps he worked for the Americans at the oil installation.
In any case, it was now past three in the afternoon, and they had not yet visited the Temple of the Sun. If they stayed here much longer, they would be traveling the last hour to Sana’a in darkness. And it was not good to be on the road after dark, even with the police escort, who themselves did not want to be on the road after dark.
Wasim spoke in English to the young woman, and to the Bedouin, “We must now leave. Thank you, sir, for your hospitality.”
But the Belgians wanted a photograph of the entire group together with the Bedouin, taken by Wasim. So Wasim, thinking about his gratuity, agreed, and took the photographs with four different cameras.
Wasim then said to the Belgian girl, “I think if you give this gentleman a thousand rials, he will be very happy.” He made sure she understood. “That will be about five euros. A very good day’s pay for this kind man.”
Annette collected the money and handed it to the Bedouin, then said to him, “Thank you, sir.”
The Bedouin took the money and replied, “You are very welcome.” He also said to the girl, “Please tell your compatriots that Bulus ibn al-Darwish wishes them a happy and safe visit to Yemen.”
Wasim was looking to the north where the minibus had parked on the road behind the army truck that carried the security police. The bus was still there, but the truck was not. In fact, Wasim could not see any of the National Security police in their distinctive blue camouflage uniforms.
Wasim made a call on his cell phone to the police commander, but there was no answer. Then he called the bus driver, Isa, who was also his wife’s cousin. But Isa did not answer his cell phone.
Wasim then looked at the Bedouin, who was looking at him, and Wasim understood what was happening. He took a deep breath to steady his voice and said to the Bedouin in Arabic, “Please, sir…” Wasim shook his head and said, “This is a very bad thing.”
The tall Bedouin replied, “You, Wasim al-Rahib, are a bad thing. You are a servant of the infidels, but you should be a servant of Allah.”
“I am truly his servant–”
“Quiet.” The Bedouin raised his right arm in a signal, then lowered it and looked at Wasim and at the Belgians, but said nothing.
The four men and five women were looking at their guide, waiting for him to explain what was happening. Clearly, something was wrong, though a few minutes earlier everyone had been smiling and posing for pictures.
Wasim avoided the worried stares of his group.
Annette said to Wasim in English, “What is wrong? Did we not give him enough?”
Wasim did not reply, so Annette said to the Bedouin in English, “Is there something wrong?”
Al-Numair, The Panther, replied to her, “You are what is wrong.”
The Belgians began asking Annette what had been said, but she didn’t reply.
Then one of the men in the group shouted, “Regardez!” and pointed.
In the temple courtyard below, where they had been standing, a group of about twelve men suddenly appeared from the dark recesses of the ruins, wearing Bedouin robes and carrying Kalashnikov rifles.
At first, all the tourists were silent, but then as the Bedouin began running up the stone steps, a woman screamed.
Then everything happened very quickly. Two of the Bedouin pointed their rifles at the Belgians while the others bound their hands behind their backs with tape.
Annette shouted to Wasim, “What is happening? Why are they doing this?”
Wasim, whose wrists were also bound, was at first afraid to speak, but then he found his voice and said, “It is a kidnapping. Do not be frightened. They kidnap for money. They will not harm us.”
And as Wasim said this, he hoped it was so. A tribal kidnapping of Westerners. It was a common thing–what was called a guest kidnapping–and they would spend a week, perhaps two, with a tribe until money was delivered. And then they would be released. These things usually ended well, he knew, and Westerners were rarely harmed, and never killed unless the army intervened and attempted to free those who were taken by the tribes.
Annette, though she was terrified, said to her compatriots, “It is a kidnapping. For ransom. Wasim says not to be–”
“Shut up,” said the tall Bedouin in English. He then said to Wasim in Arabic, “This is not a kidnapping.”
Wasim closed his eyes and began praying aloud.
Bulus ibn al-Darwish, The Panther, drew his curved dagger and moved behind Wasim. With one hand he pulled Wasim’s head back by his hair, and with his other hand he drew his curved dagger across Wasim’s throat, then shoved the man forward.
Wasim fell face first onto the stone floor of the Temple of the Moon and lay still as his blood flowed quickly and spread across the hot stones.
The Belgians stared in horror, then some of them began screaming and some began crying.
The armed men now forced all the Belgians to their knees, and The Panther moved first to Annette, coming around behind her, and said to her, “So you don’t have to watch the others die,” and with a quick motion he pulled her head back by her long hair and sliced open her throat with his curved dagger, then moved on to the others.
Some cried or begged for mercy, and some struggled, though it was futile, because the jihadists held them in a tight grip as The Panther cut their throats. A few accepted their fate quietly. Only one prayed, an elderly woman whom The Panther saved for last so she could finish her prayers. It was interesting, he thought, to see how people died.
In less than two minutes, it was over. All nine infidels and Wasim their servant lay on the floor of the temple, their life blood flowing freely onto the ancient stone.
Bulus ibn al-Darwish, al-Numair, The Panther, watched the infidels as, one by one, they went into a final death throe, then lay still.
One, however, the man who was the father of the young woman, suddenly stood, his wrists still bound behind his back, and began running down the stone steps. He quickly stumbled and fell face first onto the stone, then tumbled down the steep steps and came to rest at the bottom.
The Panther said to his jihadists, “I hope he was not injured.”
The men laughed.
The Panther stared at his jambiyah, red with blood, then slid it into its sheath.
He retrieved one of the tourists’ cameras and looked at the digital images on the small screen, which made him smile.
He called to one of his men, “Nabeel,” and handed him the camera to take pictures of the slaughter.
The Panther looked at the dead Europeans and said, “So, you came to Yemen for adventure and for knowledge. And you have found both. A great final adventure, and a great knowledge of this land. You have learned that in Yemen death comes.”