- - Thursday, May 30, 2019

ROGUE STRIKE

By David Ricciardi

Berkley, $27, 416 pages

This tale from thriller writer David Ricciardi takes place in Zinjibar, Yemen. The main character, Jake Keller, is there on his first mission with the CIA’s elite Special Activities Center working alongside senior officer Curt Roach.

The two young Americans are tracking a notorious Islamic terrorist who helped plan the 9/11 attacks and went on to become leader of the ultra-violent al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). For nearly 20 years the terrorist has dodged America’s reach. But today Jake Keller and Curt Roach are in town making arrangements to dispatch the elusive evil-doer to a spot in Hell.



High overhead circling the small town are two unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), commonly called drones. Each drone holds a pair of air-to-ground missiles. The CIA operatives carry a device that can bounce a beam of invisible infrared light off a target capturing its coordinates to guide drone-based missiles down upon it.

Their terrorist target comes into view. Ready Wait It looks like some Yemeni military are close to him. U.S. rules of engagement prohibit risking the deaths of Yemeni government personnel.

Abort the mission? Just a minute. Almost missed this. It’s the way the Yemeni soldiers are conducting themselves. Where they’re focusing is more in line with what you’d expect of members of the terrorist’s entourage. No way they’re legitimate Yemeni government personnel. Nice try. Very clever. Great getups but the acting isn’t good enough to fool the two smart CIA operatives. No rules of engagement issue after all.

So the target is invisibly infrared painted. He’s now formally invited to a surprise visit from deadly Hellfire missiles.

Three two one huh?… control is lost. “What the hell just happened?” asks Jake Keller.

What just happened is that somehow the drones have been redirected. Next one of them appears over neighboring Saudi Arabia. Over Mecca.

It’s the last day of the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city. Mecca’s massive outdoor mosque Masjid al-Haram is packed with pilgrims completing a ritual for Allah to cleanse their sins.

From high above the U.S. drone unleashes its missiles. Damage to the massive mosque is enormous. A few thousand innocent Muslim pilgrims are virtually vaporized.

And it’s all caught on video. A dot in the grainy image looks like a bat-winged aircraft. It’s the silhouette of the drone which bears an uncanny resemblance to the silhouette of a B-52 bomber. Millions around the globe become convinced the very familiar U.S. bomber is what they see, and the video goes viral.

The world erupts in anger against the United States.

Thus opens “Rogue Strike,” this second exceptionally gripping novel from David Ricciardi whose “Warning Light” was one of last year’s best debut thrillers.

You have to hand it to Mr. Ricciardi. An enemy hijacking a U.S. drone and using it to simultaneously create a horrendous nightmare for America and a dream opportunity for our enemies is exceptionally imaginative — brilliant. How did such a story line occur to him?

“Remember back in 2011 when a U.S. drone went down inside Iran?” he asked me. “It got me thinking.”

Iran claimed it had forced it down. Easy to figure out what the Iranians would do with such found treasure — try to reverse engineer our drone technology, likely with Russia or China helping. President Obama waited a week and then ever so politely asked the Iranians to please return it to us. Many felt that dithering and then asking pretty-please wasn’t as wise as it would have been to order a precision missile strike to obliterate that drone shortly after it had gone.

“The Iranians later asserted they had been able to get our drone technology reverse engineered,” Mr. Ricciardi reminds me. “This led me to wonder what might happen if an enemy could hack into, hijack and redirect a weaponized U.S. drone. And imagining this led to ‘Rogue Strike’.”

This review focuses on the book’s spellbinding beginning to the near exclusion of the rest of the story for two good reasons. Doing so allows this reviewer to convey how much the author is able to mesmerize the reader right from the start. The thrill and suspense continue throughout, keeping the reader gripped and enthralled by the plot and its execution.

“Rogue Strike” has pretty much everything a thriller fan could hope for. You’ll find its cast of international villains — Iranian, Saudi Arabian, Chinese — intriguing and remorseless, and you’ll have a difficult time forgetting them and the things they do.

It’s a great read — well-plotted, plausible, riveting — a dazzling tale. The action is nonstop and the attacks that occur on U.S. soil will make readers pause, think and worry.

Thriller fans who have not yet discovered David Ricciardi are in for a wonderful new treat. This extraordinarily imaginative, very talented thriller writer is well on his way to becoming a giant in the field.

• Fred J. Eckert, President Ronald Reagan’s U.S. ambassador to Fiji and to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, is a former Republican congressman from New York.

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