Washington National Cathedral
Northwest Washington, D.C.
It was a perfect morning for jihad in America. Fawzia Samatar held her breath as she soaked her blue janitorial smock with turpentine. She worried the pungent fumes might cause her to faint inside the small closet. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she gulped in another breath. She wished they’d hurry.
Cans of paint and various flammable solvents used at the neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral were supposed to be locked in a maintenance room. But a careless painter had failed to put his supplies away one night and Fawzia had snatched the tin and hidden it in plain sight on the metal storage shelves in the janitorial closet where she now was waiting.
She’d been hiding there two hours. When a Secret Service agent had checked its doorknob and found it locked, he’d foolishly assumed it was empty.
No one at the cathedral suspected Fawzia was a jihadist. Why would they? From her first day at work four months ago, she had presented herself as a naïve twenty-four-year-old Somali American newly transported from Minneapolis. She’d urged everyone, especially the cathedral’s private security guards, to call her by her nickname, Cricket. Even the Episcopal priests had noticed her. She had a striking figure, stunning chocolate eyes, and full lips that caused men to think thoughts completely unsuitable to a church.
While speaking to a man, she would laugh flirtatiously and reach out to gently touch his arm. No one had a clue that she was married. She didn’t wear a ring and she’d never mentioned her husband, who was named Cumar, to anyone at work. He’d not liked her playacting, but both of them had understood it served a higher purpose. Today’s purpose.
She had reported to work before five a.m. to help clean for today’s funeral and had been met at an employee entrance by a U.S. Secret Service agent who’d demanded to see her photo ID. One of the church’s security guards assisting him had quickly vouched for her. “That’s Cricket. She’s okay. She works on the janitorial staff.”
Fawzia had faked bewilderment. “Did I do something wrong?”
“The president is attending Decker Lake’s funeral this morning," the security guard had volunteered.
“The president of the United States? Will I see him?”
“The president is a woman.”
“Oh,” Cricket had said, crinkling her nose and feigning embarrassment.
She’d walked through the metal detector without sounding an alarm. The only items in her handbag that might have aroused suspicion were an unopened pack of cigarettes and a cheap plastic lighter. Fawzia didn’t smoke.
Inside the janitorial closet, she stared at the cell phone that she’d been given. A text would be her signal to burst from the storeroom into the cross-shaped sanctuary. She wasn’t certain how much longer she could keep breathing the turpentine fumes before she would become physically ill.
Hurry! she thought.
Major Brooke Grant was late. It wasn’t her fault. At least that’s what she kept telling herself. She knew her uncle was going to be irritated at her tardiness.
A District of Columbia Department of Transportation road crew had chosen this morning to fill potholes on Wisconsin Avenue and Brooke had spent a frustrating sixty minutes bottle-necked in start-only-to-stop-again traffic. When she’d finally reached the National Cathedral, there was no parking. Brooke cursed and cruised through the surrounding neighborhoods until she found an open spot about a half mile walk from the U.S. government’s official “National House of Prayer."
Brooke blamed herself for not accepting her uncle’s offer of a ride earlier that morning. Like other high-ranking government officials, he had been chauffeured to the church’s front entrance.
Brooke lowered her head and quickened her pace when she spotted a gaggle of photographers standing outside the entrance. Having her photograph taken was the last thing that she wanted. But one of them recognized her as she darted up the cathedral’s front steps in her U.S. Marine Corps dress blues and she was welcomed by a chorus of electronic shutter snaps.
The cathedral’s head usher had been told to close the sanctuary’s doors five minutes before the funeral program was scheduled to begin. But when he noticed the blue card Brooke was holding, he waved her forward even though she was late. Blue cards had been sent only to the most elite guests. She entered the rear of the nave at the same moment President Sally Allworth was being escorted into the front of the sanctuary via the crossing, where the nave (the stem of the cross) and the north and south transepts (the bars of the cross) joined.
Because everyone had risen from his or her chair when the president appeared, Brooke was able to hurry up a side aisle and slip into her seat without drawing attention. Her uncle, General Frank Grant, who was assigned the chair next to hers, was not amused. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not acknowledge his niece. Instead, the sixty-three-year-old general’s steel-gray eyes remained fixed forward. Lieutenant Colonel Gabe DeMoss, the general’s liaison to the National Security Council at the White House, was sitting on the opposite side of Grant. He nodded respectfully.
Brooke surveyed the other dignitaries seated around them and wasn’t surprised when she realized that she and her uncle were the only black faces in the first four rows of VIPs. Searching for other persons of color was an unconscious habit that she’d developed as a teenager whenever her uncle dragged her and her aunt Geraldine Grant to official functions. She was used to being a minority at these affairs.
From her seat at the end of row four, Brooke could see the back of President Allworth’s head. The commander in chief was seated directly in front of Decker Lake’s casket, which was copper colored and draped with an American flag.
Washington power broker Decker Lake had been responsible for President Allworth’s meteoric political career. She’d been unprepared for public service when her U.S. senator husband had dropped dead from a heart attack. Under Decker Lake’s tutelage, she’d claimed her husband’s Senate seat from Pennsylvania and become an ever better senator than he had been— and he had been damn good. Instantly liked by the media and public, which were always eager for a fresh political face, Sally Allworth had won a long-shot campaign for her party’s presidential nomination and had startled the pundits by winning in a razor-thin race. But her first term had been rocky and an international incident just a month before Election Day had sent her campaign for a second term into a tailspin. An offshoot of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Somalia called Al-Shabaab had overrun a newly opened U.S. embassy in Mogadishu and taken hostages. It appeared until the weekend before the election that her challenger, a Florida governor named Timothy Coldridge, would defeat her. An improbable rescue led by then Captain Brooke Grant in the Somali capital had rescued the hostages and given the president the last- minute boost that she had needed to be reelected.
Decker Lake, who’d always been fond of sports metaphors, had compared Brooke’s actions to a successful Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of a Super Bowl.
All of that had happened some four months ago. Colon cancer had claimed Lake six weeks after Allworth had been sworn in as president in late January. Now the president had come to National Cathedral to bid goodbye publicly to her beloved “Gray Cardinal.”
There had been whispers at Georgetown cocktail parties that Lake had not only had access to Allworth’s ear but also her bed. He’d done little to squelch those rumors because he realized the scandalous chatter buttressed his reputation as the city’s most influential power broker. The president’s decision to personally deliver Lake’s eulogy had rekindled the gossip, but those whispers had quickly been surpassed by speculation: Who would take Decker Lake’s place as a Washington power broker?
The turpentine soaking Fawzia’s clothing felt cold and slick on her skin. She poked through her cluttered handbag with her fingers until she found the plastic lighter that Cumar had purchased for her. She was growing more and more impatient waiting for the signal. She couldn’t help but fear the pain that she was about to inflict upon herself.
“Allahu Akbar,” she whispered. “Allahu Akbar.”
Allah would reward her. She tightened her grip on the lighter. She was ready. All she needed now was a text that would come from someone sitting in the sanctuary.
Brooke Grant guessed there were two thousand mourners in attendance. She knew that many of them had not been admirers of Decker Lake. Some would argue that Lake had more enemies than friends in Washington. It was part of being influential. They had not come to grieve but to make certain he was truly dead.
The jackal-like process of grabbing pieces of Lake’s lucrative lobbying empire had begun within seconds after news of his death had been tweeted. Along the K Street corridor, rival lobbyists had scheduled lunches and dinners to pimp themselves to Lake’s exhaustive and exclusive list of Wall Street firms and national associations. Lake had been too vain to groom a successor at his boutique lobbying firm, leaving it rudderless and unable to keep the sharks at bay.
The ripples caused by Lake’s demise extended beyond the lobbyists now trampling over each other to replace him. President Allworth had lost her political champion, and power vacuums in Washington never lasted.
This was how Washington bid farewell to one of its own: with pomp, sobriety, and a thinly veiled impatience, with all eyes cast on what was to come, who would matter, who would benefit, and who would lose.
The ceremony began with a seven-man honor guard marching up the nave hoisting the stars and stripes, the colors of the military’s five branches, and the state flag of Pennsylvania. Lake had served a stint as that state’s governor.
Next came a processional of white-robed standard bearers carrying two large white candles on either side of a tall gold cross. A scripture reading and a few brief remarks by the Episcopal vicar served as a warm-up before the president’s much anticipated eulogy.
President Allworth rose slowly from her seat in an elegant black Marchesa knee-length dress and sensible low-heeled black shoes that made a clicking sound as she walked across the marble floor to Decker Lake’s casket. She knelt, placed the palm of her right hand on the burnished copper, paused to say a prayer, and then stood.
The screen on Fawzia’s cell phone glowed in the dimly lighted janitorial closet. NOW. The signal!
“Allahu Akbar! ” she whispered as she unlocked the door, pushed it outward, and clicked the cigarette lighter.
President Allworth first heard a woman screaming. Turning her head away from Lake’s casket, she saw a burning figure running toward her. She stared at her assailant, seemingly frozen.
Brooke Grant lunged from her aisle seat, instinctively lowering her left shoulder. Fawzia had to pass by her. The twenty-nine-year-old Brooke hit the attacker one step before Fawzia reached the president.
The two women toppled onto the cathedral’s stone floor at the foot of Decker Lake’s coffin.
Fawzia’s turpentine-soaked smock adhered itself to Brooke’s blazer and white gloves. She felt the heat burning its way through her clothing. Brooke rolled from the still burning terrorist. Fawzia didn’t move. She was immobile in shock.
A fog of white powder from a handheld fire extinguisher blanketed Brooke.
“Are you okay?” she heard a man’s voice yell as she blinked furiously to clear the powder from her eyelids.
“Yes, yes,” she answered, coughing. “Just a bit singed.”
The thickness of her gloves and jacket had protected her from being seriously burned but her fingers tingled as if she had grabbed the handles of a scalding pot of water. She glanced up from the floor into the concerned faces of her uncle and Lieutenant Colonel Gabe DeMoss, who was perched above her with a fire extinguisher.
“Is the president safe?” she asked, shedding her gloves and blazer.
Secret Service agents had swarmed around President Sally Allworth within seconds after Brooke had tackled Fawzia. They had hustled her through a series of hallways to an exit. The president was now sequestered inside the presidential limousine protected by eight inches of armor plating.
“How’s the Marine?” President Allworth asked.
The head of her security detail, who was listening to reports through a flesh-colored earpiece, replied, “It was Major Brooke Grant who tackled the assailant. No serious burns for the major, but your attacker isn’t going to survive. We need to return to the White House.”
“What if they continue with Decker’s service?”
“They won’t. We’re going to keep everyone inside the cathedral until we exit the grounds, Madam President. We need to move you away from here.”
The Secret Service had sealed off the North Road that entered the National Cathedral grounds for a quick exit. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, two D.C. motorcycle police officers led the procession. They were followed by a D.C. squad car, a black Chevrolet SUV carrying Secret Service agents, the presidential limousine, and a secondary limousine that could be pressed into service if the first became inoperable. Behind the two armored limousines were five more jet-black SUVs and two large vans.
The presidential car exited the church grounds onto Woodley Road, where it turned left in the direction of Wisconsin Avenue N.W. It was moving at a fast clip, but when it reached the intersection, it slowed to make the left turn south. As the limousine was rounding the corner, a man standing on the sidewalk darted into the street and flung his body against the president’s car.
Cumar Samatar—Fawzia’s husband—detonated the suicide belt hidden under the bulky hooded sweatshirt that he was wearing. Tiny steel balls packed into it blew in all directions, peppering the limousine. The explosion knocked the 20,000-pound presidential limo sideways, but it did not cause it to overturn. The vehicle’s bodywork of hardened steel, aluminum, titanium, and ceramic fibers was specifically designed to stop projectiles. None penetrated the car’s back chamber, where President Allworth was now lying prone on the leather rear seat. Protected behind five inches of layered glass, the president’s driver continued speeding down the street away from the blast zone.
The backup presidential limo also was mobile, but the two SUVs following it were hit hard. Steel balls ripped into both like buckshot, killing the first SUV’s driver and his front seat passenger. That SUV careened out of control, jumped the curb on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, and smashed into a storefront. The driver of the second SUV swerved when the blast hit, turning his vehicle into a lane reserved for tour buses. It collided with a parked tour bus and burst into flames.'
Two police officers directing traffic in the intersection were killed instantly by the blast. Half of one officer’s torso was blown onto a nearby sidewalk. The other man’s face was shredded beyond recognition. More than a dozen onlookers were dead, others screamed in pain from their wounds.
Two hours after the joint attack, a video made by Fawzia and Cumar Samatar appeared on the Internet. The couple gleefully identified themselves as American-born jihadists who had sworn loyalty to the Islamic State. They challenged other American Muslims to martyr themselves and promised that their deaths were only the beginning of more slaughter.
Fawzia looked nothing like the meek, childlike, flirtatious cleaning woman whom her coworkers had addressed as Cricket. Wearing a black hijab, she yelled into the camera with hate-filled eyes: “We will kill you and your children! Death to America!”