The Language of Secrets: New Excerpt

The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan follows Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty as they investigate the murder of a friend who had been undercover in an Islamic terrorist cell that Rachel infiltrates herself to try and solve the case (Available February 2, 2016).

Detective Esa Khattak heads up Canada's Community Policing Section, which handles minority-sensitive cases across all levels of law enforcement. Khattak is still under scrutiny for his last case, so he's surprised when INSET, Canada's national security team, calls him in on another politically sensitive issue. For months, INSET has been investigating a local terrorist cell which is planning an attack on New Year's Day. INSET had an informant, Mohsin Dar, undercover inside the cell. But now, just weeks before the attack, Mohsin has been murdered at the group's training camp deep in the woods.

INSET wants Khattak to give the appearance of investigating Mohsin's death, and then to bury the lead. They can't risk exposing their operation, or Mohsin's role in it. But Khattak used to know Mohsin, and he knows he can't just let this murder slide. So Khattak sends his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, undercover into the unsuspecting mosque which houses the terrorist cell. As Rachel tentatively reaches out into the unfamiliar world of Islam, and begins developing relationships with the people of the mosque and the terrorist cell within it, the potential reasons for Mohsin's murder only seem to multiply, from the political and ideological to the intensely personal.


I came between a man and his thoughts,

like a breeze thrown over

the face of the moon.

The snatch of poetry caught at Mohsin’s thoughts, making a mockery of the thousands of burnt-out stars flung wide against the banner of the sky. Penniless stars, spending their dying light in hopes of winning accolades from poets who thought of nothing save the rumpus of love, except as a point of comparison.

The blue night of Cuba, stars in her hair—

Her eyes like stars, starry-eyed, in fact—

Bright star, glowing star, lost star, falling star, the countless congregation, the silver-washed dusk, the pinpricks of night—

Mohsin found the celestial images ridiculous.

Especially when his personal light had gone unheralded—how cavalier of the poets not to have spoken of Mohsin’s wife.

Sitara, he thought. This wasn’t how I expected to die.

*   *   *

Blood leaked from his stomach onto the snow, joined by a second flow from his right leg, a deep red oozing that made him wonder how long it would take for the stars to fade, and whether anyone would come in response to his calls.

But why would any of the others come now? Wouldn’t coming to Mohsin’s rescue endanger everything the others had worked toward, everything they had planned for—everything they were still planning now? To call the police or summon an ambulance, to do everything in their power to save his life, when they had retreated to the woods for secrecy and darkness—no, the others would make a calculation, the same one they had made many times before.

What was one life measured against the impact of the Nakba?

What was one forty-year-old shaheed, when they were prepared to sacrifice innocents to their cause?

The night was purple, the stars a blurry reminder of the difference between Mohsin and the others. The light against the darkness, and other such clichés.

Mohsin had been pretending all this time. Shaking things up to see how they fell out.

He’d yielded to one leash, then another, jerked this way and that, nobody aware of what he was really up to.

What had Mohsin been doing with these people, these jihadists in the woods, scrambling around under cover of darkness, pretending to hunt one another like snipers?

The real question was: what wasn’t he doing?

Even Sitara didn’t know the answer to that.

*   *   *

He’d tried to be careful, using details from his life to build a fragile trust that would widen his network of contacts. He’d thought he’d been successful. People had trusted him, relied upon him, accepted his decision-making. They’d traveled to the backcountry of Algonquin at his suggestion. The winter camp had been Mohsin’s idea. Or maybe Hassan had steered him in this direction, hunter rather than prey.

Don’t encourage them to do anything they wouldn’t choose to do on their own.

It was the mantra against entrapment, learned by rote at many after-hours meetings at hole-in-the-wall kebab shops, where the doogh was salty and the koobideh sublime.

He clarified his thoughts, the December chill scraping against his face. Not for the first time, he wished he’d opted for a fuller beard, with the signature of a mustache above it. But Sitara hadn’t wanted him to keep a beard at all.

He thought of his wife with regret, of the growing distance between them in the weeks before the camp. She had wanted to come with him. How badly she had wanted to come. And if he’d really been planning a camping trip, he would have welcomed her presence beside him.

But not this, not now. Now he could be grateful that she was far away and safe.

He’d spent the summers of his childhood canoeing through lake country. From Smoke Lake to Big Porcupine. From Rock Lake to the Two Rivers. Or farther west, where the sunsets at Galeairy soaked up the requisite redness of Group of Seven maples.

So he’d known the terrain. And he’d thought he could outmaneuver Hassan in his plans for the jihadist training camp. He knew the routes out of the park and over the water. Hassan Ashkouri didn’t.

Not the first thing he’d been wrong about, but probably the last.

And no one had warned him, not even Grace.

It was funny in a way, dying out here in this far-flung part of the forest, with the pines crackling under the weight of snow. The members of the camp had wanted to discuss remote detonation devices; they’d asked him to ferry weapons across the American border. Instead, Mohsin had rattled on about the geology of the park, the eskers and moraines of the Canadian Shield’s bedrock. The boys had tossed around words like “tundra” in response, and Mohsin had smiled into his beard, privately laughing at them all.

Jokers. Hustlers. Idiots. Fools.

But Mohsin was the biggest fool of all.

He hadn’t changed anything. The training would continue.

While he met his death on a drumlin at the edge of a meltwater channel. A glaciofluvial landform, the glacier long extinct. He rolled the words over his tongue.

The stars were going out.

The stars shut down the night and my hopes.

He couldn’t walk, couldn’t move, the blood dribbling from his body at its steady pace, gluey against his hand.

I have dipped my fingers in martyr’s blood. He said it to the sovereign sky, speaking to an audience of leaves.

Poetry—winding you up with its archive of questions, its vainglorious phrases.

And Mohsin loved a good, dirty limerick as much as any couplet of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the greatest contemporary poet of his homeland. A poet he knew well, a poet he understood.

His breathing began to slow.

It would have been better, maybe, to recite the kalima as preparation for his meeting with his Creator, whether it took place in the southern or northern regions of the afterlife. Either was certainly possible. But Mohsin had always been something of a renegade, choosing to stand by himself, undefended.

Are you a stone wall, bleak and undefended?

He wasn’t. He missed his friend, Esa Khattak.

And thought it sad that Esa didn’t know that Mohsin still thought of him as a friend. Everything Mohsin had done up to this point—hadn’t it been to reconnect with Esa, to prove they were more alike than his friend had come to believe? To win back Esa’s regard?

Maybe there was a way.

He fumbled through his inside pockets for his Swiss Army Knife. A little at a time, he moved his hand against the rough bark of the tree his body had come to rest against.

This wasn’t for Sitara.

There were other concerns apart from love.

And he couldn’t offer the same love again.


Esa Khattak was grateful for Martine Killiam’s call. She was a superintendent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and she had asked for a consultation in his capacity as head of the Community Policing Section, a request that was both courteous and unmistakably firm.

He was relieved to be getting her call, given the outcome of his last case. The hounds of the press were at bay for now, but the rumors of a pending inquiry were gaining traction. The conclusion of the investigation into Christopher Drayton’s death had sparked a national outcry, leading the Minister of Justice to issue a personal reprimand.

You’ve bungled this, Khattak. And you’ve taken Tom Paley down with you.

Khattak knocked on Martine Killiam’s door.

Tom Paley, the chief war crimes historian at the Department of Justice, had been a friend. When he’d passed away from a heart attack last month, his case file on Christopher Drayton had vanished.

And now the press was calling for Khattak’s head, accusing him of delay, denial, and too close an association with the Bosnian community. No one was happy with the outcome.

Esa thought of Tom, often. Of the care he’d taken to ensure that the truth about Drayton’s death would come to light. Tom couldn’t have foreseen that Esa would be left alone to face the glare of the national spotlight. And it occurred to Esa to wonder if Superintendent Killiam had been assigned the task of calling him to account.

At his knock, the superintendent rose from her desk to greet him. Her smile was tempered by the reticence of her manner as she shook Khattak’s hand. A woman in her late fifties with a strong, square face, Killiam had spent her life in the RCMP, forging a respectable path for herself through narcotics and organized crime. The second half of her career had focused on human resources, with a portfolio that encompassed thousands of employees. With Killiam’s appointment to the role of human resources officer, there had been a change in the wind for women who joined the Force. She’d originated a mentorship program that paired senior female officers with promising new candidates, alongside wider latitude and opportunities for promotion. But Killiam’s most telling achievement was her strictly enforced zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.

Khattak respected Killiam’s methodical approach to police work. It lacked imagination perhaps, but it could not be faulted on thoroughness. Behind the rimless glasses Killiam wore, he sensed she was making a similar evaluation of his background. And his current troubles with the Department of Justice.

“I asked you here because a man has been murdered in highly sensitive circumstances. I need your help as a liaison with INSET.”

Khattak glanced past the glass doors of Killiam’s office to a space beset with human traffic. A small team was shifting through a thoroughfare of computer terminals and whiteboards, listening to a technical consultant explain a new operating system. A second group was gathered around the coffee machine. A few heads had nodded at Khattak in recognition as he passed. He’d raised a gloved hand in response.

Martine Killiam had asked him to meet at the Toronto base of operations for INSET, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team. Khattak had once served as core personnel with INSET, before he’d been asked to head up CPS. Many of the men and women in the room were former colleagues.

“You’re working something big,” he said. “Is it terrorist activity? Cross-border?”

He’d noted the presence of officers from the Canada Border Services Agency.

“Sit down, won’t you? What you see out there—we’re at the tail end of an operation that’s been running for two years. We simply didn’t foresee this turn of events.”

“The murdered man was part of your operation? Is that where you need my assistance?”

If Killiam was asking for Khattak’s help despite what had happened with the Drayton investigation, the INSET operation would have to be at a critical point.

“I need you to investigate the murder. The victim’s father is well-known, both in the national media and in your community. He plans to use his platform to obtain justice for his son. If we don’t stop him, we’ll lose everything we’ve achieved to this point.” She rubbed her forehead, easing the deeply etched line between her brows. “It’s much worse than you can imagine. To be frank, you’re the only person I could think of who stands the slightest chance of shutting him down.”

“Who is he? Who are you talking about? What happened to his son?”

“His son infiltrated a terrorist group that runs a training camp in the woods. He was found at Algonquin Park. He’d been shot twice, and left to bleed to death.”

She surprised Khattak by reaching across the desk to take his hand.

“Esa,” she said. “I’m sorry. The man they killed is Mohsin Dar.”

*   *   *

He shrank away from the words, recoiled from her touch, flattening his hands against her desk.

“No,” he said. “No, it’s not Mohsin.”

Her face crinkled with a sympathy he couldn’t bear.

He made his own face a blank in response.

There was supposed to be time to work things out with Mohsin, to meet at the mosque again, to embrace like long-lost brothers, to admit they missed each other.

Instead of Mo pointing the finger when Esa had been recruited to INSET.

You’re making a mistake, brother. You can’t come back from this.

Think what it means for the community.

You think about it. Every mosque in the city will shut its doors to you. You’ll become a pariah, a resident spy. Is that what you want? To be the house Arab? To see your face in the papers as the inside man?

It’s not what you’re making it out to be.

You don’t spy on those you call your own, brother. You work with them, for them.

They’d had many similar conversations during the volatile period after the September 11 attacks.

With the obstinacy of a younger man still uneasy with his Pashtun roots, Esa had answered, You should be careful who you claim as your own.

The ummah, man, the ummah. We belong to it. You don’t remember the paper?

This had been Mohsin’s favorite refrain. He believed in the Islamic nation, a supranational community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.

For a brief time, Esa and Mohsin had been contributors to the newspaper at their university. Khattak’s inclination had been for poetry, Mohsin’s a highly emotional form of reportage. He’d taken the global Muslim community as his subject.

An article Mohsin had written to honor Afghan warriors in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal praised the simplicity of mujahideen worship, evoking the image of a solitary figure praying at the summit of a mountain fastness.

This was the weapon that won the war.

So Mohsin had believed.

The article had revealed a gaping ignorance of global politics. Of the future prospects of an illiterate society flush with weapons and drugs and rife with the divisions the Soviet occupation had suppressed, Mohsin had had little to say.

Khattak had found no fault with Mohsin’s critique of the Russian invasion, but he’d wondered at his friend’s refusal to see beyond that singular moment in history. Afghanistan’s tribal past, its uncertain future, with decades of war still to come. The oft-named graveyard of empires, with many of its dead yet to be counted.

Mohsin’s view of the world had been naive: friends versus enemies, ummah versus outsiders, the pain of the now measured against the sweet reward of the afterlife, though he’d never flung the word “infidel” as an accusation. When he looked for common ground, he usually found it. But as with other members of their community, Mohsin’s grievances had multiplied with time.

*   *   *

Khattak’s eyes searched Killiam’s face.

“He was an agent of the RCMP? When did that happen?”

And what did it mean that Mohsin had made such a choice when he’d broken with Esa for doing the same?

Killiam cleared her throat. “Mohsin came to us through the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. We developed him as an agent. I’m not at liberty to say for how long.”

“But this camp you mentioned in the woods—that was your operation?”

Martine regarded him gravely.

“The operation is not over, Esa. It’s moving to the tactical stage soon.” She passed him a folder across the desk. “We’ve penetrated two cells that are working together on a bomb plot. They’ve designated four targets.” She counted them off on her fingers. “Union Station, the CN Tower, Queen’s Park, the SkyDome. They’re calling their attack the ‘New Year Nakba.’”

Khattak’s head came up from his perusal of the file.

“Nakba” was a word freighted with history.

It was the Arabic word for “catastrophe.”

A catastrophe taken to heart by an undivided Muslim world—a match to light a tinderbox.

Yawm an-Nakba, the Day of Catastrophe, commemorated the day after Israel’s Independence Day. It linked the founding of the state of Israel to the loss of the Palestinian homeland, when 700,000 Palestinians had fled or been expelled during the 1948 war. Settlement construction, home demolitions, and state-sanctioned violence in the West Bank were only superseded by the desperate human rights crisis in Gaza. They kept the memory of Palestinian suffering fresh in the minds of the ummah.

The men behind the Nakba plot would have chosen the name for its symbolic value as a Lydian stone of defeat.

The mighty against the weak.

The occupier against the indigenous.

The colonizer against the lost and defenseless.

But was Palestine still a touchstone after so many years? After Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq?

Khattak closed the file with a snap. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the photographs of Mohsin. Just as he couldn’t bring himself to imagine that any of this was real.

“Is this serious, Superintendent? Are you telling me that Canadians are training at a camp in Algonquin, with the intention of carrying out a terrorist attack?” He pushed the folder back across the desk. “How are they coordinating it? Where are they getting the weapons? Is there any operational legitimacy to this?”

Killiam’s eyes narrowed at Khattak’s implication.

“We’ve put two years into this investigation, so you can trust that it’s not a hoax. These people may be amateurs, but they have know-how and materials, and they’ve coordinated a plan. We’ve been detailed and thorough. It’s just as well that you don’t know how thorough.”

The words gave Khattak pause. Killiam was hinting at the broad net cast by the AntiTerrorism Act, known at its controversial inception as Bill C-36. It wasn’t a subject he intended to debate with her. His reservations at the time of the introduction of the legislation had been noted in his personnel file. And he’d participated in debates about the recent, far more serious encroachment on civil liberties—the hammering home of Bill C-51, the new legislation with its unchecked surveillance powers and lack of civilian oversight.

He feared what they were becoming.

Killiam knew all this.

“And the takedown?” he asked.

Killiam’s eyes narrowed. “Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. That will be my call. What I need to know is whether you can handle Andy Dar, Mohsin’s father.”

Khattak spread his hands helplessly.

“Do they have the bombs?” he asked.

“If Mohsin hadn’t warned us in time, they’d have had everything they need to detonate four fertilizer bombs on location. We’ll be taking over the delivery, switching out the fertilizer with inert material. We’re in the setup phase of that operation now.”

Khattak didn’t ask for details about the plan. Martine Killiam was Officer in Charge of a critical national security operation. She wasn’t about to tell him anything that didn’t directly relate to Mohsin Dar’s murder. But he did worry that the takedown had yet to occur.

“You said you’ve run this operation for two years now. You don’t have to answer, but by that I presume you mean surveillance. Do your intercepts indicate premeditation? Had the group in the woods planned to kill Mohsin at the camp?”

“There’s no evidence that anyone in the group had uncovered Mohsin’s agenda.”

“What about the second cell you mentioned? Is it possible they know their communications are being monitored?”

“It’s quite clear that they don’t.”

“So the tactical strike is on schedule.”


“Then isn’t it possible that Mohsin was murdered for reasons unrelated to his work as an RCMP agent?”

Killiam gave him a quick nod. “That’s exactly the line I want you to pursue with Mohsin’s father. No one is to know anything about Mohsin’s work with us. Not his father, not his wife. You’re to treat this as a routine homicide investigation. You’ll work your way through a list of suspects without tipping either your hand or mine.”

“Do you know who these suspects are?”

“There were seven people at Algonquin with Mohsin. Two of them are women who may or may not have been involved in the activities of the cell. They may be hangers-on or partners; we can’t be certain. It would help if you tackle them first. Ask questions, dig around, but stay away from the camp itself. Don’t do anything that would compromise the operation.”

“I can’t work undercover,” he pointed out. “Not after the press coverage I’ve received.”

Martine Killiam shrugged. If she had bowed before the weight of ridicule directed at women when she was coming up in the Force, she’d still be deferring to men with half her abilities and none of her insight. She had very little patience for self-doubt. But given what she was asking of Esa, she seemed prepared to unbend a little.

She pushed the buff-colored folder back at Khattak. “You won’t be undercover. You’ll be there in your very well-known capacity as head of CPS, ‘transparently and fully representing the rights of minority communities.’”

She quoted the CPS mandate back at Khattak with a scorn he knew was not directed at his work, but at the political maneuvering behind it. She was well aware of the risks inherent in Khattak’s position. He would always be accused of failing some constituency or mandate—either the minority communities he’d been tasked to represent or the law he was meant to uphold. Only in rare cases would these objectives run together.

“I don’t know that my history with Mohsin will make any difference to his father.”

The words sounded strange on his tongue, as if he was distancing himself from his friend. Their lives had brushed up against each other without touching anything that truly mattered, at the end.

“I won’t apologize for saying this, Esa. Use whatever you can with Andy Dar. Make a religious appeal, make a personal appeal—try anything that might work. You know his radio program. We can’t have him using it to raise questions about the camp. His grandstanding could scuttle the entire operation. You have to be seen as committed to solving Mohsin’s murder.”

With a sense of genuine sadness, Khattak replied, “I am committed.”

Killiam looked at him for a moment, but she left the comment alone.

“If you find you’re not getting anywhere on the public front, send Rachel Getty in. You’ve been wise enough to keep her under wraps, but I’ve heard your partner is quite talented.”

Khattak smiled. “More than talented,” he said. “She’s been a tremendous asset to CPS, and to me.”

He watched Martine Killiam take note of this on a writing pad at her elbow.

“Then you’ve done well to protect her from the spotlight, which in turn serves my operation now. Get her in if you can, but no one—and I can’t emphasize this enough—breathes a word about Nakba.”

Khattak frowned. “Is there any chance the attack could succeed?”

She avoided a direct answer.

“I’ll leave the Outreach Coordinator to brief you on the details. You’ll work with her, and report to the Special Assistant, as I believe you’ve done in the past. Anything you find out, you convey to me through him.”

But Khattak didn’t know anyone with that rank in the RCMP.

“Inspector Ciprian Coale was promoted two years ago,” she told Khattak. “And you already know the Outreach Coordinator.”

Khattak turned around in his chair. Two people were waiting outside Killiam’s office, one with a nasty smile playing about his mouth. As their eyes met, Ciprian Coale sketched a salute, the gesture just short of offensive. A dark-haired woman in a navy-blue suit raised her hand to knock at Killiam’s door.

It was Laine Stoicheva, Khattak’s former partner.


Copyright © 2016 Ausma Zehanat Khan.

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Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law and is a former adjunct law professor. She was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. The Language of Secrets is her second novel.