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Tale follows kidnapping plot in African refugee camp

By Walt Braun

Afghanistan has been the setting for volumes or espionage fiction in recent years and small wonder.

It’s got terrorists, warlords, drug and arms dealers, corruption, countless hiding place and untold treachery. And for at least five years ending in May 2011, it was home to Osama bin Laden. He, of course, was killed by U.S. SEALs acting on information gleaned over several years by highly skilled intelligence agents.

In “The Night Ranger,” Alex Berenson takes readers to another volatile part of the world, the border area between Kenya and Somalia.

It’s an area with vast refugee camps, many of whose residents are Somalis and Ethiopians. Some of them are the victims of drought, other are victims of anarchy in Somalia and lawless bands of heavily armed militias.

Government is corrupt, what passes for law enforcement is ineffective, and tribesmen and militias, in groups large and small, take what they want, protect whom they please — often for a price — and fight with one another as well as with government forces for supremacy.

“The Night Ranger” involves the kidnapping and rescue attempt of four college-age Americans who had volunteered to help in a refugee camp operated by an international aid agency run by one of the Americans’ parents. John Wells, a semi-retired CIA operative, is called in because his son, who’s a good friend of some of the kidnapped Americans, pleads with him to.

Wells doesn’t know much about Africa but he’s resourceful enough to cope with just about any situation.

Something about the kidnapping — which occurred while the Americans were headed to an island off the coast of Kenya for some rest and relaxation — doesn’t add up. Kidnappings aren’t uncommon.

They can be mercenary as well as political acts. Often nobody gets hurt. But other times, there’s plenty of violence. In this instance things go from bad to worse when the original kidnappers — and one of the Americans — are killed and the other three hostages are kidnapped again.

Who has them now and what do they want?

If Shabbab, a Somali militia of Muslim radicals deemed terrorists by the U.S. government, has the hostages, they could be dead. Even the lawless bands that roam the area fear Shabbab’s wrath.

In fact, a smallish band of fighters has taken the hostages.

The band is known as the White Men because members wear white T-shirts and white bandanas. They’re led by Little Wizard, who’s tougher than his 18 to 20 years would suggest. He came by his name by surviving a gunshot that went through him without striking anything that would have cause it to be fatal.

His greatest concern these days is the Ditas, a larger, stronger group with less discipline, more weapons and greater thirst for blood.

He figures if he can get several million dollars for the American hostages, he and his White Men will be able to compete with and perhaps overcome the Ditas.

Between the militias, the terrain, the language barrier, Kenyan authorities and the growing interest of the U.S. government in the missing Americans, Wells has plenty of obstacles to overcome.

His adventure makes for entertaining reading. In “The Night Ranger,” Berenson has come up with another captivating tale.

Berenson’s previous novels include “The Faithful Spy,” which won the Edgar Award and was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial editor and a Manhattan resident.

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