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9-11 MASTERMIND NABBED!

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THE CAPTURE OF AN AL QAEDA CHIEF

B Company of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the storied 82nd Airborne Division participated in a secret combat parachute jump in south Afghanistan near the Pakistan and Iran borders on 25 February, 2003—a successful mission that went unreported at the time.

 

B Company paratroopers and Army Rangers secured a riverbed in Jawsani that was used as a drop zone and later as a landing zone for the C-130 that whisked away the Navy SEALs and their captive: Khalid

Sheikh Mohammed, the senior al Qaeda operative who masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The SEALs grabbed Mohammed in Pakistan and transported him to a hasty LZ in Afghanistan. He also had drawn

up plans to kill the Pope in 1995 and had participated in a series of bombings worldwide against allies of

the U.S. as well as forming and training terrorists groups, including Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

 

While Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture generated worldwide headlines, the exact details of the successful removal of the high-value al Qaeda terrorist from southwest Asia remained top secret, with no formal publicity on the paratroopers’ and Navy SEALs’ involvement. In March 2003, when Time magazine revealed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had provided numerous, invaluable intelligence links and information for the CIA following interrogation by U.S. operatives, the role of the paratroopers and SEALs remained secret.

 

PREPARING FOR A SECRET OP

Two weeks prior to the combat jump, paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion of the 504th were performing perimeter security at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno when the word came down to the men of B

Company: 70 troopers in B Company were to get their gear together for a flight to Bagram Air Base for mission prep and pre-mission training. Those paratroopers went from the mundane world of guard duty into isolation in preparation for a secret operation.

 

The 3rd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Richard D. Clarke, told the men that only 70 of them were going, and that he and the sergeant major would remain in base camp because he didn’t want to take the place of a grenadier or a rifleman in the company. He also told the paratroopers that they would go down in military history for participating in a combat jump and that there was no greater honor for a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division.

 

WELCOME TO THE WAREHOUSE

When the troopers landed in Bagram, they were placed in a large warehouse. In a short while, they met members of the 82nd’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, most of whom were curious as to why the

504th was on their base. In turn, the men of the 504th also wondered why only B Company had been shipped to Bagram.

 

The answers came quickly the next day for B Company. Senior commanders detailed the mission: Navy

SEALs were going to bring a high-value terrorist out of Pakistan into Afghanistan, where he would be extracted.

 

The 82nd paratroopers were going to secure the southern perimeter of the landing zone; the Rangers

of 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment would secure the northern perimeter.

 

A key element in this mission plan was the SEALs’ determination if the riverbed in Jawsani was firm enough to handle a C-130 landing. Apparently the SEALs had been operating in the AO for some time. The mission was on hold until that final determination was reached.

 

FIRST JUMP SINCE WWII

Of historic note for the 82nd paratroopers was the fact that this mission would be the first combat jump

for the 3rd Battalion of the 504th since Operation Market Garden—the largest airborne drop in military history when three Allied divisions jumped into the Netherlands on 17 September, 1944, on the ill-fated mission documented in the book and movie: A Bridge Too Far. (The 1st and 2nd Battalions jumped into Panama in 1989, but the 3rd did not.)

 

Meanwhile, B Company went into full mission preparation after the troopers received their company, platoon and squad pre-mission briefings. Sand tables were erected and walkthroughs and practice reaction drills were conducted. Maps were reviewed, communications gear was inspected and potential escape and evasion and rallying points were established.

 

The men were told repeatedly that the mission was secret. They were ordered to speak to no one about it. If any paratrooper called home using a base phone, their squad leader was present for the entire conversation to ensure that no word was mentioned about the mission. There were no cell phones on base for their use.

 

OPERATION NOBLE VENTURE

Throughout the early days of preparation, the young paratroopers remained skeptical about participating in a combat jump. However, much of that skepticism evaporated when a container, express (CONEX) arrived outside the warehouse where B Company was billeted.

 

Since the mission was secret, paratroopers had to hold up poncho liners to cover the small open space between the warehouse front door and the container, to prevent anyone from observing the parachutes being unloaded into the warehouse. The squads now began to practice their parachute landing falls, went

to the gym for physical training and, if time permitted, played ping-pong with Thai soldiers. They also reviewed intelligence reports that warned of potential combatants in that tri-border area: Taliban terrorists, armed Iranian Border Patrolmen, troops loyal to warlord Gen. Mohammad, and armed drug lords.

 

Then the word came down to the troopers: The SEALs reported that the Jawsani riverbed could handle a C-130 landing. The mission, “Operation Noble Venture,” was a go.

 

The mission was simple: secure the riverbed—code-named Kisling–Frampton Drop Zone after two Rangers killed earlier in Operation Enduring Freedom; maintain area security with patrols, observation and listening posts; and prevent any hostile forces from interfering with the SEALs’ extraction of the high-value target.

 

The parachutes were distributed on February 25. The Ranger battalion chaplain prayed with the men and told the paratroopers the same thing that he said he told his wife before he left for Afghanistan: “Keep your feet and knees together and you’ll be okay on the drop zone.” The 82nd Division chaplain handed out medals of St. Michael (the patron saint of the paratroopers). During mid-afternoon, the heavily laden paratroopers were loaded aboard C-130s.

 

SHOW TIME

“This was show time,” said Dwayne McKnight, a team leader at that time in B Company’s 3rd Platoon.

 

“This wasn’t Ft. Bragg drills anymore. Now everything was heavier than at Bragg. We had grenades, claymores, and extra rounds.

 

“Frankly, I thought we’d never make a combat jump, even as we waddled aboard the plane for our two-hour ride south to the AO [area of operations].”

 

STAND UP! HOOK UP! ALL FALL DOWN!

McKnight’s doubts remained even when the jumpmaster gave the paratroopers the 20-minute warning and then the 10-minute warning, and when jumpmaster Sergeant First Class John Setzer ordered the paratroopers to:

 

“Stand Up!”

 

“Hook Up!”

 

“Check equipment!”

 

Simultaneously, Air Force crewmembers opened the side doors to reveal the setting sun and dust that blew into the C-130. “We knew we were low when that dust blew into the plane,” McKnight said.

 

What the paratroopers didn’t know was about to literally upset their world: Iranian air defense radar and targeting electronics locked onto the C-130.Without any apparent warning to the paratroopers, the C-130 suddenly began taking evasive action and dispensing flares that are fired from the plane. Those flares are designed to attract enemy heat-seeking missiles, thus drawing them away from the aircraft.

 

While the Air Force crewmembers reacted to the warnings from their integrated defensive avionics systems, some of the standing, heavily laden paratroopers were literally flipped in mid air. Most were knocked off their feet.

 

“I saw the orange flares and assumed they were taking evasive actions to avoid getting shot down,” McKnight told Soldier of Fortune. “I really thought we were going to get shot down. There was yelling and screaming inside the plane. All we wanted to do was to get out of that damned plane…pronto!”

 

As the paratroopers regained their footing, PFC Richard Browning’s reserve parachute deployed inside the aircraft. It was heading toward the open door, when McKnight and Private Owen Brink stepped on it and began wrapping it, before giving it to a safety officer. The safety officer quickly disconnected Browning’s reserve parachute and hooked on a new one.

 

Setzer yelled to the paratroopers, “We don’t know what’s going on out there, but have a safe jump.”

 

GREEN LIGHT OVER AFGHANISTAN

When the green light went on, the paratroopers did the airborne shuffle to the door and jumped into  dusk’s light over southern Afghanistan.

 

Many of the paratroopers believed that they were 500 feet or less above the desert when they exited the aircraft.

 

“I said, ‘Oh, my God!’” McKnight recalled. “We were so close to the ground. You could see everything.”

 

For the young paratroopers, there wasn’t much hang time under the silk. The T-10C parachutes fully deployed; the paratroopers checked their silk, dropped their heavy equipment bags, and quickly prepared to land in the Jawsani riverbed south of Chahar Borjak, in Nimruz Province, deep in enemy territory.

 

Because it was a classified mission, the paratroopers had to collect their parachutes before heading to their assembly areas.

 

The B Company paratroopers quickly secured the southern side of the riverbed: 3rd Platoon secured the southwest sector, code-named Bull, and 2nd Platoon nailed down the southeast sector, code-named Bear. They established listening and observation posts and began initial area security patrols.

 

North of the Jawsani riverbed, Rangers from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion were picking up their chutes and securing the northern perimeter of the target. As darkness fell, the paratroopers heard a C-130 approaching the riverbed. It landed safely in a cloud of dust and sand.

 

A DUNE BUGGY FROM NOWHERE

“Then, this dune buggy appeared out of nowhere,” McKnight said. “They had this fat guy in the back, hog-tied and blind-folded. The fat bastard was bouncing around in the back seat as the SEALs drove toward the C-130.”

 

The Air Force lowered the back ramp of the C-130 and the dune buggy drove up it and into the Hercules transport. As the ramp was being raised, the C-130 turned around and began its takeoff roll. Within minutes, the C-130, the SEALs from SEAL Team Six, and the high-value target, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, exited the AO without further incident.

 

“Bam,” said McKnight, “just like that, mission accomplished. The SEALs got the high-value terrorist out of the AO. That was cool. At first, it happened so fast, we almost didn’t realize what had happened.”

 

A COLD, HARD NIGHT

However, for the B Company paratroopers and Rangers, a long, cold night began. There was no sleep that night during the patrols. C-130s arrived the following day and successfully removed all airborne troops from the AO.

 

The B Company paratroopers returned to Bagram, which is 27 miles north of Kabul, where many other curious paratroopers greeted them.

 

However, B Company couldn’t say a word to anyone about the successful Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mission.

 

A month later, on 26 March, 2003, the 82nd Division paratroopers quietly watched CNN as it broadcast—complete with cameramen inside the airplane—the highly publicized jump of the 173rd Airborne Brigade into the Bashur drop zone that opened a northern front in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom—a drop zone that was secured before the 173rd troopers hit the silk. [The 173rd Airborne Brigade made a similar secured-LZ “combat jump” into Tay Ninh Province in Vietnam in February 1967 – ed.]

 

B Company remained reticent.

 

COMBAT JUMPWINGS AWARDED

On 22August, 2003, B Company of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment left Afghanistan to return to the 82ndAirborne Division’s home base at Ft. Bragg. All of the paratroopers were still prohibited from talking about any aspect of their classified mission. The young men returned to life on base, complete with inspections, parades and training.

 

Finally, on 6 February, 2004, the Army’s Human Resources Command issued orders awarding the Assault Landing Credit to B Company and the two companies of Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment for “participation in a parachute assault landing into enemy controlled territory on 25 February, 2003 in Chahar Borjak, Nimruz Province,Afghanistan.”

 

Company B of the 504th paratroopers received their combat jump wings at a formal ceremony during All American Week at Ft. Bragg in May 2004, after a full division review. Their orders were actually issued on March 18, while many of the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers from B Company were deployed in Iraq.

 

Those written orders authorized those 70 paratroopers to wear a Parachutist Badge with one Bronze Service Star for that combat parachute jump.

 

By that time, the high-value terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had told U.S. interrogators the names and information of about a dozen key al Qaeda operatives who were suspected of conspiring to conduct new acts of terror against the U.S. and other Western powers.

 

The paratroopers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment marched into airborne history. They were never told why the mission remained classified for so long; they just continued to fight terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Editor’s note: Oceanside, Ca. resident John Stryker Meyer served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group, detached to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, where he ran recon missions into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. He co-authored the recently released non-fiction book: On The Ground: The Secret War in Vietnam, available at:

http://sogchronicles.com/.