AN OTTOMAN CASTLE AND A SYRIAN SNIPER
Author Chris Osmand, is a former Marine and US Navy SEAL with multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Below is his description of the operations of SEAL sniper teams which were tasked to provide security during the Iraqi elections in 2005.
The town of Tall Afar lies west of Mosul. The area commanders of Tall Afar wanted the Navy SEALs from teams 5 and 8 to protect the voting booths for the upcoming Iraqi elections. The snipers had been so successful in Mosul that they hoped for a similar positive experience during one of the most important events in recent Iraqi history. Paul, one of my teammates, experienced the best two and a half weeks of his life in Tall Afar.
An American-held Iraqi hospital was one of the official voting stations. This particular area was a hotbed of insurgent activity and needed pacifying. The local commanders briefed the SEAL platoons on the insurgents’ training, tactics, and procedures. The SEALs, now well-versed in their sniping operations, again used Strykers for the bait-and-switch operations that had served them so well earlier in Mosul. The snipers also set up unique shooting sites specific to the areas they had to cover. The overall battle space commander of Tall Afar had a great deal of confidence in the snipers and not only permitted them the use of the expensive Strykers, but in effect allowed them to do whatever they needed to accomplish the mission. It was of the utmost urgency to allow Iraqis the ability to live freely and vote during the election.
In the early hours of the combat operations, Paul witnessed one of the greatest shots he had ever seen taken by a fellow SEAL sniper. The “bad guys” were scouting the areas near the sniper hide sites but could not pinpoint any American positions. Paul mentioned that these insurgents did not wear traditional local Arab clothes and signal intelligence (SIGINT) indicated an impending attack. The three SEAL sniper teams were carefully monitoring the main supply route/road (MSR) when they spotted a man wearing a jacket way down the MSR.
A GUST OF WIND AND AN AK
The SEALs knew from previous briefings that weapons were smuggled back and forth by individuals who hid them beneath their clothing. As luck had it, a wind picked up and revealed an AK underneath the man’s jacket. The engagement began when one SEAL sniper fired one round that struck the man in his leg, putting him down on the street.
After a couple of follow-up shots the man was dead. No doubt the insurgents now knew that American snipers were in town. This shooting incident triggered multiple well-coordinated engagements by the insurgents and Paul ranged his shooter at a target of 997 yards. Paul’s sniper lit off a round and hit the Iraqi center chest and “laid him out like a fish.”
The amazing thing was that the SEAL shooter had not attended sniper school. However, he was an Olympic-caliber match .22 shot, and he was probably the best shot from the West Coast teams. Part of the SEALs’ training also included an in-house, two-week, scout sniping program. SEAL Team-S conducted many such informal training courses in an effort to improve their tactics and procedures.
DEAD SEALS NOT GOOD FOR A SELF-SERVING C.O.
The multiple sniping engagements lasted for over two weeks until the election was finished. According to one SEAL, in Mosul and Tall Afar the SEALs had a 90–100 percent chance of contact when they left the gate. The four Purple Hearts earned by SEALs in this time proved how dangerous their work was. Finally, the commander of ST-3, Commander Riley, pulled them out because he was worried that dead SEALs would be bad for his record and promotion. Two American Army soldiers and three Iraqi soldiers had been killed near the old castle of Tall Afar.
One interesting point was that the insurgents soon realized the significance Americans placed on body counts, so they would do their best not to leave dead bodies in the streets. Many times women and children would appear and the body and gun, sometimes on a string, disappeared. If anyone picked up a gun the SEALs shot them. Some Iraqis picked up flat cardboard and built a box around the weapon, which they then surreptitiously carried. Some Iraqi women also cleaned the area as well and the snipers saw them carry new dirt to the battle area to cover bloodstains. The SEALs sent Strykers to take a look at those areas and, indeed, they often found bloodstains covered by new dirt. Other times some of those killed were not buried quickly. Those, the SEALs thought, were probably foreign fighters.
The Tall Afar castle provided a great sniping and counter-sniping position. It was so well situated that the SEALs were able to hit any insurgent relief forces that wanted to rush into the areas the SEALs were covering for the election. Local Iraqi police and several Strykers supported the position. By 0300 hours the SEALs had set up their fields of fire; the single best sniping positions were the lavatories used by the 82nd Airborne Division earlier in the war.
HE WHO HESITATES, DIES
On one day, Paul was bored and was throwing a turd at his buddy just as a coordinated attack was launched on the castle. More than a dozen mortar rounds, RPG rockets, small-arms fire, and carefully aimed sniper shots hit the castle. Coolly, the American snipers found their targets. Many insurgents were dressed in black with white headbands, making them easy to identity. Air assets tried to add to the insurgents’ death toll but some of the close air support (CAS) was just not precise enough. Nevertheless, the firefight lasted six hours. The SEAL snipers learned a lot from trying to hit men sprinting at full speed at a distance of 600 to 1,100 yds.
Paul estimated that the SEALs hit one out of every six runners. Any insurgent who hesitated usually got hit. “He who hesitates, dies.”
One particularly tough nut to crack was a well-disciplined sniper, who turned out to be Syrian; the SEALs counter-sniped with him repeatedly. Counter-sniping required patience, a keen eye, and luck. It took three days to kill the Syrian sniper and it happened just as the SEALs’ mission was about to end. The enemy sniper was so good that
a mannequin the SEALs used to draw fire had three head shots. The Syrian used an HK sniping rifle which the Americans ultimately recovered.
Paul compared the sniping experiences to the German and Soviet WWII snipers locked in mortal combat depicted in the film Enemy at the Gates. Paul tried to draw the Syrian’s fire but could not get him to expose himself for even a split second. He was professional and disciplined, and throughout the day small-arms fire was intermixed with sniper rounds. So it was tough to isolate the enemy sharpshooter.
BAD GUYS SNEAK THROUGH MEDIEVAL CATACOMBS
Beneath the city of Tall Afar is a network of medieval catacombs. Paul spotted children playing soccer, occasionally moving through the underground cave network. Finally, the SEALs figured out that the insurgents were using the network to maneuver unseen into better positions.
The Syrian must have had spotters. The SEAL snipers thought that there was one expert sniper with a support team composed of probably four to five men who helped spot and snipe as well. The Americans did have the advantage of superior technology. The Stryker had excellent optics to scan the areas, but the Syrian sniper was so good he shot out the optics. The SEALs knew he was close but could not get a precise location on him, only a general area.
The snipers put out flank security to seal off particular areas. SEALs used observation drills to locate the target. They scanned and shot anything suspicious, but nothing came of it and it was getting late in the day. Paul looked for an edge. The Stryker commander would not risk another expensive optical system, so Paul thought of using the Iraqi police as bait. He placed them on the top ring of the castle‘s battlements with orders for them just to shoot.
The day was ending. The mission had been a success. The Iraqis had voted, protected by a small but dedicated force of Americans. The SEALs started to wind down their operation. A few of their snipers were on the walls alongside the Iraqi police. Several men kept shooting, hoping to catch the Syrian sniper trying to get a hit. Maybe he would drop his cover, take a risk to get a kill.
Paul spotted an interpreter exposed at an archer window on the battlement. The SEAL told him to get away from the window, but shortly thereafter he got hit in the shoulder, the bullet striking an Iraqi police officer in the spine as well. The SEALs medically evacuated the wounded out of the castle. Finally, one SEAL sniper from ST-8, using the observation drills learned in sniper school, spotted the small movement of a brick at a house closest to the castle, followed by a shot.
THE SYRIAN SNIPER BEHIND THE FALSE WALL
As more shots rang out, some of the SEALs assaulted the building but could not find the exact location. Then they found the place. It was a small, false wall hidden inside the building. The spotter would pick out a target and the Syrian sniper would move the brick, fire his weapon, and place the brick back into its hole. Although there was no body, it seemed likely that one of the American snipers had hit the Syrian, because the SEALs who assaulted the house found brain and other cerebral matter. Additionally and more importantly, they found the sniper’s rifle in an alley as a car sped off.
The Tall Afar mission was a great success.
Osmand is the founder of Tactical Assault Gear, a multi-million-dollar manufacturing company that supplies tactical equipment to military and law-enforcement units worldwide. The above extract is taken from SEALs: The US Navy’s Elite Fighting Force, by Mir Bahmanyar with Chris Osman. Published by Osprey Publishing, 443 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, 256 pp. $29.95