This article is from the August 2011 issue of SOF. To read more like this, be sure to subscribe!
Article by Matthew Alexander
One Dead Monster, Another Rears His Ugly Head
Abu Musab al Zarqawi is one dead son of a bitch. The mastermind behind Iraq’s civil war is spread out at my feet, bloated and swaddled, a white sheet wrapped around his groin. The blood that he was so fond of spilling is smeared across his cheek, but even as the news spreads across the globe, the suicide bombings in Iraq continue. There is no time to rejoice as al Qaeda in Iraq has already announced a new leader—Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian—and their plan to renew the fight in the north is well underway. They have given up on Baghdad, which is now firmly in Shi’a hands. Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, wearing their landmark bright green headbands, flowed out of Sadr City and across Baghdad’s neighborhoods, ensuring that the capital stayed in the Shi’a win column.
Anbar Province may soon follow. Word on the street is that we are negotiating with the Sunni tribes. The marines have already struck deals with some influential sheikhs in Ramadi. Yusifiya, the farmland southwest of Baghdad and al Qaeda’s former safe haven, has been ravaged. Unknown to the leaders of the insurgency, my team of ’gators had a long talk with a twelve-year-old boy with a habit for braggadocio, who laid out their suicide bombing network across the province—their base for Baghdad operations.
The Most Wanted Terrorist on the Planet
For more than three years our elite task force chased Zarqawi, losing brave men in the pursuit. At the time of his death he was the most wanted terrorist on the planet, a higher priority than Osama bin Laden. For months the chase consumed every second of my life, yet I feel but half triumphant.
We gained valuable intelligence from raids conducted on the night of Zarqawi’s death and the intelligence
points to an ominous cloud on the horizon. The Jordanian preacher of hate left a final message to his subordinates in a letter found on a laptop in a Baghdad apartment. Al Qaeda has lost Baghdad and the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar Province are meeting with the Americans. Deals are in the making. Three prominent Sunni insurgent groups (Ansar al-Sunnah, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Islamic Army in Iraq) have already split from al Qaeda to form their own coalition. In essence, the western provinces of Iraq are lost.
In the past, al Qaeda proved to be a Hydra—the snake grew new heads as quickly as we chopped them off—but with the Sunnis abandoning al Qaeda’s foreign leadership, there is a brief opportunity for a devastating decapitation before they can regroup. Al Qaeda’s brutality, especially toward its own fighters, is returning to haunt it. Some of our best sources are former al Qaeda religious leaders who have rejected
their violent methods. Al Qaeda is an injured predator, hobbled and backed into a corner, but vicious.
Suicide bombings and beheadings are still daily occurrences.
Go North, Regroup, and Live to Fight Another Day
Zarqawi’s final order before his death is clear: Go north, regroup, and live to fight another day. Kirkuk,
Mesopotamia’s ancient Assyrian capital, will be al Qaeda’s last stand. The last of the insurgency’s butchers plan to cling to this final stronghold.
Rooting them out will be no less than diving into a hornets’ nest. I return to my sand-covered desk in the
’Gator Pit, our end-of-the-world office space, and pick up a report. We still have prisoners to interrogate and I have interrogators to advise and reports to review. As the senior interrogator for the task force, I’ve run a team of a dozen interrogators for the past two months.
We put together a string of successes and convinced a Zarqawi associate to sell him out. Along the way, we abandoned the old-school methods of interrogation (those developed at Guantanamo Bay and early on in Afghanistan) based on fear and control, and instead set a new path using techniques based on relationship building, cultural understanding, negotiation, and intellect. It’s been a stunning upset by my group of interrogators, and the evidence of the effectiveness of our new methods lay last night at my
I turn around and see Roger, the interrogation unit commander, addressing me from the doorway to his office. I shiver for a second at the thought that perhaps he has somehow discovered the end around I pulled on everyone by striking a secret deal with the detainee who gave us the path to Zarqawi—actions that I felt were necessary to circumvent the micromanagement of my interrogations team.
“Sir?” I answer.
“I need to talk to you in my office,” Roger says.
I drop the report in my hand and walk into Roger’s office. He closes the door behind me.
“Your request has been granted,” Roger says.
“To go north?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies. “You’re leaving tomorrow at seventeen hundred to join a raid team. Go home and pack your bags. Good luck, and try not to get blown up.”
He means that literally. I say thanks and make my way back to my desk. I clean up some reports, stroll the hallway between the plywood interrogation rooms one last time, checking to make sure they are clean for the incoming shift, and then make for my trailer. My day started at nine in the morning and it is now past midnight. It’s been nonstop like this since I arrived in Iraq over three months ago.
Heading North to Join a Raid Team
As I walk on the orange sand between the concrete Jersey barriers, I reflect upon the past three months. Everything I learned at the interrogation schoolhouse at Fort Huachuca has been turned on its head. Along with my team, I’ve sharpened my ability to evaluate detainees and polished the doppelganger
that I transform into every time I step onto the stage.
Now, I’m ready to take these skills north and apply them in a more challenging, and dangerous, environment. I’m going to join a raid team and conduct interrogations at the point of capture, attempting to find the next target as quickly as possible before the enemy can react. Interrogating in a prison is challenging and there is significant pressure to elicit information quickly, but the environment is mostly static.
The stakes are about to be raised. In my new role, I won’t have hours or days to get information—I’ll have
minutes. Last month we lost two soldiers to suicide bombers when they rushed into a house during a raid. An interrogator assigned to the team took shrapnel to the face. Replacing that interrogator was my good friend Mike, a former street cop and Cajun who, like me, is an Air Force criminal investigator turned interrogator charged with helping this elite task force. Tomorrow I’ll head north to join Mike and, together with two Iraqi interpreters, we will be the Mobile Interrogations Team. I’m about to fly right into the heart of the fight.
The last butchers of Iraq have regrouped and at their center is a man that, ironically, I was face-to-face with just weeks ago. He was one of our prisoners, before we let him go.
Just in Time for the Chase
9 June , 2009 The prop-job lands with a quick bounce on the runway in Kirkuk. We pull off the runway and stop at the edge of the tarmac. It’s darker than three feet up a bull’s ass. Next to the parking ramp an SUV is waiting with the lights off. I sling my rifle over my shoulder, grab my duffel bag, and exit the side door. The loadmaster bids me farewell with a short salute.
Mike exits the SUV’s driver seat and greets me with a firm handshake. He is muscular, mid-thirties, and his black hair is just beginning to pepper with gray. He was a street cop, a SWAT sniper, and an attorney before he turned to the Air Force to run criminal investigations, ultimately landing in Iraq as an interrogator, helping out the Army. The task force interrogators are a hodgepodge of active duty, former military, and ex-law enforcement types.
“Good to see you,” he says. “You’re just in time.”
“Just in time for what?” I ask.
“Just in time to go out on a mission. We leave in an hour. We have enough time to get back to our office, throw your bag down, and get your gear on. The rest I’ll explain on the way to the target.”
An hour later, the rear ramp door of the Stryker personnel carrier closes next to me and the armored vehicle accelerates. Mike sits across from me and gives me a smile.
“Welcome to Kirkuk,” he says, “where every day brings a new raid.”
I grin as the vehicle turns a corner. A minute later, as we pass through a heavily guarded gate, a crewmember up front turns and yells. “Lock and load!”
Mike and the two medics sitting next to us rack the slides on their M-4s and the snapping metal echoes through the cabin over the high-pitched whine of the vehicle’s engine. I rack the slide on my rifle. We’re outside the wire.
Biggie and Tiny, Walking, Talking Encyclopedias
It’s hot in the back of the Stryker, even with the fan turned on. Six of us are cramped into a sardine-can worth of space. There are two interrogators, two medics, and two Iraqi interpreters: Biggie and Tiny, Shi’a from the south of Iraq who emigrated years ago to the U.S. They’re more than interpreters; they’re also walking and talking cultural encyclopedias, but they come with a price tag. Word is that they make a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. Probably five times the salary of the Specialist sitting next to me.
As the Stryker hits a bump and turns, our rifles rattle and we bounce off one another.
“When we get to the target, just follow me,” Mike says. “Once the team clears the house, then they’ll call us in.”
It sounds easy enough. Mike hands me a small slip of paper. I examine it. It’s a two-inch by two-inch intelligence card. In the middle is the name of the man we’re looking for: Omar. Above his name is the next rung on the ladder: Abu Azir. I fold the piece of paper and place it in my pocket.
“One more thing,” he shouts. “When they call for air guards, open the hatch above your head, stand up through it, and scan for targets.”
The Stryker is new to the U.S. Army. It has a crew of three: a driver, a tank commander (called the TC),
and a gunner who operates a swivel-mounted .50 caliber machine gun on top. The TC often stands up through a hatch in the middle of the vehicle and directs the driver, guiding him around turns that he can’t see, and providing guidance to speed up or slow down in relation to our distance to the Stryker in front of us.
The Strykers have proven resistant to most roadside bombs and there’s been only one rumored casualty to date. That was a direct hit from underneath by an EFP—explosively formed projectile—the mother ship of roadside bombs that the Iranians have taught the insurgents to build.
Despite the Stryker’s impressive record, roadside bombs are always in the back of our minds.
Open Your Hatch!
The Stryker slows to a crawl and the TC turns and yells, “Air guards!”
Mike shouts to me, “That’s our call! Open your hatch!”
I stand up on the seat and push the thick, heavy hatch open. It lands with a thud on the roof of the vehicle. I flip down my night-vision monocle and as I poke my head out of the hatch, I am greeted by a rush of warm air, albeit twenty degrees cooler than the air below. I bring my rifle up through the hole, raise it to the ready position, and flick on the green infrared laser.
We’re strolling down a residential street of middle-class homes and I use my laser to illuminate windows
and roofs. The street is empty and quiet, except for a few barking dogs. The Stryker formation comes to a halt and I hear garbled radio chatter on the loudspeaker in the crew compartment below. For a minute I continue to scan the rooftops and then the TC calls, “’Gators!”
I follow Mike’s lead and drop down into the crew compartment as the rear ramp lowers. He exits first and I am followed by Biggie and Tiny. We trot down the paved street next to a stone wall and find the raid team kneeling beside a metal gate. Green lasers wave in all directions across the clear night sky. Just as we kneel down next to the wall, a whisper yell is shouted: “Clear!”
There’s an explosion, followed by the sound of metal falling onto stone. The soldiers along the wall stand and rush through the gate. The raid takes less than a minute and then the Alabama lieutenant in charge of the mission appears at the gate. He’s in his late twenties, but he has the slow and deliberate demeanor of an aged Southern gentlemen.
“’Gators,” he says, “we’re ready for you. Two adult males in the back room. Twin brothers.”
Mike and I follow him into the house, which consists of three rooms made of cinder-block walls and dirt floors. In the back room are two older men, identical twins, standing against a wall with their hands tied behind their backs.
“We’ve got these two guys here, and in the room next door are the women and children,” the lieutenant says.
Identical Twins, Except For…
The two men stand side by side, both dressed in filthy white dishdashas and barefoot. They are indeed identical. Both have big guts, large noses, and thick, gray mustaches. I can’t tell them apart until I approach and notice that one has a scar under his eye. He looks up at me, but his brother continues to stare at the floor.
“I’ll take this one into the front room,” I say and grab the one with the scar and lead him away by his
As Biggie follows me, Mike leans over and whispers in my ear, “We only have ten minutes.”
I put the scarred brother against a wall in the front room, hold my rifle at my side in one hand, and with the other I lean against the wall next to his head. Our faces are inches apart. Biggie closes in and together we form a box. I wipe at the sweat rolling down my forehead with the back of my hand and push my helmet back on my head. The scarred brother looks down at the ground.
“I want to make this very clear from the start,” I say. I’m whispering and Biggie whispers as he translates my words. “Do you understand?”
The scarred brother nods and shuffles on his feet. He stinks of body odor and the tiny details of the scar
on his face are clear. It’s thick and without stitch marks. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to ask you some questions and I want you to give me honest answers,” I say. “It’s too hot for me to stick around here asking things two or three times.”
“I don’t want you to worry about your family. We’re not going to hurt them.”
The scarred brother glances up at my face and then down again.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Omar,” he says.
“Good,” I say. “Who lives in this house?”
“I do,” Omar replies.
“What is your wife’s name?”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Three. Two boys and a girl.”
“Does anyone else live here?”
“Who’s the man in the other room?”
“What’s his name?”
“Does he stay here?”
“Is his family here?”
“No. He came alone.”
“When did he get here?”
“About one hour ago. He came to eat dinner.”
“Did anyone stay here last night?”
“Has anyone stayed here in the last week?”
“Do you have any other brothers?”
I ask additional questions about his family. I write down the names of his father, mother, uncles, and the names of two other distant relatives who live in Kirkuk. None of the names match the one on the intelligence sheet in my top pocket, but this man’s name is Omar, just as the intelligence indicated.
“What is your religion?”
“What is your job?”
“I drive a taxi.”
“How long have you driven a taxi?”
Omar shuffles on his feet and rolls his shoulders as best he can with his hands tied behind his back. A strange guttural sound comes from behind me and I step away from Omar, quickly turn, and raise my rifle. An old gray goat is tied up in a corner of the room that I didn’t notice on the way in. I look at Biggie and he raises his bushy eyebrows. A soldier who’s kneeling in the front doorway, scanning the street, has a laugh. I lower my rifle and return to Omar.
War Casualties: From the Classroom to the Streets
“What did you do before you drove a taxi?”
“I was a teacher.”
“What did you teach?”
“What grade did you teach?”
“I don’t understand,” Omar says.
Biggie translates again and Omar answers.
“Years five through ten,” Biggie informs me.
“What is your brother’s job?”
“He’s also a teacher.”
“What does he teach?”
“Does he still teach?”
“No, he doesn’t work now.”
“Why can’t he drive a taxi like you?”
“He doesn’t have a car.”
“Where is your car?” I ask.
“It’s getting fixed at the garage.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The transmission has a problem.”
Everyone is worried about car bombs, so this piques my interest. My questions involve a lot of detail, but it will eliminate his brother being able to match his responses with lucky guesses.
“Wait here,” I say and leave Omar with Biggie.
I enter the room just as Mike is finishing up; with a nod he follows me to a corner where we put our heads
“Any hits on the names?”
We compare our lists of relatives and they match. Neither has omitted a name, which would be a sign that something is amiss. All of our notes are identical.
“What do you think?” Mike asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “The intel sheet said that we would find an Omar and my guy’s name is Omar.”
Mission: Identifying Target on the Sheet
“Does he know this other target on the sheet, Abu Azir?”
“I haven’t asked him the name directly. I don’t want to give away who we’re looking for.”
The Alabama lieutenant approaches from outside.
“Got anything?” he asks. Mike and I trade looks.
“I have an Omar and that’s the target,” I say. “But we haven’t gotten anything about our next target, yet.”
“How long do you need? It’s fuckin’ hot,” the lieutenant says as he wipes at his square forehead.
“Give us five more minutes,” Mike says.
“Alright, five minutes, but let me know if you get anything before that.”
“Will do,” I say and the lieutenant walks outside.
Mike looks at me.
“Do you have any ideas?” I ask.
“Prisoner’s dilemma,” he replies.
Mike is reaching into his bag of old street-cop tricks. When you catch two suspects in a criminal act and separate them, they are at a disadvantage because they don’t know what the other is saying. One suspect has to trust the other not to talk or take a deal. It only takes the slightest bit of cooperation from one to make the other lose faith, and then the entire house of cards comes crashing down.
“How do you want to do it?” I ask.
“Let’s both say that the other brother claimed to have a relative named Abu Azir and see if either one
breaks,” Mike says.
“It’s a gamble,” I reply. “And we’ll be showing our cards by giving them the name of our target.”
“Yeah, but what the hell,” Mike says. “We have nothing else.”
When Empty Handed, Take a Risk
Mike is correct. It’s one of the most important lessons we’re learning about interrogations in Iraq: When you have nothing to go on, don’t be afraid to take a risk. You never know where it might lead.
“Five minutes?” Mike asks.
“Five minutes,” I reply.
Omar raises his head when I reenter the room. He shuffles on his feet and his dirty white dishdasha sways around his ankles. The goat snorts a greeting from the corner. I walk over to Omar and place my face close to his, our noses almost touching. His eyes grow wide.
“We have a problem,” I say with a hard stare.
He shuffles on his feet.
“You lied to me,” I say.
“I did not lie,” Omar replies.
“Really? Then why does your brother say that you have a relative named Abu Azir that lives near here that you never mentioned?”
Biggie raises his voice.
“I don’t know an Abu Azir,” Omar pleads.
“It’s a lie,” I say.
The scar below his eye twitches.
“I’m telling the truth!” he pleads.
“Your brother is smart enough not to lie, so why aren’t you smart enough not to lie?”
He shuffles on his feet.
“You’re both teachers. I don’t understand. Why is his memory better?”
No answer. I put my mouth to the side of his head right next to his ear and lower my voice to a whisper.
“Look, I don’t want to take you back to the prison. Who’s going to take care of your family while we get this sorted out? Huh?”
“I want to help you,” I say. “I didn’t come to Iraq to split up families. I’m not here for you. If I was here for you then I wouldn’t be asking you questions. You’d already be in my vehicle. I can leave you here, but you’ve got to tell me about Abu Azir.”
“I don’t know any Abu Azir.”
I turn my head to the side, close my eyes, and grind my teeth. I tap my fingers on the wall next to Omar’s head. The goat snorts as Mike enters the room behind me. “I’ve got it.”
I turn around.
“The brother is going to take us to Abu Azir’s house.”
Biggie raises his bushy eyebrows. I turn to Omar and he shuffles his feet.
“You’re coming with us,” I say.
NEXT: Don’t miss the conclusion of the exciting chase for the Butcher of Iraq.
This article is from the August 2011 issue of SOF. To read more like this, be sure to subscribe!