It was a macabre moment of triumph. At a closed compound within Balad Air Base in Iraq, behind Jersey barriers 30 feet high, the men and women of the interrogation mill crowded around a stark display: two freshly dead men, bare and supine on the floor.
"The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi" (July/August 2006)
How a video-store clerk and small-time crook reinvented himself as America's nemesis in Iraq. By Mary Anne Weaver
The audience members were expert interrogators, most of them young, some of them military, others civilian contract workers. They called themselves “gators,” and they were the intelligence arm of Task Force 145, the clandestine unit of Delta Force operators and Navy SEALs who hunt down America’s most-wanted terrorists. For years, their primary target had been Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of the grandly named Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the gloating, murderous author of assassinations, roadside bombings, and suicide attacks. Together, living and working inside this “Battlefield Interrogation Facility,” the gators had produced leads for the Task Force to chase. They had put in thousands of hours probing, threatening, flattering, browbeating, wheedling, conning, and questioning, doing what Major General William B. Caldwell IV, in his press conference the next day, would call “painstaking intelligence gathering from local sources and from within Zarqawi’s network.” It was, as Caldwell would put it, “the slow, deliberate exploitation of leads and opportunities, person to person,” all striving to answer just one critical question: Where is Zarqawi right now?
This day, June 7, 2006, had finally produced the answer.
And so here he was, stretched out on the floor, stiff, pale, gray, and swollen in death, his “spiritual adviser,” Sheikh al-Rahman, lying alongside him. The men had been killed, along with two women and two small children, when an American F-16 had steered first one and then another 500-pound bomb into the house they occupied in a palm grove in the village of Hibhib. Task Force operators had recovered the men’s bodies and carried them as trophies to Balad. Both now had swaths of white cloth draped across their midsections, but were otherwise naked. Zarqawi’s face—wide, round, and bearded, his big eyes closed, a smear of blood still lurid across his left cheek—was unmistakable from his frequent videotaped boasts and pronouncements. He had been more sought-after than Osama bin Laden, and in recent years was considered the greater threat.
No more. The mood was one of subdued celebration. President Bush would call that day to congratulate the Task Force’s boss, the Joint Special Operations Commander Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. For many, the satisfaction was tempered by photos of the dead children. They were hard to look at.
The unit’s female J2, or chief intelligence officer, embraced a young woman in a T-shirt and khaki cargo pants who was part of the two-person gator team that had produced what is known in the trade as “lethal information.”
“I am so glad I chose you for this,” she said.
McChrystal himself came by. A tall, slender, very soldierly-looking man, he was an Army briefer during the Persian Gulf War, but has been infrequently seen or photographed in recent years because of his clandestine post. He and his top commanders stared down at Zarqawi with evident satisfaction. Everyone leaned in to listen.
“Yep,” said one of the colonels, “that’s one dead son of a bitch.”
Early the next morning, the terrorist’s demise was revealed to the rest of the world at the Combined Press Information Center, in Baghdad.
“Today is a great day in Iraq,” said General Caldwell, the spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq. “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, no longer able to terrorize innocent Iraqi civilians … Today, Iraq takes a giant step forward—closer to peace within, closer to unity throughout, and closer to a world without terror.”
Perhaps. Like so much else about the Iraq War, it was a feel-good moment that amounted to little more than a bump on a road to further mayhem. Today, Iraq seems no closer to peace, unity, and a terror-free existence than it did last June. If anything, the brutal attacks on civilian targets that Zarqawi pioneered have worsened.
Still, the hit was without question a clear success in an effort that has produced few. Since so much of the “war on terror” consists of hunting down men like Zarqawi, the process is instructive. In the official version of how it happened, which is classified, the woman embraced by McChrystal’s J2, and her two male interrogation partners, received primary credit for the breakthrough. All three were duly decorated. But like the whole war in Iraq, the real story is more complicated, and more interesting.
The truth is known to those interrogators involved, to their immediate chain of command, to a military historian who interviewed the principals, and to a small circle of officials who have been briefed about it. There are detailed accounts of the interrogation sessions that describe the tactics and motivations of the gators. So there are those who know the story well who were not directly involved in it. In deference to the secret nature of the work, I have not used the real names of the interrogators involved, but the aliases they assumed in Iraq. Their story affords a unique glimpse of the kinds of people employed in this secret effort and how they work, and it limns the hidden culture of interrogation that has grown up in the last six years.
Most of the gators directly involved in this breakthrough were recruited in 2005. They were young men and women who had accumulated valuable experience conducting hostile interrogation. Some were on active duty, a good number from military-police units. Some were veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, where they had so distinguished themselves that the Special Operations Command had sought them out. Some were working for private contractors such as L-3 Communications; some were civilian employees of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Some had experience in civilian law enforcement or criminal law, and had volunteered to do such work for the military. Some were lawyers. Some had advanced degrees. Some called themselves “reserve bums,” because they signed on for tours of duty in various parts of the world for six months to a year, and then took long, exotic vacations before accepting another job. One raced cars when between jobs; another was an avid surfer who between assignments lived on the best beaches in the world; another had earned a law degree while working as a city cop in Arlington, Texas; another worked as an investigator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montgomery, Alabama. They all loved the work and signed up for the most dangerous and important assignments.
This one had come with an irresistible job description, with phrases like high priority and top secret and for an unidentified military client. Enlistees were sent to the Army’s interrogation school at Fort Huachuca, in southeastern Arizona, for a few weeks of brush-up training. They all received a dazzling two-hour PowerPoint presentation about Iraqi history and culture. They had all surmised right away that the job meant working with “special operators”—the military’s elite, secret soldiers, who handle only top-priority jobs—but they did not know for sure until after the training, when they were flown from Arizona to Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, headquarters for the Special Operations Command. At Bragg, no one speaks directly of Task Force 145, but it was abundantly clear that was the outfit they would be working with. They were told, “There is no such thing as rank where you are going; everyone is focused on the mission. No one will get any credit for anything that happens.”
Before being sent to Iraq, the gators underwent a final interview designed to weed out anyone emotionally ill-suited for the work. During the interview, the eager recruit would usually be insulted. “You must be kidding,” the questioner would say. “You don’t have anywhere near enough experience to do a job like this.” Any recruits who got angry, flustered, or upset—and some did—were sent home. Those selected to proceed were instructed to adopt aliases by which they would be known “in theater.”
Only then were they told that the “customer” would be Zarqawi.
Balad Air Base is a sun-blasted 15-square-mile expanse of concrete, crushed stone, and sand about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad. It is one of the largest and busiest bases in Iraq, complete with a Green Beans coffee shop, Pizza Hut, and Burger King open around the clock. It is also known as Camp Anaconda, or, informally, as “Mortaritaville,” for the frequency of mortar attacks on the 25,000 personnel stationed there. Few of that number ever set foot behind the towering concrete barriers in the far north corner, known to one and all as “The Compound,” home to the estimated 1,000 American and British special-operations soldiers of Task Force 145, and to the most urgent special-ops campaign in the world.
Because of the exigency of the fight in Iraq, according to groundbreaking reports by Sean Naylor of Army Times, Zarqawi had been assigned a higher priority than even Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Task Force’s soldier elite, its “shooters,” includes Delta operators, SEALs, members of the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, and selected soldiers from the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. Transportation is provided by helicopter crews and pilots from the Nightstalkers, the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The tempo is rapid; the unit conducts an average of a mission a day, with four strike forces stationed around Iraq. The intel operation that guides the Task Force hums around the clock, seven days a week. Its mission is to unravel Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other insurgent groups from the inside out, by squeezing each new arrest for details about the chain of command. Newly arrested detainees are constantly delivered to the facility, blindfolded, bound, wearing blue jumpsuits.