The Ploy

The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inner circle—without resorting to torture—and hunted down al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq

Inside the Compound are a number of small buildings that have been recently erected as well as two large ones left over from when Saddam Hussein’s air force owned Balad—one a large dome-shaped airplane hangar, the other a flat-roofed structure of about the same size. Both were painted tan to blend with the desert landscape. The flat-roofed building houses the holding cells, each of which has stone walls, a concrete slab, a pillow, and a blanket. Detainees are kept one to a cell. The interior of the hangar is divided into 10 interrogation rooms, separated by plywood walls and usually furnished with white plastic chairs and a small table. Each room has a video camera so that a senior interrogator in a separate control room with two rows of TV monitors can observe the questioning.

During the hunt for Zarqawi, interrogations took place in two shifts, morning and night, with interpreters, or “terps,” providing translation. The gators wore civilian clothes for their sessions, and were allowed to grow out their hair or beards. The less the detainees knew about their rank or role in the military, the better. There was virtually no downtime. When the gators were not questioning detainees, they were writing up reports or conferring with each other and their commanders, brainstorming strategy, eating, or sleeping in their air- conditioned “hooches,” small metal rectangular containers flown in by contractors. Alcohol was forbidden. Their rec center had a gym, a television set that got the Armed Forces Network, and a small Internet café. But recreation was not especially encouraged. One gator described the atmosphere as “spare and intense, in a good way.” They were doing their country’s most vital work.

The hunt for Zarqawi had begun shortly after the invasion of Iraq, in the summer of 2003, when the U.S. military took two Special Forces units (one was in Iraq looking for Saddam Hussein; the other had been in Afghanistan hunting for bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders) and joined them together into what was then called Task Force 6-26. The Special Forces had come maddeningly close to getting Zarqawi on several occasions. In late 2004, Iraqi security forces actually captured Zarqawi near Falluja but, supposedly ignorant of his identity, released him. In February 2005, Task Force members had learned that he would be traveling on a stretch of road along the Tigris River, but their timing was off, and after the elusive terrorist crashed through their roadblock, he was gone.

From the archives:

"Lessons of Abu Ghraib" (July/August 2004)
The photographs were shocking—but the disturbing reality is that for some people they clearly weren't. By Mark Bowden

The interrogation methods employed by the Task Force were initially notorious. When the hunt started, in 2003, the unit was based at Camp Nama, at Baghdad International Airport, where abuse of detainees quickly became common. According to later press reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other news outlets, tactics at Nama ranged from cruel and unusual to simply juvenile—one account described Task Force soldiers shooting detainees with paintballs. In early 2004, both the CIA and the FBI complained to military authorities about such practices. The spy agency then banned its personnel from working at Camp Nama. Interrogators at the facility were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employing “stress positions,” and keeping them awake for long hours. But after the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib came to light in April 2004, the military cracked down on such practices. By March of last year, 34 Task Force members had been disciplined, and 11 were removed from the unit for mistreating detainees. Later last year, five Army Rangers working at the facility were convicted of punching and kicking prisoners.

The unit was renamed Task Force 145 in the summer of 2004 and was moved to Balad, where the new batch of gators began arriving the following year. According to those interviewed for this story, harsh treatment of detainees had ended. Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment. The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation-room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.

The quest for fresh intel came to rely on subtler methods. Gators worked with the battery of techniques outlined in an Army manual and taught at Fort Huachuca, such as “ego up,” which involved flattery; “ego down,” which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth. Deciding how to approach a detainee was more art than science. Talented gators wrote their own scripts for questioning, adopting whatever roles seemed most appropriate, and adjusting on the fly. They carefully avoided making offers they could not keep, but often dangled “promises” that were subtly incomplete—instead of offering to move a prisoner to a better cell, for instance, a gator might promise to “see the boss” about doing so. Sometimes the promise was kept. Fear, the most useful interrogation tool, was always present. The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk. This was, perhaps, the only constructive thing to result from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which otherwise remains one of the biggest setbacks of the war.

It was an exciting, challenging job, filled with a sense of urgent purpose. Most of the gators had a military background, and they found the lack of protocol liberating. As the gators had been told, rank inside the Compound was eschewed entirely. People referred to each other by their nicknames. The key players in the final push for Zarqawi were known as:

■ “Mary.” The young woman congratulated by the J2, Mary was a stocky woman in her early 20s, with Asian features and straight dark hair; her intelligence and tenacity had earned her the reputation of being the most skilled interrogator in the unit.

■ “Lenny.” A Navy reservist from the Philadelphia area, Lenny had a background in the computer industry and had done a previous tour at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp X‑Ray. A wiry man in his mid-30s, he smoked a lot, shaved his head, and wore a goatee. He had a tough-guy, street-kid manner, and was usually teamed with Mary.

■ “Dr. Matthew,” aka “Doc.” A tightly wound, precise man in his 30s, with short, thin blond hair, Doc had worked as a military-police investigator before becoming a reservist. A senior interrogator at Balad, he was considered an intellectual, though his honorific was an exaggeration: He had earned two master’s degrees, one in international relations and another in management. Between jobs, he surfed.

■ “Matt.” A slender, dark-haired active-duty Air Force technical sergeant in his early 30s, Matt liked to pre­sent himself as a simple country boy, but was not one. He was from the Midwest and liked to race cars.

■ “Mike.” A commercial pilot from Nebraska in his early 30s, he had joined the Army because he wanted to be involved in the war effort. Extremely energetic and gung-ho, Mike had less experience than most of his colleagues, but was quickly regarded as a natural.

■ “Nathan.” Tall, wiry, and dark-haired, Nathan was one of the few gators who could speak some Arabic. A civilian contractor, he once got in trouble with the unit commander for stretching even the Task Force’s loose apparel standards by wearing a bright Hawaiian print shirt to the mess area.

■ “Tom.” A veteran of Bosnia in his late 40s, Tom was unlike most of the others in that he was married and had children. He was short and round and balding, and was always slightly unkempt.

This was the team that would locate Zarqawi.

The Interrogation Begins

The first major clue on the trail that led to Zarqawi came in February 2006, from a detainee Mike was questioning. The man had admitted his association with the “Anger Brigades,” a Sunni group loosely aligned with al-Qaeda. In a series of intense sessions that the other gators regarded as brilliant, Mike learned of residences in Yusufiya that the insurgent leadership sometimes used as safe houses. They were placed under heavy surveillance, and through a mid-April series of raids during which a number of suicide bombers were killed, a new crop of suspected mid-level al-Qaeda operatives was captured and delivered to Balad. It was on one of these raids that Task Force operatives found a videotape with outtakes from a recent Zarqawi press release, the one showing him wearing a black do-rag, a black shirt, and a suicide belt, and carrying an automatic rifle. The outtakes showed this fearsome terrorist fumbling awkwardly with the weapon and being instructed in its use by another man. The military released the new images in hopes of diminishing Zarqawi’s stature. What the Task Force didn’t realize when they discovered the tape was that Zarqawi himself was only one block away.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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