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
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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.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"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.

‘The Customer’

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.

the Team

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.

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.

Five of the men captured during these raids were assigned to teams of interrogators at Balad. Two of them would prove to be the most valuable. The first, whom we will call Abu Raja, was assigned to Matt and Nathan. The second, an older and more imposing figure, we will call Abu Haydr. He was assigned to Mary and Lenny.

Abu Raja was a sophisticated man in his mid-30s, a professional who spoke fluent English. Round, soft, and balding, he wore the regulation Saddam-era Sunni moustache. He came from a family that had been well- connected during the tyrant’s reign; before the American invasion, he’d had a thriving business. A relative of his had been killed in the long war Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980s, and Abu Raja hated all Iranians. He saw the American invasion as a conspiracy between the Iranian mullahs and the United States to wipe out Iraq’s minority Sunnis. Though Abu Raja was initially defiant, Matt and Nathan sized him up as a timid man, neither ideologically committed nor loyal. They battered him with rapid-fire questions, never giving him time to think, and they broke him—or so they thought—in two days. He agreed to talk about anyone in al-Qaeda who outranked him, but not about those who held less important positions. Since the Task Force’s method was to work its way up the chain, this suited the gators perfectly.

Abu Haydr was more difficult. He was a big, genial man who nearly buckled the white plastic chairs in the interrogation rooms. He was 43 years old, with a wide, big-featured face, big ears, a well-trimmed beard, and fair skin. He was married and had four children. He also spoke fluent English. Before the American invasion, he’d had an important government job and had made a good living. He had hated Saddam, he said, but when the tyrant fell, he had lost everything. He looked tough and boasted that he had a black belt in karate, but his manner was gentle and his hands were smooth and delicate. He spoke in a deliberate, professorial way. He had studied the Koran and, while not overtly pious, knew a great deal about his faith. He admitted his sympathy for the insurgency. He had been arrested once before and had served time in Abu Ghraib, he said, and did not wish to return. He said Abu Raja had asked him to attend the meeting where they had both been captured, and that he was there only because the people at the house needed him to operate a video camera. This was the same story told by Abu Raja.

“I don’t even know why we were there,” he told Mary and Lenny.

For three weeks, from mid-April to early May, Abu Haydr was questioned twice daily, and gave up nothing. Three weeks is a long time for interrogators to hold on to someone. Mary was forceful and thorough. Lenny’s approach was consistent; he tended to hammer at the man relentlessly, taking him over the same ground again and again, trying to shake his confidence or just wear him out. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it often got results, especially when combined with Lenny’s imposing tough-guy demeanor. Abu Haydr took it all in stride, stubbornly unruffled. Before every response, he would lean his bulk back in the groaning chair, fold his graceful hands, and meditate like a scholar.

Doc, who was observing both interrogations in his role as a supervisor, saw that Mary and Lenny were getting nowhere, so he asked the Army captain supervising the process to replace them. This was not an unusual request from a senior gator; detainees were often placed with different teams when someone felt that an alternate approach might work, and Doc had asked to shift detainees before. But this request was denied. Given the circumstances of Abu Haydr’s arrest—and his age and sophistication—the Task Force was highly suspicious of him, and there were those high up the chain, Doc was told, who wanted Mary on his case.

It was easy to dismiss Doc’s concern for several reasons. He was known to be overbearing, and some of the gators felt he supervised their work a little too closely. That may have been particularly galling to Mary, who had been at Balad longer than Doc and was regarded as the best in the Task Force. Their colleagues knew that there was something of an ego clash between those two. Doc was older and more experienced, and could not always disguise his resentment at the organization’s higher regard for his younger colleague. To orient him when he first arrived at Balad, Task Force officers had assigned Doc to observe Mary. After a few days, he had told his commander that he was unimpressed and had asked to be placed with someone else. When he was assigned the supervisory role, he reprimanded Mary directly and complained to others that she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet chatting with her boyfriend, who was also serving in Iraq. She sometimes skipped staff meetings, and while some of the gators were doing three and four interrogation sessions a day, she stuck resolutely to two. Doc argued that she seemed inexcusably out of step with the fervid pace. Others had also expressed concern about the way she dressed. Mary usually wore khaki cargo pants and two layers of T-shirts, which they suggested were cut too low at the top, exposing cleavage, or too high at the bottom, showing her midriff—displays offensive to religious Muslim detainees. But neither Mary’s status nor her habits had changed in response to Doc’s complaints. The tension between them was observed by all. For whatever combination of reasons, Doc’s attempt to move her aside failed.

Abu Raja, meanwhile, was a wreck. After weeks of grilling, he had given up all that he could give, he complained, but the gators kept after him day and night. One day, Doc sat in on his questioning. Watching an earlier interrogation, he had noticed that Abu Raja had slipped. Going over a story he had told many times before, Abu Raja mentioned for the first time that Abu Haydr had sometimes met alone with Abu Raja’s boss.

This was different, and odd. Why, Doc now asked, would Abu Haydr, Abu Raja’s subordinate, a man who had been called in just to operate a video camera, be meeting separately with Abu Raja’s boss? The detainee had no convincing explanation for it, and it left Doc with a hunch: What if Abu Raja had been lying about the other man’s status all along? Why would he do that? Was he frightened of Abu Haydr? Protecting him? It forced a fresh look at the older prisoner, who was more impressive than Abu Raja anyway. What if he had been Abu Raja’s superior in the organization? That would mean Abu Haydr was even more important than they had suspected. The problem was that Mary and Lenny were stymied, and the team had all but given up on getting information from Abu Haydr. He had made a final statement, been issued new clothes, and was on the list for transport back to Abu Ghraib.

With Abu Haydr just hours away from being shipped out, Doc asked for and received permission to speak to him one more time. He knew Abu Haydr dreaded going back to Abu Ghraib, and he had an idea for how to get him talking.

Breaking Abu Haydr

The two men—the big Iraqi and the intense blond-haired gator—talked for five hours in the interrogation room; because Doc was a supervisor himself, their conversation was not monitored. They talked about children and football and wrestling.

“I was a great wrestler,” Abu Haydr announced.

“You look like one,” Doc told him.

In his weeks of watching, the American had noted Abu Haydr’s chronic braggadocio. The Iraqi constantly trumpeted his skills—the black belt in karate, advanced knowledge of the Koran, expertise in logic and persuasion— like a man determined to prove his importance and worth. He spoke little about his family, his wife and children. He seemed completely preoccupied with himself, and he presented his frequent opinions forcefully, as the simple truth. The two men discussed the historical basis for the rift between the Sunnis and the Shia, something Doc had studied. And when the Iraqi lectured Doc on child-rearing, the younger man nodded with appreciation. When Abu Haydr again proclaimed his talents in the arts of logic and persuasion, Doc announced himself out-argued and persuaded.

Their conversation turned to politics. Like many other detainees, Abu Haydr was fond of conspiracy theories. He complained that the United States was making a big mistake allowing the Shia, the majority in Iraq, to share power with the Sunnis. He lectured Doc on the history of his region, and pointed out that Iraqi Sunnis and the United States shared a very dangerous enemy: Iran. He saw his Shia countrymen not just as natural allies with Iran but as more loyal to Iranian mullahs than to any idea of a greater Iraq. As he saw it—and he presented it as simple fact—the ongoing struggle would determine whether Iraq would survive as a Sunni state or simply become part of a greater Shia Iran. America, Abu Haydr said, would eventually need help from the Sunnis to keep this Shia dynasty from dominating the region.

Doc had heard all this before, but he told Abu Haydr that it was a penetrating insight, that the detainee had come remarkably close to divining America’s true purpose in Iraq. The real reason for the U.S. presence in the region, the gator explained, was to get American forces into position for an attack on Iran. They were building air bases and massing troops. In the coming war, Sunnis and Americans would be allies. Only those capable of looking past the obvious could see it. The detainee warmed to this. All men enjoy having their genius recognized.

“The others are ignorant,” Abu Haydr said, referring to Mary and Lenny. “They know nothing of Iraq or the Koran. I have never felt comfortable talking with them.”

It was not a surprising comment. Detainees often tried to play one team of gators off another. But Doc saw it as an opening, and hit upon a ploy. He told the prisoner that he now understood his full importance. He said he was not surprised that Abu Haydr had been able to lead his questioners around by their noses. Then he took a more mendacious leap. He told Abu Haydr that he, Doc, wasn’t just another gator; that he was, in fact, in charge of the Compound’s entire interrogation mill. He was the Boss; that was why he had waited until the last minute to step in.

“I believe you are a very important man,” he told Abu Haydr. “I think you have a position of power in the insurgency, and I think I am in a position to help you.”

Abu Haydr was listening with interest.

“We both know what I want,” Doc said. “You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don’t want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you—you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq.” If Abu Haydr would betray his organization, Doc implied, the Americans would make him a very big man indeed.

There was no sign that the detainee knew he was being played. He nodded sagely. This was the kind of moment gators live for. Interrogation, at its most artful, is a contest of wits. The gator has the upper hand, of course. In a situation like the one at Balad, the Task Force had tremendous leverage over any detainee, including his reasonable fear of beating, torture, lengthy imprisonment, or death. While gators at that point were not permitted even to threaten such things, the powerless are slow to surrender suspicion. Still, a prisoner generally has compelling reasons to resist. He might be deeply committed to his cause, or fear the consequences of cooperation, if word of it were to reach his violent comrades.

The gator’s job is to somehow find a way through this tangle of conflicting emotions by intimidation or bluff. The height of the art is to completely turn the detainee, to con him into being helpful to the very cause he has fought against. There comes a moment in every successful interrogation when the detainee’s defenses begin to give way. Doc had come to that moment with Abu Haydr. He had worked at the detainee’s ego as if it were a loose screw. All of his ruses dovetailed. If Doc was an important, powerful man— better still, if he was secretly in charge—his respect for Abu Haydr meant all the more. After all, wouldn’t it take the most capable of the Americans, the man in charge, to fully comprehend and appreciate Abu Haydr’s significance?

Doc pressed his advantage.

“You and I know the name of a person in your organization who you are very close to,” Doc said. “I need you to tell me that name so that I know I can trust you. Then we can begin negotiating.” In fact, the American had no particular person in mind. His best hope was that Abu Haydr might name a heretofore unknown mid-level insurrectionist.

Ever circumspect, Abu Haydr pondered his response even longer than usual.

At last he said, “Abu Ayyub al-Masri.”

Doc was flabbergasted. Masri was the senior adviser to Zarqawi, the second-in-command of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The gator hid his surprise and excitement. He thanked the prisoner, pretending that this was the name he had expected.

“Now we can begin negotiating, but I have to leave now.”

“I only will talk to you,” said Abu Haydr.

“I can’t promise you that,” the American said. “You should talk and be friendly to whoever comes in to question you. I will be watching.”

He promised—avoiding the usual hedge—to get Abu Haydr an extra blanket and extra food, and did. And he got the detainee off the list for transport to Abu Ghraib.

The Feud that Felled Zarqawi

"Why did he decide to talk?” asked Doc’s commander.

The gator explained that he had promised Abu Haydr “an important role in the future of Iraq.” He also reported that he had represented himself to the detainee as the man in charge. That infuriated Lenny, who was already annoyed that Doc had been questioning “his” prisoner behind his back. Lenny complained that the lie undermined his position in future interrogations.

“He was scheduled to leave,” Doc reminded him.

Despite Abu Haydr’s insistence that he speak only to “Dr. Matthew,” his interrogation resumed with the regular team of gators. Lenny promptly told him that their colleague had lied when he said he was in charge.

Doc was infuriated, and he took his outrage to his commander. Lenny was more concerned about protecting his turf than the mission, Doc complained, and demanded that he be reassigned, but this request, too, was denied. Concerned that his breakthrough would be squandered, Doc decided to go behind his commander’s back. He paid the first of many unauthorized visits to Abu Haydr’s cell in the holding block, away from the cameras monitoring the interrogation rooms. He told Abu Haydr that his colleagues were not allowed to reveal that he was in charge.

“I’m still around, and I’m still watching,” Doc told him. “Talk to them as if you were talking to me.”

Abu Haydr asked how much information he would have to give to earn Doc’s assistance.

“Right now, you are at about 40 percent,” he was told, “but you must never mention our deal to anyone.” Doc swore him to secrecy about their informal talks.

And, curiously, the feud between the gators began to help the interrogation. Abu Haydr seemed to enjoy the subterfuge. Doc’s visits with him were unauthorized; if his fellow gators found out about them, they would be furious, as would his commander. So Doc, unable to deliver the captive’s information himself, had to persuade Abu Haydr to talk, not to him but to Mary and Lenny. He stayed vague about what information he wanted and kept using the percentage scale to push the detainee. Sure enough, Abu Haydr responded. In his sessions with the others, he confirmed his status above Abu Raja’s and began talking about significant al-Qaeda figures. He was still cagey. He wanted to buy himself Doc’s help, but he didn’t want to pay any more for it than necessary.

Doc would regularly slip into Abu Haydr’s cell to grade his progress.

“What percent am I at now?” the detainee would ask.

“Fifty percent,” Doc would say.

This went on for three weeks, and soon the Task Force was mapping Zarqawi’s organization with greater and greater detail. During a series of raids on May 13 and 14, shooters killed one of Zarqawi’s lieutenants, Abu Mustafa, and 15 others in his network. Eight suspects were detained. Intel gleaned from them sent the shooters back out to arrest more men, who delivered still more information. The eventual result was what the Task Force called an “unblinking eye” over the network. On May 17, two of Zarqawi’s associates were killed, one of them his manager of foreign fighters. Punishing raids went on throughout that month.

Still, even though he clearly relished his “secret” sessions with Doc, Abu Haydr protected the men at the very top of the organization. The ploy played upon his belief that he was operating in a multilayered reality, and at a deeper level than those around him; the secrecy just reinforced the ruse that Doc was a high-level connection. In the middle of this process, Mary started questioning Abu Haydr with the older gator they called Tom, and Lenny continued on in separate shifts by himself.

In early June, after Doc told the prisoner he was at “90 percent,” Abu Haydr promised to give up a vital piece of information at his next session. And he did.

“My friend is Sheikh al-Rahman,” he told Mary and Tom.

He explained that Rahman, a figure well-known to the Task Force, met regularly with Zarqawi. He said that whenever they met, Rahman observed a security ritual that involved changing cars a number of times. Only when he got into a small blue car, Abu Haydr said, would he be taken directly to Zarqawi.

Days later, with the Task Force watching from a drone high over Baghdad, Rahman got into a small blue car, but the surveillance team promptly lost him in traffic. There was tremendous disappointment and frustration at the Compound. Another precious chance had been lost. But after just a few more days, late in the afternoon of June 7, Rahman got into the blue car again. This time the Task Force observed him all the way to the little concrete house in the palm grove at Hibhib. Electronic intercepts may have helped confirm that Rahman was meeting with Zarqawi in the house (the terrorist leader never used cell phones, which are relatively easy to track, but he did use satellite phones, which are harder to pinpoint, but not—as he apparently assumed—impossible). Convinced they had their man, the Task Force leaders decided not to wait for their shooters to get into position. Waiting seemed ill-advised, and besides, storming the house would likely result in a firefight; in the confusion, Zarqawi might find another chance to slip away. A faster, more certain, and more deadly strike was ordered.

High over Iraq, the U.S. Air Force maintains a constant patrol of strike aircraft that can be called upon immediately. The mission was tasked to two F-16 pilots, who had spent the day looking for roadside bombs from the sky. The pilots were told only that the target was “high value.” At 6:12 p.m., one of the jets dropped the first laser-guided bomb; minutes later, it dropped the second. Both hit their target, reducing the house to rubble. Villagers said the earth shook with each blast.

According to General Caldwell, Iraqi forces were on the scene first, having heard the explosion from nearby. They found Zarqawi badly wounded but still alive, the only one to survive the strike. About half an hour after the second bomb hit, he was being carried out on a stretcher when the first American soldiers arrived, an 11-man military training team embedded with a local Iraqi army unit. The Americans took Zarqawi from the Iraqis, and a medic began treating him, securing his airway. Zarqawi spat blood and drifted in and out of consciousness. Caldwell said that the terrorist tried to get off the stretcher, but the soldiers resecured him. His breathing was labored, and his lungs soon failed him. Then his pulse gave out. It was pleasing to his pursuers that Zarqawi’s last sight was of an American soldier.

Caldwell initially said that a child was killed in the bombing, but altered his statement the next day to say that no children had been killed. In the Compound, pictures from the blast site showed two dead children, both under age 5.

The Fight Goes On

A tape of the air strike was played at Caldwell’s press conference. A black-and-white video shot from one of the bomber jets shows the long shadows of late afternoon on a dense patch of palm trees, and a large house before a narrow road. The first blast sends dark billows of gray smoke in four directions, in the shape of a cross. About two minutes later, when the smoke has blown off, the second blast produces a smaller, more contained plume of white smoke. Those inside would have had no warning. They would not have heard the jets, nor the bombs hurtling toward them.

Four of the gators involved were decorated for their service. Mary, Lenny, Tom and Doc were called to the general’s office. Doc and Lenny, the Navy reservist, were awarded Bronze Stars; Mary and Tom received civilian medals. Two other civilian analysts were also recognized.

Several of those who had worked on the case for months felt the recognition was appropriate but somewhat misallocated. Mike, after all, had developed the information that had led to the arrests of Abu Raja and Abu Haydr; Matt and Nathan had broken Abu Raja; and Doc had invented the ploy that ultimately enabled the killing blow. His deep knowledge of Iraqi history and religion, and of Abu Haydr’s distinctly Arab outlook, went well beyond the two-hour PowerPoint lecture on Iraqi culture the gators got at Fort Huachuca.

In the long run, the successful hunt for Zarqawi may not amount to much, but it offers lessons in how to use American power in subtler and more effective ways.

“The elimination of Zarwaqi is neither the beginning nor is it the end, but it is a stride in the direction of law and order, to an Iraq that is primed for the future, by a government that respects the rights of all Iraqi citizens,” said General Caldwell at his triumphant press conference. He later added, “For the first time in three years, the Iraqi people really do have a chance here.”

Some of the members of Task Force 145 were less sanguine. “Zarqawi’s death was an achievement, but it was only symbolic,” said one of them. “Zarqawi had hoped to incite a sectarian war, according to his letters, and he accomplished that. His strategy worked: Target the Shia so they will retaliate. When we killed Zarqawi, there were 10 just like him to take his place. As I see it, there is no incentive right now for the Sunnis not to join the insurgency. We haven’t offered them anything—no economic, ideological, nor personal incentives. We tell them, ‘You will have a voice in the government,’ but they know that will not happen. They don’t believe the Shias will give them a say. They hate the United States for creating this nightmare that destroyed their lives, and which clouds their future, but they need us as a buffer. I’ve talked to a lot of Sunnis, and most are not motivated by religion or ideology. They are just trying to make it.”

“This is the story of the whole war,” said another. “‘Kill this one guy, and it will make things all better.’ I still don’t understand where this notion comes from. It’s like we are still fighting a conventional war. This one doesn’t work that way.”

Seventeen other raids were conducted in and around Baghdad soon after Zarqawi’s death. The shooters found suicide vests, passports, Iraqi army uniforms, and license plates hidden under floorboards. Another 25 Iraqis were issued blue jumpsuits and led to the interrogation rooms. Task Force 145’s primary focus shifted to Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The insurgents’ bombings continued. The fight went on.

As for Abu Raja and Abu Haydr, they were processed and shipped out. “Probably to Camp Cropper,” said one of the gators, referring to a detention facility near Baghdad International Airport.

Mary and Lenny felt that Abu Haydr deserved a reward of some kind, but they were reminded that he had been an important mid-level figure in the deadly insurgency, a man who had on his hands, at least indirectly, the blood of many civilians and American soldiers. The idea of a reward was quickly dropped.

And what of Doc’s pledge to Abu Haydr?

“Doc promised him an important role in the future of Iraq,” said one gator. “And, by God, Abu Haydr got it. He was the man who led us to Zarqawi.”

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. 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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