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

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.”

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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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