On July 1, 2002, the defense secretary sent a memo to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, titled “Manhunts.” “How do we organize the Department of Defense for manhunts?” the memo asked. “We are obviously not well organized at the present time.” The memo reflected a critical moment for Rumsfeld and JSOC, according to Bob Andrews, then the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. “Once he fastened on the manhunt thing, he looked at that as the silver bullet against terrorism,” he said. Dell Dailey, then the head of JSOC, sent an officer to Israel to speak to officials there about their experiences with manhunting, and in particular the years-long effort to track down and kill the Palestinian Black September terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The next several years would prove that a so-called decapitation approach to counterterrorism was no silver bullet, but in the spring and summer of 2002 its limitations were far from clear. The formula was known as “two-plus-seven,” but in reality it quickly expanded to “two-plus-seven-plus-30,” best envisioned as a series of concentric circles with Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in the bull’s eye. The ring around them consisted of seven key al-Qaeda facilitators, surrounded by an outer ring of 30 slightly less senior but still important al-Qaeda operatives. As one of the seven was captured or killed, the next in line from the outer 30 would take his place in the diagram. “Eventually, I think essentially almost all of them are captured or killed,” said the Joint Staff officer. “And so they change out.”
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The war in Iraq gave the command a laboratory in which to perfect its manhunting techniques. After the fall of Baghdad, JSOC’s first task was to pursue dozens of senior figures from Saddam Hussein’s regime who were on the run. After finding and killing Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay in July 2003, JSOC brought that phase of the war to an end on December 13 when operators captured Saddam Hussein in a hole outside his hometown of Tikrit.
But by then it was becoming clear that the Hussein-era figures were yesterday’s men. The struggle in which the United States was embroiled in Iraq was complex, combining traditional insurgency, Islamist terrorism, sectarian civil war, tribal conflict, and a proxy war with Iran. On June 29, 2005, JSOC’s commander, Stanley McChrystal, received a summons to the White House to brief a National Security Council session on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. When McChrystal concluded, Bush asked him: “Are you going to get him?” “We will, Mr. President,” McChrystal replied. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
As that meeting indicated, despite the complexity of the fight in Iraq, the administration increasingly saw the war as a struggle with one man’s organization. To a degree, this reflected the thinking among the military leaders in Baghdad, who over the course of a few months had grown convinced that removing Zarqawi from the battlefield would collapse the insurgency. McChrystal’s task force in Iraq was locked in a deadly contest with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as operators and intelligence analysts raced to devour the middle ranks of his network before he could replenish them. Zarqawi, meanwhile, was trying to ignite a full-scale sectarian civil war before the task force destroyed his organization, which he had presciently designed to function as semi-autonomous regional and local cells. On February 22, 2006, explosives planted by his fighters destroyed the golden dome of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred places. The bombing initiated an intense cycle of Sunni versus Shiite violence.