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.