A war of wits: 160th, Task Force 145, and Zarqawi



A war of wits

Mark Bowden tells the inside story of how interrogators of Task Force 145– the ‘gators’ – cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inner circle to track down and kill the most wanted al-Qaeda terrorist in Iraq

It was a macabre moment of triumph. At a closed compound within Balad airbase in Iraq, behind barriers 30 feet high, the men and women of the interrogation mill crowded around two freshly dead men, bare and supine on the floor.
The audience members 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 following 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 one critical question: Where is Zarqawi right now? This day, June 7, 2006, had finally produced the answer.
And so here he was, stiff, pale, grey and swollen in death, his “spiritual adviser”, Sheikh al-Rahman, lying alongside him. The men had been killed, with two women and two small children, when an American F16 had steered two, first one and then another, 500-pound bombs 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.
Early the next morning, the terrorist’s demise was revealed to the rest of the world. “Today is a great day in Iraq,” said General Caldwell. “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, no longer able to terrorise 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. 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 such as Zarqawi, the process is instructive. 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 illuminates the hidden culture of interrogation that has grown up in the last six years.
Balad airbase is a sun-blasted 15-square-mile expanse of concrete, crushed stone and sand about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad. It is also known 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 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 Night-stalkers, 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. 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.
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 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 centre had a gym, a television set that got the Armed Forces Network and a small internet café. But recreation was not encouraged. As the gators had been told, rank inside the Compound was eschewed.
People referred to each other by their nicknames. The key players in the final push for Zarqawi were known as:
— Mary. A stocky woman in her early twenties, Mary had 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-thirties, he smoked a lot, shaved his head and had a goatee. He had a tough-guy, street-kid manner.
— Dr Matthew, aka Doc. A tightly wound, precise man in his thirties, 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 two master’s degrees, in international relations and in management. Between jobs, he surfed.
— Matt. A slender, dark-haired active-duty Air Force technical sergeant in his early thirties, 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 thirties, he had joined the Army because he wanted to be involved in the war effort. Energetic and gung-ho, Mike had less experience than most of his colleagues, but was regarded as a natural.
— Nathan. Tall, wiry and dark-haired, Nathan, a civilian contractor, was one of the few gators who could speak some Arabic.
— Tom. A veteran of Bosnia in his late forties, Tom was unlike most of the others in that he was married and had children. He was short, round, balding and always slightly unkempt.
The first major clue on the trail that led to Zarqawi came in February 2006, from a detainee that 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, Mike learnt of residences in Yusufiya that the insurgent leadership sometimes used as safe houses. They were placed under heavy surveillance, and through a series of raids in April, a new crop of suspected mid-level al-Qaeda operatives was captured and delivered to 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, whom we will call Abu Haydr, was assigned to Mary and Lenny.
Abu Raja was a sophisticated man in his mid-thirties, a professional who spoke fluent English. Round, soft, and balding, he wore the regulation Saddam-era Sunni moustache. His family had been well-connected during the tyrant’s reign; before the American invasion, he’d had a thriving business. A relative had been killed in the long war that 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 US to wipe out Iraq’s minority Sunnis. Although 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, and 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, 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 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 prison, he said, and did not wish to return. He said Abu Raja had asked him to attend the meeting where they had been captured, and that he was there only to operate a video camera. This was the same story told by Abu Raja.
For three weeks, from mid-April to early May, Abu Haydr was questioned twice daily, and gave up nothing. Mary was forceful and thorough. Lenny tended to hammer at the man relentlessly, taking him over the same ground, 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 demeanour. Abu Haydr was stubbornly unruffled. Before every response, he would lean his bulk back in the groaning chair, fold his graceful hands and meditate like a scholar.
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, 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. What if he had been Abu Raja’s superior? That would mean Abu Haydr was more important than they had suspected. The problem was that Abu Haydr 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 received permission to speak to him one more time. The two men talked for five hours; because Doc was a supervisor, their conversation was not monitored. The American had noted that the Iraqi constantly trumpeted his knowledge – the karate, the Koran, expertise in logic and persuasion. He seemed preoccupied with himself and he presented his opinions forcefully. The two men discussed the historical basis for the rift between the Sunnis and the Shia, something Doc had studied. 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 outargued and persuaded.
Their conversation turned to politics. Abu Haydr complained that the US 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 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, the ongoing struggle would determine whether Iraq would survive as a Sunni state or 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 US presence in the region, the gator explained, was to get American forces into position for an attack on Iran. They were building airbases 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 recognised.
“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.” Detainees often tried to play one team of gators off another. 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 said he, Doc, wasn’t just another gator; that he was in charge of the Compound’s interrogation mill. 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. We both know what I want. 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 organisation, 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. In a situation like the one at Balad, the Task Force had tremendous leverage over any detainee, including his 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 comrades.
The gator’s job is to find a way through this tangle of conflicting emotions by intimidation or bluff. The height of the art is to turn the detainee, to con him into being helpful to the cause he has fought against. There comes a moment in every successful interrogation when the detainee’s defences 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, his respect for Abu Haydr meant all the more. 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 organisation 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.” The American had no particular person in mind. His best hope was that Abu Haydr might name a heretofore unknown mid-level insurrectionist.
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 pretended that this was the name he had expected. “Now we can begin negotiating, but I have to leave now.” He promised 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.
“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. 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 was denied. Concerned that his breakthrough would be squandered, Doc paid many unauthorised 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. “Right now, you are at about 40 per cent,” he was told, “but you must never mention our deal to anyone.” Doc swore him to secrecy about their talks. And, curiously, the feud between the gators began to help the interrogation. Abu Haydr seemed to enjoy the subterfuge. Doc’s visits were unauthorised; if his fellow gators found out, they would be furious.
So Doc, unable to deliver the captive’s information himself, had to persuade Abu Haydr to talk to Mary and Lenny. He stayed vague about what information he wanted and kept using the percentage scale. Sure enough, Abu Haydr responded. He confirmed his status above Abu Raja’s and began talking about significant al-Qaeda figures. Doc would regularly slip into Abu Haydr’s cell to grade his progress. “What per cent am I at now?” the detainee would ask. “Fifty per cent,” Doc would say.
This went on for three weeks, and soon the Task Force was mapping Zarqawi’s organisation with 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. Intelligence gleaned from them sent the shooters back out to arrest more men, who delivered still more information. 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, Abu Haydr protected the men at the top. 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 reinforced the ruse that Doc was a high-level connection. Mary started questioning Abu Haydr with the older gator they called Tom, and Lenny continued in separate shifts by himself.
In early June, after Doc told the prisoner he was at “90 per cent”, Abu Haydr promised to give up a vital piece of information. 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, and 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 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 lost him in traffic. But 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.
Convinced thatthey had their man, the Task Force leaders ordered a deadly strike. The mission was assigned to two F16 pilots, who were told only that the target was “high value”. At 6.12pm 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. According to General Caldwell, Iraqi forces were on the scene first. They found Zarqawi badly wounded, 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. They took Zarqawi from the Iraqis, and a medic began treating him, securing his airway. Zarqawi spat blood and drifted in and out of consciousness. His breathing was laboured and his lungs soon failed him. Then his pulse gave out. Seventeen other raids were conducted in and around Baghdad soon after Zarqawi’s death. Another 25 Iraqis were issued with blue jumpsuits. Task Force 145’s primary focus shifted to Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The insurgents’ bombings continued. The fight went on.
Abu Raja and Abu Haydr were processed and shipped out, probably to a detention facility near Baghdad International airport. 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.”
— Copyright 2007 The Atlantic Monthly Group
160th and "The Dark Side":


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Great article Boon.
Can any regular leg unit give support to a SF Unit or is it the Rangers and Airborne?
Great article Boon.
Can any regular leg unit give support to a SF Unit or is it the Rangers and Airborne?

Plenty of Legs have supported SOF units. During the invasion of Iraq a National Guard unit from Florida supported teams from 5th Group doing security and logistic work for them, letting the ODAs concentrate on shooting and whatever.
Plenty of Legs have supported SOF units. During the invasion of Iraq a National Guard unit from Florida supported teams from 5th Group doing security and logistic work for them, letting the ODAs concentrate on shooting and whatever.

Thanks Free.
That makes sense, some type of attachment.

Its not odd at all, we regularly pulled security for elements of a prior TF that preceded 145. Whatever unit owns the AO just gets tasked with providing the outer cordon, or whatever the case may be.

Of course, some of that may have changed within the past 12 months...
Uday and Qusay Hussein were taken out by TF20 which included my old unit, 327.

Uday and Qusay Hussein were taken out by TF20 which included my old unit, 327.


One of the things that got shot at that building was a couple of TOW missiles. Back in the day I was a TOW platoon leader in the 327, we never got to shoot our TOWs at anything quite so interesting a target. :(
I was still in OSUT when that pic. was taken but I became friends with an PSG that was there. From what I hear, Delta Co. had all the fun.
Great article Boon.
Can any regular leg unit give support to a SF Unit or is it the Rangers and Airborne?

Anybody can support anybody, lots of times SOF are assigned supporting roles to the main effort of a conventional operation.

Anybody can support anybody, and apparently anybody can ignore their confidentiality agreement and talk to Mark freakin' Bowden about anything they want. :soap::mad: