Just nine days before al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released his latest video, a special operations raid killed five of his men, captured five others and apparently came within a couple of city blocks of nabbing Zarqawi himself.
Then, the day Zarqawi’s video debuted, special ops forces killed 12 more of his troops in a second raid in the same town.
The raids in Yusufiyah, 20 miles southwest of Baghdad in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, were the latest battles in a small, vicious war being waged largely in the shadows of the wider counterinsurgency effort.
It is a war fought by a secretive organization called Task Force 145, made up of some of the most elite U.S. troops, including Delta Force and SEAL Team 6. They have one goal: hunting down Zarqawi, Iraq’s most wanted man, and destroying his al-Qaida in Iraq organization.
Zarqawi’s escape in Yusufiyah was not the first time special ops troops have nearly had him. In early 2005, they came so close they could see the Jordanian’s panicked face as he fled.
The first of the two Yusufiyah raids began at 2:15 a.m. April 16 when SEAL Team 6 operators and Army Rangers approached a terrorist safe house, a U.S. special operations source said.
A U.S. Central Command news release said “coalition forces”? — the usual shorthand for Task Force 145 elements — were “searching for a wanted al-Qaida associate.”?
When the U.S. troops arrived, the enemy opened fire with small arms. In the fight that followed, the special ops troops killed five terrorists, three of whom wore suicide belts, according to Central Command. “Two of the suicide bombers were killed before either could detonate his vest, and the third detonated his body bomb, killing only himself and injuring no one else,”? the news release said.
A woman in the house also was killed. Three other women and a child were wounded and were medically evacuated to the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.
U.S. forces detained five other occupants, one of whom was wounded. One of the five was later confirmed as “the wanted al-Qaida terrorist for whom the troops were searching,”? according to Central Command.
“The terrorist, whose name is currently being withheld, was involved in the planning and execution of improvised explosive device attacks and allegedly was associated with al-Qaida foreign fighter operations,”? the command said. The other four suspects are being “assessed for knowledge of and involvement in terrorist activity,”? the news release said.
Yusufiyah is Zarqawi country. Indeed, intelligence later suggested the terrorist kingpin “was probably 1,000 meters away”? at the time of the raid, a special operations source said.
In addition to the suicide vests, U.S. forces recovered four AK-series assault rifles, a pistol and several grenades. In an indication of the intensity of the close-quarters, indoor battle, “one grenade was found with the pin pulled, but not yet expended, in the hand of a dead terrorist,”? according to Central Command.
Five U.S. troops were hurt in the raid, but they have either returned to duty or are expected to shortly.
Tale of the tape
Among items recovered from the safe house, the special operations source said, was a video showing Zarqawi at various times in “black pajamas with New Balance running shoes on.”?
The source said the video seized in Yusufiyah was the same one released April 25.
One section of the video shows Zarqawi firing an M249 squad automatic weapon outside, and another depicts him sitting inside next to an M4 assault rifle.
In the video, Zarqawi mocks President Bush, and makes clear his fierce opposition to attempts to establish democracy in Iraq.
Produced by al-Qaida in Iraq’s “Media Committee,”? the video reflects “Zarqawi’s number one thing “¦ the information campaign,”? said the special ops source.
But on the same day that video was released, “coalition forces”? killed 12 other fighters at another Yusufiyah safe house “associated with foreign terrorists,”? according to Central Command.
The special operations source confirmed that this was another TF 145 raid. The news release said “multiple intelligence sources”? led troops to the safe house. As they approached, a man ran out brandishing what Central Command described as “a shoulder-fired rocket,”? which he was attempting to launch when the operators shot and killed him.
More fighters appeared and exchanged fire with the special ops troops, who were supported by helicopter machine-gun fire. The U.S. fire killed another four terrorists outside the safe house.
When those inside continued to fire, the special operators called in an airstrike that destroyed the building. A search of the rubble revealed the bodies of seven men and a woman. Each man wore webbing holding two loaded magazines and two grenades.
“The troops also discovered suicide notes on one of the terrorists [and] body bombs,”? Central Command said.
U.S. forces believed two “wanted terrorists”? were operating from the safe house. At press time, Central Command was still trying to identify those killed.
A war within the war
The job of hunting Zarqawi and rolling up his al-Qaida in Iraq network falls to Task Force 145, which is made up of the most elite U.S. and British special operations forces, and whose headquarters is in Balad.
The U.S. forces are drawn from units under Joint Special Operations Command at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. These include the military’s two “direct action”? special mission units — the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, known as Delta Force, and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, sometimes known by its cover name, Naval Special Warfare Development Group; the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and 75th Ranger Regiment; and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
After Saddam Hussein’s fall, the first order of business for the JSOC forces was capturing or killing the 55 individuals on the “deck of cards”? that depicted the regime’s senior officials. Delta’s C Squadron was at the heart of the task force that captured Saddam in December 2003.
The emergence of Zarqawi and his al-Qaida in Iraq group as a major threat to Iraq’s stability then gave JSOC a new priority. As the war in Iraq has ground on, and with Zarqawi still on the loose, the JSOC force in Iraq has grown steadily and undergone several name changes. TF 121 and TF 626 were two previous incarnations.
TF 145 is divided into four subordinate task forces in Iraq:
“¢ Task Force West, organized around a SEAL Team 6 squadron with Rangers in support.
“¢ Task Force Central, organized around a Delta squadron with Rangers in support.
“¢ Task Force North, organized around a Ranger battalion combined with a small Delta element.
“¢ Task Force Black, organized around a British Special Air Service “saber squadron,”? with British paratroopers from the Special Forces Support Group in support.
Although Army Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal, JSOC commander, spends much of his time in Iraq, his job there is to coordinate with Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of Central Command, and other senior leaders. The man in charge of TF 145 is the Delta Force commander, a colonel Military Times agreed not to name.
Each TF 145 element operates largely autonomously.
The O-5 commander of each task force can authorize a raid without seeking TF 145 approval.
This freedom, combined with the amount of intelligence generated on missions, creates a furious operational tempo for the TF 145 elements, which average well over a mission per day.
From 6 at night to 10 the next morning, “We’re going balls to the wall, doing hits all over the place,”? the special operations source said.
Bigger than Osama
TF 145’s war with Zarqawi has become a higher priority for JSOC than capturing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, presumed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province along the border with Afghanistan.
“Iraq is the main effort”? for JSOC, the special operations source said, adding that JSOC’s presence in Afghanistan is much smaller than it is in Iraq — a reflection of the threat Zarqawi poses to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
“Who’s the biggest threat right now?”? the source said. “In military terms, bin Laden has been neutralized. He’s not going anywhere. He can’t really move. His communications are shallow. “¦ Zarqawi is a bigger threat.”?
In addition, he noted, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s refusal to let U.S. forces operate in Pakistan reduces the utility of keeping a large JSOC force in Afghanistan awaiting actionable intel on bin Laden’s location.
The source said Pakistan plays the same role for al-Qaida’s leaders that Cambodia did for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War: “safe haven.”?
The JSOC presence in Iraq continues to grow. About a year ago, Army Special Forces Command offered McChrystal some A-teams, but he declined the offer, according to the special operations source.
However, TF 145’s needs have grown. It is already augmented by a Special Forces company that specializes in direct-action missions. Each Special Forces group has one of these companies, called a CIF, for Combatant Commander’s In-Extremis Force.
But McChrystal wants more combat power, and has asked that a battalion task force of the 82nd Airborne Division be placed at TF 145’s disposal, two special operations sources said.
Multi-National Forces-Iraq “does not comment on proposed force deployments,”? Army Capt. Bill Roberts, an MNF-I spokesman, wrote in an e-mail response to questions from Military Times.
However, an Army colonel confirmed that MNF-I placed a request in mid-April for a three-battalion light-infantry task force, with communications, transportation, military police, medical, human intelligence and psychological operations “enablers.”?
“McChrystal’s pushing pretty hard for it,”? a special operations source said.
U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw said the command would not comment on the hunt for Zarqawi.
If the request is approved, the three infantry battalions would not deploy simultaneously, but would rotate in about every 110 to 120 days.
“The battalion would be split between the three [U.S.] task forces in country,”? the special operations source said.
It would perform the same sort of functions handled by Rangers, but would not replace the Rangers, he said.
Not everyone in the special ops community approves of the scale of TF 145 operations, which appears to be enabled by McChrystal’s close relations with Abizaid and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “JSOC just sucks up all the assets [in Iraq],”? said a non-JSOC special ops officer with experience in Iraq. “They can do whatever the hell they want,”? because, he said, anything McChrystal wants is OK by Rumsfeld.
So close, and yet “¦
The burgeoning size of the JSOC commitment to Iraq speaks to the challenge posed by Zarqawi, who elicits grudging respect from special operations personnel for the risks he takes leading from the front.
“You’ve got to respect your enemy,”? said a special operations source. “He’s an out-front commander. He’s using all the elements to fight us.”?
But Zarqawi’s command style and his determination to take the same risks as his fighters have almost led to his capture on several occasions, with perhaps his closest brush with JSOC coming Feb. 20, 2005.
Using intelligence derived in part by an Arab-American soldier in TF 145, the task force obtained a time frame for when Zarqawi was due to travel down a stretch of highway along the Tigris River.
This allowed a task force of Rangers and Delta operators to set up an elaborate ambush. But according to special operations sources familiar with the event, Zarqawi was late.
The U.S. troops were preparing to leave when his vehicle came into view. He and his driver blew through a Delta roadblock before nearing a Ranger checkpoint. The Ranger M240B machine-gunner had Zarqawi in his sights and requested permission to fire, but the lieutenant in charge of the checkpoint did not give the OK because he did not have “positive ID”? of the vehicle’s occupants, a TF 145 source said.
To the intense frustration of other Rangers on the scene, Zarqawi’s vehicle hurtled past, with the Jordanian staring wildly at the Rangers, while wearing a Black Hawk vest and gripping a U.S. assault rifle, the TF 145 source said. Delta operators took up a high-speed pursuit, while a Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle tracked the action from above.
But the Delta men fell victim to bad timing. When he realized he had a tail, Zarqawi’s driver took the vehicle — with Zarqawi inside — off the main highway and onto a secondary road. With the TF 145 operators perhaps 30 seconds behind, Zarqawi jumped out and ran for it, leaving his driver, laptop, and $100,000 in Euros to be captured by the Americans.
As staffers in an operations center tried to vector the chasing Americans toward him using the UAV’s pictures, the Shadow’s camera chose that moment to “reset,”? switching from a tight focus on Zarqawi’s vehicle to a wide-angle view of the town. By the time the staffers frantically zoomed the camera back in, Zarqawi had vanished.
It was an extraordinarily frustrating experience for the members of TF 145; they knew how close they had come, and how infrequently such opportunities arise.
Zarqawi also seemed to realize the peril he was in.
“He was sh—ing his pants. … he was screaming at the driver,”? the special operations source said. “He knew he was caught.”?
But JSOC’s forces in Iraq also have enjoyed victories. A slide published by the Defense Department in May 2005 shows 21 senior Zarqawi lieutenants, seven of whom were listed as killed, 13 as captured and only one as “wanted.”?
By August, the special operations source said, JSOC forces had captured or killed “upwards of 200”? Zarqawi leaders senior enough to have contact with the man himself.
TF 145’s method of operating is simple: target a safe house, capture individuals, exploit whatever is found for intelligence and use that to drive a new mission immediately. Whenever possible, the operators try to avoid killing their targets.
“It’s a lot better to capture them,”? the source said, because in a manhunt, the most valuable intelligence comes from humans, not technology.
For the operators on Zarqawi’s trail, the op tempo “continues to go faster and faster,”? he said — “six or seven missions a day,”? at times simultaneously.
Many missions use ground vehicles rather than helicopters, he said.
“You’ll hit a place, get intelligence that drives you to another one. We’re cops — hit, go; hit, go.”?
But a key difference between this campaign and previous ones has been that Delta, which runs TF 145, has the authority to launch missions immediately based on raw intelligence. In the past, he said, Delta had never been able to do that; instead, it would have had to bring intelligence material back to the rear and have it analyzed before striking again.
Now, the source said, “People have bought off on Delta’s methodology.”? TF 145 describes this fusion of operations and intelligence as “the unblinking eye,”? said a Special Forces lieutenant colonel.
TF 145’s success has been Zarqawi’s loss, a special ops source said. His senior lieutenants used to be foreigners, but not anymore; TF 145 and its predecessors killed or captured them all.
“He doesn’t have a foreigner working for him anymore — most of them are Iraqis. We’ve either captured or killed all of his foreign influence.”?
The foreign terrorists still coming into Iraq from Syria, he said, “are suicide bombers only “¦ “˜Muslims on Spring Break.’ They come in through Syria, get a week of training — “˜Here, this is an RPG’ — come down and strap a bomb on them.”?
The limited success has not been cost-free. Delta has suffered at least seven deaths and has lost several other operators to serious injuries. The Rangers have lost at least five soldiers during the counterinsurgency in Iraq.
Credit where credit is due
Sources said much of the credit for TF 145’s success goes to McChrystal, who was recently promoted to lieutenant general, has a Ranger background and is admired by subordinates for his aggressive nature.
“McChrystal’s got balls,”? said the special operations source. “He’s brilliant and has got balls. He can be a pain in the ass, but he is all about going after it. He’s not risk averse, but he will weigh the risk and go.”?
Two special operations sources said that unlike some generals, McChrystal holds subordinates responsible for inaction. “That’s what impresses me about him,”? one of the sources said.
But despite the successes his troops have had taking down the Zarqawi network, McChrystal recently urged them on to greater heights. In a memo published earlier this year on JSOC’s intranet, McChrystal wrote of his desire to “professionalize”? the JSOC fight.
“This has been, and will be, a long and serious war,”? he wrote. “Although initial structures and TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] have evolved tremendously from where they were even two years ago, we are still operating with manning and operating processes that need to be improved to be more effective and professional.
“We must increasingly be a force of totally focused counter-terrorists — that is what we do,”? he wrote. “This is as complex as developing a Long Term Strategic Debriefing Facility that feeds out in-depth understanding of the enemy, and as simple as losing the casual, “˜I’m off at my war adventure,’ manner of dress and grooming.
“In every case it will not be about what’s easy, or even what we normally associate with conventional military standards. It will not even be about what is effective. It will be about what is the MOST effective way to operate — and we will do everything to increase the effectiveness even in small ways.
“If anyone finds this inconvenient or onerous, there’s no place in the force for you. This is about winning — and making as few trips to Arlington Cemetery en route to that objective.”?
“Long Term Strategic Debriefing Facility”? is a doctrinal term for a place to hold detainees after their initial interrogations, said a special operations source. TF 145’s facility is due to be up and running in the next several months at Balad, he added.
He sought to distinguish it from secret prisons that the U.S. has reportedly established for high-value detainees in other nations. In the TF 145 facility, detainees will have International Committee of the Red Cross numbers. “It’s not a “˜black’ site,”? the source said.
Punch and counterpunch
Zarqawi has plans, too. His organization is beginning the transition to what the special ops source referred to as “phase three”? of the insurgency, in which he would develop a maneuver force, an “army,”? rather than a force geared solely to dramatic terrorist actions.
Intelligence suggests that he wants to build a capability to launch coordinated attacks against major coalition facilities, the source added.
Meanwhile, Zarqawi also hungers for more personnel. “Al-Qaida is trying to get some other people to him through Iran — some planners, some trainers,”? the special ops source said.
The Iranian government knows about this, and despite Zarqawi’s violence against fellow Shiites in Iraq, the Iranians have decided to allow the transit of al-Qaida personnel, the source said, calling it “a marriage of convenience.”?
JSOC knew of insurgent training camps in both Syria and Iran that TF 145 could hit, the source said, but “politics”? had kept the task force from launching cross-border missions.
He said the trainers in the camps did not appear to be Syrian or Iranian military personnel, but members of affiliated groups like Hezbollah. He suspects that these activities were also occurring with the tacit approval of the host governments.
Some observers question whether eliminating Zarqawi would significantly improve the U.S. position in Iraq, given that his forces account for a small slice of the insurgency.
The special ops source accepted this as a reasonable argument, but noted that killing Zarqawi would take out the “bridge-builder”? between the financiers, the Syrians and the foreign fighters. It would also deprive al-Qaida in Iraq, known in the U.S. military as AQIZ, of a dynamic, charismatic combat leader.
“For AQIZ, it’s going to stop for a little bit,”? the source said. “They’ll have someone replace him, but I don’t know if he’ll have the demeanor and the ability to bring the fight to the table.”?
Beyond Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri, there are other targets that JSOC could hit, if it had the authority and resources, the special ops source said.
The U.S. knows of “high-tier”? al-Qaida personnel in multiple European countries, he said.
“They’re around the world … The point is, does the U.S. have the resolve “¦ to go conduct a unilateral operation to get these folks?”?
Asked if anyone in JSOC was doing this now, he said, “Not really.”?
Part of the reason: Special mission units are already stretched by the mission in Iraq.
“There’s no one left,”? he said.