May 15, 2006
A solitary streetlight casts the black shadows of the soldiers against a stone wall. The soldiers kneel, their rifles in the ready position, and wave green infrared beams, scanning rooftops, windows, and balconies, until the silence is broken by a whisper yelled over the wall.
A small explosion is followed by the sound of metal falling onto stone. Two of the soldiers kneeling against the wall stand and rush through the metal gate, through the courtyard, and into the house, followed closely by an interrogator, hoping to grab evidence before it can be flushed. Inside the doorway, Zafar’s men greet the team with a death chime.
Two human bombs detonate, turning the inside of the house into a maelstrom of fire and shrapnel. The soldiers and suicide bombers die instantly, engulfed in scraps of hot metal and flames, and the interrogator is blown off the porch and lands on his back in the courtyard. Everything goes black as blood pours down his face and hands grab his arms and legs and lift him into the air. He opens his eyes and sees the clear night sky filled with thousands of stars.
Meanwhile, a man escapes out the back door of the house, but before he can take ten steps he is tackled and tied by a soldier. The soldier sits the man in the sand and kneels to face him.
“Hello, Mahmoud. Going somewhere?”
May 22, 2006 Central Iraq
I listen to the wail of the horn as the bugle player at the front of the formation, decked out in full army dress, puffs out the long and solemn notes. We are a formation of camouflage uniforms and civilian clothes, standing at attention in crisp rank and file to honor our fallen comrades. They are not the first that our task force has lost in this hunt.
In the distance, mortars, like soft drums, land and shake the compound, growing closer every second, but not a soul moves in the formation. We will not be deterred from honoring our fallen comrades.
* * *
Mahmoud is a delicate man with tiny features, short brown hair, and a trimmed beard. It’s hard to imagine this diminutive Syrian as the number two man behind al Qaeda’s northern campaign of violence, but it takes brains, not muscles, to fight an insurgency.
We captured Mahmoud in a raid in Kirkuk a week ago. He was caught in a house/factory used for the production of suicide vests and we knew full well who he was when we captured him—he had been on the Most Wanted list for months. Mahmoud runs the suicide bombing operations for al Qaeda in northern Iraq and the analysts say he reports directly to Zafar, a shadow of a man who exists only in rumors and recently took the lives of two of our brothers-in-arms. There are no pictures of Zafar and no one has admitted to meeting him, but several detainees have confirmed that he is the leader of al Qaeda in the north. He is Iraq’s Keyser Söze, and we hope that Mahmoud will lead us to him. This is how we found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by slowly and methodically climbing the ladder of al Qaeda leadership.
Mahmoud sits in a white plastic chair in a plywood-walled interrogation room. In front of him sit two interrogators who specialize in foreign fighters. They are both in their midthirties, with long unkempt beards grown over the past three months. As the task force’s senior interrogator, I supervise from the Hollywood Room next door, an observation room with rows of monitors. The interrogation takes place in English.
“Tell me about Zafar,” the black-bearded interrogator asks.
“I don’t know anyone named Zafar,” Mahmoud answers.
“Don’t lie to us!” the brown-bearded interrogator shouts. “You know who the fuck we’re talking about!”
Mahmoud stares at the interrogator with a blank look on his face.
“Wallah mawf,” he says flatly.
I don’t know.
Brownbeard throws his notebook on the floor, stands, and walks up to the seated Mahmoud. The top of the Syrian’s head barely comes to the interrogator’s waist.
“Listen to me, you little shit,” he says, “you’re going to hang for what you’ve done, and the only way to avoid the noose is to work with us. You understand?”
In the monitor room I shake my head. These interrogators don’t belong to me. I monitor their interrogations out of courtesy, but they’ve never followed the advice I’ve offered. They are old school.
Mahmoud shrugs his shoulders. Brownbeard turns and slams his fist against the wall.
“Listen,” Blackbeard interrupts, “we’re trying to help you here. We can work together. You help us and we’ll help you.”
It’s a classic Good Cop/Bad Cop approach, but the Bad Cop should be outside the room so that the detainee feels comfortable confiding in the nice guy. Still, I admire Blackbeard’s attempt to build rapport.
“I don’t want your help,” Mahmoud replies. “Unless…”
“Unless what?!” Brownbeard yells.
“Unless you want to release me to find this man named Zafar.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know a Zafar!”
“Perhaps my memory will improve once I am out of this prison.”
“You little shit! We should—”
“Wait,” Blackbeard interrupts again. “Do you mean that if we let you go then you can find Zafar for us?”
“It’s possible,” Mahmoud says.
“How would you go about doing that?”
Mahmoud casually waves his hand as he speaks.
“I know people. I can ask around. Then I can call you when I find him.”
“But al Qaeda knows you’ve been captured!” Brownbeard says. “Why the hell would they trust you?”
“Do you think that I would be the first fighter that you have accidentally released?” Mahmoud replies.
Mahmoud is correct. Last month I flew to a base in western Iraq to help interrogate five men captured in a house that U.S. forces thought was used to train suicide bombers, but the house was empty of evidence. None of the five men revealed any information and we had no reason to believe they were involved with the insurgency, other than an anonymous tip that was provided to us. The decision was made to release the five men because the tip, it was suspected, was a vindictive false report—a common occurrence. We pushed the men out the front gate of the base and I gave one of them twenty dollars out of my own pocket for a taxi. Two weeks later we recaptured the same man—this time in a house with bombs. The moral of the story: Counterinsurgency is complex.
“How long would it take you to find Zafar?” Blackbeard asks.
“A week,” Mahmoud answers.
“What if we release you and you run?” Brownbeard asks.
“You know where my family lives,” Mahmoud answers. “You caught me in my house.”
The two interrogators look at each other. Blackbeard nods toward the door.
“We’ll be back in a moment,” he says to Mahmoud and the two men convene outside and close the door.
I leave the Hollywood Room and join them in the hallway.
“Do you think the Colonel will go for it?” Blackbeard asks.
“I don’t know,” Brownbeard replies. “I don’t trust this guy and I don’t know how I’m going to convince the Colonel to trust him.”
Blackbeard turns to me.
“What do you think?”
I consider it. We’ve never done this before that I know of, but I’m all for trying new things. Even if Mahmoud doesn’t lead us to Zafar, he might kick up some dust in his wake that we can follow.
“In the criminal world we run dirty sources all the time,” I say. “It’s part of the business.”
Blackbeard nods and Brownbeard defers to me.
“Go for it,” I say. “See what the Colonel thinks.”
Later that day the two interrogators meet with the Colonel. The mission gets approved, with caveats. Mahmoud is to be monitored closely and the entire operation is to be strictly controlled. If he runs, the first order of business will be to shoot him. The entire time he is free, Big Brother will be watching.
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Alexander