Killing Abu Ghadiya
The untold story of a risky Delta Force mission to take out a senior al Qaeda militant inside Syria.
The four helicopters scythed through the air, two Black Hawks full of Delta Force operators covered by a pair of AH-6 Little Birds, all headed for the Syrian border near Al Qaim. The aircraft were flown by some of the Army’s most skilled pilots, the Night Stalkers, but it was broad daylight — 4:45 p.m. on October 26, 2008. They were on their way to kill a man.
That man was Abu Ghadiya, the nom de guerre of Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, an Iraqi of about thirty years of age who ran the largest foreign fighter network in Syria. During the peak of the Iraq War in 2006 and 2007, Joint Special Operations Command — which oversees the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, and other secretive and elite units — estimated Abu Ghadiya was running 120 to 150 foreign fighters (including twenty to thirty suicide bombers) a month into Iraq. Thanks to a spy in Abu Ghadiya’s camp and to signals intelligence facilitated by a JSOC operative’s repeated undercover missions to the area, the command had been carefully tracking him for months. The task force knew that he occasionally visited Iraq to maintain his bona fides with the fighters, but his regular base in the area was a safe house in Sukkariyah, a village near the town of Abu Kamal, six miles across the border from Al Qaim. It was to that village the helicopters were now flying.
The raid on Sukkariyah had been nine months in the planning, but it became the only public evidence of a highly successful clandestine campaign waged inside Syria by JSOC elements since the earliest days of the Iraq War.
JSOC’s history in the Levant stretched back to the work done during the 1980s by Delta and a secret unit nicknamed the Army of Northern Virginia that conducted both human and signals intelligence, including eavesdropping on militant cell phones and trying to intercept their emails. Since then, Delta had maintained a close relationship with Israeli special operations forces, with operators sometimes wearing Israeli uniforms when working in the Jewish state, while the Army of Northern Virginia (later known as Task Force Orange, or simply, Orange) had gradually deepened its network in the region. After the September 11 attacks raised U.S. awareness of Islamist terror threats, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 gave JSOC the green light to conduct missions in both Syria and Lebanon. The United States had deep concerns about the Quds Force’s operations in the region as well as Hezbollah’s huge influence in Lebanon. Special mission unit operators rated Hezbollah, not al Qaeda, as the “A-team” when it came to Islamist terrorism. “They make al Qaeda look like a joke,” said one.
JSOC was also active in Lebanon. Beirut was no longer the battleground it had been in the 1970s and 1980s, but danger still lurked in the shadows. An Army of Northern Virginia JSOC operative almost learned this lesson the hard way in October 2002 out walking near the Lebanese capital’s famous corniche. Returning from a mission in a nearby country, he was passing through Lebanon in order to conduct activities to maintain his nonofficial cover when three men tried to force him into a car as he took a shortcut back to his hotel. The operative, whose background was in Special Forces but who was unarmed, fought back. He managed to wrestle a .22 caliber pistol away from one of the attackers and escape, shot in the midriff. Unwilling to break his cover by going to the U.S. embassy, he called instead, and was put through to the regional medical officer (who worked out of the embassy). Following the doctor’s advice, “he literally sewed himself up in the hotel room and then continued with his full counter-surveillance routes,” said a special mission unit source. The operative then went through the laborious process required to cover his tracks before departing Lebanon without breaking cover (other than the call to the embassy), despite suffering from a gunshot wound. He crossed multiple international borders before receiving medical care, a feat of tradecraft and endurance that insiders discussed in whispered tones years later.
As to who had attacked the operative and why, a JSOC staffer familiar with the episode said they were most likely street criminals who saw him as a target of opportunity, rather than Hezbollah members who suspected he was more than he seemed. But an Army spokesman told the author that the operative received a Silver Star “for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States during the period 19–21 October 2002.” The citation for the Silver Star, however, was classified.
The close call did little to inhibit JSOC from undertaking equally dangerous missions next door to Lebanon in Syria. The command had plenty of reasons for wanting to get inside Syria after the September 11 attacks. One was the knowledge that Syria had chemical weapons and was trying to achieve nuclear capability, perhaps with help from Iran, whose Quds Force was gaining influence in Syria. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq soon heralded a new concern: Sunni insurgent groups’ use of Syria as a way station en route to Iraq for volunteer militants from the broader Muslim world.
The unit at the sharp end of JSOC’s growing role in Syria was Orange, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had placed fully under the command’s control by 2004. The unit had three squadrons, one each dedicated to ground operations, airborne signals intelligence, and mission support. It frequently functioned as the tactical arm of the NSA, which funded most of the unit’s signals intelligence budget. As with other elements parts of JSOC elements, Orange was obsessed with secrecy. “Everybody in the unit was on the Department of the Army Special Roster, which means they didn’t exist,” said a retired special ops officer.
By 2003, Orange had teams in Saudi Arabia, the Horn of Africa and South America, among other locations. “Outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, Orange had everything else in the world,” said a special mission unit officer.
They also had Syria, at least in part. The personnel Orange sent in were unarmed and were largely commercial cover operatives, meaning they posed as businessmen and had what a special mission unit veteran called “established presence” in the region. During the middle of the decade, Orange had fewer than a dozen personnel operating under commercial cover, about half a dozen of whom were conducting the Syrian operations.
Those missions actually began in the months prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The intent was to ensure the United States had “eyes and ears all around Iraq” by the time the conventional forces drove north across the Kuwait-Iraq border, said a JSOC staffer. By late summer 2003, Orange operatives and other JSOC personnel were infiltrating Syria to focus on two target sets: any evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had moved weapons of mass destruction to Syria ahead of the allies’ invasion of Iraq; and the foreign fighter networks already establishing roots in Syria to support the Iraq insurgency. Rumsfeld had to personally approve the missions, which were carried out under the auspices of the CIA’s chief of station in Damascus. Tasked to locate the foreign fighter safe houses and get proof that the networks were operating in Syria, the operatives were not starting from a blank slate. They were often led to a particular safe house by a suspect’s IP router address that U.S. intelligence had already obtained. Because the United States wanted to keep this ability secret, while still proving to the Syrian regime that it knew what was going on at a particular location, the operatives’ mission was to gather more tangible evidence, often by photographing safe houses, hotels, mosques, and bus stops used by foreign fighters.
These missions combined high technology with classic espionage tradecraft: cover identities and counter-surveillance practices that included ducking into public bathrooms to change disguises — including wigs — to throw off any tail. “I go in a public restroom, do a quick [disguise swap] and I come out as a seventy-year-old man because I’ve got the bald head,” said a special mission unit veteran. In theory, anyone tailing the hirsute man who entered the bathroom would ignore the bald guy coming out. Meanwhile, “you’re off and onto public transportation, going to do an operational act.”
Sometimes that act was even more dangerous than secretly photographing jihadists in public. On occasion, operatives would pick the locks of al Qaeda safe houses, filming and photographing what was inside, and presumably copying the contents of any digital devices they found. “They had guys on the ground basically breaking into the people’s apartment and getting information,” said a special ops source familiar with the missions. “If they would have been caught, they were done.”
But American commanders felt the missions were worth the risk, in large part because the United States used intelligence that JSOC obtained in Syria as leverage with President Bashar al-the Assad’s regime, presenting it to Damascus in demarches in an effort to pressure Assad to crack down on the foreign fighter networks. Sometimes this was done indirectly via Jordanian government intermediaries and at other times by the U.S. government itself, including, on at least one occasion, by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But not wanting to reveal to the Syrians that American troops had been spying in their country, the U.S. government told Damascus that the material had been seized in raids on foreign fighter safe houses in Iraq. Disguising and altering the material to conform to that cover story represented a “delicate art,” a special mission unit veteran said. JSOC and the CIA went to great lengths to figure out whether to actually change the documents and photos, or to keep them as they were and tell the Syrians, “This was pulled off this guy’s Nokia 3200 cell phone in Baghdad — this is the guy’s name, here’s his bus ticket; he laid this all out on who was assisting him. Here’s all the evidence. Do something about it. We know they’re coming through here.” Sometimes this required technological wizardry. For instance, if the cover story for a photograph taken by an operative in Aleppo was that it was pulled off a foreign fighter’s iPhone in Baghdad, it might need to be digitized so that it looked like an iPhone photograph. The Assad regime remained completely ignorant that the intelligence being presented to them was obtained by undercover U.S. troops in Syria.
Some of the best information came from Orange, which often sent in operatives whose ethnicities would not have immediately marked them as Westerners. The operatives included one or two women, who never went in solo, but accompanied male operatives as part of a pair. The special mission unit veteran noted that jihadists used women in certain roles in the Middle East because male security personnel were less likely to search under their all-covering garb. “Two can play at that game,” he said. But two-person missions were the exception, rather than the rule. Orange’s Syria deployments were “mostly singleton and most without any backup,” he added.
As the program matured, Orange deepened its operatives’ cover, in some cases moving them and their families from the United States to countries closer to Syria, which required the Army secretary’s approval and the agreement of multiple geographic combatant commanders and station chiefs. The governments of at least some of those countries had no idea that U.S. spies were living under commercial cover there. (The U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief in each nation had to sign off on such arrangements.) The commercial cover operatives never resided in Syria itself, however.
The Orange operatives under commercial cover were unknown to many even in their own chain of command, and their missions were tightly compartmented even within JSOC. When intelligence generated by the missions was discussed in JSOC’s video-teleconferences, “they’d never say where the intel came from,” said an officer. Even in higher-level discussions, the most detailed description would be “Orange assets in Syria,” he said.
The missions into Syria were also kept from almost everyone in the U.S. embassy in Damascus. “The chief of station, the ambassador will know they’re in there and maybe the chief of ops in the station, and that’s about it,” the special mission unit veteran said. Even if the Syrians caught the operatives and threw them in jail, they were forbidden from acknowledging that they were American spies. It would be up to the U.S. government whether or not to claim them.
The Orange operatives in the Levant were working in areas where spies for Israel were “constantly getting rolled up,” the special mission unit veteran said, which partly explained why the missions into Syria and Lebanon were “episodic.” If, for instance, the Syrian security services pulled in a network of Israeli sources for questioning, JSOC would want to know what tipped the Syrians off before sending its own operatives back in. Perhaps in part because of this caution, no Orange operative or mission in Syria was compromised, a remarkable record, “since Syrian intelligence is really good,” the special mission unit veteran said. “They’re looking for spies all the time.”
The missions enabled JSOC to build a detailed picture of the network that moved jihadists from Aleppo and Damascus airports through the Syrian section of the Euphrates River Valley until they crossed into Iraq near Al Qaim. After several years, one name stood out as Zarqawi’s master facilitator in Syria: Abu Ghadiya.
For at least nine months, JSOC focused its intelligence collection on the foreign fighter kingpin. The planners knew that although he made his home in Zabadani, about thirty kilometers northwest of Damascus, he repeatedly visited the safe house near Abu Kamal, sometimes traveling on into Iraq. They hoped he’d enter Iraq while under surveillance, but he never did. The alternative was to strike while he was at the safe house. An Orange operative made multiple solo trips to Sukkariyah undercover to keep tabs on Abu Ghadiya. Among his tasks was to position and move equipment that allowed the NSA to precisely locate Abu Ghadiya’s cell phone in a particular building. JSOC also had access to a spy in Abu Ghadiya’s inner circle who was originally recruited by Syrian intelligence.
In planning a strike into Syria, albeit one just a few miles over the border, the task force intelligence analysts had to determine the likely reaction times of the Syrian air force, border guards, and air defense networks. While the United States had given senior Syrian officials in Damascus a heads-up that a raid might be in the offing, the Syrian troops along the border were none the wiser. But Syrian air defenses were oriented on Israel and Turkey, not longtime ally Iraq, while U.S. intelligence reported that Syrian air force pilots were flying no more than a handful of times a month. Task force planners estimated that the operators could spend at least ninety minutes on the objective before trouble arrived.
But for JSOC to launch, the spy in Abu Ghadiya’s camp had to report that the wanted man was at the safe house. Abu Ghadiya’s cell phone also had to be on and emitting from that location. There were several false starts. It finally all came together on October 26, 2008.
The Night Stalker crews had about thirty-six hours to prepare for the mission. After crossing the border, the flight to the objective lasted no longer than fifteen minutes. Located in a tiny hamlet, the target building was a single-story, flat-roofed structure. The helicopters took no fire as they approached. The Black Hawks landed, disgorging operators who sprinted to the building, where they suppressed resistance from Abu Ghadiya and a handful of his fighters within ninety seconds, killing between six and twelve militants without suffering any wounded or killed themselves. The operators spent about an hour doing “sensitive site exploitation,” which amounts to collecting as much material of intelligence value as possible, before calling for the Black Hawks to return, loading Abu Ghadiya’s body aboard a helicopter, and flying back to Al Asad air base in Iraq. As the intelligence analysts had predicted, no Syrian security forces showed up while the operators were on the ground.
This excerpt was adapted from RELENTLESS STRIKE: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images