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IN HARM'S WAY
JOURNAL ENTRY: DECEMBER 3, 2003
Kid's got an amazing story. Fourteen years old and his father wants him dead. Great life.
Unlike most kids who showed up at the gate, this one didn't want money or candy. He wanted to be cuffed, blindfolded, and arrested. But S.Sgt. Guetschow, who was in charge of the outbound traffic at the border checkpoint, had his hands full trying to control the long line of cars and their drivers pushing to get into Syria. At first, the soldier ignored the scrawny boy walking through the mobs, but then something in his determined stride caught his eye. The kid was moving against the flow toward the border, coming directly toward him and the fortified entrance to the American encampment. The guards were trained to regard anyone who approached our camp as a potential threat. They stopped the boy at gunpoint and called S.Sgt. Guetschow. He summoned an interpreter, who briefly questioned the boy. Then he radioed me.
I was just one hundred yards away, at the command post within the tactical operations center at the checkpoint.
"Dragon X-ray, this is the main gate" came Guetschow's voice. "We have a young Iraqi here who is telling my interpreter he has information about mujahideen and a weapons cache."
"Okay, you know the drill," I replied. "Bring him up to the operations center, and let's get his story."
"There's one hitch," S.Sgt. Guetschow said. "He won't come unless we arrest him, handcuff him, and put a hood over his head."
I'd had a long night. Our raid had led to the capture of an insurgent group we dubbed "The Dirty Dozen," and processing the captives had takenmost of the night. I'd gotten just a few hours of sleep. I could smell my own breath. I hadn't shaved in twenty-four hours, and someone had fried the coffeepot again. This was the second young informant to show up in just two hours. The first one was playing games with us, so I was in no mood to waste time on a second kid looking for a handout.
Nevertheless, I sent a Humvee for him; the request to be handcuffed and hooded was a new one. I was intrigued. Most of them wanted money up front, not handcuffs and a bag over their heads. We'd had kids show up offering information in exchange for candy, soda pop, or money, but most of their information was shaky at best. Still, we'd found that the younger Iraqis were more open to talking with our interpreters than adults who'd built up hatred or fear of Americans. Kids had free run of the town for the most part. They saw a lot and were inclined to give honest answers, even if details were often sketchy.
"Okay," I told S.Sgt. Guetschow. "Do as he asks. Cuff him and bag him."
The boy was pretty sad-looking when they brought him through the gates. They'd handcuffed him with strips of plastic and put an empty sandbag over his head. Before they got him to my location, I had to check the perimeter defenses as part of my daily rounds. I left, telling an interpreter to find out what the kid's story was and then to hold him until I got back.
I returned to the TOC a half hour later. A designated safe room in the vault of a former bank, it had been remodeled by some thieves who had attempted to blow it up by chiseling through the concrete and rebar. As I entered the room where the boy was waiting, I took off my body armor and Kevlar and threw my gear on my cot. The interpreter, nicknamed "Raw Hide" -- our best shot at his Arabic name of Rahid (pronounced "Raaheed") -- introduced the boy as Jamil. We had to come up with another name for this potential informant because the kid who'd been in an hour earlier had a similar first name, and we didn't want to mix up the two of them. So SFC Ross dubbed this kid "Steve" and the first kid "Allen," for reasons I never really understood.
Raw Hide filled me in while I checked out our young "captive." He claimed to be fourteen, but he looked about ten. The Iraqis don't keep birth records or celebrate birthdays, so I doubt if Steve even knew how old he was. He was a good-looking kid, but he was so skinny that his white dishdasha robe and beige jacket hung on him like a collapsed tent. I could tell that he was doing everything he could to maintain his composure. His smile was forced, and I could see that one of his legs was shaking pretty badly. As happy as he tried to look, I got the sense that he was terrified.
Raw Hide gave me the basics. He said if half the kid's claims were true, this might be something to act on. We'd had several kids come forward with information on weapons caches, but the fact that he wanted to be taken captive suggested that there was more going on with this boy. It appeared that he had a plan. He wanted the locals to think we'd arrested him for something. He was trying to fool either them or us.
We weren't in the habit of taking minors into custody or away from their families. But then I learned something from the interpreter that made this particular kid much more interesting.
"He says he can identify a large mujahideen cell in the area. He knows where their weapons are hidden, and he wants to take us to them." I nodded, only half listening. "Oh, and, First Sergeant, you'll find this interesting: He lives near Ambush Wadi, and he claims the leader of the local insurgent cell is his father."
That got my attention. I looked at the boy sitting in a plastic chair against the wall. His father? He was turning against his own father in a culture where the senior male ruled every aspect of the family? It was then that I noticed some signs that the boy had been abused. His arms bore several scars, and when he looked up to meet my stare for the first time, I saw that one of his eyes was slightly crossed. It began to dawn on me that this kid hadn't come to us for a handout at all. He'd come to us for protection, to ensure his own survival. And yet, things were never as they seemed in this lawless corner of Iraq. I had to use extreme caution in assessing this kid and his motives. The insurgents were not above using young boys as stool pigeons, sending them in with promises of information that would lead our soldiers into carefully laid traps.
After speaking with him further, Raw Hide said Steve claimed his father wanted to kill him because he'd refused to join the insurgency. My mind was racing. This kid's whole situation was very odd, even for this city of cutthroats and connivers. The fact that he was willing to turn in his own father was mind-boggling. Going against your father is one of the biggest taboos in the Muslim culture, especially in a rural, tribal place like Husaybah. Either this kid really feared and hated his father, or he was part of a very elaborate setup for an ambush of some sort. Things were always murky in Al Qaim and Husaybah. There were no easy reads, neither in the landscape nor among the people. There was a smuggler's mentality here. Corruption ran deep in every aspect of life. Duplicity was considered a virtue in most circles. Locals would wave at you one day in the market and join an ambush that same night. The smiling guy at the border checkpoint one morning might be the suicide bomber on his return trip.
I looked hard at Steve. His leg was still shaking. We didn't count on having many friends among the people here. Anyone who offered assistance was regarded with great suspicion and carefully watched. Often, there was some ulterior motive: money, revenge, murderous intent. Our suspicions were frequently confirmed, our mistrust rewarded. We were doing our best to follow orders to restore peace and help start the rebuilding process. But we did it on full alert.
Capt. Roehrman returned to the tactical operations center at that point. I briefed him on our unusual new informant. We talked over our shared concerns that this kid might just be bait thrown out to lure us into a deadly ambush. We decided to talk to him a little more to get a better handle on the validity of his information.
It didn't take long for the boy to convince us. We were hesitant because of his age, but he was adamant that he wanted to help us. He said his father had buried multiple rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, and weapons in his yard in preparation for another ambush. He told the interpreter that he could lead us to a forty-man insurgency cell. I asked him to show us the weapons cache location on a satellite photo map, but he'd never seen his hometown from that perspective. We were stymied until the boy began describing landmarks and locations near his house. The interpreter figured out that he was describing the residential area near Ambush Wadi, where we'd had the firefight three weeks earlier. He didn't have to convince me that this was a lair of the insurgency. It made sense that they lived nearby because most of these Iraqis didn't have cars. They had to stage their ambushes near their homes so they could get to their hiding places quickly.
We didn't have a pinpoint location, so we still needed the boy to go with us. We also had some residual concerns about being led into a trap, but if this intelligence was as good as it sounded, we also didn't have time to waste. We had to act quickly. The fact that this kid wanted to accompany us scored him some points, but we kept in mind that the insurgents were not at all hesitant about blowing up their own people if it meant killing Americans, too.
Capt. Roehrman gave the go-ahead, and that afternoon, we set up a plan to raid the house. We waited until the border checkpoint was shut down and the Iraqi evening prayers and nightly mortar bombardment on our camp were over. We then formed a raid party with two tanks and two Humvees. First Lt. Sands was in the lead on the ground. The commander would run the show from his tank located in the outer cordon. My job was to coordinate with our squadron headquarters at Tiger Base from the border checkpoint. This was considered a high-risk mission because our young informant's house was in the neighborhood near Ambush Wadi, an area infested with insurgents who could easily hit us from the marsh and then run to their homes in a densely packed neighborhood.
Steve wore a hood over his head and a bulletproof vest as he rode, out of sight, in the back of SFC Evans's Humvee. They were seconds from rolling out of the gate of our compound when a very agitated SFC Evans came across the radio with some disturbing news that Steve had just revealed to the interpreter.
"He says his father has a suicide vest!"
That late-breaking bit of critical information from the boy infuriated SFC Evans, for good reason. We were about to send our men in there. If the father pulled the fuse on a bomb vest, they'd all die.
This kid was starting to piss me off.
"Okay, this is Dragon Seven," I radioed back. "Find out if he has any other interesting pieces of information that he would like to share with the group."
"What else are you not telling us, kid?" SFC Evans roared as he grabbed Steve by the cuff.
Raw Hide fired questions at him a mile a minute. Steve cowered from his interrogator's rage, shouting that he was only trying to protect them by letting them know about the vest. We decided to continue with the raid, with a few minor adjustments. We would send the Humvees in first because they were quieter than tanks and allowed for more of an element of surprise. We also gave orders that the father was to be shot if he made one suspicious move. We were not going to allow him to blow up our soldiers with a suicide vest.
The raid team rolled out, feeling very uneasy about this mission based on the claims of a very nervous boy underneath a hood in the back of a Humvee. Sgts. Bandel and Graham hit the squat brown house so fast, Steve's father could do nothing but throw his hands up in the air and stare into the two flashlights mounted on rifles aimed at his forehead. Even with our butchered Arabic, he understood. There was no suicide vest in sight, but there was another adult male in the house, whom we had not expected. A woman and a handful of children were also there. We took digital photographs of them all and sent the camera back to the convoy so Steve could identify his family. He identified his parents, brothers, and sisters, and he said the other man was a Syrian mujahideen who fought with his father's cell.
From what I already knew of the father, I was half hoping he'd put up a fight. He was docile but very nervous. That was usually the case with these local thugs. They tortured, raped, and murdered their own people, but when captured, their knees buckled, and on more than one occasion, their bladders gave out. His father was just a scared, short, chubby man at that point. Our soldiers often said, "Never trust fat Iraqis because if they've been eating that well, they must have been sitting at Saddam's table."
We cuffed and blindfolded the two men and put them under guard as we searched for the weapons cache Steve had said was located in an empty lot next to their house. Guards were posted around the perimeter. A helicopter hovered overhead to provide perimeter security. The neighborhood was obviously swarming with insurgents. Steve joined the search when his father and other family members were out of sight. He kept the hood over his head in case any neighbors were watching. He walked SFC Evans and his men to a spot in the vacant lot and pointed to the ground. Within a few minutes, they were pulling a large trove of rockets, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades from their hiding place. The rockets, one of the most sophisticated weapons in the insurgents' arsenal, were a major discovery. It was the first time we'd found them intact. We'd been looking for them since our arrival in Husaybah.
We put Steve back in the Humvee before we brought the father and his Syrian sidekick out back to ask them about the arsenal.
"Walla, walla, walla!" was their response to every question. Translation: "I didn't have anything to do with it, I promise to Allah."
The military intelligence guys and their weapons specialists were very keen on tracking the source of those rockets. Steve's father, who had no idea that his son was with us and serving as an informant, claimed that he had no knowledge of the rockets being buried there. He said they were not his. The Syrian wasn't any more forthcoming. We had them hauled back to Tiger Base, where interrogators were already waiting to talk to them.
Once they were gone, SFC Evans spoke to Steve's mother, a small woman with a kind face. There was no doubting that this was Steve's family. The family resemblance was strong from the mother to each of her wide-eyed boys and girls. SFC Evans sympathized with this woman nervously talking to the interpreter with her children pressed around her.
Steve's mother told our interpreter that Sayed was the leader of the local insurgency and that he forced her husband to bury the weapons in the yard. We heard a lot of that from captives and their families, of course. They usually had no idea that there was a small arsenal buried in the backyard. The dog must have done it. We didn't buy it before, and we didn't buy it now from Steve's mother either. She wasn't a convincing liar. She seemed torn between wanting to help us and fearing for the safety of her children. SFC Evans could hardly blame her.
Upon returning to the command center, Capt. Roehrman and I were stunned that this kid had just walked in and served up intelligence as valuable as the location of the rockets and the other weapons. The fact that he'd turned in his own father certainly gave us second thoughts. He might look like a lost puppy, but his actions were very calculated, and there was no telling what sort of training had been beaten into him. I resolved to watch him very carefully.
After briefing the commander the next morning, I learned that the Iraqi boy's name had morphed into "Steve-O" and that he'd already become like a little brother to many of the soldiers. It was amazing. This Iraqi boy had already won the affection of American soldiers who'd been under attack by his father's insurgent cell for months. I was determined to find out more about him. He asked if he could stay at the border checkpoint for a few days. He had given his mother a cover story, he said, and he felt it was too dangerous to return so quickly after the raid and detention of his father. The kid was shrewd. I arranged for the interpreter Raw Hide to hang out with me and Steve-O over the next several days so we could have some time to talk about the boy's family, what he knew about the mujahideen and their plans, and his life in general.
A few hours later, I returned to my "office," which consisted of my cot with a little desk alongside it. I was putting together a detailed operational summary describing our activities. This is tedious work for me -- writing narratives and attaching the pictures, graphics, and maps that lay out the "who, what, where, when, and why" of every mission. I was looking through my computer file of photographs of people we had detained or questioned as suspected members of the insurgency when Steve-O came in with one of our guys; he spotted the face on my computer screen.
"Mujahideen!" he said.
He started jabbering, but I couldn't understand him. I told him to hang on and then called for an interpreter. Raw Hide translated: "He said he knows these people on your computer."
Jamil pointed to a face on the screen and said a name. I checked the military intelligence report. The kid was dead-on. I pulled up more operational summaries to see how much he really knew. I pointed to another photograph, this one of a major Muslim imam we'd just captured.
"Who's this?" I asked.
Jamil started rattling off a response. Our interpreter's jaw dropped.
"He says this is a holy man who moves Syrian money to the insurgency for weapons in the region."
Okay, I thought, maybe that was too easy. Everybody should know the local holy man. But then, Jamil had just given me more intelligence than we had in the priest's file.
"How about this guy?"
He identified him right away. I showed him a series of other mug shots, and he nailed them all. Right on target. He then offered up additional information on their backgrounds, their roles in the insurgency, their relatives, and what kind of vegetables they grew in their gardens.
I looked at the interpreter in disbelief. He asked Jamil how he knew so much about these people.
"I told you. My father took me to all their meetings. He made me fight with them!"
Dragon Company had turned a corner by becoming more aggressive, but we still lacked the sort of intimate knowledge of our enemy that can come only from having someone inside their camp -- a spy, an informant, a captive willing to talk. We'd had some informants come and go, but no one as valuable as Steve-O. He not only knew the names and faces of the insurgents and their leaders, he knew everyone's role, who was good with explosives, who could fire a mortar, where the money flowed, and what the strategies were.
Other informants had given us bits and pieces and even some very big chunks that had led to major raids, weapons caches, and captures. But this kid was like finding the Rosetta stone. He seemed to grasp the whole picture. He was like a little CIA agent. He was much smarter than most of the informants who'd come walking into our camp. He said he'd identified some of his father's cohorts as Syrian by their accents. He had a very analytical mind and a very thorough understanding of the insurgency, its hierarchy, and the way it operated. That was probably even more reason not to trust him. Then again, unlike nearly every other informant we'd encountered, he had not asked for money. And he'd offered up his own father -- in a tribal society where the male elders are always treated with deference.
You had to wonder about someone who would turn in his own family members, even if he'd been abused by them. Still, I wanted to protect this valuable source of information and to keep him close by. That first night, I sent him to bed, telling him he could work with the cooks for a couple days before returning to his mother. I told him that I didn't think his father or the Syrian would be back anytime soon.
Over the next few days, I'd see him kicking a soccer ball around with some of the guys, looking like a typical Iraqi schoolkid one minute, and then the next, he'd be telling me about specific meetings, details on the insurgency's infrastructure, the influx of foreign fighters from Syria, the pipeline to get them in, the money trails, and on and on and on. I was stunned at the depth of his knowledge and his memory.
I still had conflicted feelings. In fact, I worked hard at not liking him. I kept telling myself he was very manipulative and could not be trusted. One day, I saw Steve-O taking photographs with a disposable camera given to him by one of our guys. I told the soldier who'd been keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn't leave the base with either the camera or the film in it. I still thought he could be playing both sides for his own purposes. He might use photographs of the camp as insurance if the insurgents accused him of helping us. That way, he could say he'd gotten inside our compound to gather intelligence for them. He was obviously a skilled survivor, if nothing else. I did not want to underestimate him.
Normally, we didn't waste time pondering the motives of our informants. But Steve-O's were a frequent topic of debate. We were always trying to figure out what his motives were. He was very good at ingratiating himself and winning people over by making himself useful and offering information. He also tried hard to fit in with the troops, many of whom weren't much older than him. He told the interpreter one day that he wanted to get a military haircut so he'd look like a soldier. A few of us looked on as the cooks set up an impromptu barbershop outside the mess hall. Steve-O sat on a stool while his "stylist" snipped away at his dark, shaggy hair. At first, there was a lot of teasing and joking from the soldiers gathered around. But as his hair was shaved away, the ugly scars and gashes on his head were exposed.
Things got quiet. Steve-O looked up at us, wondering about the sudden silence. He read our expressions. A shadow of embarrassment passed over his boyish face. Then through sheer force of will, Steve-O worked up a smile, gestured at his shaved head and then at our similar nuggets, as if to say, See, now I look just like you!
Shortly after that, I was surprised to hear that Steve-O was telling the interpreter that he wanted to go home. He said he wanted to check on his family. I didn't want to hold him against his will. But I hated to turn loose an informant who had so much valuable information at his fingertips. I was concerned for his safety as well. If anyone among the insurgents suspected that he had been talking to us, he wouldn't last a second outside our protection. Really, it was his decision. I could hardly blame him for wanting to see his family. I offered to give him some money to help them out, but once again, he refused it.
"I don't want your money," he told the interpreter. He added that he had not helped us for the money. He only wanted to be protected from his father and the insurgency. I told Steve-O that I wanted him to come back once he knew his family was safe. I told him we needed to talk more. He promised to return.
When he walked out the door, I had a sick feeling that I'd never see him again.
Two days later, when Steve-O left the American camp, he did not feel endangered or exposed. He felt relief. His father and his henchmen had slowly been pulling the family in a direction that would only lead to the death of them all. Now his father was locked away. It would be better now.
He made his way along the dirt alleys, passing the long lines at the gas station just outside the entrance to the border checkpoint. It was easy to slip past unnoticed. The people in line were focused on cutting ahead of as many cars as possible, which always led to shouting matches and more often than not a brawl of some kind that resulted in more delays and caused more people to try to cut ahead of as many cars as possible. Chaos ruled as usual in Husaybah. Two men holding their empty gas cans got into a shouting match as he scooted past and headed toward the market area.
He ran through his plans again and again. He had taken every precaution because he knew the price of failure. It had worked; his father had been captured. He would no longer be forced to join the insurgency, and his family would no longer endure the violent beatings. Once he reached the market, he easily slipped into the flow of shoppers and traders. Still, this was not a place where he could relax his guard. He knew all too well what went on there. He had heard of people surrounded by a mob in the market, stabbed, or knocked unconscious and never seen again. The mujahideen hid in plain sight in the throngs that frequented the market. It allowed them to observe the American soldiers without being noticed themselves. From the marketplace, they could also see which Iraqis were trading with the Americans or offering them information in exchange for money. They saw everything that happened at the border checkpoint.
Steve-O flitted through the crowds, trying to blend in with the streams of other children, moving quickly, changing his pace, crisscrossing and zigzagging to avoid being followed. His neck hurt because he was constantly scanning back and forth for signs of his father's henchmen. No familiar faces appeared, and that worried him as much as anything. If no muj were on the streets, it likely meant they were gathered together, plotting an ambush.
He reached his house, pushed open the door, and immediately sensed trouble. His mother did not rush to greet him. Instead, she dropped her head and covered her face. Something was wrong, very wrong. His brothers and sisters looked at him like a stranger who had entered their home uninvited. They were oddly quiet as his mother moved toward him. She had something in her hands. He had planned to talk about his return from working in Syria, but he realized it was not necessary. Whatever had happened, his mother knew where he had really been.
When Tahira got closer, he saw the bruises on her face and arms. She whispered to him, her face inches from his: "Sayed and his men were here this morning, and they were looking for you. They said you were a traitor. They blamed you for your father's arrest. They gave me a week to turn you over to them. They said they would kill me if I did not do it. The Syrian was released by the Americans. He told Sayed everything. They know it was you."
Jamil could not draw air into his lungs. He felt light-headed and weak-kneed. He dropped into a chair, his head sagging. He could not find words. He had gone to the Americans to protect his family. He had been so careful. But now he and his family were marked. They would likely all be killed by Sayed. His mother pulled his hands into hers. "You must go with the Americans now; that is your path. You cannot stay here. It is not safe for you or the other children. Sayed will be back. His spies are everywhere."
She pressed several of his favorite music tapes into his hands, pointing to one that was from her own small collection. "This is for you to play and remember, always." He knew it well. They had listened to it together on several occasions. It was a song in which a mother offers words of encouragement to her child: You must fly on your own, down a different path and away from me, but that is how it must be. He understood what she was saying. She was giving him permission, her blessing, to leave them.
They both knew he could not stay and survive more than a few days. And once Sayed's men started killing, they would likely kill everyone in the house. He had to get back to the Americans and send them to help his family. He told his mother that he would be back, but she did not believe him. He hugged her, not wanting to let go. He stepped out the door, and it hit him that now he really was alone.
To my surprise, Steve-O was back at the front gate in an hour. He was frantic. They brought him to me with an interpreter.
"They know!" he said.
"Steve-O, there's no way. Your father is still in custody here," I said.
"But the Syrian isn't. They let him go. He told my mother that the Americans told him about me helping them! And Sayed came to our house. He is a leader of the insurgency and very dangerous. He is a killer. He beat my mother and told her that she had a week to turn me over or he would kill her and my brothers and sisters!"
I could not believe what he was saying. Why would any of our guys give up the name of a valuable informant, especially a kid? This was insane -- what the hell was going on? I tried to calm Steve-O down, but he was a wreck. "We will protect you and your family," I said. "You can stay here with us until we catch this guy." He looked at me with the kind of expression that said I'd let him down and then turned to the interpreter and asked to go back to his previous room.
The guys from ODA -- the Special Forces team in charge of intelligence gathering -- came looking for Dragon Company before I could go looking for them. It wasn't a coincidence; they had come to talk to me about my operational summary on Steve-O. The first question they asked me was about Sayed. What the hell? Every time I turned around, someone was mentioning this guy's name, and now Special Forces was bringing him up?
The first time I'd heard about Sayed was from Steve-O and his mother. She had claimed that he was responsible for burying the weapons cache in their yard. She said he was their neighbor and part of the insurgency. We had not believed her at the time. And I still thought Steve-O's father knew about the weapons. But I had noted the mention of Sayed's name in the operational summary, and it seemed to have set off alarms with the Special Forces intelligence unit.
I told them what had transpired since Steve-O's father was arrested, including the threats and assault on his mother by Sayed and his goons. The ODA captain didn't mince words: "If Sayed said he is going to come back in a week and kill her, then he will be back in a week to kill her."
It was usually rare for Special Forces guys to share intelligence, but we had a good relationship with them in Husaybah. We'd developed some good information on our own and shared it with them and had the firepower to back them up, so they were willing to work with us for our mutual benefit. They'd seen us in action on raids and responding to ambushes, and they'd called upon us a couple times to support their operations. In return, they supplied us with local intelligence acquired through their network. They always had great intelligence.
The Special Forces captain quickly filled me in on Sayed, whose full name was Sayed Atta Ali. He was considered to be a major link between the local jihadists and their international leadership. He was a conduit for foreign fighters, weapons, and money and a high value target of Special Forces intelligence operations in our area. The captain described Sayed as a vicious killer who tortured collaborators and helped bring foreign fighters into Iraq. It was believed that he was responsible for the planning and execution of numerous attacks on coalition forces and for the systematic terrorizing and slaying of key Iraqi officials, policemen, informants, and coalition sympathizers.
I began to fully understand Steve-O's concerns about his family. If Sayed was threatening them, they were in real danger. I also began to appreciate his courage even more. He clearly knew that in stepping into our camp, he was making himself a target for this killer. That is why he had planned it so carefully. He was a little boy dealing with very dangerous men, and his actions had dire consequences. In a town of killers, he had been thrown into a crowd of the worst and most sadistic.
Sayed was a shadow, a ghost, and a killer of his own people. Word on the street was that people who crossed him simply disappeared. And often, their entire families were killed. Steve-O and his family would never again be able to walk freely on the streets of Husaybah. His mission had failed terribly in that regard.
Nobody could say for sure how the insurgent leader found out that the boy had given us information. The Syrian who'd been taken into custody with Steve-O's father was released because they had nothing solid to hold him on. Steve-O's father was still being held. He had reportedly given up information on Sayed. Maybe the Syrian overheard somebody talking about Steve-O while he was in custody. Maybe one of the father's henchmen saw Steve-O during the weapons search and figured out who he was, even with the hood over his head. We also knew that the insurgency had its own spies and informants working in and around the border checkpoint. They might have spotted him coming and going.
Whatever had happened, the boy and his entire family were now in imminent danger. I talked to Capt. Roehrman. We agreed that we had to keep Steve-O under wraps. And we had to do something for his family. We also wanted to get to Sayed before he got to them, or at least to keep him on the run. So we put together a mission. Its stated purpose was to raid Sayed's home on the river. Steve-O said he could take us directly to it. With so much information, I felt confident that before the night's activities were over, we would have Sayed in handcuffs. We had to get him off the streets; otherwise, this boy and his family faced certain death.
Special Forces knew that Sayed owned a hideaway on the river, but they did not know its exact location. Steve-O told them that it was one of five houses owned by Sayed's extended family. One of the others was right across the street from the boy's own family home. On December 5, 2003, we led the raid on foot through four of the homes. From his hiding place in our convoy, Steve-O identified several of Sayed's relatives as we took them captive. But there was no sign of the leader himself. We did find family photo albums, but Steve-O said the photos of Sayed had been removed. And it was no coincidence that the phones were ringing in two of the four homes as our raiders entered.
We saved Sayed's river house for last. It was approximately five hundred meters from the others, separated by large irrigated fields that butted up against the Euphrates River. It was a good hideout. There were numerous escape routes if the occupants had to flee quickly. We went in on foot patrol to maintain the element of surprise. The farm fields were drenched and muddy. Every step took a massive effort. The 500-meter trek to the river house seemed like 500 miles. We stopped to rest briefly, and then we hit it. As we entered the house, we found five women, three children, and a teenage male. They didn't seem all that surprised to see us. We took digital photos of them and showed them to Steve-O in his hiding place. He identified Sayed's wife and son. Once again, the telephone started ringing. As we searched, we found several torn-up photographs. Others had the faces scratched out or cut out. In one of the children's bedrooms, we found an unusual plaything: an optical sighting system for mortars.
Steve-O, who seemed to know everyone and his brother -- literally -- in the area, suggested that we raid the house next door, as it belonged to a brother of Sayed's father-in-law. There, we found a photograph that appeared to have Sayed's image cut out. In all the homes raided, we had questioned twenty-two people. Only one admitted to knowing who Sayed was. It appeared that all photographs of him had been removed from all of the homes.
Sayed was obviously not a typical insurgent foot soldier. He'd set up an elaborate telephone alert system, and he had taken great pains to conceal his identity from us by shredding and cutting up photographs. As our search wound down, the sun appeared on the horizon. I was drenched in sweat, and the day was just beginning. Worse, after six hours of exhausting work, we were no closer to catching Sayed. I had a bad feeling. He was living up to his reputation as a phantom figure. This guy had gone to great lengths and efforts to ensure he could not be identified. Except for Steve-O's descriptions, we didn't know what he looked like. The Iraqi boy was proving to be a real asset to our soldiers. I tried to maintain a skeptical attitude, but he was winning me over too.
Our efforts were also benefiting from the fact that the boy was not the only informant coming through for us in Husaybah. Barney Fife had just told us of another weapons cache in the area. We were asked to accompany Special Forces on this raid due to the location. It was in a nest of vipers, directly behind the police station and a few hundred feet from Ambush Wadi. Barney Fife couldn't make this raid, so we took Steve-O instead.
We hit the place fast and furious, but after an extensive search, we came up empty-handed. We were wondering if we even had the right house when one of our team members discovered a hiding place beneath a staircase packed with the equivalent of a small war starter kit. Crazy Legs found two more of the infamous rockets, a mortar tube, two tank mines, three rocket-propelled grenade boosters, a five-pound bag of gunpowder, three 160-millimeter mortar charges, two RPGs, one mortar sight, one hand grenade, one pound of explosives, and ten 60-millimeter mortar charges. We'd heard that the Iraqis had looted their own military weapons depots after the successful overthrow of Saddam's government. I was ecstatic about taking all that artillery off the street, but it was scary to think about how much firepower the insurgents had in stashes like this all over town.
JOURNAL ENTRY: DECEMBER 13, 2003
The ghost finally has a face. Not as smart as he thinks. Raided his home again this morning. Our man wasn't in, but we finally got a picture. Reported to be wearing suicide vest. Fastest raid yet. All persons still asleep.
We staged another raid on the extended Sayed family and a couple of their homes and hideaways. Sayed himself was nowhere to be seen, but we did find our first photograph of him -- a passport-size snapshot that had somehow escaped his team of shredders and snippers. I was ecstatic and knew our friends in Special Forces intelligence would be pleased too. But, truth be told, Sayed wasn't the main thing on my mind that night. I was much more interested in making contact with Steve-O's mother, who lived next door to his primary residence.
I took a small team and broke away from the raid there while the tanks and Humvees were rolling around outside Sayed's house, intentionally making a lot of noise to draw attention away from us. It was around two a.m. when we had to bang on the door of Steve-O's house to wake up his mother, frightening her and his siblings, who huddled around their mother as she stood in the doorway. I could still see the bruises on her face and hands.
Through our interpreter, I quickly explained who I was and that her son was safe. She seemed relieved and began talking very rapidly. She told us of the beating and of Sayed's demands that she turn her son over to him. I asked if she had a passport. She did. I then gave her four hundred dollars in cash from our fund for informants and told her she must leave immediately. She said she could go to the home of relatives in Fallujah. We were aware of the upcoming offensive in Fallujah and didn't want her going there. I told her it had become a war zone worse than Husaybah at that point.
"Where else can you go?" I asked her.
She said she had brothers in Baghdad. I felt better about that. It wasn't exactly a peaceful place either, but at least there was a possibility that we could arrange for her to be protected there. I told her to get the children's things together and to leave as quickly as possible. I even offered to escort her taxi out of town. She said that there was no need, that she would be leaving at first light. Then she asked how her son was doing. I could tell that she was torn about leaving him, even though she knew that it was important for her to protect herself and her other children.
From what he'd told me, I knew that Steve-O was very close to his mother. They shared their fears and their secrets with each other. I assured her that I would not let any harm come to him. "Do not return to Husaybah until you get word that we have captured Sayed," I told her.
When we returned to the border checkpoint that night, I told Steve-O that his mother was going to Baghdad with his brothers and sisters. He was sad, but he was relieved that they would be out of danger. He asked me a million questions. Was she okay? Did his brothers and sisters ask about him? Were any of the neighbors around? He resented his father mostly for placing his mother and siblings in harm's way. And now his cover was blown. His parents were out of the picture, and he had nowhere else to go.
Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Hendrex