22 April 2010

Lethal Targeting in Iraq; Success on an Unprecedented Scale

I think "WE" at al Sahwa would be remiss if we didn't try to put into perspective the recent lethal targeting events in Iraq. I will take a crack at it and hopefully the rest of the gang will fill in the blanks, as we have learned through trial and error, intelligence is always more accurate when it is a group effort. I will link many of the personalities to the LWJ because, as always, Bill Roggio does an impeccable job at providing detailed backgrounds on the myriad of targets.

We in the military largely fail at providing the media with timely facts about our operations under the guise that it will hinder operational success. While this statement is true, it hinders the media's ability to accurately report on our successes (which I will cover in depth later). A side note to this; the military often withholds information from successful operations for days and even weeks, because it often takes a while for our enemies to realize a key personality was killed or captured, thus giving us a golden opportunity to do more damage to a terrorist network.

By now, many of you, know the history of AQs beginnings in Iraq so I will try to cover only the important points. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the face most recognized in association with Al Qaeda in Iraq and is the best place to start when covering the history of lethal targeting in Iraq. Zarqawi, like many Jihadists of his time, got his roots in Afghanistan. What separated Zarqawi from the other Jihadists was his reported refusal to swear fealty to OBL at the time (pre-9/11). Zarqawi infiltrated Northern Iraq in April of 2003 and formed his first terror organization, Taheed wal Jihad (TWJ). Zarqawi's clout continued to grow swelling TWJ ranks from 1500 in 2003 to over 5,000 by mid to late 2004. Zarqawi attracted many talented Jihadists to include Abu Ayyub al-Masri (remember that name), who was reported to be an expert bomb maker. Around October of 2004, Zarqawi pledged fealty to OBL and TWJ merged into al Qaeda in Iraq. Our Government added the modifier Z on the end to signify who AQI was led by, AQIZ. AMZ was undoubtedly the largest thorn in our side from October 2004 until his death in June 2006. Zarqawi was so aggressive that even bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote letters personally telling AMZ to tone his sectarian agenda down because it was beginning to detract from AQ's overarching road map to the Caliphate. Once Zarqawi was eliminated the AQ leadership had to appoint his successor.

Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ #2) knew that AQI's reputation was damaged under Zarqawi's rein and chose a successor that he could trust to refocus AQI. He chose Zarqawi's expert Egyptian bomb maker, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (AAM).

It was during this transition period that the leadership of AQ and AQI understood that there had to be an Iraqi face to their organization in order to bridge the rift caused between Zarqawi's foreign fighters and their Iraqi counterparts. They decided on the face below, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (AUAB) was the purported leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the al Qaeda front organization. The lines between groups often blurred but I drew the distinction of calling Iraqi insurgent members, ISI, and foreign fighters as members of AQI. There were a lot of reports in open source media that claimed AUAB was captured, killed, or was a fictitious personality created by AAM. One aspect of AQI/ISI was certain; both AAM and AUAB were not as directly involved with the day to day terror operations to the extent AMZ operated. There were reports circulating that at times, AAM was not even in the country. I think this explains why AAM and AUAB were able to last almost 2 years longer in office than AMZ.
So, if AAM and AUAB were not as aggressive in the day to day leadership of AQI as AMZ, how was AQI still able to maintain such a high Op tempo? Enter Abu Qaswarah and a host of other Wali's. Abu Qaswarah was the Emir of AQI in Northern Iraq until his death on October 5, 2008. He was active in directing terror attacks throughout Northern Iraq similar to how Zarqawi directed AQIZ. I think Abu Qaswarah's death is another example of how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's rein of terror directly affected the U.S. Military's approach to public affairs relations. Throughout 2005 and up to June of 2006, scarcely a week would go by that Zarqawi's face wasn't plastered all over the news, mocking the American military's ability to capture one lone terrorist amidst over a hundred thousand military personnel operating in the country. From this experience, I think we are 1) afraid to highlight personalities that we are targeting for fear of looking inept to catch them and 2) unwilling to help certain individuals gain recognition through the media that could help bolster our enemy's recruitment (which I do believe is a valid point). The byproduct of this relationship is the American public largely doesn't understand what an immense victory it was to kill Abu Qaswarah, pictured below.

I don't have any hard evidence to back up my claim, but I believe that AAM and AUAB delegaded the day to day operational responsibility to individuals like Abu Qaswarah in an attempt to distance themselves from becoming our targeting focus. It is not a wise career choice to be America's public enemy #1. If AAM and AUAB relegate themselves to providing long term direction and cut themselves out of the day to day terror decision making process, then any intel collected on objectives would not directly point the Coalition Forces to their whereabouts.

This brings us to the lethal targeting events starting in January 2010 to the present day. January 5, 2010 A joint operation resulted in the death of the Wali of Northern Iraq (Abu Qaswarah's old position), Abu Na'im al Afri, and the detention of the Admin Emir, a high level Sharia Emir, and the Detainee Affairs Emir. A roll up of the entire operation resulted in 2 AQI killed and 21 detained.

January 28, 2010 A joint raid led to the death of Abu Khalaf, AQI most senior foreign fighter facilitator. Abu Khalaf was historically based in Syria; however, the successful round of targeting from Jan. 5th probably forced Abu Khalaf to assume a more active leadership role within Iraq. The death of Abu Khalaf was a major blow to AQI, due to his knowledge and expertise in funneling foreign fighters into Iraq.

April 1, 2010 A series of joint raids in March resulted in the deaths of AQI's overall leader in Northern Iraq, Shaykh Khalid, economic security emir (financial), Abu Marwa, and the overall military emir of Mosul, Abu Huda. In addition to the deaths, the security forces also detained several key personalities from the extortion (financial/security) lines. One, the captured oil emir, being a former AQI leader in the al Anbar province.

April 7, 2010 Two more joint operations removed overall military emir in charge of Mosul and one of his subordinates, the East side military emir.

April 19, 2010 Undoubtedly the greatest lethal targeting success since Abu Qaswarah and Zarqawi before him, a joint operation lead to the death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri (AAM) and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (AUAB), along with AAM top assistant and AUAB's son at AAM safe house.

April 20, 2010 Yet another joint operation leads to the death of the AQI Northern Emir, Ahmad Ali Abbas Dahir al Ubayd, who was in a position to potentially be AQI's interim leader until OBL and Zawahiri can officially name a successor.

It is clear that the AQI senior leadership is in complete disarray since they lost their top two leaders and the third highest position, Emir of Northern Iraq, has turned over at least three times, possibly a fourth if you account for Abu Khalaf. It may seem that we are having an amazing streak of luck in regards to our lethal targeting success; however, that is simply not the case. With lethal targeting, you create your own luck through countless hours of due diligence, and successful targeting often begets additional successful targeting through proper exploitation. The final point I want to highlight is how successful targeting forces AQ leadership to "come up on the net" and chose successors instead of directing from the shadows. I have little doubt in my mind that the three AQI Northern Emirs killed prior to the AAM/AUAB raid directly led to their deaths, because they were the only personalities that could name the deceased's successor. The exploitation from the AAM/AUAB objective probably led to the 4th AQI Northern Emir's death 48 hours later. The most significant aspect of AAM's death is that it will cause Ayman al-Zawahiri to end his communication blackout that started in December of 2009 to appoint AAM's successor. This will most likely take the form of sending a courier to Iraq with instructions from corporate. I hope Ayman's courier understands we are creating our own luck on an unprecedented scale right now.


  1. I am always confused about the point how the Zawahiri courier finds the right person. If there is a line of couriers then it is even more confusing.

  2. Anon,

    Its funny you wrote that because I read "A Message to Garcia" this morning and wondered if Zawahiri modeled his courier system after it. It could be as simple as, "Go find Abu Hamdan, he is somewhere in Salah ad Din province, bring him this note, don't get caught". I do know Foreign Fighters are easier to find because they often have native Iraqi's attached at their hip to help them get around. I also know that the less high tech you are, the harder it is for us to find you, which is why the courier system is so appealing to the AQ senior leadership.

  3. This brought me way up to speed. Thanks for breaking it down; very helpful as a resource.

  4. Is this wat BOB WOODWARD was referring to when it comes to being a terrorist in Iraq? He said it on MSNBC that it was "almost as secretive and effective as the "Manhattan Project" did anyone catch that interview?

  5. You mean this one from "60 Minutes." http://www.infowars.com/bob-woodward-on-60-minutes-secret-weapon-comparable-to-advent-of-planes/

    And no, he was speaking about technology advancements.

  6. JD, great post...thanks for the excellent analysis!

    Wanted to follow-up and add some more good news. Today the Washington Post reported that the AQI Baghdad Emir - Manaf Abdul Raheem al-Rawi - was also captured in the last 24 hours. Looks like another in a series of operations based on the rapid exploitation of the detainees and SSE from the AAM/AUAB hit.

    So awesome to see the leadership of AQI getting decimated like this! Let's keep applying pressure!

  7. First, lets get our terminology straight; manhunting is not lethal targeting. Everyone of those guys listed above was the focus of what we would call a 'capture/kill' mission. The idea is to capture him alive so we can talk to him. But in the real-world, bad guys carry guns, and really bad guys like to use them. So as soon as he reaches for it he has committed a hostile act and will be dealt with proportionally. He had his chance to surrender and he didn't take it. Not our fault.
    Lethal targeting is what we are doing with drones in Pakistan.

    The problem here is that the units conducting these missions only go after the worst of the worst. These guys are not conventional Army, they aren't even your garden-variety SOF unit. They are going out multiple times a night, against targets no one else is capable of handling, to c/k only the most senior leaders, financiers, facilitators, bomb-makers, etc... Suffice it to say, very few of their targets come quietly when the call-out begins. It's unfortunate too because what is laid out in the article above probably would have gone a lot quicker if they had been able to exploit their primary target thru interrogation instead of just being able to process what was found on target.

    And Woodward only got it partially correct. It wasn't just technological breakthroughs; it was the cumulative effect of fixing things across the board, both within the SOF and conventional communities. In 2003-2004 we really didn't know how to properly manhunt, just like we didn't know how to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign. With some major hiccups along the way, by 2006/2007, we had fixed much of the outdated manhunting methodologies, as evidenced in the whacking of AMZ in 2006 (that is a textbook case of proper manhunting)

    But remember, manhunting is a tactic and only works within a larger COIN campaign; it cannot succeed on it's own. That's why things have only gotten worse in Afghanistan the last 8 years. We had our 'best of the best' over there doing their part of the bargain this whole time; it was 'Big military's' decision to do that one on the cheap so we could head over to Iraq. So this beautiful manhunting machine has existed this whole time but has never seen any real progress because we need grunts to physically own the battlespace to start to build the bridge with the locals. Watch how things unfold here over the next 12-18 months as all the pieces of the chessboard are moved into place and the environment is properly shaped.

  8. Anon,

    You raised several points in your comment, and I would like to discuss one in particular, in a way that increases our readership's knowledge on a topic that is near and dear to my heart, targeting.

    I couldn't agree more that we need to strive to ensure our terminology is accurate, because words matter. Which is why I need to correct your first point. FM 3-24.2 Tactics in COIN, page 4-26, paragraph 4-138 "Effective targeting identifies the targeting options, both Lethal and Non-Lethal, to achieve effects that support the commander's objectives. Lethal assets are normally employed against targets with operations to CAPTURE or KILL. Nonlethal assets are normally employed against targets that are best engaged by PSYOP, negotiation, political programs, and social programs. Manhunting is not a current term used to define our actions against a specific individual.

    As for the rest of your points, I will not be commenting because I don't want tangents to distract from the topic of this post.

    As always, comments and critiques are welcome.