The lethality of US weapons meant that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's survival always depended on his ability to control information. Specifically he needed to control information on his whereabouts. What happens when that information escapes his grasp -- even for a few hours -- was demonstrated by the 500 pound bomb that that came crashing down on his head. The question everyone in Al Qaeda probably wants to know and whose answer the US would be foolish to reveal is: how?
The International Herald Tribune says the US had a source in Zarqawi's network.
"We have a guy on the inside who led us directly to Zarqawi," the official said. In a news release on Thursday morning, U.S. military commanders hinted strongly that a member of Zarqawi's inner circle had pointed the way. "Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network led forces to al-Zarqawi," the news release said. Iraqi officials confirmed that Zarqawi had indeed been sold out by one of his own. "We have managed to infiltrate this organization," said Mowaffak al-Rubiae, Iraq's national security adviser. He declined to elaborate.
Just how the Americans were able to receive the information from the source was also unclear. In an interview, a Jordanian official close to the investigation said that the mission that killed Zarqawi was a joint operation conducted by the Americans and Jordanian intelligence. The source inside Zarqawi's group, the Jordanian official said, had been cultivated at least in part by Jordanian intelligence agents. "There was a man from Zarqawi's group who handed over the information," the Jordanian official said. "It was someone who was part of the group."
An ABC news blog written by Alexis Debat -- also mentions the Jordanian connection -- but in a much less plausible way by suggesting the key leak came from an Iraqi customs agent working for Zarqawi who was caught by Amman's intelligence and talked. But the time gap between the customs agent's capture and the strike make it practically impossible for that to have had real time information on Zarqawi's whereabouts.
An Iraqi customs agent secretly working with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror cell spilled the beans on the group after he was arrested, Jordanian officials tell ABC News. Ziad Khalaf Raja al-Karbouly was arrested by Jordanian intelligence forces last spring. Officials say Karbouly confessed to his role in the terror cell and provided crucial information on the names of Zarqawi commanders and locations of their safe houses.
The Herald Sun brings elements of the two accounts together in a fairly plausible way. In this account, the Iraqi customs source referred to in the ABC news blog was a step in a ladder which ultimately led to Zarqawi himself.
US forces had first learned of Sheik Abd-al-Rahman in April when Jordanian intelligence officers arrested and interrogated an al-Qaida mid-level operative near the Iraqi border. US Maj-Gen William Caldwell said that began a painstaking, six-week surveillance operation of Abd-al-Rahman which also used unmanned aerial drones. The informer pointed them to the al-Qaida meeting attended by the sheik at the building on the outskirts of Habhib village, 8km north of the town of Baquba.
A task force, called 77 or 145, of Delta Force commandos, Navy SEALs and British special operations experts had first pinpointed the property near Baquba, 60km north of Baghdad. The white stucco, two-storey farmhouse near a grove of palm trees was in the area where the Jordanian experts had most likely placed Zarqawi from the video. Maj-Gen Caldwell said: "The strike did not occur in a 24-hour period. "It was a very long, painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information gathering, human resources, electronic signal intelligence that was done over a period of time -- many, many weeks."
The Boston Herald suggests that Zarqawi's precise location was known only very shortly before the actual strike.
Al-Zarqawi died with five others, including a woman, a child and the man who unwittingly led the Americans to him - his deputy and spiritual adviser, Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, according to U.S. officials. Al-Iraqi was the key to pinpointing the fugitive, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said. Intelligence officials identified him with the help of the insider and began tracking his movements, waiting for him to meet with his boss, Caldwell said. “Last night, he made a linkup (with al-Zarqawi) again at 6:15 (10:15 a.m. EDT), at which time a decision was made to go ahead and strike that target and eliminate both of them,” Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.
The New York Times summarizes the situation economically but with the normal hint of dirty deeds.
Several weeks ago, someone inside the Zarqawi network turned the military's attention to the spiritual adviser, identified as Sheikh Abd al-Rahman, said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. It was not clear whether the provider of the information was a voluntary informer or someone in custody who revealed it during interrogation. The military tracked Sheikh Rahman with an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to one Pentagon official. And human intelligence and "electronic signal intelligence" — eavesdropping or other forms of intercepting communications — were also used to pinpoint him, General Caldwell said. The result was that "last night was the first time that we have had definitive, unquestionable information" where Mr. Zarqawi was, the general said. "Therefore, the decision was made to strike."
The presence or absence of a cordoning US force in the area is partly illuminated by General Caldwell's press conference with reporters. Much of the CNN questioning actually focused on whether US forces complied with its duty to care for the wounded Zarqawi, especially after Caldwell mentioned that Zarqawi, still alive after the attack, and had momentarily turned away before being resecured. However what is of interest is that in Caldwell's narratives Iraqi police appeared on the spot before US forces. The suggestion that US forces were numerically thin on the ground is provided by these Caldwell excerpts:
CALDWELL: What I would tell you is I have not sat and talked to them and asked them exactly why the decision was made to attempt to take him utilizing an airstrike. I have to go back and ask that question. But clearly that was the decision that was made by the commander on the ground. I would assume if we would had gone in there and tried to have captured him, that would have taken some kind of overwhelming force at that point in time, and that perhaps they didn't have it read.
CALDWELL: The first people on the scene were the Iraqi police. They had found him and put him into some kind of gurney/stretcher kind of thing, and then American coalition forces arrived immediately thereafter on-site. They immediately went to the person in the stretcher, were able to start identifying by some distinguishing marks on his body. They had some kind of visual facial recognition. According to the person on the ground, Zarqawi attempted to, sort of, turn away off the stretcher. Everybody resecured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he'd received from this airstrike. As far as anybody else, again, the report says nobody else survived.
QUESTION: To clarify then, you can confirm that U.S. troops themselves saw and can confirm to you that Zarqawi was alive; that is confirmed by U.S. troops on the ground. And his attempt to turn away, would you describe that as an attempt, even in the state he was in, to escape at that point? Why did you -- was he strong enough for anyone to have to resecure him?
CALDWELL: Again, I'm reading the report; I did not talk specifically to any uniformed person. But according to the report, we did, in fact, see him alive. There was some kind of movement he had on the stretcher. And he died shortly thereafter. But, yes, it was confirmed by other than the Iraqi police that he was alive initially.
QUESTION: Did anyone render medical assistance to him? Did U.S. troops try to render medical assistance?
CALDWELL: Again, as I was reading the report, they went into the process to provide medical care to him.
QUESTION: How ... many minutes was Zarqawi alive after the bombing and before he eventually expired? And had he been shot?
CALDWELL: When I was there today it became apparent that this kind of question would be asked. We're trying to put that exact minutes together from the time that we saw the Iraqi police arrive on site to when the first coalition forces arrived on site and when they were able to report that they thought he had died there. And we'll provide that -- we can put that together. We just don't have it at the moment.
A number of fascinating issues are raised by these various accounts. The suggestion is that the US had painstakingly but unobtrusively closed in on Zarqawi starting with the Jordanian connection (Zarqawi is Jordanian himself) which gave them more informers; and to use an ASW analogy, a number of sources through which they could 'listen' for him. But to get a "firing solution" they needed real time information on his whereabouts. Reports suggest that to localize Zarqawi to the required precision required following Sheikh Abd al-Rahman to the actual meet and perhaps confirming Zarqawi's presence through "electronics signal intelligence", in the phrase of the NYT.
In the meantime there had to be shadow force of US ground forces and an air group just offstage. It must have been necessary for the commanders to launch the ground component and the strike F-16s even before al-Rahman had reached his destination due to the sortie times. This vast but stealthy cloud of lethality had to be held in readiness as Sheikh Abd al-Rahman came to the end of his trail, if the accounts are to be believed. But once Rahman arrived at the house, what then? The intelligence must then have indicated a firing solution was possible but that the window of opportunity would close. Some accounts even suggest that a few shots were exchanged with the safe house by surrounding forces -- perhaps a decision was made that there were not enough US forces to storm the house -- and it was decided to put a 500 lb bomb through the roof. Yet the sudden appearance of the Iraqi police with a gurney is strangely at odds this picture. It's hard to imagine the regular Hibhib beat cops suddenly showing up and rushing past the Special Forces to Zarqawi. The CNN reporter who seemed disturbed there was no onsite medical assistance for Zarqawi illustrates what may happen when we unconsciously carry around a "normal" picture in our heads and transpose it to the foreign. If one is accustomed to seeing ambulances at accident sites, it takes a moment to realize this is the last thing you would probably find in a small town like Hibhib on a moment's notice. What happened in Zarqawi's last hours has not been described very clearly. And maybe that's intentional.