This article was originally published in the Army Times and then it disappeared, apparently because it did not fit the official story line. After some months or years, it resurfaced, but what I had learned was to save what I wanted because there was obviously editing going on. So, I save the things I like. Since this is a purely personal site with no commercial connections, there are no copy right infringements.
How Apache Company freed an Iraqi city from the grip of a terrorist cell
By Sean D. Naylor
ANAH, Iraq — insurgents had freely waged a two-year reign of terror on this sleepy, affluent Sunni city of 30,000. They blew up the police station and chased out the nascent police force. They murdered the chairman of the city council and cowed the local populace.
Members of Jama’at Al Tawid Al Jihad, known as the JTJ or Group of Monotheism and Jihad — a branch of al-Qaida in Iraq — settled in. This city in central Anbar province came to serve as a convenient sanctuary and way station for fighters going southeast to the real action in Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad.
But about 20 kilometers outside Anah, a Stryker squadron commander determined it was time to end the insurgents’ grip on Anah.
Lt. Col. Mark Freitag, commander of the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, installed a Stryker infantry company in a combat outpost just outside Anah in late March. The grunts of Apache Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, attached to Task Force 4-14, took aggressive action against the insurgents, whose leaders made a move to regain the initiative: They dispatched a shadowy commander named Abu Hamza to take charge of the insurgency in Anah.
The stage was set for a showdown here on the south bank of the Euphrates River.
Steep learning curve
The 131 troops of Apache Company assumed responsibility for Anah and the nearby village of Reyanah on Feb. 2 while still based in Rawah. Theirs was to be a steep learning curve. No coalition forces had been stationed in Anah since the 2003 invasion, and the JTJ was used to having the run of the town.
A few weeks before Apache took over, Freitag himself had detained Sheikh Qatada Sa’ad Tehsin, the city council chairman, for his support of the JTJ. On Feb. 17, the JTJ struck back, gunning down Qatada’s replacement, Sheikh Noori Abdul Fatah Askar, on his way to prayers. Noori was also the senior Anah representative of the Islamic Party, a bitter enemy of the JTJ, and the JTJ blamed him for Qatada’s demise.
Soon thereafter, the city council stopped meeting with Apache troops. “Intimidation was a huge factor in their decision to step away from the table,” said Capt. Matthew Albertus, Apache Company’s commander.
It soon became clear that if Albertus was to have any chance of reversing trends in Anah, he needed to position forces closer to the action. Freitag ordered the establishment of Combat Outpost Anah beside a major intersection just north of the city.
From there, Apache could monitor the main road to Rawah, a favorite insurgent location for roadside bombs. Albertus’ 2nd Platoon and a company-sized Iraqi army element moved in March 25. Albertus also re-established contact with the council, seeking out the members individually.
On April 10, in conjunction with the police training team from TF 4-14, a Stryker unit based in Rawah, Apache held a one-day recruiting drive for local police. Police are the first line of defense in any counterinsurgency campaign, and JTJ’s defeat of the previous attempt to establish a police presence had allowed the insurgents free reign in Anah.
Of 29 candidates who showed up, seven were accepted. Though just a handful for a town of 30,000, it was a slap in JTJ’s face.
The attitude of those who volunteered was, “‘We’re tired of [the insurgency], we want to step up,’” Albertus said.
The police candidates were sent to Jordan for two months of training.
Although Apache couldn’t have known it at the time, the decision to hold the police recruiting drive would prove a crucial step in rolling back the insurgency. COP Anah had an immediate impact. Roadside bomb attacks in the area went from six in March, which claimed one U.S. life, to none in April.
“It did exactly what we thought it would,” Albertus said. of the outpost, whose guard towers looked out several miles in all directions. “It allowed us to dominate the terrain in an eight-klick area.”
Apache further reduced the insurgents’ freedom of movement April 22 by installing a small force of eight Americans and 20 Iraqis in an old veterinary clinic that became Battle Position Reyanah, which threatened JTJ elements operating out of the village. Meanwhile, Albertus began to receive a new stream of technical intelligence from COP Rawah that enabled closer tracking of insurgent suspects.
Insurgents were plotting frantically. They realized their comfort zone in Anah was vanishing — and they were determined to fight.
The battle is joined
The intimidation campaign resumed. On April 25, insurgents attacked Mohammed Dinash, a cobbler in his late 30s who had been accepted for police service. He was a veteran of the Saddam-era Iraqi army and considered a prime candidate to become Anah police chief. His attackers shot him seven times and left him for dead, but he survived.
Six days later, a Saudi would-be JTJ suicide car bomber drove an orange-and-white taxi, a Chevrolet Caprice, out of a compound in Anah’s industrial area. Packed with four propane tanks rigged to explode, the Caprice was probably headed for Battle Position Reyanah.
But an Islamic Party informant tipped off TF 4-14. Albertus moved out with three Strykers and intercepted the taxi.
After a brief standoff in the open countryside, Albertus raised his M4 and cracked off three warning shots. The taxi lurched forward and U.S. forces riddled it with a hail of .50-caliber bullets that detonated two propane tanks in an orange fireball.
The destruction of the car bomb with no friendly or civilian casualties marked a turning point in more ways than one. “This was a complete change to the [JTJ] tactics in Anah,” Albertus said. “This was a safe haven for them.”
The fact that al-Qaida in Iraq tried to employ such a high-yield weapon showed “how important and how critical controlling Anah was” to them, said Capt. Tom Hart, 4-14’s fire support officer. But the car bomber’s spectacular failure demonstrated that the JTJ no longer enjoyed freedom of maneuver in Anah. That was a turning point for both sides.
The incident gave locals more confidence to pass information to U.S. troops.This reporting was the first time Apache learned the JTJ had stood up a new cell in Anah. The organization was named for its leader, about whom Apache knew nothing but his name: Abu Hamza.
The insurgents soon resorted to standard tactics of placing car bombs, but through good intelligence sources, U.S. forces frustrated these efforts.
Confused and concerned by the car bomb failure, Abu Hamza reverted to tried-and-true tactics: placing bombs along routes traveled by U.S. forces. But again, Apache stymied his efforts, forcing the insurgents to place the explosives along side roads.
On May 16, Abu Hamza insurgents accidentally detonated a bomb as they were emplacing it, killing one of them and wounding another, according to a human intelligence report. Guided by good intelligence from a variety of sources, TF 4-14 found several others throughout May. On May 28, a local identified the home of a member of the Abu Hamza bomb-making cell, and TF 4-14 arrested him several days later.
Other than a roadside bomb that wounded an Iraqi soldier, Abu Hamza achieved just one success during this period: On May 28, a white sedan drove up to the tent that served as a home for Mohammed and his family. Four men got out of the car, surrounded the tent and finished what they had started 33 days before, killing Anah’s best hope for a police chief.
Despite the assassination, Albertus said, the U.S. forces had arrived at a point where they finally had the insurgents in Anah at a disadvantage.
Local support for the insurgents, based on loyalty or fear, was shifting to backing the U.S. forces, he said.
“We’re in a race to reach the public first,” Albertus said one of the local police had told him. “It’s either us or them, and they for the longest time had been ahead in that race.”
TF 4-14 estimated that 98 percent of the population gave either active or passive support to the insurgents, with much of the passive support resulting from intimidation rather than any feelings of true allegiance with the insurgency.
“It’s not that easy to answer the question about how many are in their heart of hearts sympathetic to us versus the [insurgents],” said Capt. Rob Dapice, Albertus’ fire support officer. “What’s more relevant is who they believe is more capable. That’s what determines how they act.”
The successful destruction of the car bomb was a key turning point that changed the entire dynamic between Albertus and the council.
“At this point I had the upper hand,” he said.
Previously, JTJ had neither need nor inclination to bring violence to Anah. But Apache’s presence and intelligence-driven ability to get inside JTJ’s decision cycle forced the insurgents to confront coalition forces in the previously uncontested town.
But bringing violence into Anah made the insurgents less popular with the local Iraqis. Meanwhile, Apache’s almost constant presence gave Albertus and his men the opportunity to engage the locals. “You cannot replace getting down and talking to the people,” he said.
At the heart of Apache’s efforts to gain information from the locals was a two-man tactical human intelligence team led by a resourceful, savvy staff sergeant.
Apache Company troops ran several patrols every week to enable the team to interact with sources.
“Those guys are huge,” said Albertus, who ran at least two or three patrols each week designed solely to enable the THT personnel to interact with their sources and informants. By early June, the team had entered into a very fruitful relationship with a teenage male Anah resident whose ambition was to join the police.
“He was just sick and tired of what’s going on in the town and he was willing to help us,” Albertus said.
The young man provided information about an Abu Hamza bomb-making cell. A June 2 raid led to the detention of cell leader Ahmed Abdul Jalil, as well as Saddam Shoban, a financier. Human intelligence confirmed this cell was responsible for multiple roadside bomb attacks.
“Tactical questioning” of Ahmed and Shoban at Ahmed’s house led Apache to the homes of other cell members. By the end of the night, they had detained a dozen of Abu Hamza’s men.
“This is where the targeting process at company level really starts to come together,” Albertus said. “We’ve got a source that’s very reliable; a humint team that’s executing on a daily basis, gathering information; we’ve got platoons out there gathering information on a daily basis we’ve got an S-2 shop that we’re now completely tied in with. Now we’ve got actionable targets that we’re able to conduct [close target reconnaissance] on, conduct these precision raids.”
In an attempt to regain the initiative, Abu Hamza made a bad mistake. The day of the raid, an Abu Hamza gang in a black sedan kidnapped Ja’arallah Fehan, the senior member of the Anah town council, and his nephew. But the kidnappers “didn’t do their homework,” Albertus said.
Ja’arallah, who is about 60 but looks older, was one of Albertus’ allies on the council. He was also a member of the Albu Mahal tribe, which had a small presence in Reyanah, where Ja’arallah lived, but was a major player in tribal politics further west.
It took Albertus two days to learn of Ja’arallah’s capture. By then, Ja’arallah’s tribesmen had put their own rescue plans into action. They contacted Abu Hamza and told him that unless he released Ja’arallah, an Albu Mahal militia would attack Reyanah.
Abu Hamza realized his error and immediately arranged to return Ja’arallah to his home. But when he got there, Albu Mahal fighters were waiting and roughed him up.
Abu Hamza’s list of enemies, which already included the coalition forces and the Islamic Party, was growing.
Meanwhile, Apache was working on a sophisticated plan to eliminate the rest of Abu Hamza’s roadside bomb cell. The first stage was to uproot the trees that provided cover to insurgents trying to plant bombs along the main thoroughfare in the city. That pushed Abu Hamza to an intersection at the edge of town, which was right where Apache wanted him.
On the night of June 1, Apache teams began monitoring the intersection.
About 6 a.m. on June 3, Staff Sgt. Joshua Lothspiech, leader of 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon,saw a black sedan stop at the intersection. Five men emerged and immediately started to place a roadside bomb.
“They were very, very well rehearsed,” Albertus said. “Everyone knew their job.”
On Lothspiech’s command, Spc. Christopher Schof opened fire with his M240B machine gun. The insurgents tried to get back in the car.
“That’s just a coffin for them,” Albertus said.
Three were killed immediately, but two escaped, one limping from a gunshot wound. An examination of the car revealed that it was wired for use as a suicide car bomb.
His hold on the population slipping and his bomb-making cell largely destroyed, Abu Hamza next resorted to indirect fire. In mid-June, he launched a series of ineffectual mortar and attacks against COP Anah and BP Reyanah.
Apache’s quick reaction to a June 17 mortar attack on BP Reyanah resulted in the detention of three fishermen who were hitching a ride away from the likely firing position. The fishermen had nothing to do with the attack, but one volunteered the names and addresses of the mortarmen.
Albertus waited several days before ordering raids based on the intel from the fishermen. Such a delay was not unusual. He called it “tactical patience” — a deliberate delay between gaining intelligence on a target and striking that target.
“Tactical patience” enabled U.S. forces to monitor their targets and derive more intelligence from them, and also reduced the chances of Abu Hamza guessing the source of the original intelligence.
On June 21, when Apache finally acted, 1st Platoon captured Abu Ahmed, a Reyanah native who was not only Abu Hamza’s indirect fire cell leader but also the group’s third-ranking figure, plus another cell member. Abu Ahmed was asleep on the roof when Apache showed up.
“He had a shocked expression on his face,” the humint team leader said.
Apache was inside Abu Hamza’s decision cycle, and the insurgents started to panic. They moved mortar systems and caches, in an attempt to throw Apache off their tracks. Abu Hamza spent much of his time at safe houses 40 kilometers northwest of Anah, on the north side of the river — an area where TF 4-14 didn’t have enough troops to maintain a constant presence, and which had good lines of sight for early warning and safe houses positioned next to the Euphrates to allow for easy escape by boat.
But Abu Hamza had one big attack left. On June 28, a dump truck packed with explosives, ball bearings and keys drove out of Reyanah and headed toward Apache’s battle position just north of the village.
Apache received an intel report that an attack was imminent. Soldiers at BP Reyanah were ordered into “full battle rattle.” Four climbed onto the roof, immediately drawing small-arms fire from buildings on the northern edge of the village.
The dump truck turned left from the road into the serpentine driveway leading to the battle position. The four Apache soldiers on the roof met it with a hail of bullets, but it kept chugging forward in low gear, plowing through triple-strand concertina wire and Hesco barriers as the troops swapped out magazine after magazine.
The driver slumped over in his blood-spattered cab, but still the truck continued to lurch forward. However, instead of driving through the compound’s metal gate, as the driver intended, the vehicle pushed halfway through the cinder block wall, coming to rest against a Leyland truck before exploding in an enormous fireball that engulfed the battle position and threw the Leyland truck into the building.
Two Iraqi soldiers were had been killed and seven were wounded.
Apache had just enough time to vector an AV-8B Harrier over the battle position for the aircraft to film the explosion.
For seven long minutes, no one could raise BP Reyanah on the radio — the blast had blown a soldier on the roof through the antenna mast, snapping it in half. The first indication that anyone was left alive in the building came when Spc. Kirk Hubbard had the presence of mind to release a red smoke canister, a signal that means “We have casualties and need help.”four Apache soldiers were wounded, but the few minutes of advance warning and the soldiers’ quick reactions had been crucial. The toll could have been far higher.
Apache hit back July 1, raiding a car wash they had identified as an Abu Hamza car bomb factory and meeting place. They detained Abu Qusay, an insurgent facilitator. Intelligence tips told Apache of Abu Hamza’s increasing frustration “at how deep we were able to get into [his] decision cycle,” Albertus said.
In late June, the first batch of Iraqi police returned from Jordan, and things got worse for Abu Hamza. Immediately, two policemen from Anah approached the humint team leader and offered up a treasure trove of intelligence on the insurgent structure in Anah.
It took the team leader, whom Army Times agreed not to name because of the nature of his work, three days to fully debrief the policemen; at the end of that time, he had the names of about 60 insurgents in Anah.
“They filled in a lot of the history of who worked with who in the past, a lot of the relationships,” said the humint team leader.
For the first time, Apache was able to draw up a “wiring diagram” of the insurgent structure in Anah. After talking with the humint team leader, Albertus said he “decided to go after the big guys first.”
These targets included Wissam Hussein Ali, a high-level insurgent leader connected to al-Qaida in Iraq. Wissam would meet with Syrian traffickers of foreign fighters in Husaybah on the Syrian border and take the foreign fighters to Anah, then either use them there or send them farther east.
“We’d been looking for Wissam for probably eight months in Anah, and he was a ghost,” the humint team leader said.
The stage was set for Apache to drive a stake through the heart of Abu Hamza’s group. In the early hours of July 8, the company conducted four nearly simultaneous cordon and searches, each aimed at securing a different Abu Hamza figure.
The Apache troops drove their Strykers out of the city and then returned on foot to carry out the raids.To ensure their approach went unnoticed, the Apache troops avoided their normal routes and drove their Strykers to a quarry two kilometers from the city. There they dismounted and approached on foottaking advantage of the insurgents’ misconception that if there were no combat vehicles in town, U.S. forces were absent.
Each Apache element secured its objective less than two minutes after arrival, taking care to enter each compound silently, so as not to alert neighbors. By daybreak, Apache troops had detained 14 suspects, including four of Abu Hamza’s top aides, without firing a round. The detainees included four of Abu Hamza’s top aides:Marwan Hashim Abdulhadi, deputy commander; Firas Abdullah Mohammed, Abu Hamza’s new number three; Jamil Muhaysan, aka Abu Muthir, the third-ranking JTJ leader in Anbar; and Rafa’a Muhammed Noori, another senior JTJ leader in Anbar.
Marwan Hashim Abdulhadi, had been watching TV and drinking tea with his sister and his brother’s wife when Apache’s 1st Platoon entered the house.
A search of the home turned up a chilling video of small children re-enacting a hostage beheading, as well as videos of anti-coalition sermons being delivered in mosques all over Anah. The humint team went to work immediately, questioning the suspects in their own homes.
In such situations, some suspects don’t realize how much trouble they’re in, and think they can avoid detention by giving up information, the team leader said. For others, the shock of seeing U.S. troops burst into their home breaks down their resistance. The highest-ranking JTJ detainee was the most talkative. “Marwan dimed out the rest of his cell,” the humint team leader said.
The Apache troops went about their business so stealthily that by the time they left the following morning, “no one knew we were there,” Albertus said.
Apache troops later learned that Abu Hamza tried calling his leaders that morning and couldn’t figure out why no one was answering their phones.
On a roll
Apache troops, acting on a mounting pile of intelligence, continued to track down insurgent leaders.
Later that day, the company nabbed Umar Sabar Latuff, al-Qaida in Iraq’s top guy in Anah, who was nicknamed “bin Laden” because of his lengthy beard.
On the night of July 9, they picked up Nassir Jassir, who had been in Saddam Hussein’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, in Anah, and was now a professor of biochemistry in Ramadi. He had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, spoke perfect English and possessed fake identity documents going back to 2003.
Again, the two policemen from Anah came through, warning Apache that Nassir would have a fake name. “We grew up with him,” they reminded the Americans. Nassir was watching the World Cup final when troops from Apache’s tactical command post blew into his home. Three days later, Apache detained Abu Hamza’s main fuel supplier.
The one target they couldn’t track down was Wissam, who once again eluded the Americans.
His organization collapsing around him, Abu Hamza lashed out. A spate of four murders rocked Anah as the insurgent leader assassinated those he wrongly assumed were providing intelligence to Apache.
On July 13, he sent a suicide car bomber against the Iraqi army checkpoint on the road to Rawah. The bomb exploded, wounding 12 but killing none but the driver. It was Abu Hamza’s last throw of the dice.
That night, Apache detained Mohammed Jassim Mohammed, an active JTJ supporter in Anah with longtime ties to many of Abu Hamza’s leaders.
It was the break they needed. he told them under interrogation about two locations frequented by Wissam, the high-level insurgent leader who was bringing fighters across the Syrian border: Wissam’s uncle’s house in an Anah suburb, as well as the mosque Wissam frequented. He also told them the type of vehicle he drove. Then a young would-be policeman came through with another possible location for Wissam.
Apache troops carried out a series of coordinated raids over the next weeks that turned out to be near-misses. But each time they gained intelligence offered up by Wissam’s neighbors and family members. Finally, on the night of July 20, Apache moved against all three possible locations simultaneously, in a repeat of the July 8 operation that snared Marwan and the other top leaders
Each Apache element moved by foot to its target. Wissam was at none of the locations, but tactical questioning at his uncle’s house, which was 1st Platoon’s target, revealed that he was at what Wissam’s nephew described as Wissam’s “mother’s uncle’s” home.
Albertus and his tactical command post were at the mother’s home, and moved immediately to the house nearby that matched the description of the new target building. It was the wrong house, but the homeowner told Albertus that Wissam was next door at his fiancee’s home.
This time, the information was accurate.
For months, everyone from the city council to people on the street had been asking Apache soldiers, “Why don’t you get Wissam?” Now, at last, they had him.
After eluding U.S. forces for so long, Wissam was cornered. He gave up without a fight.
The humint team leader thought the trail to Wissam, built largely on intelligence gained through locals, showed how far Anah had come under Apache’s auspices. Ultimately, neighbors and family members “dimed him out,” he said.
In the three months it took Apache to take down the Abu Hamza group, the company fired live rounds only three times: when engaging the two suicide vehicle bombers, and when ambushing the roadside bomb cell. “It’s been more of a police action than combat,” the humint team leader said.
Abu Hamza himself vanished, withdrawn by the JTJ and replaced with another leader in charge of a new cell. But this group was composed mostly of outsiders, with few of the local ties that enabled Abu Hamza’s men to remain hidden for so long. The JTJ’s grip on the collective psyche of Anah had “absolutely” been broken, the humint team leader said.
In contrast to their previous reluctance even to meet with Americans, the Anah city council members “were a lot friendlier, a lot more open, and a lot more willing to accept the future of Anah,” he said.
Nevertheless, Albertus and his men know their efforts will mean little if JTJ is able to install another cell capable of instilling fear in the population. So the Americans plan to hold another Iraqi police recruiting drive in the near future, to capitalize on the newfound sense of security.
“The fight is not over, and it’s going to be a long time before the fight is over, but conditions have certainly improved, and the odds of getting the [Iraqi police] set up in Anah have greatly increased,” the humint team leader said.
But when Albertus and Freitag met with the city council July 25, the council members demurred on a plan to staff a new police force with locals, putting off a decision. The U.S. officers were disappointed, but there were signs of hope.
“The security situation in this area is much better than it was in the past,” Ja’arallah told Freitag. “Whatever you think would be best for security in this area, we would agree with it, because you know better than us.”
He was echoed by Hashim Muhsen, a portly council member wearing a white headdress who addressed Freitag in English. “If there’s anything better you want to do for security, do it,” he said.
This wasn’t quite what the Americans wanted to hear; the ideal in counterinsurgency is to have the local authorities take responsibility for security themselves.
Nonetheless, it was viewed as a big step in the right direction by Hart, the 4-14 fire support officer, who sat in on the meeting.
“Two weeks ago, these guys would never have said that,” he said. “No way.”
For an update on Freitag see here.