- Published: Sunday, 23 March 2008 21:53
Killing al Qaeda
Western Nineveh Province, Iraq
The sun was setting over Nineveh as four terrorists driving tons of explosives closed on their targets. On August 14, 2007, the Yezidi villages of Qahtaniya and Jazeera were under attack, but only the terrorists knew it as they drove their trucks straight into the hearts of the communities.
The shockwave from detonation far outpaced the speed of sound. Buildings and humans were ripped apart and hurled asunder. Superheated poisonous gases from the explosions gathered the smoke and dust and lofted heavenward, while the second detonation quickly followed. The terrorists had landed their first blows straight through the heart of the Yezidi community, turning a wedding party into hundreds of funerals.
But the attacks were not over. Yezidi men grabbed their rifles, and while two more truck bombs rumbled toward Qahtaniya and Jazeera, a hail of Yezidi bullets met them. The defenders who fired the bullets were killed with honor while standing between evil and their people. Two other truck bombs detonated on the outskirts of the villages.
When the sun rose the next morning, screaming victims remained trapped in the rubble. Survivors clawed and ripped at the wreckage, working themselves to exhaustion to rescue their wives, husbands, children and brothers.
The attacks on Qahtaniya and Jazeera killed more than five hundred people, and garnered international news. No group claimed responsibility, yet the attacks bore the mark of the al Qaeda beast, in the way that fangs to a jugular vein spells Dracula.
Al Qaeda is still trying to spin Iraq into civil war, but whereas in 2005-2006 al Qaeda was succeeding, today al Qaeda is being shredded.
An Iraqi officer near Sinjar told me that recently a group of perhaps twenty “jihadists,” many of them foreign, descended on a Nineveh village. The Iraqi officer said the terrorists killed some adults and two babies. One baby they murdered was 15 days old.
Until recently, such terror attacks inside Iraq could have coerced the village into sheltering Al Qaeda. Yet this time, the “jihadists” got an unexpected reception. Local men grabbed their rifles and poured fire on the demons, slaughtering them. Nineteen terrorists were destroyed. Times have changed for al Qaeda here. Too many Iraqis have decided they are not going to take it anymore. Al Qaeda in Iraq is still fighting, and they are tough and wily, but al Qaeda Central seems to realize there are easier targets elsewhere, perhaps in Europe, where many people demonstrate weakness in the face of terror.
Al Qaeda was apparently not in Iraq before this war, and at the current rate they will not be here when it’s over. The Iraqi Army and Police are doing most of the work these days, but their own operations are significantly augmented by what we bring to the fight.
The main American helicopter unit in Nineveh is 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron. The normal strength of the “Redcatchers” is forty helicopters – thirty Kiowas and ten Blackhawks – but the Squadron has lost one Kiowa and a Blackhawk in Iraq, costing more than a dozen lives. The soldiers were lost forever, but the helicopters were replaced, and the squadron is flying hard as ever, and to great affect. The pilots and crews work 24/7, performing both direct combat and combat support missions.
I flew from Mosul in one of the Squadron’s Blackhawks from “Darkhorse” troop en route to FOB Sykes near Tal Afar. The “Hawks” are powerful, fast, and loud. Blackhawk rotors are better designed than Vietnam-era Huey “choppers,” and do not generated the percussive whop whop whop. And so despite that Blackhawks are loud, when they fly low, fast and into the wind, they can at times literally sneak up on people on the ground. First there is silence, and then VRROOOOMMMM the Hawk flies right over your head.
We flew low from Mosul to Tal Afar in broad daylight, and if we happened to cross paths with a surface-to-air missile, the day could get exciting and final. Back in 2005, I saw Deuce Four soldiers capture more than two dozen surface-to-air missiles in Mosul, and missiles are still occasionally launched at aircraft. The enemy has been putting much effort into shooting down aircraft.
There were dark storms to the north as we flew low over mostly desolate terrain, and there were electrical wires that have claimed other helicopters in Iraq. Out in the far distance were the two Yezidi villages that had been bombed last August. Blackhawk crews from 4-6 were the first to spot the four mushroom clouds. They had flown medical supplies and soldiers to the scene of the carnage. The ground crews at their FARP (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) had treated many dozens of wounded Yezidis, who had brought their wounded to the nearest Americans they could find. Yezidis (also spelled Yazidi) are fond of Americans and our soldiers get along great with them. Saddam called them Devil worshippers, but then it was Saddam’s wars that killed over a million people and filled human lungs with poison gas. The Yezidis are more concerned about sending their kids to school and then off to university.
Back in 2005, I went alone without soldiers to Yezidi villages. I would not hesitate to stay the night in a Yezidi village. A pilot told me that if he ever had to make an emergency landing, he would try to reach the nearest Yezidi village. So when the villages of Qahtaniya and Jazeera were bombed, our people knew that friendly people had been attacked, and the helicopter and ground crews, along with American Special Forces and other soldiers, rushed to help. When Iraqi government officials arrived, Yezidis threw rocks at them, and the officials retreated. Yezidis tend to get along well with people who do not barbarize them. But Saddam was a criminal, and he unleashed his cannons on Yezidis, and the other Kurds, and the Shia, and the Iranians, and the Kuwaitis, as well as financing attacks against the Israelis.
There is a well-informed American officer here at Tal Afar who works closely with Yezidis in western Nineveh. One evening we talked about the bombings and looked at never-before released videos and photos. Kurdish Peshmerga rushed aid to Qahtaniya and Jazeera, and a Kurdish commander began putting defenses around those and other Yezidi villages. (The Yezidis consider themselves Yezidis first and Kurds second, while the Kurds consider Yezidis to be Kurds.)
The KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) arrived to Qahtaniya and Jazeera with tents supplied by the United Nations. The Yezidis did not know what to do with the tents; their custom is to take in, and care for, their own. But the Yezidis, not wishing to offend the people who brought the help and the tents, and wishing to show gratitude, spent some of the daylight hours in the tents and then stayed in other Yezidi homes at night.
“Darkhorse,” the Blackhawks of 4-6, might be the hardest-working “hawks” in Iraq. Some days, they fly to the Iranian border—where the warning comes over the radio: “This is the Iranian Consulate. You are approaching Iranian airspace.” Or to the Turkish border: “This is the Turkish Consulate. You are approaching Turkish airspace.” The Syrian frontier with Nineveh has no alarm.
Darkhorse pilots fly over a large expanses -- up to the Turkish, Iranian or Syrian frontiers, over to Dahuk, Mosul, Irbil, Kirkuk and even all the way down to Baghdad on shuttle missions.
For combat missions, Darkhorse crews often prefer to work with American Special Forces teams, who are usually accompanied by Iraqi soldiers, eager to close in with terrorists.
Last September, two Darkhorse Blackhawks were zooming over the desert near the Syrian border when an SF soldier spotted a suspicious tarp. The tarp was suspect because it was apparently covering something in a wadi in the middle of nowhere, and it was close to the two Yezidi villages that had been attacked just a month prior.
The pilots landed and the SF and Iraqi soldiers popped out to take a look. Pulling back the dusty tarp, they found approximately ten tons of ammonium nitrate -- enough to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people either in gigantic, spectacular attacks that garner news, or the daily boom-sheet of smaller bombs, most of which are barely reported, if at all.
In 2005, nearby Tal Afar was known as “Al Qaeda city,” as terrorists used it for training and R&R. And though Nineveh Province is now the most dangerous place in Iraq, it’s much quieter than a couple years ago. Still, there is plenty of trouble, especially when your job is to find it, and the summer of 2008 likely will bring the showdown into Mosul, where the media probably will report a small part of it, missing 99 percent of the fighting to disrupt the terrorists and drive stakes through their hearts.
The job of going nose-to-nose with terrorists is complicated by the increasing use of suicide vests (S-VESTs), which are exploding all over the place these days. Some of the vests are small, actually just belts with a few hand grenades’ worth of explosives. These are Jihadist ejection seats, which are not per se offensive weapons. When all is going wrong, and the terrorist is about to get caught, he can kak off the explosives and eject out of life.
The larger suicide vests, often loaded with ball bearings, can kill dozens. These vests are often worn by young fighters, typically male -- though more females are starting to explode. The young men come to Iraq to fight like infantry soldiers, only to find themselves terrorized into wearing suicide vests. In 2005, I wrote about a young Libyan who was happy to have been captured by American “Deuce Four” soldiers in Nineveh because Iraqis were mistreating him and trying to force him blow up some Mosul police. Like many foreign fighters, the Libyan was not hardcore. He was so grateful to be captured that he began telling his entire sad story. The best thing about foreign fighters is that, contrary to myth, often they do not want to die, and when they get caught, they blab everything.
On 14 March 2008, U.S. soldiers were running a biometric registration station at the Iraq-Syria border. An unknown person came into the building wearing a powerful S-VEST studded with ball bearings. When the person detonated, American soldiers PFC Cody Cook and SSG Bennie Lamb were wounded. Interpreter Faysal Kayif Rashoka and three other people were killed. The vest was powerful enough to collapse a substantial portion of the building onto the wounded American soldiers, causing additional injuries. One Iraqi body was so damaged that the remains fit into two computer-printer boxes.
The key to killing the terrorists is knowing where to look, so the Darkhorse helicopter crews prefer to hunt with Special Forces. The SF emphasis is on leveraging limited assets with intelligence, mobility, speed and relative superiority. If Genghis Khan had helicopters, he might have been conducting “Nineveh Strikes.” You can fly for thirty minutes at a 150 mph out here and hardly see a soul, but there are tire tracks all over the Nineveh deserts, and explosives and many foreign fighters came in on those tire tracks. The Nineveh Strike is a hunting technique often involving a dangerous type of vehicle interdiction where a helicopter swoops down on a moving vehicle and stops it.
The mission was to fly to two “Named Areas of Interest” (NAI’s) near the Syrian border and be prepared to conduct Nineveh Strikes. The date was 28 September 2007, about one week after creating the deadly jellyfish, and six weeks after the attacks on Qahtaniya and Jazeera. The two Darkhorse helicopters lifted into the night accompanied by two Kiowa Warriors from Blackdeath, another vital arm from the Redcatcher Squadron. The two Kiowas fly slower, and so the Kiowas launched about fifteen minutes ahead of the two Blackhawks.
The pilots in the first Blackhawk were CW3 James Gallagher in the left seat, and CW2 Louis “Gonzo” Gonzales in the right. SGT Ron Hinman was a crew chief on the left door gun, while crew chief SGT Josh Price had the right door gun.
The second Blackhawk had CW3 Alan Moore in the left seat, and CPT Ashlie Christian was in the right seat. Sitting behind Ashlie was SGT Kevin Heitz, the crew chief with the right door gun. The left door gunner was SPC Patrick Fougere.
The aviators’ night vision goggles (ANVIS-6) are fantastically sensitive and crisp. A firefly would appear bright as a slow moving tracer bullet. The ANVIS-6 are so sensitive that when a man puffs on cigarette, he casts a clear shadow. Car headlights wash across the desert as if giant spotlights from a World Fair were mounted on a little car. The headlights can be seen bouncing up and down in the desert, so far away that nobody in the cars could possibly hear the “Hawks.” By the time they do hear the Blackhawks and turn off their lights, it’s far too late.
But for this night, lunar illumination was 98 percent. Even with the naked eye, the night was bright enough to cast shadows. For the helicopters, nights with 30-50% illumination are better than day. Crews can see the bad guys from miles away with their ANVIS-6, but the bad guys cannot see the birds. On nights with a bright moon and no clouds, the Hawks are easy to see when they get close.
That night, each of the two Blackhawks carried five Special Forces soldiers and six Iraqis. CW3 Moore and CPT Christian were in the cockpit, while the Ground Commander (the “GC” was the Special Forces team leader, whom I’ll call “CPT Kris”) flew with them in the trail Blackhawk. That night, CPT Kris was on the left side of the Blackhawk. When the helicopters approach something of interest, they will circle left or right depending on where the GC is sitting, and with CPT Kris on left, they would circle counterclockwise.
The Blackhawks had not yet reached their NAI when they spotted a Bongo truck out the right. Although the Bongo was outside the NAI, and close to a village, the Special Forces GC, CPT Kris, wanted to at least circle the truck. SGT Josh Price, who had done many Nineveh Strikes, was irritated, thinking they were wasting fuel and time. CPT Ashlie Christian radioed to “Chalk 1” (the front Blackhawk that was flying low) to circle the truck. CW3 Alan Moore, the pilot sitting beside CPT Christian in Chalk 2, started bringing the aircraft to the left around the truck.
The Bongo had two bags in the back. One was covering a man who was considered a High Value Target, but the ANVIS-6 goggles provide no X-Ray vision, and nobody saw the hidden man, who apparently was playing the combat version of hide-and-go-seek. The ultimate big boy game where “Ready or not here I come with a Blackhawk and a machinegun,” meets “Bring it on, I’m wearing explosives.”
The truck drove slowly to a small building, stopped briefly, and then continued slowly down the road.
With the Air Mission Commander and the Ground Commander in the high bird called Chalk 2, Chalk 1 was down on the deck and pulled low beside the slowly moving truck. So low that SGT Ron Hinman was looking straight out over his machine gun at the two men in the truck’s cab. Rotor wash lifted the dust causing the beam from Hinman’s infrared PEQ-2 laser on his machine gun to look like a light-saber through his goggles. The two men in the cab were clearly visible, and when the passenger looked over in Hinman’s direction, the laser reflected off the internal parts of the man’s eyes, causing them to glow brightly like devil eyes in the night goggles. One burst from Hinman’s machine gun would have finished them, but still nobody saw the man hidden in the back.
Unlike most people faced with about 20,000 pounds of roaring helicopter, the men in the truck acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. So the pilot, Gallagher, sped up the helicopter and got ahead of the truck, then pirouetted in the moonlight and roared nose-to-nose down the middle of the road, with his 600-watt light shining through the truck’s windshield while dust and rocks ticked and pinked off the windshield and the cab filled with dust in the blinding light.
The driver kept the truck coming, with a hand waving a white rag out the window, but he was disoriented and slowly driving off the road. Gallagher came closer, flying directly over the windshield and over the truck, rocking it with the rotor blast, creating a huge amount of disorienting dust. The driver veered slightly off the road, but kept moving in the general direction of a village a few hundred meters ahead.
From Chalk 2 hundreds of feet above, the GC ordered the ground force in Chalk 1 to stop the truck. Gallagher put Chalk 1 down between the truck and the village. The five Special Forces soldiers were out of Chalk 2 in seconds, but the Iraqi SWAT team got clustered somehow and took extra seconds getting out. The Iraqis would be disoriented; they usually wear no earplugs and the Blackhawks are loud. The moonlight was bright so they did not need night vision, but the Iraqis weren’t wearing headsets in the helicopter to hear (in English) what was happening. The Iraqis would only know that the helicopter had landed and that the Special Forces got out, and that the Iraqis should follow, then take three to five steps, get down on one knee and face away from the helicopter, which would roar away. But that’s not what happened. We will never know what the SWAT members were thinking.
What we do know is that the truck continued toward the Blackhawk which was still on the ground. In the pilots’ seats, Gallagher and Gonzales could not see the truck because of the dust. Circling hundreds of feet above, pilot CW3 Moore was radioing to Gonzales to get off the deck because the truck was about to crash into his Blackhawk. Moore could not fly into a position where Fougere could shoot the Bongo with his machinegun; the Bongo was so close that Fougere would have had to fire through Chalk 1’s rotors. The Bongo came through the dust and SGT Ron Hinman, gripping his M240H saw the truck nearly on him, so close to the helicopter that Hinman had to press the butt of the machine gun down to lift the barrel up to point into the windshield. Hinman was ready to fire when an Iraqi soldier, apparently protecting the helicopter, rushed toward the truck, getting in front of Hinman’s gun. Just then, pilot Gallagher lifted off and began roaring away.
Nobody saw the third man in the back. The Bongo passenger had gotten out and was walking toward the Iraqi soldiers and the interpreter, who was screaming at the passenger to stop and get down. The man kept coming. The interpreter and two Iraqi soldiers closed in and tried to subdue the passenger. He detonated. Ball bearings ripped through flesh and zoomed off into the night as a fireball lifted into the moonlight, temporarily blinding Christian’s goggles hundreds of feet above in Chalk 2.
On the ground, Special Forces soldiers shot and killed the driver and were checking the wounded and getting them away from the truck in case there were more bombs. The man hidden under the tarp in the back did not move.
A critical radio retrans site atop a nearby mountain was not working, making communications difficult. The Blackhawks needed the Kiowas to try to call for medical evacuation helicopters, but the Kiowas also could not reach the FOB, and in fact were themselves miles away but rushing to the scene.
The closest ground forces would take two to three hours to arrive, so if there was any serious ground fighting coming, four helicopters with limited fuel and ammunition would be anchored to the ground where Chalk 1 was. Half of the ground force was still airborne in Chalk 2, but quickly landed, and the rest of the Special Forces and Iraqi soldiers disgorged into the moonlight.
Chalks 1 and 2 had a total ground force of twenty two men armed with rifles. Eight of the twenty two were dead or wounded.
The pilots expected a quick turnaround, but the Special Forces team was trying to save the interpreter and were also busy stabilizing the other wounded. They moved the wounded away from the Bongo truck just for safety, yet nobody saw the hidden man in the back.
They moved the wounded near the Chalk 2 helicopter that was on the ground.
The Kiowas arrived and were on high cover, but for thirty to forty minutes the ground forces were on the deck, and eventually began to draw “crows.” Groups of men in the village were coming out. Meanwhile, the man remained hidden in the back of the Bongo.
Pilots Moore and Christian, with their wheels on the ground, started taking fire from the village. The machineguns mounted on the sides would have been handy, but the Iraqi SWAT members were courageously putting themselves between the fire from the village and the helicopters. The SWAT members were firing back while trying to protect the helicopter and wounded, but unfortunately, they had moved between the door gunner and the target.
The four helicopters and ground force were on their own. The nearest base was Tal Afar, but with retrans down, they were unable to communicate well with the TOC (Tactical Operations Center: headquarters). If one helicopter got shot down, this could be a serious catastrophe. A burning helicopter near the Syrian border with limited fuel in the other birds would be an invitation for wounded Iraqis and Americans to be taken prisoner and spirited across the Syrian border.
Gallagher, circling his Blackhawk in the dark, told the Kiowas to get down low and cover while he climbed to make better comms. The Kiowas call signs were Blackdeath 12 and Blackdeath 13. Blackdeath 12 was piloted by CW2 Dave Caudill and CW2 Jack Varble, while Blackdeath 13 was piloted by CW2 Shane Nicholson and CW2 Clint Hall.
The Blackdeath aircraft swooped low over the village, while Gallagher kept circling his Blackhawk higher and higher into the night, but he still couldn’t get good comms. A thousand feet, two thousand, three thousand -- comms still weren’t working. At about four thousand feed AGL (Above Ground Level), Gallagher made contact with FOB Sykes with a SITREP (situation report), saying they would do their own casevac.
On the ground, the SF and Iraqi soldiers loaded the dead and wounded onto Chalk 2. Gallagher and Gonzo then came down with Chalk 1 and picked up the rest.
The pilots started pushing the motors as hard as they would go for the nearly eighty five miles to Mosul. The slower Kiowas could not keep up, so they stayed back and destroyed the truck and its contents with a Hellfire missile, some 2.75 rockets and .50-caliber machine-gun rounds, then headed back to FOB Sykes. Nobody realized that a high value target had been hidden in the back of the Bongo truck, and the Kiowa pilots shot him to pieces. His parts were found later.
Meanwhile, the two Blackhawks with dead and wounded were traveling about 180 mph. Moore would push the engines into the thermal red zone with the temperature exceeding 903°C, but would pull back down before twelve seconds passed, so the engine didn’t overheat for too long. Once the temp dropped, he would push back over 903°C, careful to keep it under the twelve-second transient limit.
SGT Kevin Heitz was manning a door gun with one hand, while holding a bandage over a Special Forces soldier’s wound with the other. Over a half hour later, they landed at the Combat Support Hospital in Mosul where they were met by medical staff with stretchers.
Three Special Forces soldiers were wounded. Three Iraqis were killed, including the interpreter whose wife had just had a baby. The Special Forces soldiers had been close to the SWAT and were upset, while Iraqis were bawling for their dead and wounded. Josh Price put his arm around one Iraqi who could not stop crying. The aircrew offered to give blood for the wounded Iraqis even though they were not permitted to do so because they were on flight status. The blood was not needed..
The Darkhorse helicopter was drenched in blood. The seats were soaked and there were pieces of flesh and brains all around, along with ball bearings. SGT Heitz later had the seats burned, but that night asked the fire department to come and hose out the blood so the bird would be clean when they flew the SF and Iraqi SWAT back to duty.
The three wounded SF soldiers immediately returned to duty.
Though this had been scheduled as their last mission, the Special Forces team did not go out like that. They planned another mission to that village, again heliborne and Iraqi soldiers on the ground, ten days after the previous mission. They swooped in, interdicted a number of vehicles without incident, and raided the village. They avoided suicide vests by making the men strip naked and walk toward them. The raid uncovered weapons, including about 1,000 rounds of 14.3-mm anti-aircraft ammunition.
Nineveh in late March 2008
There are no guarantees, but this could be the endgame for major combat operations in Iraq. Combat is likely to heat up in Mosul and western Nineveh by about May. There likely will be some reports of increased US and Iraqi casualties up here, but this does not mean that we are losing ground or that al Qaeda is resurging – though clearly they are trying. If there is an increase in casualties here as we go into the summer of 2008, it is because our people and the Iraqi forces are closing in. We have seen just how deadly al Qaeda can be. This enemy is desperate. They know they are losing. They are not likely to go out easy. The enemy is smart, agile and adaptive. Likely they will land some devastating blows on us, but at this rate, our people and Iraqi forces appear to be driving stakes through al Qaeda hearts faster than al Qaeda is regenerating.