How Zarqawi Was Found and Killed

The story of how the U.S. military found and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is emerging. A combination of special operations, interrogation, high tech surveillance, and a mole in the al Qaeda in Iraq camp helped make yesterday’s lethal strike possible.

Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, and Richard Oppel have a detailed piece in the NYT summarizing the facts as we understand them:

In recent weeks, American officials say, they had begun following a man who they believed could lead them directly to Mr. Zarqawi: his “spiritual adviser,” Sheik Abd al-Rahman. A member of Mr. Zarqawi’s network, captured by the Americans, had told them the sheik was Mr. Zarqawi’s most trusted adviser.

Some weeks ago, American officials said, they began tracking Mr. Rahman with a remotely piloted aircraft, hoping he would lead them to their quarry. “This gentlemen was key to our success in finding Zarqawi,” said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the spokesman for the American military in Baghdad. “Through painstaking intelligence effort, they were able to start tracking him, monitoring his movements and establishing when he was doing his link-ups with Zarqawi.”

Yet for all the excitement, one critical piece of the puzzle still remained: The Americans might be able to track Mr. Rahman, but how would they know when he was meeting with Mr. Zarqawi?

[…]

Indeed, what the Americans had always lacked was someone from inside Mr. Zarqawi’s network, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who would betray him — someone close enough and trusted enough to show the Americans where he was. According to a Pentagon official, the Americans finally got one. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the raid are classified, said that an Iraqi informant inside Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia provided the critical piece of intelligence about Mr. Rahman’s meeting with Mr. Zarqawi. The source’s identity was not clear — nor was it clear how that source was able to pinpoint Mr. Zarqawi’s location without getting killed himself. “We have a guy on the inside who led us directly to Zarqawi,” the official said.

WaPo’s Jonathan Finer adds some detail on how Rahman was identified in the first place:

For years, Zarqawi and his top aides have been hunted by an elite and highly secretive team of U.S. Special Forces personnel known as Task Force 77. They nearly apprehended Zarqawi on several occasions, most recently in April during a series of raids near the southern city of Yusufiyah, according to a defense official familiar with the Zarqawi hunt.

A crucial breakthrough in the hunt came last month when Jordanian intelligence officers captured one of Zarqawi’s mid-level operatives near the Iraqi border, according to the official. Employed by the Iraqi government as a customs clearance officer in Rutbah, along the main road from Amman to Baghdad, the operative identified himself as Ziad Khalaf al-Kerbouly. Kerbouly said in a statement broadcast by Jordanian television on May 23 that he used his position to help Zarqawi smuggle cash and materiel for the insurgency.

Under questioning, Kerbouly told Jordanian interrogators something that they did not broadcast: the identity and contacts for Zarqawi’s new “spiritual adviser,” Sheik Abdel Rahman. Task Force 77 located Abdel Rahman, kept him under surveillance and learned that there was “a very high probability” he would meet Zarqawi at the house on Wednesday.

As Christopher Hitchens observes, “The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is excellent news in its own right and even more excellent if, as U.S. sources in Iraq are claiming, it resulted from information that derived from people who were or had been close to him. (And, if that claim is black propaganda, then it is clever black propaganda, which is also excellent news.)”

Indeed. Presuming the mole didn’t martyr himself in the strike, he might be able to pass on more information. Even if there isn’t/wasn’t an insider, the intensified fear that they can’t trust their own can be corrosive. (BSG fans: It’s like finding out that the Cylons look like us now.) That’s a very good thing, indeed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.