How the Able Danger method bagged Saddam

'We believed rightly that Saddam was in our AO (area of operations) from summer '03 on, and also believed that if he were caught, he would likely be caught in our area as in any.  We publicly stated so from June '03 onward.'

These words are from an e—mail Lt. Col. Steven D. Russell wrote to me recently.  He commanded Task Force 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, which was based in Tikrit, Saddam's tribal homeground, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.  It was the unit most responsible for capturing Saddam Hussein, though the credit must be shared with the special operations task force with whom Russell and his men worked closely.  In his words:

'Colonel (James B.) Hickey (commander, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division) and I have always been on record as stating that it was very hard work from both conventional and special ops guys  in combination with raids, conventional combat ops and intel—driven operations'

that Saddam and others identified in the high value target 'deck of cards' were captured. 

With Saddam Hussein's trial underway, this would be an appropriate occasion to re—visit the persevering efforts that led to that historic day in December 2003 when the Butcher of Baghdad was pulled from his rathole. One of the intelligence techniques employed was the same used by the Able Danger to identify Mohammed Atta. 

'Data mining is the slang for it,' Captain Timothy Morrow explained to me.  That is, slang for the methods he and his small team employed. Captain Morrow served as intelligence officer for 1/22nd Infantry and credited LTC Russell and Col. Hickey for allowing his staff the leeway to work outside the box.  In this case, it meant a free hand to develop a non—standard database that included information from all known sources, which in turn served as the basis for a link diagram. That diagram — an intelligence mosaic if you will — depicted the nature of different enemy factions, including the identities of many of Saddam's facilitators.  Further, Morrow and his staff were given the freedom to share their data directly with other units and agencies, thereby insuring that they received actionable intelligence in a timely manner.  To make the process seamless and retain its simplicity, the captain regularly briefed the special operations task force and Major Stan Murphy's1st Brigade's intelligence team himself.

The leeway allowed by his superior officers also permitted Capt. Morrow to shift his focus early on from regime members and scientists who may have been involved with WMD to hunting insurgency enablers.  He believed that, since Saddam ran his regime like a mafia organization with close relatives at the top, and that they all had trusted bodyguards, he would target those bodyguards, along with Saddam's business associates. 

'We interrogated them to get new information and to verify older intelligence.  Then we passed them off to other agencies and units.  We did all of this, including handoffs, as rapidly as possible so no intelligence would get stale.'

Captain Morrow stressed that the database and link diagram had to be simple enough to tie together information flowing in from various sources, e.g., human intelligence (the most important), spot intelligence reports from other units in the field and items such as photos found on captured enemy personnel, photos that might, for instance, depict the bodyguard who carried them posing with a known associate of Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein himself. It was the use of these multiple sources that defined data mining in this case. Capt. Morrow told me that the entire process was an art, not a science; that by June 2003 his team had published the first link diagram of Saddam's inner circle bodyguards and associates with photographs of many of them.  This, together with the database, 'continued to be a living, growing document used for analysis and briefings.'    

The link diagram would, for instance, have at its top high—value target #1, or, Saddam Hussein.  Below would be the people who enabled him to thrive and operate:  family associates, bodyguards, financiers, all the way down to bomb makers and active terror cells.  From top to bottom all were connected and the linkages between and among them were illustrated by the diagram.  The diagram, Capt. Morrow said,

'helps you visualize relationships between people using all the same sources that are in the database.  It, along with the database, is where the real work is accomplished.' 

The database contained all the raw information about, for instance, family or tribal connections.  Captain Morrow's database was contained on an Excel spreadsheet in his laptop computer.  Identifying names was one of the biggest problems in Iraq, one that made information collection, targeting and handling detainees more difficult.  His database made that less problematical; allowed him to pinpoint the names of particular bombers, arms dealers, bodyguards and other enablers.  It 'helps you identify targets,' Morrow told me, 'and, by tracking informant names, it will help you discern who is really an enemy operator and who is just disliked by a certain informant or family.' Reiterating the importance of human intelligence, the captain stressed that it was the key to the capture of the top four people in the deck of cards.

'No computer or satellite gadgetry can replace it, nor can they equal it in effectiveness.  By treating locals honestly and with respect you will be overwhelmed with good, solid enemy information whether you want it or not.'

For LTC Russell's Task Force 1/22nd Infantry, a priority mission was

'locating and destroying or capturing personnel on the 'most wanted' and 'black' lists associated with Saddam's regime who posed a threat to a liberated Iraq.' 

Accomplishing that mission began in earnest with the capture of one of Saddam's nephews, who was carrying a gym bag containing $800,000 and a jewel—filled plastic tube.  On June 16, 2003 they nabbed #4 in the deck of cards, Saddam's personal secretary and cabinet member, General Hamid Mahmud Al—Tikriti.  In a follow—on raid at the general's family farm, millions of dollars in US and Iraqi money were recovered, along with an estimated $2 million in jewelry belonging to Saddam's wife, Sajida Kerala Telfa..  As LTC Russell later wrote:

'Using multiple, simultaneous raids we captured a number of individuals that led to bigger fish. (other personal bodyguards and enablers of Saddam)  Our men performed superbly and worked in cooperation with special operations forces. Information from raids and pressure on people we detained (interrogated by Captain Morrow) led us to the information for # 4's capture and culminated with the raids on the Hadooshi farm.' 

The Hadooshis were known to be some of Saddam's personal bodyguards.  From his intelligence sources Capt. Morrow knew them to be Hussein's drinking buddies who captured women for his 'use.'  One of them was with Saddam's sons when they were killed.  Russell referred to these ongoing operations as 'draining the swamp' and these thugs were bottom feeders. 

In late July another inner circle figure and Saddam's bodyguard, Adnan Abdullah Abid Musslit, was captured.  Acting on information from local Iraqis who knew him to be a vicious murderer, Captain Mark Stoufer's A Company and LT Chris Morris' Recon Platoon conducted a lightning raid in residential Tikrit that netted Musslit, another bodyguard, and a former regime organizer.

By September the five controlling families that surrounded, supported and protected Saddam had been identified.  They all lived in villages straddling a 12 mile corridor along the Tigris River. One of those villages was Owja, Saddam's birthplace.  Each family had specific tasks such as logistics, operations or planning.  Each one then delegated assignments to a web of lower tier cells which also had individual responsibilities, e.g., safe houses, food, transportation.   The entire organization was depicted on Captain Morrow's link diagram.

'We now had a clear blood trail of the inner circle and an excitement began to build,' LTC Russell later wrote.  If we could break the inner circle, we felt it would come down fast.  It did.  On November 13 we conducted raids in Tikrit and pulled four more men from the swamp.  Though lesser players, they were related to recent attacks and had key information.'

Beginning the first week of December events began to cascade.  A special operations team raid in Tikrit captured another inner circle member whose family helped protect Saddam.   A Company nabbed a known Saddam associate on December 9 at a desert farmhouse.  A subsequent special operations mission bagged another inner circle member.  And then, the fat man sang.  Captured in Baghdad and taken immediately to 1st Brigade headquarters, this innermost circle member, never identified, was described by officers there as one of the '42 inch waistband guys.'  Major Murphy called him 'Saddam's right arm.'   He had been a senior official in Saddam's elite Special Security Organization based in Abu Ajeel, home village for one of the supporting families in the Tigris River corridor. It took some intense sessions, but the fat man talked, revealing after several interrogations that Saddam was hiding in Ad Dawr, east of Tikrit along the Tigris. 

Planning for Operation Red Dawn commenced.  Col. Hickey had told LTC Russell to have his men ready at a moment's notice for any contingency.  But because at that time the fat man hadn't yet provided the specific location, Task Force 1/22 was deployed west of the Tigris.  When the Ad Dawr site became known,  planners identified two objectives there, a house and a farm designated Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2.  Col. Hickey deployed 4/42d Field Artillery and G Troop, 10th Cavalry as outer and inner cordons around the objectives, with 1/10th Cavalry covering the air corridor.  Across the Tigris were Russell's men, with A Company positioned right along the riverbank. 

Special operations teams hit Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2 simultaneously on December 13.  At 8:10 p.m. the team at Wolverine 2 reported finding a hole.  Several minutes later came the words, 'We have an individual in the hole.'  In it and nearby were: 1 pistol, 2 AK—47 rifles, $750,000 in U.S. currency and a taxi.  Col. Hickey sealed off the site immediately.  The 'individual' was whisked off by special operations personnel.  Two hours later, Russell received a phone call from Col. Hickey, who relayed the good news.  'Cesar Romero!' he exclaimed.  In earlier discussions of how Saddam might look now, Hickey had joked that he might resemble the famous actor.

Saddam Hussein had been captured.  In the words of LTC Russell:  ' We knew our months of raiding, painstaking intelligence work and capture of several deck of card leaders, along with large percentages of Saddam's inner circle, got us to where we were.  I'm very proud of our part in his capture.  It was a great accomplishment for the United States, the 4th Infantry Division and Special Operations Forces.'

Captain Timothy Morrow wasn't on hand for that historic event.  He was back home in Texas recuperating from a gunshot wound to the upper chest received October 28 while on patrol in Tikrit.  Though frustrated, he could rest content knowing that the intelligence he and his staff produced was vital to the planning of Red Dawn and bagging the Butcher of Baghdad. 

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.

Author's note:

The 4th ID is now beginning its second deployment to Iraq, which will continue through December.  Now re—organized & "modular" the "Iron Horse" division under Maj. Gen. James Thurman, will be based in Baghdad. Besides its four brigade combat teams, the 4th ID will have 3 Iraqi divisions attached to it.  God Speed these superbly trained fighting men & women.