Cracking An Insurgent Cell
Finding--and breaking--the ruthless killers of Iraq is not a pretty business. An exclusive inside look at how it's done
"Yes," Adel answers, "I know that. But I was brainwashed. That is what we were told to do: kill Americans."
Hassan orders Abu Mahmoud brought in. He is dressed in a brown dishdasha, the traditional Arab body shirt that the American soldiers call a man-dress. His closely cut hair is receding, and he has a two-day growth of beard. He looks like Hollywood's version of a terrorist. Abu Mahmoud gives Fox, Majeed, and Hassan a hard look. Abu Mahmoud, whose real name is Hassan Mahmoud Yunes, has admitted killing the campaign worker, and the police press his thumb to a written statement of the crime. Why, Hassan asks, has Abu Mahmoud attacked the party members and laid the roadside bombs? "The reason I did this is that five from my family got killed by the Americans," Abu Mahmoud says. "That is why I took on this role."
A detainee dressed in green is brought in. The cell members call him Nutuk, but his real name is Idam Mohammed Sassan. Sassan is whining; tears well in his eyes. He is innocent, he says. Abu Mahmoud regards him with disdain. "He helped bring the IED s in," Abu Mahmoud says. "No, no," Sassan cries. Sassan reaches out toward Hassan. Whack. Hassan slaps Sassan across the face. Fox springs backward, as if he himself was hit. The slap has taken everyone by surprise. Hassan is removed from the room, and the interrogation of Abu Mahmoud continues.
Abu Mahmoud explains how he set IED s along the roads and used small hand-held Motorola radios to set them off when the American Strykers rolled past. Two were successful, he says, while "the third you found." The IED s, Abu Mahmoud says, came from a connection in the Sunni town of Halibeah. "If you tell me about the IED s on the road, I will help you," Hassan says. "This is the only way I can help you. Tell me about your connection."
"Someone met me in Halibeah and gave me the IED s," Abu Mahmoud replies. He professes not to know names, aside from those of his cell members. In the back of the room, Majeed looks skeptical. But he says nothing. The operation has been a success. A large weapons cache has been taken off the street, an entire insurgent cell rolled up. Most important, the mid-December elections go smoothly. Still, questions and tension linger in the 1-17 battalion's operation center. How did the Iraqi Army get the information out of Nashwan and Abu Mahmoud? Did the Iraqi Army torture or beat them?
Dignity. His battalion has been working hard over the past four months, Fox says, to discourage the Iraqis from hitting or beating detainees. "A big thing is to try and teach them to treat people with dignity and respect," he says. There are, unfortunately, consequences to changing the Iraqi way of doing business. "When we first got here, it was very common," he says of the beatings. "Now it is less and less. But the information is also less and less." Does that mean beating detainees works? "The Iraqi Army," Fox says, "will tell you absolutely it leads to actionable intel."