Military history

FOURTEEN

Three days later, intelligence came down that an internationally wanted Sudanese terror cell was operating in our AO, far on the western edge of Ramadi proper. Three platoons were to snatch these terrorists in the dead of night, and those of us participating were excited. During our first week in the city, a corporal had been badly wounded and all we had done since then was wander around, smiling, waving, and handing out candy and soccer balls, waiting to get shot at or exploded. We didn’t want revenge per se, but we did want to take the initiative away from the enemy, to go on the offensive, to be proactive rather than reactive. Now we would be moving on our own terms.

The CO mapped out our mission. Joker One would head out first, early in the afternoon, patrolling through the city on foot until we got to the target location. Our main purpose was to get human eyes, and human judgment, on the actual buildings that the company would be hitting that evening, hopefully limiting the number of surprises in store for us later. I was given verbal descriptions of the known terrorists—middle-aged, middle-height, and, most tellingly, black-skinned—and their names on the off chance that I recognized an opportunity to take down the Sudanese while we were patrolling. We would disguise this reconnaissance mission by conducting Information Operations (IO) in the vicinity, a task that sounded sophisticated at headquarters but that on the street simply meant handing out flyers explaining in Arabic that we were the good guys and the terrorists were the bad guys. In case the text wasn’t engaging enough, the missives also had a few pictures of Marines building schools, surrounded by smiling children. We had about seventy flyers in all, enough for one per every 4,300 people in our AO.

Once my platoon returned from the patrol, we would share whatever we had found out with Joker Two, the raid force itself. Joker Three would be the cordon force, and they would set out an hour earlier than everyone else. Remaining concealed in the darkness, their mission was to surround the target site before the mission kicked off so that no one could flee the raid force. Once they had set in, Joker Three would call back, and Jokers Two and One would launch out in Humvees and seven-tons to hit the target houses. Two would be the door kickers while my platoon set up machine gun positions in case things went really wrong. Leza and Raymond, the human cannon-ball, were also on standby to lend Joker Two a hand if necessary. Joker Four had security; so they would remain at the Outpost.

With the company plan set, I issued the necessary orders to the squad leaders. Three people per squad would get about five flyers apiece. They had strict instructions not to hand them out until I gave the order. I didn’t want us running out of Information Operations material before we got near the target site. The rest of us stuffed our pockets full of candy to hand out in lieu of the flyers. A few hours later, after rehearsals and final inspections were completed, Joker One stepped off on our target reconnaissance mission.

The patrol initially went smoothly. We moved quickly through the warehouses and automobile repair shops of the industrial area to the north of Michigan, avoiding the hostile Farouq district to our south altogether, and we crossed over the highway near the Saddam mosque in the center of the city. From there, the platoon pushed to the edge of the butchers’ district, to the major street demarcating its western boundary. That road would take us right by the target compound, and second squad and I hopped on it while first and third moved along our flanks. With another five minutes of walking to go, I called Noriel, Bowen, and Leza and instructed them to slowly start handing out the flyers.

As we passed the compound, I glanced around second squad to make certain that my men were still handing out flyers and candy and waving. They were. I slowed my pace to get a better look at the target complex. One thing became apparent: There were more buildings inside the compound than were shown on the company’s photographic map. Without being too obvious, I pulled out my own map and consulted it to make certain that I was remembering correctly. I was. Sure enough, where the photographic map showed two large open patches, my eyes showed two new buildings. Whatever imagery we had been provided was dated, probably by a few years.

I made a mental note of the buildings, then quickly moved over one block, from second to third squad, to get a look at the compound from another angle. Aside from the unexpected buildings, everything else seemed pretty straightforward—the walls were the normal height, the gates were located in the usual locations, and there was no evidence of heightened security. The patrol moved through the area, and I rejoined second squad. When we got two hundred meters away, I started to relax a bit. I could detect no evidence that the patrol had spooked our quarry. Then Teague called me:

“Sir, you said that our targets were three black people?”

“Yeah, Teague. What’ve you got?”

“Well, sir, I’ve got three black people walking down the street right here. Sir, I ain’t seen no black people in this city yet.”

Leza chimed in. “Yeah, sir. I see ‘em too. They’re about to pass me. Sir, I think they look like North Africans. Want me to have Raymond’s team grab them?”

Briefly, I was stymied. On the one hand, Teague was absolutely right. In our nine days in Ramadi, we had yet to see a single black Iraqi. Every Ramadian, it seemed, was an ethnic Arab. And Teague’s black-skinned, North African–looking males were well within walking distance of where our targets supposedly lived, so we could grab the three men now and perhaps complete the entire mission in one fell swoop. However, if these men were not the ones we wanted, then my platoon would just have snatched three black guys off the street in broad daylight within two hundred meters of a suspected terrorist residence. If the Sudanese truly were internationally wanted terrorists, it would take them less than an hour to put two and two together and move to a different safe house or a different city. It would take us more than an hour to figure out if we had the right guys, and the whole raid would be blown in the meantime. Or we could grab the streetwalkers and hit the houses ourselves, but there was no guarantee that 1) with just one platoon we could prevent fleeing terrorists from escaping or 2) our targets would even be home in the late afternoon.

With real-time dilemmas like this one, you generally have about five seconds, maximum, to make a crucial decision if you want to have any impact on the outcome of events. After that, a changing situation or your enemies usually make the decisions for you. I didn’t have time to radio the CO for his input, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. I was the only one on the scene, and no one was better positioned than me to make the call. I wasn’t going to offload my decision-making responsibility to a distant headquarters. Still, I was painfully conscious that if I screwed this one up, a trio of international terrorists was going to continue killing innocents.

About five seconds after Leza called me, I radioed him back and told him to stand down. We’d wait until we had the entire company.

As the patrol continued uneventfully, I knew that I had just rolled the dice. When I got back to the Outpost, I explained to the CO what we had seen and the rationale behind my decision. He looked extremely dubious, and he asked me, rather pointedly, whether I had ever seen any black Iraqis in the city before. When I admitted that I hadn’t, he then asked me why on earth I had hesitated to snatch the only three men in Ramadi who fit the description we had been given of the Sudanese terrorists.

This less-than-subtle Socratic questioning made quite clear the intended point: The CO thought that I hadn’t been aggressive or decisive enough.

However, what we didn’t know then was that the western edge of Ramadi had a large North African population. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of black-skinned residents answering to our targets’ descriptions lived in the area, which was why, of course, the terrorists had located their safe house there. I never found out if the three men I saw on the street that day were our targets or not, but the odds were in my favor.

Fortunately for me, events soon caused the CO to forget all about my decision. When Golf Company hit the buildings early the next morning, all our targets were inside. Joker Two raided the complex hard and fast, and pretty soon they called us for some extra manpower. The additional buildings meant that the men they had planned to use for prisoner security were instead tied up kicking down doors. Leza, Raymond, and the rest of second squad took off at a dead run from where I had positioned our vehicles. Soon they radioed back. They’d collected a whole clutch of terrorists, and they’d be bringing them back presently. Along with their targets, Joker Two had also found loads of IED-making material, tens of thousands of dollars shrink-wrapped in compact bundles, and a large cache of anti-American hate videos commingled with hard-core pornography.

I could tell by Leza’s tone that he was enjoying himself, and I was happy for him. After all, how many twenty-four-year-old, high-school-educated, Mexican American immigrants could say that they had played a crucial role in capturing internationally wanted terrorists? While I was monitoring the goings-on over the radio, the Gunny sidled up to me.

“Hey, sir, looks like you might have made a decent call back there, earlier today.”

“The CO didn’t seem too pleased,” I replied.

The Gunny’s creased face broke out in his big, heavy-lidded smile, and he pantomimed a shrug, hands held straight out from his sides. “All I know, sir, is that those terrorists are there now, sir.” He nodded at me and walked off.

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