Chapter 14

FEBRUARY 15, 2018



Ismael al-Ethawi does not know he is being watched.

The terrorist walks through the crowded bazaar wearing a checkered head covering and three-day facial stubble. He is fifty-five years old. The ISIS courier and top lieutenant to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi moves easily past the vending stalls, in no particular hurry to conduct his shopping. He holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Anbar in his hometown of Ramadi, Iraq, and is one of five men al-Baghdadi trusts. One of al-Ethawi’s key roles is selecting leaders for the ISIS command-and-control structure, but he also delivers religious messages to various ISIS factions. Al-Ethawi is in charge of issuing a fatwa—religious punishment—for those accused of breaking with their faith. In short, Ismael al-Ethawi is personally responsible for stonings, beheadings, and murdering people by throwing them off rooftops.

The terrorist fled Iraq with his wife months ago, when US and Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul. The couple arrived in Turkey and live in this small town outside Istanbul. Al-Ethawi has taken on a new identity, using the name of his brother, but an informant now recognizes him from a photograph. Quickly, Turkish authorities place him under surveillance.

What happens next to Ismael al-Ethawi is still classified. What we do know is that he is arrested. The Turks keep him in custody for a time, extracting what information they can. The terrorist is then handed over to Iraqi authorities.

It is more than likely that al-Ethawi was taken to the Iraqi Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Office’s prison in Qayyarah, forty miles south of Mosul, which has a very low release rate. This facility is notorious for torture. Interrogations start with being blindfolded and beaten, then grow more medieval. One method of extracting information is to handcuff wrists behind backs, then use a rope to slowly raise the arms to the ceiling, dislocating the shoulders.

As this is taking place, the suspect is whipped on his bare back and the soles of the feet with a metal cable. Iraqi interrogators call this the “bazooka.” There is also the technique of burning a man’s testicles with a hot steel ruler. Often, a combination of the two is utilized, with a man hung in the bazooka position and beaten while a one-liter bottle of water is tied to his penis with a thin string, cutting deep into the flesh.

It doesn’t take long for Ismael al-Ethawi to “turn.” In a word, he becomes an informant.

The ISIS terrorist begins telling the Iraqis what they want to know: how he and other ISIS leaders travel freely through Syria and Iraq, including the common method of hiding within a pile of vegetables inside a minivan. He reveals the locations of al-Baghdadi’s many secret homes. Curiously, he says that the ISIS chief prefers to hide within a region of Syria controlled by a new rival terror organization called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. That crew is led by a former ISIS leader turned enemy named Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. Al-Baghdadi’s hideout is located in a mountainous and poor area, far from military patrols. His compound is honeycombed with escape tunnels. In fact, the ISIS leader is behaving in precisely the same manner as Osama bin Laden—sheltering in a walled compound just outside a busy town. The Iraqis soon pass the information along to the CIA, which immediately begins the process of spying on al-Baghdadi using drones and satellites.

The information provided by al-Ethawi leads to air strikes on hidden ISIS compounds and munitions factories in Syria. Thirty-six terrorists are killed. The fact that al-Ethawi is in custody is not known to ISIS—which thinks he is still operating freely. There is absolutely no suspicion that his confession led to the bombings.

“Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,” as one Iraqi security official describes the terrorist’s confession.

One thing is for certain: al-Baghdadi never suspects his whereabouts have been compromised.

But Ismael al-Ethawi is not done providing information—and what he puts forth is horrible.

Skulls, bones, blue jeans, ID cards, shoes made in India.

All that is left.

Ground-penetrating radar shows signs of a mass grave, but it takes Iraqi authorities nine months to finally begin digging. ISIS has murdered so many innocent citizens that there is a waiting list to excavate these atrocities. At one site, more than five hundred rotting corpses are discovered. Here, just outside Mosul, the fatalities number thirty-nine. All are Indian citizens, among the ten thousand laborers from the Punjab region who are risking their lives rebuilding Iraq. It was four years ago that these Indians were captured and murdered by the Islamic State.

This was no kidnapping. Families back home never received a ransom demand. The black-clad ISIS fighters who captured the men on June 11, 2014, were armed with assault rifles and had little interest in extracting money from the families of poor construction workers. The Indian government has provided medicine to ISIS, asking for proof of life in return—but none has been forthcoming.

Until today, there was no word of the laborers’ fate. Relatives held out hope the captured Indians were being held prisoner. That fate would have been torturous, but even the thought of loved ones in an ISIS jail was better than imagining sons and husbands dead.

Now that hope is gone.

But one man escaped. His name is Harjit Masih. He was twenty when the ISIS attack took place, a wiry, pensive man with dark black hair. He escaped and made his way back to his home village of Kala Afghana, near India’s border with Pakistan. His story is simple and brutal.

Forty workers are loaded into vehicles and driven into the desert. Ten trucks of ISIS terrorists stand ready as the Indian workers arrive near a small railway beneath a hill. It is almost sunset. The captives are of the Sikh religion. Many begin to cry and promise to convert to Islam if they are spared. They will not be.

The laborers are forced to kneel side by side. The staccato thunder of Kalashnikov rifles mows the group down—all but Masih. He is struck in the thigh and plays dead, buried beneath the body of a heavy older coworker whose weight almost smothers the young electrician. The firing lasts about two minutes. Only when the ISIS combatants leave does Harjit Masih escape.*

Incredibly, the government of India refused to allow him to tell his story. Some leaders did not believe that ISIS executed so many men.

But they did. And there was no burial—no attempt to conceal evidence of the mass execution. Wild dogs and buzzards feasted. Four years of sand and shifting desert wind eventually covered the mutilated corpses. The excavation shows most bodies in a line, with a few facing in a different direction, as if they had tried to run. The hunt for the ISIS killers continues. But the trail is cold.

His phone is the key.

One of the first items taken from Ismael al-Ethawi when he is captured is his cell phone. With the balding terrorist’s help, the Iraqis unlock the device. Systematic interrogation follows, for the phone is a treasure trove of information—names, dates, locations of ISIS meetings and safe houses. Finally, al-Ethawi reveals the identities of the ISIS leaders whose names are encoded in the device.

The interrogators are stunned. They now have the names of some of the most infamous ISIS killers. Using an app known as Telegram, which is preferred in the terror world because of the ability to encode text messages, the interrogators begin a group chat. The American and Iraqi analysts begin assembling information. None of the terrorists on the chat know they are being played. One of those men is a person of incredible savagery.

“Ethawi gave us details on five men … who were meeting Baghdadi inside Syria and the different locations they used,” an Iraqi official will reveal.

The trap will soon be set.

The ordeal of Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh shocks the world. In 2014, he is shot down over Raqqa, Syria, and captured by ISIS. Stripped of his flight gear and forced to wear an orange prison jumpsuit, the twenty-six-year-old officer is placed inside a cage. There is no chance of escaping the five-by-five cell and its thick iron bars. Video cameras film al-Kasabeh as ISIS terrorist Saddam al-Jamal sets the cage on fire. The images soon flash around the world as the screaming aviator is burned alive. It is one of the most heinous ISIS murders on record.

In the perverse world of terrorism, Saddam al-Jamal quickly becomes a celebrity. He is thirty-six at the time, a former commander in a rebel Syrian army bent on bringing down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, he made a video announcement that he was defecting to ISIS. Al-Jamal quickly became a favorite of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and was selected to rule as emir of the city of Abu Kamal. It is thought that he might one day succeed al-Baghdadi. Al-Jamal is also responsible for the murder of seven hundred Syrians in 2014, and is fond of executing children as their parents watch.*

On May 10, 2018, al-Jamal makes a mistake. He responds to a text from Ismael al-Ethawi. He does not know the text is a setup. Three other top ISIS leaders also reply to al-Ethawi, who suggests they all meet across the border in Iraq, at a safe location.

Of course, it is the CIA and Iraqi National Intelligence Service that is extending the invitation. A trap is set. As American Special Forces wait, they see four motorcycles heading toward the designated meeting site.

As the cycles roll to a stop, the ISIS leaders are arrested.

They are taken into custody and never seen publicly again.

Even today, the fates of Ismael al-Ethawi and the four others are unknown. American and Iraqi officials are reluctant to disclose this information due to a need to keep intelligence networks that routinely share data from being revealed.*

So it is that the ISIS leadership has been severely downgraded. But more than that, the proverbial noose is being tied tight. All that remains is to put one fat neck inside of it.

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