Military history


A Note on Sources

EXCEPT WHERE OTHERWISE NOTED, this book comes entirely from my own experiences and my own reporting.

In the nine years I spent in the Middle East and South Asia, I spoke to hundreds of people about their lives and work. I also spent many weeks accompanying American soldiers, sailors and marines. The interviews with these people, along with the events that I witnessed, form the basis of this book. I filled 561 notebooks. I have gone back to some of the principal characters to gain additional detail or to fortify or correct my recollections. In some cases the additional interviews were conducted by members of The New York Times’ Iraqi staff. Given the security situation there, it was not always possible to locate people again. Some of them are dead.

I first went to Afghanistan as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in April 1998, and I continued reporting from that country until the summer of 2000, when I was arrested and expelled by the Taliban.

On September 11, 2001, I went to Ground Zero as a reporter for The New York Times. I returned to Afghanistan shortly after the attacks and reported from there through much of 2002.

In March 2003, I went into Iraq at the start of the American invasion and continued working there, as a correspondent in The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau, until August 2006. I returned to Iraq for a reporting assignment in 2007.

Much of the material in this book appeared in different form in both newspapers.

I benefited greatly from the reporting—and from the memories—of my colleagues at The New York Times. Also, in trying to reconstruct the past, I drew upon the visual record of the photographers with whom I worked. I depended on the Times’ local staffs in Baghdad, Kabul and Islamabad for their reporting and translation.

As the notes below indicate, I also relied on the SITE Intelligence Group, of Bethesda, Maryland, for translations of jihadi documents posted on the Internet.

Chapter 1: Only This

Come sit with us: I witnessed the execution and amputation, and met with several Taliban officials, with a group of Western journalists in September 1998.

“O ye who believe”: The announcer at the execution ceremony appeared to be reading a passage from the Koran: “O ye who believe! Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered; the freeman for the freeman, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. And for him who is forgiven somewhat by his (injured) brother, prosecution according to usage and payment unto him in kindness. This is an alleviation and a mercy from your Lord. He who transgresseth after this will have a painful doom. And there is life for you in retaliation, O men of understanding, that ye may ward off (evil).” Sura, “The Cow,” lines 178–179 (Mohammad) Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Knopf, 1930 ), p. 46. In the ceremony, my translator used the word “revenge,” not “retaliation.”

If I raised a hand: I am indebted to Ana Menendez for her recollections of some of the events depicted in this chapter. We went to Afghanistan in 1998 together and witnessed most of the same events and talked to most of the same people. Inevitably, some of the quotations that appear are identical to those which appeared in the stories she wrote at the time. She wrote about them in “Afghanistan: Peace at the Cost of Freedom?” Organica (Summer 2000): 7, and other publications.

I’ve got the boys’ picture on a bookcase: I interviewed Abdul Wahdood with Christopher Kremer, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. His account of the trip is contained in his book, The Carpet Wars: A Journey Across the Islamic Heartland (New York: HarperCollins, 2002 ).

“Omar just got hold of his eye”: In his contemporary history of Afghanistan, Steve Coll writes, “Taliban legend holds that Omar cut his own eye out of the socket with a knife. More prosaic versions report his treatment at a Red Cross hospital in Pakistan where his eye was surgically removed.” Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2004 ), p. 288.

“I was a teacher of Persian”: Witnessed by Ana Menendez, who traveled with me to Afghanistan in September 1998.

“there will be no whiskey and no music”: Quoted by John. F. Burns, “Afghan Fights Islamic Tide: As a Savior or a Conqueror,” The New York Times, Oct. 14, 1996.

Chapter 3: Jang

He said he was taking him to the hospital: Abdul Hadid interviewed by my colleagues James Hill and Chris Chivers in Kunduz, and appeared in a story written by Filkins and Chivers for The New York Times, “A Deathly Peace Settles on Kunduz’s Streets,” Nov. 27, 2001.

Dostum was chatting: This scene with Dostum at Qala Jangi prison was witnessed by my colleague James Hill, Nov. 29, 2001.

More than anything, Nasir said: After the interview, I passed Nasir’s name and that of several other prisoners to the International Committee for the Red Cross in Mazar-i-Sharif. A staff member there told me some months later that the ICRC never found Nasir or the others. In all likelihood, they were killed.

Then it reached the Americans: My colleague John F. Burns returned to Khan-i-Merajuddin seven months after I was there. He confirmed my initial report and filed a more detailed account of bin Laden’s presence in the village in November–December 2001. See “10 -Month Afghan Mystery: Is Bin Laden Dead or Alive?” The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2002.

Chapter 4: Land of Hope and Sorrow

“He dressed me in the morning”: Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi spoke to my colleague Roger Cohen and me about his family in February 2005. I talked to him many times after that. Cohen wrote about Saiedi in “Despite the Folly of It, Iraq Was the Right War,” The International Herald Tribune, Feb. 23, 2005.

Chapter 5: I Love You

The hole was there still: For his actions that day, Corpsman Smith later received the Bronze Star, at

I lay in the road: I didn’t see the dead dog until I woke up the next morning.

Chapter 6: Gone Forever

Saddam had climbed onto: A video purportedly showing Saddam Hussein in the area on April 9, 2003—the day his regime fell—surfaced on Abu Dhabi Television. The video shows Saddam surrounded by adoring crowds, at

The Kiss

I felt I was living the scene: For three and a half years I continued to run in Baghdad, only slightly modifying my routes, often at night. I never encountered the slightest hostility from Iraqis.

Chapter 7: A Hand in the Air

As was often the case in Falluja: Throughout the book, I use the term “insurgent” to encompass the array of armed groups operating in Iraq. Their goals varied and so did their means: some were fighting to expel the Americans while others also attacked Iraqi officials and police, while still others, like the terrorists of Al-Qaeda, specialized in murdering civilians. “Insurgent” is a necessary but imprecise term.

Bassem had an assistant: Ahmad is not his real name. I’ve changed it here to protect him.

Chapter 8: A Disease

“I don’t like seeing this at all”: George Packer of The New Yorker witnessed this scene with me, and the two of us interviewed the Iraqi doctors together. He wrote about it in his book, The Assassins’ Gate, pp. 198–200, and in The New Yorker, “War After the War,” Nov. 24, 2003.

“Six months of work”: From Christine Hauser, “Iraqi Uprising Spreads; Rumsfeld Sees It as ‘Test of Will,’” The New York Times, April 8, 2004.

Chapter 10: Kill Yourself

In the first five years: Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of Suicide Bombers in Iraq (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2007 ), counted 928 suicide bombings between 2003 and April 2008. These numbers do not include car bombings in which there was no suicide; there were hundreds of those. The tally also does not include stationary bombs—improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—of which there were thousands.

“Never say that you do not do suicide work”: “This Is the Road to Iraq; For Those Who Want to Get Through to the Land of the Mujahedeen in the Land of Two Rivers,” posted and translated by SITE in June 2005.

It was a slick production: For the most part, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or, as it was also called, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, appeared to act independently of the main Al-Qaeda group, whose leaders were believed to be hiding along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In that way, Al-Qaeda in Iraq resembled a franchise.

First came portraits: “Baghdad Badr Attack,” a Video from Al-Qaeda in Iraq of the Suicide Bombings at the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels in Baghdad. SITE Institute, Bethesda, Md., Nov. 28, 2005.

It exploded: The anecdote about the donkey bomber came from my colleague Sabrina Tavernise, who was embedded with American forces in Ramadi in 2005.

Sometimes, all of them before breakfast: In 2005 alone, there were 908 suicide and car bomb attacks. In that same period, there were 14, 375 IEDs, though many of those were unexploded. Source: Multi-national Corps-Iraq, Baghdad.

After a while, everything started to sound like a bomb: Wendell Steavenson, another reporter in Iraq, felt much the same thing. “Iraq, 2004,” The New Yorker, June 12, 2006.

They always said that when the bomb went off: “Top Ten Attacks Against U.S. Forces in Iraq,” a video by the Islamic Media Front, Aug. 11, 2005. Translated by SITE, Washington, D.C.

Communiqués (1)

The mujahideen stayed in the area: “Ansar al-Sunnah Announces the Capture of an American Marine and the Murder of Eight Others in Haditha,” Internet posting by Ansar al-Sunnah, Aug. 3, 2005. Translation provided by SITE Institute, Washington, D.C.

Insurgent groups claiming responsibility: I compiled this list over a five-month period in the summer and fall of 2005. I drew on several of the websites that served as clearing houses for jihadi groups operating in Iraq. The major ones were Ansar al-Jihad,; Al-Jaish al-Islami (The Islamic Army),; Al-Hesba,; Baath Party,; Akhbal al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen News), I also drew on SITE. In many cases, the postings claiming responsibility for an attack disappeared from a website after a few hours or a few days. In some cases, the websites could no longer be accessed. Thus some of the translations that were seen at the time on the common jihadi sites are listed here by their SITE reference. Many of the groups listed here appear to be affiliated with larger groups like Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah. Al-Bara’a bin Malik Suicide Brigade, for instance, claims to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The Thi al-Nooraine Brigade claims to be affiliated with Ansar al-Sunnah.

The growing number of mujahideen: Leaflet found by my colleague Sabrina Tavernise in Ramadi in 2005.

Chapter 13: Just Talking

Her neighbors shuffled past her: The first three scenes in this chapter are from January 2005; the fourth one is from December the same year.

Chapter 14: The Mahdi

May God make his son triumphant: The “his” in the first three chants refers to the Mahdi—Shia Islam’s messiah—and the last three lines establish a momentous link between him and Muqtada al-Sadr.

Communiqués (2)

There is no doubt…between us and the infidels: The full text of Zarqawi’s letter is available at

We the group of Al-Sahaba Soldiers: “Jama’at Jund al-Sahaba Claims Responsibility for Bombing of a Shia Temple in Sal-Sayedia,” posted on the Internet, May 20, 2005. Translation provided by SITE.

A Tahwid lion: “A Statement from the Mujahideen Shura Council Claims the Destruction by a Suicide Operation on the Interior Police in Al-Nasariya,” Jan. 31, 2006. Translation provided by SITE.

The lions of the Al-Bara’a bin Malik Suicidal Brigade: “The Mujahideen Council Announces a New Attack on a National Guard Center in Al-Moshahada,” Jan. 18, 2006. Translation provided by SITE.

Chapter 16: The Revolution Devours Its Own

he agreed to make the drive: My colleague Sabrina Tavernise and I met twice with this group of insurgents. It was impossible to independently verify their tale, but the plausibility of their stories and the wealth of detail they provided convinced us both that they were authentic. At the time we did the interviews—early 2006—reports of fighting between the more nationalist-minded insurgents and the more Islamist-minded groups like Al-Qaeda were scattered. But in the following months, the split widened and was exploited by the Americans. “Al-Sahwa,” or “The Awakening,” became the name of the uprising of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population against Al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups. In retrospect, Tavernise and I were obviously seeing the beginnings of it.

Chapter 17: The Labyrinth

“Sir, Jill is being held”: Ahmad is not his real name; I have changed it here to protect him.

Then the Americans took Abu Marwa away: I was able to confirm that Abu Marwa was taken to the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib.

He thanked us and called us: Ahmad’s claim that he paid $ 35,000, and that he was therefore owed more than we gave him was not resolved.

One day, though, Ahmad called: Akbar is not his real name; I’ve changed it to protect him.

My dealings with Ahmad: Jill Carroll was freed by her kidnappers on March 30, 2006, nearly three months after her abduction.

Chapter 20: The Turning

“Everyone is trying to kill me!”: Fakhri al-Qaisi not only survived, he returned to Baghdad. I called him in the summer of 2006, when I heard he was back in town, and we had a long negotiation about where it would be safe to meet. I invited him to come over to the Times compound, and he declined, saying that, as a Sunni, it was too dangerous for him to travel to the eastern bank of the Tigris River, which ran through the middle of Baghdad. Qaisi’s statement was a measure of how far along the civil war was. We ended up meeting in the Mansour Hotel, on the western side of the Tigris. Qaisi still had two bullets in him then; otherwise he seemed fine. He finally left Baghdad altogether and moved to Tikrit.

“You would be amazed”: After Taha delivered the $ 5,000, the woman did not call him back. Taha said later that he assumed that the son was returned safely to his mother.

She took my notebook: Yusra first showed my colleague Kirk Semple the diagram of her past and present lives, and Semple wrote about it for The New York Times, disguising Yusra’s identity because of the danger. “Correspondence: City of Dread; Where the Collateral Damage Is in the Mind,” The New York Times, July 30, 2006.

Chapter 21: The Departed

I had a feeling there was something: More than a year later, when I tried to track down the Shamoons in Syria, a family member told one of the Times’ Iraqi employees that they had fled Iraq after one of their children was kidnapped and murdered.

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