One fateful night in 2009 a team of Navy SEALs grabbed the Butcher of Fallujah—and then everything went wrong. This is the story of that night.
The pictures the SEALs saw were not great, but they were adequate. Al-Isawi would be recognizable mostly by the twisted scowl on his face, which was probably how he looked when he hanged the burned bodies of the Americans from the old bridge at Fallujah five years previously.
US Marine of the 1st Division take up positions near the bridge in the western part of Fallujah, Iraq, where the bodies of American contractors killed by militants were strung up in March, 2004. (ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS)
But the key to positive identification was that stubby little finger on his left hand. “The guy with the stunted pinkie,” as Matt somewhat graphically observed, “that’s our target.”
At 2330 hours on Tuesday night, September 1, 2009, Echo Platoon was driven out to the three Seahawks that stood silently on the LZ beyond Camp Schwedler. It took less than ten minutes for the twenty-five men to load their gear. Then the pilots started those big turbo engines, virtually at the midnight hour, and they climbed away from the base to their cruising height. Operation Amber had started.
As soon as they left the lights and the traffic behind and reached the desert, they slipped down to the lowest altitude at which Matt or Jon had ever flown — about seventy-five feet above the ground.
And at that height the Navy pilots accelerated to their 168mph cruising speed and raced through the darkness, SEALs with assault rifles sitting in each doorway, feet dangling outside, and strapped in, left and right.
None of the doorway gunners saw anything for the next twenty-five minutes, at which point the pilots assessed they were “ten klicks out” — that’s military speak (one klick equals one thousand meters or one kilometer — or .62 of a mile). They immediately dialed down the engines, slowing for the landing. Carefully they edged down toward the sand, letting the landing wheels gently touch down on the surprisingly hard surface before releasing the full eight-ton weight of the Seahawk to settle on the desert floor.
In that instant assault team leader Matt McCabe and his gunners hit the release button and charged out of the helicopters, M-4 rifles ready to spit fire. They took up defensive formation, armed to the teeth, surrounding the aircraft. Any enemy making any kind of advance on those Navy helicopters had approximately four seconds to live.
The on-board machine gunners stayed at their posts, fingers on the trigger until the helicopters took off, rising instantly in the same split second the last man vacated the aircraft and took formation.
Out there on the sand, for several minutes, no one moved, the dust died down, and the night seemed to grow darker.
For more than an hour, under the heavy assault gear, they marched in two columns softly across the outer reaches of the Syrian Desert, and as they pressed on, the sand beneath their combat boots seemed to become deeper, no longer hard packed. And the going subsequently got tougher. Petty Officer Jonathan Keefe later said, “It was like moon dust, or snow, and we were sinking in.”
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“Remember, guys,” whispered Matt, “they want this maniac alive. So don’t, for Christ’s sake, shoot him. Not unless you have to.”
But then, as they came within a mile of their objective, the ground hardened up. Out in front of his column Jon and the other column’s point man, Eric, were now crossing very rough ground, studded with what looked like bomb craters, like a testing site for army ordnance. And all around Jon and Eric could see wrecked hardware, hunks of metal, smashed trucks, and shells.
“No one,” said Jon, “could have reached any other conclusion. This was either an al-Qaeda training camp or a scrapyard. The military decision had to be the former.”
Slowly they made their way across the jagged approaches to the al-Qaeda stronghold. Both SEAL point men could now see a line of sand dunes that had been dug and shaped into the outer defenses of a fortified camp.
Through his night-vision optics Jon could see tall guard towers on the corners, but he couldn’t tell whether they were manned. He and Eric fanned out and crouched through the dunes until they reached a massive barbed-wire fence, rolled up like the post-and-wire in front of the German trenches on the Somme in 1915. They cut the wires and flattened them, creating a gap through which the SEALs could enter.
At this point the hot, oppressive cloud-cover was beginning to part, and the moon was rising high above the desert. Seeking the darkest spots, Jon and Eric once more went forward in front of the main group, crossing a perimeter road and heading for a long group of spaced concrete buildings that could have been houses or even low square bunkers, and these formed a defensive line.
In any event Jon and Eric had no idea who was inside them and certainly not who might be looking out. Once more, they crouched low and slipped silently past, finally swinging right to come in between two buildings and through the central walkway into what looked like a small run-down US town. The streets were paved but potholed. There were street lights, some of which were switched on.
Jon and Eric hit the radios and called in the assault teams. Deep in the shadows they aimed a pinpoint flashlight at a diagram drawn from a recent satellite image. They checked the buildings they had prenumbered for this very moment of arrival.
Matt led his troops around the corner and joined the recce men in the shadows. Another SEAL assault leader, Rob, brought his team around right afterward, and the mission’s forward commanders took a long look at the geography. All of the buildings had a number, and the ones that mattered were eight and nine. In one of those was the (hopefully) sleeping Al-Isawi.
“Remember, guys,” whispered Matt, “they want this maniac alive. So don’t, for Christ’s sake, shoot him. Not unless you have to.” And the SEALs took up position.
Jon and Eric, the first men into the outside perimeter of the compound, identified the correct building, locked down on it with rifles leveled, and immediately summoned the assault team to move up into the critical ground in front of the terrorist stronghold.
Matt and Rob swung off to the right and approached the apartment buildings through a line of bushes—staying low and out of sight of any possible guards in the windows. There were dogs all around, but they were not barking much. And now the assault group closed ranks, moving forward in a tight formation. A stone staircase separated buildings eight and nine, but the intel had stressed that Al-Isawi was in the ground-floor apartment in one of these two buildings.
Matt took the one on the right and Rob headed left, both carrying sledgehammers. And still no one had raised any kind of alarm. Both assault leaders gave the signal to halt, and together they slammed into the doors with the sledges. The noise was shattering, and Matt gave the door one more stupendous thump, and it cannoned inward.
The Echo Platoon leader charged in, conscious of movement on his left. He detailed his troops to secure the apartment as they went, surgically, methodically, like all SEAL assaults. And the first place was a big communal bedroom set behind a couple of stone pillars, with possibly a dozen sleeping Iraqis on the floor.
To the right was a kitchen, and the operation’s Iraqi SWATs assisted the SEALs as they stood guard, assault rifles raised. Matt went straight ahead until he reached two closed doors, one left, one right. He took the left one and, with a pile driver of a mule kick, almost ripped it off its hinges. He ducked back to avoid the possible volley of machine gunfire or even a booby-trap bomb, and then he crashed his way into the bedroom. Flat on the floor, on a mattress, was a tall male figure with a woman beside him. Next to her was a child.
It was dark, but Matt could see a semi-automatic pistol next to the man’s right hand. And he rammed his own rifle one inch from the face of the half-asleep figure. Matt swung around to his Iraqi interpreter, snapping a command and, only half joking: “Gimme the Arabic words for ‘Make my day!’”
He then shouted to his interpreter: “Tell him to get up right now, and get the cuffs on him.”
By now the woman was screaming, and the daughter was shouting. Matt ordered two Iraqis to remove them. Then he slung his rifle around his back, took out his loaded pistol, and stared hard at the handcuffed Iraqi. The height was right—tall for a tribesman. Slim build. That was right too. He pulled out the pictures, and in the gloom it more or less confirmed the identification. But there was one more step.
“Get him back on the floor,” ordered Matt, “face down.” There were three more Iraqi SWATs in the bedroom by now, and Matt told them to hold the prisoner still.
Then he swiftly knelt down and grabbed the fingers of the man’s left hand. Sure enough, the little finger was partly missing. Matt, his adrenalin pumping, had his knee rammed into the spine of the most-feared terrorist in the Middle East, the Butcher of Fallujah. Echo Platoon’s assault team had captured the mass murderer Ahmad Hashim Abd Al-Isawi.
Matt flicked on his radio and uttered the code word, which signified that the SEALs’ five-year-long search was over.
Exactly forty seconds had passed since he had kicked in the door. “JACKPOT!” called Matt.
On the return journey there was little need for extreme low-level flying. The al-Qaeda enclave had shown no signs of resistance. There was certainly no radar sweeping the approaches, and there had been no rocket attacks or even heavy machine gunfire.
And so they climbed higher and were swiftly beyond the range of anything that might be aimed at them. Each pilot made an easterly course toward Fallujah, heading back to the LZ beyond Camp Schwedler. This was a simple mission accomplished. And no one expected special praise.
Behind Matt was the inert, handcuffed figure of the Butcher of Fallujah, a cruel and ruthless jihadist who hated the West but whose reign of terror was over. The SEALs were bringing him in, under guard, stripped now of his weapons and his menace.
Matt could have shot him. Al-Isawi’s right hand had been mere inches from his gun, and for most people this would have been a life-threatening situation. But skilled US intel agents wanted to talk to this character in order to interrogate him for information that would significantly decrease the future effectiveness of the al-Qaeda threat.
And Matt—along with the rest of the Operation Amber SEALs—had carried everything out strictly by the book, as was only to be expected. There had been intimidation but not one moment of violence. In the terms of the United States Navy SEALs, it was picture perfect. Echo Platoon was proud of their conduct that night, and this applied especially to the two forward point men, Jon and Eric, who had plotted the way into a secret al-Qaeda stronghold, and to the assault team leaders, Rob and Matt—particularly
Matt, who’d led the charge and carried out the actual capture of the Butcher.
No one said anything, but maybe these guys were going to get decorated for this one.
It’s a SEAL tradition that unless some form of war breaks out, men who have returned from a night mission are given the chance to have a long sleep, perhaps from 0600 to 1600. Kidnapping armed terrorist commanders is tiring work.
And by 0600 on this Wednesday morning, the men of Echo Platoon had crashed thankfully into their bunks before the sun rose above the Iraqi desert. No one had any difficulties sleeping the deep, untroubled slumber of the brave and the just.
Two hours later, however, an unscripted part of the program came crashing into their lives.
Every SEAL who’d taken part in Objective Amber was awakened shortly after 0800 and ordered to report immediately to the camp’s recreation room for a full muster. Matt knew immediately this was important. No one awakens an entire platoon of Navy SEALs who’d been up all night unless there had been some kind of a drama.
The SEAL assault leader knew it could be bad. What he did not know was that the roof was about to fall in on his entire world.
Al-Isawi had a bloody lip, and three US Navy SEALs, would soon face charges relating to prisoner abuse.
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