Defense Media Network

JSOC and the Hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The End Game

On Feb. 22, 2006, the Askaria shrine in Samarra, nicknamed the Golden Mosque for its glistening dome and one of Shiism’s holiest sites, was destroyed by bombs planted by the Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist organization. In response, furious Shiites began organizing militias, who then embarked on a systematic, cold-blooded sectarian killing spree through Sunni neighborhoods, who organized similar militias in self-defense. If Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), couldn’t find and eliminate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his network, the likelihood of Iraq plunging into all-out sectarian war would become a frightening reality.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Rubble and debris litter the site of the last safe house of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Hibhib, Iraq. The top insurgent target in Iraq, along with several of his associates, was killed during an airstrike on the house June 7, 2006. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Zach Mott, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office

Not long after he became JSOC commander in 2003, McChrystal recognized that the traditional compartmentalization between the services and agencies tasked with the gathering of counter-terrorism intelligence was counter-productive. In Iraq’s rapidly changing environment, such bureaucratic turf protecting had to be changed. As McChrystal wrote in his memoir, My Share of the Task, “It required turning a hierarchical force with stubborn habits of insularity into one whose success relied on reflexive sharing of information and a pace of operations that could feel more frenetic than deliberate.” In short, he took a chapter from the terrorists’ handbook and create a counter-terrorist network as nimble and as opportunistic and the quarry he was hunting.

In July 2004 JSOC set up a secure intelligence center at a former Iraqi air base in Balad, about fifty miles north of Baghdad. There JSOC requisitioned a hangar and instead of installing a warren of cubicles, only a few offices were created along the hangar’s walls. Work was done out in the open on long tables within the hangar’s cavernous enclosure, and the free flow of information was encouraged between those cleared to work there. At the same time, field operations were restructured to make rapid response a top priority.

The breakthrough in the hunt for al-Zarqawi came on May 18, 2006. An interrogation report of a detainee contained detailed information about Zarqawi’s spiritual advisor, Shiekh Abd al-Rahman, including his Baghdad address, and that he regularly visited Zarqawi every seven to ten days.

An around-the-clock watch of Rahman’s home by reconnaissance drones was instituted and every aspect of his movements tracked and recorded. As days became weeks, pressure began building to make a move on Rahman.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Felled palm trees and rubble fill the crater of the former safe house of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Hibhib, Iraq. An airstrike to the house killed al-Zarqawi and a group of his associates June 7, 2006. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Zach Mott, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office

On the morning of June 7, 2006, an operator observed al-Rahman’s car on a major highway heading north out of Baghdad. At one point the car pulled off to the side of the road. Al-Rahman exited and transferred to an approaching truck. Alerts went out to other members of the team. At Baqubah, al-Rahman transferred to a white pickup with a red stripe that drove him to a box-like two-story house near the town of Hibhib. Shortly after 5 p.m. an operator watching the video feed from a drone called out. A heavyset man dressed in black was observed checking traffic on the frontage road before returning to the house.

“That’s [al-Zarqawi],” McChrystal said. When a ground assault was judged not feasible, the decision was made to have F-16s bomb the house. A special operations team would land immediately afterword to retrieve the bodies and gather intelligence.

With time now of the essence, things threatened to spin out of control. The engines on one of the mission’s two Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) helicopters refused to start. A replacement wouldn’t arrive for thirty minutes. The working helicopter was ordered airborne, the second to follow as soon as it could. Then when the JTAC relayed the strike order to two F-16s in the area, only one was available. The other was conducting a mid-flight refueling. The lone F-16 was ordered in.

“You are cleared to engage.”

—JSOC Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) message to F-16 pilot over Hibhib, June 7, 2006

In its first pass over the target, the F-16 simply flew over the house. The order had been improperly worded; the pilot had not dropped his bombs. The change was made, and on the second pass, the target was destroyed.

The special operations ground team arrived as Iraqi police were putting a body into an ambulance. The team took control of the ambulance and retrieved the mortally wounded al-Zarqawi, who died a few minutes later. His body and that of Abd al-Rahman were airlifted back to JSOC headquarters.

On June 8, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a press conference announcing al-Zarqawi’s death. Coalition commander Gen. George Casey noted, “Although the designated leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq is now dead, the terrorist organization still poses a threat.” The words were prophetic, for the summer of 2006 would see a rise in Iraqi bloodshed. But with Al Qaeda in Iraq’s charismatic leader gone, eventually, the killing began to recede.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-202426">

    Overall a good success story on eliminating one of the most insidious of terrorists. Still, it makes me wonder, the true positive value (if any) of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The country is truly a mess now. It would be fair to conclude that U.S. adventurism there only made Iraq vulnerable to Iranian & other external influences that is fueling sectarian violence. If the U.S. start getting involved in Syria by providing weapons to the opposition it will just escalate the level of violence there. A more scary scenario-U.S. supports the opposition. Opposition wins and kicks out Assad. New radical Islamist government is formed. Wouldn’t that be a bigger headache?

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-207262">

    good op which shows the contrast between u.s sf and u.k sf.brits would have raided but the yanks showed how a superpower fights terror.any risk just drop a jdam on it