The secret role of the SAS in Iraq is revealed for the first time today by the Daily Mail.
As the first part of our adaptation of an explosive new book by BBC reporter Mark Urban shows, the SAS - sent to find non-existent WMDs - instead took inspiration from U.S. secret forces and set about tracking down Al Qaeda.
Their secret war sparked a furious row between Whitehall and the SAS's commander - but their extraordinary bravery and daring resulted in the capture or death of almost 4,000 terrorists.
On the edge of Baghdad, in the dusty farm compound that was his home, the terrorist leader was fast asleep - so used to the sound of coalition helicopters wheeling over the city by night that he did not stir.
It was two in the morning, but on the table next to his bed his mobile phone was still switched on in case one of his 'brothers' called. That phone was his downfall.
Because to the SAS soldiers of Task Force Black, who had been tracking him for weeks, its signal pinpointed his exact location. Now they were going to take him down in the time-honoured manner of The Regiment.
The planning had been done in the ops room at the 'Big Brother House', as the troopers called the luxury downtown mansion the SAS had commandeered as their headquarters. Right next to it were the quarters of Delta Force, the U.S. special forces.
The two teams of secret warriors got on famously. The SAS bashed a hole in the wall separating the two properties and there was frequent two-way traffic with the Americans, including raucous Thursday night barbecues.
Now, though, there was serious work to do as, across a plantation of date palms a few hundred yards from the farm, SAS assault teams stepped quietly out of their Puma helicopters and slipped into the darkness.
High overhead, a lumbering Hercules command aircraft circled, co-ordinating with the assault force on the ground. More helicopters were orbiting below, each with a sniper peering out through an open side door to give covering fire if necessary.
On the ground, the SAS commander waited as his men moved silently into position. For weeks, he had been studying his target - a man who organised terror cells, putting vehicles, explosives and martyrs together to execute suicide car-bombings.
The commander had painstakingly built up a picture of where the target lived and how he operated.
In his headset, the commander could hear information relayed from the aircraft overhead. He was clear to go. On his signal, the door of the farmhouse was blown apart and the troopers - 'blades', as they are known - stormed in through the dust and smoke.
SAS soldiers constantly practise house assaults like this. It is one of the basic drills they repeat ad nauseam in live fire exercises in the 'Killing House' at their UK training area in Hereford.
Each man knows his place as the first trooper goes through a door and is ready to fire without hesitation at any threat they encounter.
Searching each room inside is fraught with the risk of death or serious injury.
'Going in, the bad guy is not going to be straight ahead of you,' recalled one veteran. 'He is either to the left or to the right. You cannot look both ways at once, so you take your choice. If you look left and he's on your right, you've got a problem.'
This time, there was no such problem. Plastic cuffs were round the wrists of the stunned Iraqi before he had time to realise what was happening.
A man known to be responsible for many deaths on the streets of Iraq was in the bag - and Britain's special forces had notched up another success in their top-secret and little-known war against Al Qaeda in the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.
Many of those secrets have been uncovered by Newsnight's defence editor, Mark Urban, in a new book written after careful research among many of those who were close to the action.
They were keen to talk to him, he explained, because they believed great things had been achieved secretly which had never been publicly acknowledged.In fact, the war the SAS carried out between 2005 and 2007 was so secret that not even Tony Blair always seemed fully aware of its extent at first.
In May 2006, the prime minister paid a flying visit to Britain's Armed Forces at a time when almost all of the news coming out of the country was dire.
Baghdad was a hotbed of suicide bombings and riots; Basra, where most of the British troops were based, was overrun by local militiamen with uncertain loyalties; and the prevailing military mindset was to get out as quickly as possible.
Task Force Black had a rather different attitude. Those 'blades' chosen to meet and brief Blair opted to wear a shoulder-badge that had become a 'must-have' item among them. It featured the red, white and blue of the Union flag - and the words '**** Al Qaeda'.
It was what they wanted the PM to know they had been doing for months now in hundreds of raids. Alongside U.S. special forces, they were turning the tide and preventing Iraq descending even further into chaos.
Blair was 'gobsmacked' as they told him about the increasing ferocity of their encounters and gave him an insight into the active tactics being used to neutralise the terrorists.
Perhaps it might even have given him hope. The message Blair took away was one of a strategy to defeat Al Qaeda that would be carried out with aggression and commitment
It was far from being a one-sided fight. In pursuit of a Sudanese fighter - one of thousands of Muslims who had heeded Osama bin Laden's appeal to wage jihad (holy war) in Iraq against the infidels - an SAS unit came to the hostile town of Ramadi, a stronghold of opposition to the British and American forces who had conquered Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein.
Captain Jim Morris - not his real name, as all names of living past and present SAS officers have been concealed for security reasons - led the assault on the jihadi's safe house, a large villa with smaller buildings in the grounds.
Capt Morris blasted his way through a pair of high metal gates surrounding the house while other members of the team stood ready to block anyone trying to flee.
Bursting into the compound, they were greeted with a hail of fire, including a rocket-propelled grenade scorching straight at them. Within seconds, the entire assault team was hit. Morris took a bullet in the backside and hobbled out as fast as he could.
Behind him, Corporal Ian Plank lay in the yard, with a bullet wound to his face. He was dead. Nearby, Cpl Tom Saltash was too badly hurt to get himself out. He dragged himself into cover and lay just a few feet from the windows, where he could hear the insurgents
They were praying, he would later recall, as if 'they knew they were going to die'. The question was whether they would find the wounded SAS corporal first and take him with them. From outside the compound, a sergeant and a trooper threw caution to the wind and rushed to their mate's side. It was dangerous, even foolhardy, but they did it nonetheless.
As they hauled Saltash to his feet an AK-47 opened up from one of the windows and bullets flashed around them as they dragged him out of the compound.
Now the big guns were called in to pummel the house. Inside the compound, the buildings were strewn with rubble, spent bullet casings and bodies. Outside, Iraqi gunmen were spraying the surrounding area with bullets.
The SAS knew they could not dawdle and, with dawn breaking, they withdrew. A dozen terrorists lay dead. Four prisoners were taken - none of them Iraqi, all foreign nationals.
They had not caught their Sudanese target. Was he among the dead or had he escaped? In this type of covert warfare, you never knew for sure. For troopers who had learned their trade raiding houses in Northern Ireland, dealing with roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades was a new experience.
The sprawling suburbs of Baghdad and the alleyways of old Basra had little in common with Belfast.
They would have to learn quickly in this uniquely hostile environment if they were to have any chance of staying alive.
And, as if the problems that Britain's Special Forces faced on the ground were not tough enough, it can now be revealed their very mission was the cause of vicious and unedifying infighting between some of their own commanding officers about what the true role of the SAS in Iraq should be.
Taking on Al Qaeda was not what special forces had been sent to Iraq to do. Their first task after the invasion in the spring of 2003 was to help MI6 track down the weapons of mass destruction that Blair's government had set such store by when going to war.
It was quickly apparent that this was a blind alley. The debriefing of agents who had provided the British intelligence service with eye-catching lines in the Government's Iraq dossier produced some awkward scenes in Iraqi living rooms as the sources shrugged their shoulders and confessed they had little idea where the stuff was - or if it even existed.
So then the SAS was tasked with what it called 'man-hunting' - finding and arresting the leading members of the toppled regime who had gone into hiding
But police work like this was not what SAS troopers had joined the elite regime for, especially since it was obvious to those on the ground that there had been a distinct change in 'atmospherics' in Iraq.
After the initial euphoria of Saddam's defeat, Baghdad was turning into a cauldron of extreme violence. Coalition troops were increasingly coming under attack from mortars, grenades and, most worryingly, suicide car bombs.
An insurgency was breaking out on the streets that could not be put down to a last throw of the dice by Saddam's supporters, especially since it was backed by increasing numbers of foreign fighters.
Something new and threatening was happening here, but the Ministry of Defence mandarins back in London seemed indifferent, unwilling or unable to get their heads round it.
The Americans had grasped this and, under a new and dynamic commander of special forces, were re-focusing their efforts with technologies and tactics that amounted to nothing less than a revolution in counter-terrorism.
They began 24/7 aerial surveillance of key targets to map their movements and their contacts - a process known as 'the Unblinking Eye' - and sharply increase the number of 'takedowns', raids to arrest the bad guys.
Task Force Black wanted to be part of this. They could see with their own eyes militant Islamists gaining power day by day.
They also knew their U.S. neighbours were hard-pressed and could do with their help in fighting back against an enemy now designated as the AQI - 'Al Qaeda in Iraq'. But Whitehall was unhappy at such close co-operation after damning reports emerged of Americans abusing Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison.
The fact that the SAS had already handed over some of its prisoners to the Americans and an uncertain fate made Whitehall even more nervous.
To their dismay, Task Force Black were instructed to put some distance between themselves and their erstwhile buddies in the mansion next door.
They felt sidelined from what they considered to be the main action, and it hurt their pride, especially when, with nothing of real importance to do, they were disparagingly dismissed as 'Task Force Slack'.
They longed for action and it looked as if they would get it when, in June 2005, the U.S. commander of special forces, General Stanley McChrystal, formally asked Britain's Director of Special Forces, General Peter Rogers [not his real name], for help.
Delta Force was taking too many casualties on its increasingly violent operations against Al Qaeda. McChrystal desperately needed to throw the 'blades' of the SAS into the battle.
He got nowhere with Rogers. A notoriously difficult man, Rogers was always testing people by trying to unsettle and wrong-foot them.
An Oxford graduate, he was lofty - both in stature and attitude - and highly intelligent: 'A yoga-practising special forces type,' as one colleague put it.
'A cold fish, very cerebral, never easy,' was another senior officer's verdict. Rogers declined the American commander's overtures, citing concerns about U.S. treatment of detainees and differences in operational rules of engagement between the two forces, such as when a soldier was allowed to open fire.
When McChrystal explained that he needed the extra manpower because his plan was to hit the suicide bombing cells every night, Rogers was dismissive, querying whether what he categorised disapprovingly as 'industrial counter-terrorism' could ever work.
Yet, on the ground, such cooperation was already happening, with or without Rogers's approval. Commandos of the Special Boat Service went into action after the Americans received urgent intelligence that a multiple suicide bombing was about to be launched from a house in southern Baghdad.
As the SBS men moved up on foot to hit the target compound, a man wearing a suicide vest came running towards them. He detonated the bomb too early to kill the crouching commandos, but the explosion caught a Puma support helicopter hovering less than 100ft overhead
For a split second, the troop-carrying helicopter dropped like a stone before, against the odds, the pilot managed to pile on the power and pull the Puma to safety, just a few feet away from smashing into the Baghdad rooftops. Meanwhile, an image-intensifying camera on board had picked up a man running from the back of the building.
The Puma swung around in the air to give the SBS sniper aboard a clean shot. He fixed on the runner through his telescopic sight and took him out. A second suicide bomber had been stopped.
Then, as the SBS team stormed the house and began clearing rooms, another man in a bomb vest ran down a corridor towards them. A burst of gunfire cut him down before he could press the button.
The team worked through more rooms with growing trepidation. There were explosives and bomb components scattered everywhere. Throwing in grenades or shooting indiscriminately might backfire disastrously, so they backed away carefully and left the place to bomb disposal experts.
What the day's events rammed home more clearly than any intelligence briefing could have done was that a world of difference existed between the type of arrest work to which Task Force Black had been relegated, and the real battleground - an intensely violent fight against suicidally ruthless members of Al Qaeda.
It also lit a fuse in a long-simmering and bitter conflict between Rogers, the Director of Special Forces, and Colonel Richard Williams, newly installed as overall commander of the SAS.
Williams, who had spent time in Baghdad, was an outspoken advocate of those within The Regiment who believed they were wasting their time chasing the 'old men' of Saddam's former regime and would be better off assisting the Americans in a time of crisis
Boundlessly energetic and among the most aggressive field commanders in anyone's army, Williams had developed huge admiration for McChrystal, his American counterpart.
McChrystal's personal presence on many raids - despite holding a two-star general's rank - and his missionary certainty in his new concepts for fighting Al Qaeda had won the SAS boss over.
The two would meet regularly to chew over how they could get the SAS fighting alongside the American forces as a fully integrated member of the team
Williams's advocacy of working closely with Delta was 'the last straw' in his increasingly tense relationship with Rogers. The two were constantly at loggerheads on this and many other issues, and finally the Director of Special Forces summoned the SAS commander to tell him he was recommending his transfer.
News of this bombshell spread quickly through the senior ranks of the Army. COs are occasionally removed, but for the head of the SAS to be stood down was unprecedented. Rogers took his case to General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, citing personality clashes between himself and Williams.
Rogers was told to back off. If he wanted to fire Williams, then he would need to have a replacement who was better and the consensus was that there wasn't one.
At an Army cricket match at the end of that summer, the two warring commanders made an uneasy peace. Williams backed down over long-standing SAS objections to special ops in Afghanistan being run solely by the SBS, while Rogers agreed to reinforce SAS numbers in Baghdad
Over the next few months, Williams set about integrating Task Force Black's operations more closely with the Americans, and was helped in this when, at the end of 2005, Rogers moved on from being Director of Special Forces. The brake was removed on Williams's freedom of action, and the benefits were soon clear.
Being joined at the hip to the Americans brought increased flows of intelligence. The Brits could tap into the dozens of unmanned Predator drones sending back spy-pictures of Baghdad from the air, supplemented by cameras mounted on tethered balloons or fixed on the roofs of buildings.
But the greatest bonus was gained from the U.S. military's everexpanding high-tech operation to eavesdrop on the millions of mobile phones in service throughout Iraq.
If a cell phone was seized in a raid on a bomb maker's house, analysts could map all the calls made on it during previous months and generate a computer picture of a spider's web of suspects.
Task Force Black were also allowed use of the state-of-the-art command and communications centre the Americans had built at the Balad air base north of Baghdad.
Here, nightly raids on Al Qaeda safe houses were played out live on three big plasma screens, watched by those running the operation. At busy times there would be scores of staff at work in this darkened cockpit of technology and violence, bringing up information from orbiting drones or the secret service internet and feeding it to those on the ground.
People who worked there referred to it as the 'Death Star' because of the sense that 'you could just reach out with a finger, as it were, and eliminate somebody'. Others who watched live the white splash of 500lb bombs on image-intensifier cameras referred to the screens up above them as 'Kill TV'.
To McChrystal, the war room he had so carefully built up was 'The Machine' and he was now delighted that the British were boosting their involvement to the same 'industrial' scale as the Americans in the fight against Al Qaeda.
But first Task Force Black (now renamed Task Force Knight after its original codename was reported in the media) had a specific job to do for the British Government.
Civil war was breaking out in Iraq and sectarian death squads were killing hundreds of people each week. But Whitehall stressed that the priority was to find a missing 74-year- old English hostage, Norman Kember
Kember, a conscientious objector, was from an organisation called the Christian Peacemakers. He and three other members had gone to Iraq as ardent opponents of the U.S.-led invasion, only to be kidnapped by masked gunmen from a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.
One SAS officer recalled that 'our whole squadron was focused on trying to find Kember', a task that seemed hopeless when, after 15 weeks, the body of one of the other three prisoners, an American named Tom Fox, was found. His hands were tied, cuts and bruises were visible on his head and body, and it looked as if he had been tortured before being shot.
The SAS task force hunting the kidnappers had little doubt that the remaining captives would also soon be dead.
Around 200 foreigners had been kidnapped in Iraq by then and most had been released upon payment of ransoms.
The British Government, however, refused on principle to pay up and at least two British hostages had died as a result, one videotaped as he was gruesomely beheaded. Kember seemed certain to meet a similar fate.
But with their new access to intelligence gleaned from mobile phones, the SAS team began to make headway.
A handful of young officers and sergeants were designated as team leaders to plan intelligencegathering operations.
This involved making a 'target pack' on someone who appeared in the intelligence analysts' web of contacts and deciding how best to snatch him, whether in his car or by a raid on his home. 'We were out every night,' one recalled.
Suspects would be interrogated the moment they were arrested - 'tactical questioning', as it was known. 'The shock of capture makes it very important to exploit that moment, and to do it on the spot,' one veteran explained.
Another, asked about operations to find Kember, said: 'Individuals were exploited to get to him - both by putting them under duress and not.'
And it was by putting somebody 'under duress' in that initial period of disorientation that the key break came. A fortnight after the discovery of Fox's body, an SAS team burst into a building 20 miles from Baghdad and found two men.
Under pressure - people who know about the operation reject the use of such words as 'beating' and 'torture' - one of them said he knew where Kember and the other two remaining hostages were being held.
This stunning disclosure posed an immediate question: what to do next? There was clearly a need for speed, but equally there was the danger of being drawn into an ambush and putting the lives of the hostages and the rescue team at risk.
The dilemma was solved by a telephone call directly to the hostage-takers. The SAS were on their way to get them, they were told. 'How about you disappear,' it was suggested. 'And we won't come after you.'
Not long after, a ground assault force hit a house in western Baghdad. They cleared it room by room and found no insurgents. Then they burst into the final room, and there were the hostages. Kember looked bewildered, but the others smiled with relief as they were hurried away to safety.
The 'blades' were in euphoric mood, as were coalition chiefs. They had beaten the kidnappers and released the hostages after 118 days of captivity.
New intelligence techniques and a relentless special forces operation had thwarted what had seemed a grimly inevitable outcome.
During the operation to find Kember, British special forces
raided 50 buildings, kicked in 44 doors and detained 47 people before they were led to that one man capable of telling them where the hostages were hidden.
The ironies of an arch-opponent of the war being rescued by the SAS were not lost on anyone. Nor can Kember himself have been comfortable with the fact that they had applied 'duress' to prisoners in order to find him.
Six months later, Iraqi police arrested men alleged to have carried out the kidnapping. Kember, faithful to his pacifist principles, insisted that he would not give evidence against them.
But within the British special forces community, the successful operation to rescue him was regarded as a watershed. It put them on a par with the Americans.
The question now was whether the newly-upgraded and remotivated SAS units could have the same sort of success against what was now their number one target in Iraq's secret war - Al Qaeda.
• Adapted from Task Force Black by Mark Urban, to be published by Little, Brown on February 18 at £17.99 © Mark Urban 2010. To order a copy (p&p free) for £16.19 call 0845 155 0720.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOlshiiu
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOlkTw5w
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOleECzv
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOlWR6of
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOlJoaZv
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOlCTQmQ
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOl4zSAP
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkxNgZN
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkqYD1k
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkjFogA
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkbmaIo
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkTg7zP
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkNYRPl
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOkEqTB2
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOk8USvv
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOk1cid9
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOjtYWA8
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOjiv233
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOjavMWF
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOjNWH8X
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250644/Newsnight-defence-editor-Mark-Urbans-new-book-Iraq-war-MoD-doesnt-want-read.html#ixzz0fOjHQrEF
Click to view image: '65c92d20e111-article0084417dd000005dc259_233x351.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|