I was wired on Rip It energy drinks heart pounding, eyes glued open to the bright screens as we followed a white bongo truck for miles as it drove south, kicking up dust from the Syrian border through the open desert.
“Raise altitude and switch to thermal sensors,” I called over to the team. “If this guy spots us in the air, we’re done.”
It was midday, September 2009, and I was in the Box, a secret windowless bunker at the edge of an undisclosed military base south of Mosul, Iraq, not far from the Syrian border, staring at eight flat-screen TVs on the wall, stacked in two rows of four, the shittiest Best Buy you’ve ever seen.
Some of the screens streamed live camera feeds from the Predator drone: current altitude, speed, missile laser target designator system, and detailed map of the land below. Others flashed pictures of our targets, their families, and their complex terrorist networks, which spanned the globe. Much of this came courtesy of intelligence agency experts at my side.
Excerpted from Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies by Brett Velicovich
Dey Street Books
I was special ops, and my specialty was high-level capture and kill missions. My weapon was mainly Predator MQ-1 drones, equipped with two laser-guided AGM-114P Hellfire missiles. My job was to hunt down the most dangerous terrorists in the world. If I was chasing you, you never saw me.
The room was hot from the computer servers and lit by blinking screens. A low hum of machinery was a constant in the background and stayed in our heads. When you walked outside the Box, you’d never know that behind the door was one of the world’s most technologically advanced operation centers, run by some of the best minds in the business of war. Some of the technology we had wouldn’t be publicly known for years to come.
My team of six, a mix of elite military intelligence personnel with different specialties, was called when a terrorist needed to be located. I have no doubt that we could find anyone in the world, no matter how hidden they think they are. I prided myself on tracking down even the most senior terrorist leaders, people who others considered ghosts.
Our target’s name was Abu Bashir. We’d been looking for him for weeks—until we got a tip on the ground that he was heading in our direction, south from the Syria–Iraq border. Bashir was an explosives expert for the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into the Islamic State, or ISIS.
about the author
Brett Velicovich is a U.S. Army veteran and former military intelligence analyst with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta.
Mostly undetected, he moved the material and components for heavy bombs into Iraq, along with foreign fighters and suicide bombers waging war against the United States. This trip was going to end badly, with another attack against either innocent civilians or U.S. military personnel stationed at a base nearby.
A fleet of helicopters were on call nearby if we needed them to intercept a target fast. We sat in a cramped room with cement floors, working off a makeshift desk built out of plywood. Jake, an Air Force tactical controller, sat next to me; he was my shadow. We had our laptops out, running a sophisticated chat program that allowed us to have about twenty different conversations with every intelligence agency running at once, our ground force elements, senior officials in the US government, and the technical side of the operations in Iraq and across the globe.
As I called out instructions—zoom orders, latitude, longitude, altitude, vehicle pursuit directions—Jake chatted everything to a camera sensor operator and Predator pilot, two different Air Force personnel sitting next to each other in a trailer in Nevada who actually flew the drones at my every command.
The bongo truck, similar to a pickup truck but with a wider body, was heading southeast now from the Syrian border—fast. They were definitely transporting something. We’d picked him up about an hour before in a desolate place in the desert that I’d been able to narrow down based on an analysis of his earlier movements.
“Jake, why does every terrorist in Iraq that we track seem to own a white bongo?”
On the monitors, the bongo was kicking up dust everywhere and creating a huge signature visible from the sky. We had the bird at a two-nautical-mile standoff from the target, trailing our target at around 12,000 feet to keep it out of sight. If our target ever heard the drone’s engine or somehow caught sight of it, he’d abandon his mission and go underground—phones tossed, email accounts abandoned, everything gone. Months of our intelligence work destroyed.
The road wasn’t much of a road, just some zigzagging tracks worn into the hard-packed sand for hundreds of miles. It was mainly no-man’s-land, with some dots of villages here and there, ten to twenty people at most to a village.
The guys coming across the Syrian border typically followed a predetermined smuggling route, moving their illicit explosives or suicide bombers between the villages on the way to their ultimate destination. Sometimes the first stop was the nearest major town, where the vehicle would be used to blow up the closest U.S. military convoy.
I had been up now for twenty hours. This was when my eyes always began to blur a bit. The empty Rip It cans were piled at my elbow. What’s he doing? Where’s he going? It was another twenty minutes before the vehicle came to a stop outside a village. “Zoom in,” I said. “I need to see who’s inside the truck.”
Kill or capture was always on the table, but we needed visual confirmation of Abu Bashir before we made the call, which most times didn’t get made until the very last minute. These life-and-death decisions would change people’s lives in the blink of an eye, even my own.
Two people exited.
“Looks like two military-aged males, wearing white dishdashas,” Jake said.
“Confirm for me: no women or children,” I said.
Jake went back and quickly reviewed the drone feed, like a replay on ESPN, showing full views of both sides of the truck.
“Zoom in two times. What are they waiting for?” “Prayer time, maybe.”
“No, not for another hour.”
Suddenly, the passenger began to walk out of view of our camera and into the open desert, while the driver walked around to the back of the bongo.
“Stay with the driver,” I called. “Roger.”
The driver began digging into the bed of the bongo and now I could see there were barrels in the back with a bunch of garden-size hoses sticking out.
“You see the passenger anywhere?” I asked. “Zoom out.”
I had them switch the camera from electro-optical, or daytime, TV, which shows everything in brown and gray, to infrared view. Both men were now on the monitors. Their bodies were suddenly a bright, ghostly black against the white fall desert. When the passenger lit a cigarette, a huge light exploded, like a house on fire.
Why didn’t he want to smoke near the truck?
Within a few minutes another white bongo pulled up and three men climbed out. I took note of how they greeted the others. All of them kissed the hands and hugged the driver of the first truck: Bashir.
The men began cautiously offloading thick jugs about three or four feet tall to the first truck. Just like the ones already in the back.
Now, a normal analyst might discount this because we couldn’t ever confirm 100 percent what those thick jugs were from the air. Maybe the first truck was just getting gas or maybe he was transporting the village water source. In the years I’ve spent hunting and watching in the cesspools of the Middle East, I have found that people do funny things. These guys could simply be locals not connected to the Al Qaeda network at all.
What set our team apart was knowing this: nothing in this business is a coincidence. These were explosives and, knowing Bashir, they could be rigging the truck to blow up like the Fourth of July.
At twenty-five years old, I had the power to decide whether a man lived or died. That wasn’t an easy decision, even with hundreds of missions to my name and top-of-the-line intelligence networks at my disposal.
I was part of a handful of people in the American military at the time with the responsibility to pick drone targets and issue the order for their deaths. I created a kill list—people in the Al Qaeda in Iraq network or in ISIS whom we had prioritized for capturing or taking out—and acted on it day and night. We had to move faster than our enemy did, and we kept the pressure on them, striking over and over again so they never felt at ease.
To the rest of the world and even to most within our own government, we were officially off the books, and that was how we liked it. We took out the worst of the worst. But we had a broader mission in Iraq: attacking and destroying Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq.
And we became one of the deadliest drone targeting teams in the military. Within the terrorist network, my focus was on taking out critical nodes—senior members who played key command and support roles that allowed the organization to function. Taking down one member led us to another, like one big puzzle, as we methodically connected the dots and made our way to the top.
“Page Max in now,” I said.
Max was the assault team commander for our task force—the stealth ground soldier, the finishing half of our special ops group. When things got bad, or when we wanted to grab our target, Max and his team of soldiers headed for the choppers stationed outside our door.
Less than a minute later, he swooped into the room, already kitted up with body armor. He had a dip packed in his lip, as usual. He was tall and ripped, what you expected these legendary operators to look like.
“We gotta shut these guys down now,” I told him, pointing to the bongo on the big screen. On the monitors, Abu Bashir’s bongo with all the explosives was now speeding southeast in the desert, while the other vehicle had departed in the opposite direction.
Bashir was traveling fast toward the large city of Tikrit. Camp Speicher was there, with thousands of American forces and even more Iraqi civilians.
“Max, my assumption is he’s either moving a large amount of explosives to be used for an attack or he’s going to use that bongo itself as the detonation device.” We had about twenty minutes now before Bashir reached Tikrit with the explosives. At that point he’d be too close for us to do anything if he decided to immediately detonate.
“Good,” he said, “we’re going.”
Our fleet of helicopters was warming up, their blades thrumming the hot air. According to standard operating procedure for our outfit, there were two MH-60s—we called them Little Birds—along with a few Black Hawks, all fully armed with machine guns and missiles. These weren’t simply some usual military aircraft: they were designed just for our kill/capture missions and designated only for our interdiction group.
Missions are about options—we’d make the decision about whether to strike Bashir with a missile or try to grab him on the ground on the scene. When the drone was armed, our screens turned into one red crosshair. Hellfire missiles are powerful and extremely precise. We could hit a car in traffic without scuffing the paint off any of the other cars.
I briefed Max on the target’s current status and gave him an intelligence packet with printed photos of the target and interrogation cards with questions to ask anyone captured alive.
Minutes later, Max and his team, dressed in desert-colored camouflage, armed to the teeth with Heckler & Koch 416 automatic assault rifles and customized sidearms, were flying away in the helos.
As everything spun up, I began to worry that Bashir would get away. I also worried about the assault team. What if they tried to intersect and the bomber exploded just as they came into contact? What if I was wrong?
There was no turning back now. I played out the various scenarios in my head. Did I miss something?
Bashir was responsible for murdering hundreds of civilians with his explosives. He had brought into Iraq foreign fighters who blew themselves up in market centers, killing kids, families, and U.S. soldiers. I kept that in the back of my mind. I knew what was about to happen to him was just a matter of how.
Did we need to kill him?
This was always the question that came up in the last seconds. Sometimes there was no choice. I sent the file of Abu Bashir to my superior, who was at an interagency command center away from the kill zone to get his read on the situation. His opinion came back in seconds. He wanted to hold off on a Hellfire strike and see how it played out on the ground. We could use this guy alive, if he wanted to stay alive.
“Your assault team is en route to the target and has an opportunity for possible capture,” he said on the chat.
“Roger,” I shot back.
The drone was to keep watch, playing cover, if anything went wrong.
C’mon guys, get there.
On my headset, I heard the assault team over the radio. “Five minutes TOT [time on target].”
My eyes were locked on the TV screens, looking for anything out of place, the drone camera with its day-TV lens switched on, watching the bongo move through the desert and waiting for the choppers to suddenly flash into view.
I wondered what it must be like to be talking to the guy next to you in your car as you’re driving down the road, chatting about what you are going to do that weekend, and then, the next second—you’re gone.
Our bird’s camera was showing the bongo about a minute away from the city’s perimeter. And I couldn’t tell if our team would get there in time. “Thirty seconds before the vehicle reaches the population center.”
Then the bullets came.
The bullets rained down on the desert floor in front of the bongo, so close to the truck and with such intensity that sand was spraying up in clouds onto the bongo’s hood. A second later, two helicopters with the assault team came screaming across the hood of the truck, causing the vehicle to slam on the breaks and come to a full stop.
The Black Hawks were a few seconds behind and things started to blur into violent action. We set the drone’s course to orbit the scene. “In the picture,” a radio operator said over the wires, notifying everyone that U.S. troops were now confirmed within view of the drone’s camera feed.
The assault team dropped out of the choppers hovering over the ground, goggled and guns pointing at the target. Because the truck could be rigged to blow at any moment, the guys moved slowly to their target, weapons ready.
When the two men finally stepped out of the bongo, the assault team was locked in on them, ready to kill if either made a wrong move. The men were standing there in shock, sand swirling all around them from the rotary winds of the choppers nearby.
My heart was blasting around in my chest. It hurt.
Split seconds in these situations were not like other people’s split seconds. It was like a car accident when time slows down right before impact. I had done everything to make sure that one of the men in that truck was Abu Bashir, my target. But there’s always the gut check, and the reality wasn’t so clear-cut: in my world you can never be 100 percent sure.
Finally, the two men slowly stepped away from the bongo and dropped to the desert floor. I could see their hands go behind their heads. And then a few seconds later the assault team commander’s voice came over the radio.
“Romeo, zero one,” Max said. “We have confirmed Jackpot.”
From the book, Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies . Copyright ©2017 by Brett Velicovich and Christopher S. Stewart. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This manuscript was approved for release by the US Government’s Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.