Killing the Killers (2022) takes you deep into the global war on terror. As it examines the role of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it moves through all the theaters of action including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan. It’s the eleventh book in the best-selling Killing series.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn about General Qasem Soleimani from his beginnings to his fateful end.
Soleimani rises in prominence.
The capture of Tikrit by Iranian forces was a severe symbolic and tactical blow to ISIS.
Soleimani is discussed but ISIS and al-Baghdadi take center stage.
A letter from Pompeo to Soleimani goes unread, but the message is clear.
Death comes to the leaders of ISIS.
At the end of 2019, tension between the US and Iran escalates immeasurably.
A severed hand and a distinctive ring are all that remain.
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History, Politics, Social Sciences, Government, Middle Eastern Politics, Afghan War Military History, American Military History
Introduction: Learn about General Qasem Soleimani from his beginnings to his fateful end.
While Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing the Killers covers the war on terror from 2014 through 2020, it’s impossible for us to capture it all in a single summary. So, in this summary, we’ve chosen to provide a snapshot of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, and a portrait of one man in particular – the IRGC’s leader, General Qasem Soleimani.
During his lifetime, Qasem Soleimani could have been mistaken for any other devout Iranian man. He lived in Tehran with his wife and five children – three boys and two girls. He rose at 4:00 a.m. each morning. He had trouble with his prostate – for which he took medication – and struggled with back pain. He came across as both religious and kind, if sometimes stern and dogmatic. If a non-Iranian encountered him on the streets of Tehran, they’d have no way of knowing what lay behind this facade.
In 2015, mid-battle against ISIS at its stronghold in Tikrit, Soleimani came out of the shadows. He allowed himself to be photographed for the first time; wearing a soldier’s fatigues with a general’s epaulets, he knelt in prayer in the middle of the desert. On social media, many noted his handsome, unlined face. His dark eyes, black eyebrows, and neatly-trimmed gray beard were accompanied by a gentle smile.
At the time the photograph was taken, Soleimani and his forces were already responsible for thousands of deaths. He’d orchestrated terror attacks in Somalia, India, and Thailand, his forces behaving no better than ISIS – kidnapping and executing civilians, raping women, and burning down people’s houses.
In this summary, we’ll look at the rapid rise of Soleimani, as well as the events leading up to and including his assassination in 2020.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- when Soleimani came to detest the US;
- about two letters – one from Soleimani, the other sent to him; and
- what the last terrifying sound was that Soleimani ever heard.
Soleimani rises in prominence.
Let’s take a trip back to 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution. The shah of Iran has fled the country, chased out by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia Muslim revolutionary who’d been exiled for 15 years. Having returned to Iran, Khomeini now needs a military force to maintain his grip on power. He establishes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. A fresh-faced 22-year-old with no military experience joins up: Qasem Soleimani.
Life in the IRGC suits him well. He proves himself to be a capable commander, and is soon invited to an elite training camp, where he excels. He even refuses sick leave when he’s accidentally shot in the arm.
In September 1980, Iraq invades Iran, and a bitter war breaks out. Soleimani finds himself at the front, leading a military company. The war rages for eight years and Soleimani quickly rises through the ranks. It’s during this time that he comes to believe that Iraq should, from then onward, remain weak – incapable of threatening Iran ever again. It’s a philosophy that he later extends to all countries of the region. And, since the US was aligned with the Iraqis, he begins to believe the US must be destroyed. The war ends in a deadlock with over 100,000 soldiers dead on both sides.
Skip forward a decade, from the end of the war to 1997, and Soleimani has become commander of the special intelligence arm of the IRGC – the Quds Force. From his position of power, Soleimani, now a general, begins to wage “secret wars” on several fronts – in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Over the coming years, Quds focuses on recruiting and training terror factions and encouraging insurrection. Under Soleimani, it will go on to give support to the Muslim factions fighting in the Bosnian war. It will train and arm Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. It will give support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, as well as to Houthi militants battling against Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen. And, in Afghanistan, Quds Force will work with the Taliban to kill Americans.
In 2003, the US invades Iraq with orders to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Even though his hatred for Saddam is strong, Soleimani’s hatred of the US grows even more. He oversees the provision of materials for the Iraqis to attack US forces. Iranian forces plant bombs in road surfaces to destroy US vehicles and they attack US bases. And while all this is going on, Soleimani’s power grows.
In 2013, former CIA officer John Maguire calls Soleimani “the single most powerful operative in the world today.” And adds: “no one’s ever heard of him.”
Soleimani himself, though, isn’t shy about self-promotion. He even writes to the commander of the US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, “I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”
The capture of Tikrit by Iranian forces was a severe symbolic and tactical blow to ISIS.
Iran has always sought to contain Sunni Muslims living in Iraq; Muslims in Iran are overwhelmingly Shia. In March 2015, it’s no different – to the Iranians, the Sunni ISIS terrorists are enemies. They’re less than pleased by the success of ISIS in establishing their caliphate on Iraqi soil, so it’s no surprise when Soleimani launches an attack with 20,000 Shia military fighters.
Tikrit has been controlled by ISIS since 2014. The city isn’t huge, but it’s significant, both symbolically and tactically. It was the birthplace of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. And it lies on the banks of the Tigris, halfway between Baghdad to the south and Mosel to the north.
The odds for the 4,000 ISIS fighters don’t look good; they’re vastly outnumbered by the Iranians’ 20,000. And then comes even more bad news for ISIS: their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been severely injured by an American drone strike. Operations have been handed over to his deputy.
As the ISIS fighters await the Iranians, explosions from rockets launched by Soleimani’s forces light up the sky. There’s nothing that al-Baghdadi’s forces in Tikrit can do to stop the advance of the Iranian forces.
Meanwhile, less than 100 miles away, US forces are attacking the ISIS-held city of Kirkuk from the air in coordination with Turkish Kurd ground forces. ISIS is facing attacks on two fronts simultaneously – attacks waged by bitter rivals, the US and Iran. But no matter. ISIS is on the retreat.
Soleimani is discussed but ISIS and al-Baghdadi take center stage.
It’s 10:09 a.m., December 2, 2015. In Washington, DC, the threat from ISIS is being discussed by the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Everyone in the room has been briefed about ISIS and al-Baghdadi. More than 1,200 people have been killed at their hands in terror attacks, not including thousands of casualties in Iraq and Syria.
Barely three weeks have passed since a campaign of attacks in Paris shocked the world. The attacks – at the Stade de France, at the Bataclan theater, and at other locations throughout the city – have left 130 innocent people dead.
Even with these attacks fresh in their minds, the attention of the committee is drawn to the IRGC and 58-year-old General Soleimani, considered by many to be much more of a threat than ISIS and its leader. Committee chairman, Ed Royce, talks about the IRGC’s support for international terrorism, human rights abuses, and nuclear proliferation. He argues that the IRGC has made Iran the threat that it is. Another politician says that although al-Baghdadi is a good figurehead for ISIS, it will only be a small step backward when he gets replaced. But Soleimani is brilliant – “in another lifetime, someone who would run Microsoft” – and his elimination will result in an unrecoverable loss of leadership and intelligence.
All told, the committee meeting discussions last two hours – but Soleimani has been named only twice.
ISIS has been forced out of Tikrit and Soleimani has disappeared back into the shadows. The retreating al-Baghdadi and ISIS once again take center stage as that very afternoon a Pakistani couple, inspired by ISIS, attack a local health-department building in San Bernardino, California, leaving 14 Americans dead.
A letter from Pompeo to Soleimani goes unread, but the message is clear.
In November 2017, Soleimani is writing to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, to confirm his strategic victory over ISIS in Syria. It’s not only a strategic victory, but also revenge for a humiliating attack by ISIS in the heart of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Five months ago, a surprise attack by seven ISIS fighters resulted in 17 deaths and 43 injuries – the first such attack on Iranian soil.
Now, the citadel at Abu Kamal, the last ISIS stronghold in Syria, has been captured. Photos of Soleimani commanding his troops – calm, professional, and surrounded by bodyguards – are omnipresent in the media.
His letter talks about ISIS youth blowing themselves up in suicide attacks in the name of Islam. But then he pivots and directs his energy toward Iran’s greatest enemy: the United States. He claims that “all of these crimes were plotted and carried out by the leaders and organizations tied to the US.”
Seven thousand miles away, Mike Pompeo, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, has been following the situation closely. He has a history with Soleimani stretching back to the Gulf War. Pompeo makes it clear that the US “will hold him and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.” He even goes so far as to send Soleimani a letter saying that the US will retaliate aggressively in response to any Iranian-sponsored terror. Soleimani does not accept or read the letter, but the message has been received.
The US is clearly at war with Soleimani.
And so, too, is al-Baghdadi, who has disappeared as Soleimani closes in. He plots to kill Soleimani.
President Trump plans to eliminate both. Death orders are issued against them. Under Trump, all – and that means all – terror threats must be eliminated.
Death comes to the leaders of ISIS.
It’s 9:15 p.m. on January 30, 2018. In Washington, President Trump is making his first State of the Union address. He has much to talk about. But around 40 minutes in, his attention switches to the war on terror. A year ago, he promised “the development of a new plan to defeat ISIS.” And his aggressive posture has been working.
In fact, ISIS has already lost 95 percent of its territory. But, in spite of that, attacks on American targets haven’t stopped.
Two weeks after the address, 55-year-old Ismael al-Ethawi, al-Baghdadi’s top lieutenant responsible for stonings, beheadings, and throwing people from rooftops, is arrested in Turkey. The Turks extract information – including details of al-Baghdadi’s secret homes and movements in Syria – which they promptly pass to Iraqi authorities and the CIA.
Using al-Ethawi’s revelations and his cellphone, the CIA sets a trap. Four top ISIS leaders reply to text messages from al-Ethawi’s phone and arrange to meet at a “safe location” in Iraq. They’re quickly taken into custody. None of them, nor al-Ethawi, are ever seen in public again. In fact, their fate has never been revealed. The leadership of ISIS has suffered a severe blow.
In spite of all his attempts to remain hidden, al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are finally discovered through two strokes of luck. First, one of his many wives and a courier acting as her bodyguard are arrested. They reveal that al-Baghdadi is living in a hilltop compound at Barisha. Then, an Arab whose identity remains secret betrays al-Baghdadi and provides the CIA with inside knowledge of the compound arrangement. The scene is set.
October 27, 2019, 1:10 a.m.: Night Stalkers – some of the US Army’s best aviators – are closing in on al-Baghdadi’s compound in Black Hawks and Chinooks. They’re spotted and come under fire. Nobody is hurt. They respond by firing machine guns from the Black Hawks. Their ISIS targets are neutralized.
The Black Hawks land outside the compound and a ten-man Delta Force team jumps out and spreads out. They blast holes in the compound wall and prepare to enter the buildings. It’s only ten minutes after landing that a soldier calls out in Arabic requesting the surrender of al-Baghdadi.
Women and children appear. They’re quickly searched and then taken to a waiting helicopter. They inform the soldiers that at least four ISIS fighters are in the compound along with al-Baghdadi and two of his children.
The Arab who betrayed al-Baghdadi is inside al-Baghdadi’s residence and makes himself known to the approaching soldiers. They go from room to room quickly. Four women – two of whom are married to al-Baghdadi – are found wearing suicide vests. One reaches to detonate her vest. Without hesitation, all four are shot in the head. Elsewhere, two ISIS fighters are shot dead trying to detonate explosives.
Conan, a Belgian Malinois military dog, follows al-Baghdadi down escape tunnels; al-Baghdadi is trapped. He pulls his two young children that are with him to his side. Moments later, he detonates his suicide vest, killing himself and the children instanty. His head remains intact. Later, together with DNA testing, this lets Delta Force know they got their man.
The next morning, back in Washington, Trump speaks from the White House. “Last night, the United States brought the world’s terrorist leader to justice,” he proclaims. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
The global response is positive. Even Russia applauds the result. But in Iran, Soleimani is less than impressed. And for a while, ISIS refuses even to acknowledge that its leader is dead.
At the end of 2019, tension between the US and Iran escalates immeasurably.
It’s 7:20 p.m., December 27, 2019. Location: Kirkuk, Iraq. At Camp K-1, a joint Iraqi-US military base, dinner has just ended. Five-foot-long Katyusha rockets strike unexpectedly, primarily on the US side of the camp. Four US service members and two Iraqi security personnel are wounded and an American civilian contractor, Nawres Hamid, is killed.
There have already been eleven other rocket incidents since November, but, until now, nobody has been killed. It’s taken as an act of war. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminds the Iranians that attacks orchestrated by them “will be answered with a decisive US response.”
One day later, 3,000 miles south of Iraq, in Mogadishu, Somalia, Iranian-backed al-Qaeda terrorists explode a truck bomb at a busy security checkpoint. Ninety are dead. One-hundred-and-twenty are wounded. Pompeo announces that the time has come for that decisive response.
The next morning, at 11:00 a.m., US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles release precision-guided bombs over their preselected targets – three Iranian ammunition depots in Iraq and two in Syria. Twenty-five die in the attacks and 55 are injured.
Meanwhile, in Somalia, US jets, in conjunction with the Somali government, target and kill the four militants responsible for the bombing in Mogadishu.
Iran pledges revenge: a tough response on US forces in Iraq. Pompeo reiterates that the US won’t tolerate Iranian actions that put American lives at risk.
New Year’s Eve. Tension is rising in Baghdad after three months of protests against the Iranians by Sunni Muslims. Iranian-backed counterprotesters are already in the mix. And tonight, a third group, mourners of the militiamen killed in the US bombing two days ago, join the confrontation. They throw rocks at the US Embassy and shout “Death to America.” Eventually, they breach the embassy’s outer walls, enter storage facilities, and ransack files. US marines train their guns on the crowd from vantage points on top of the embassy building.
Trump tweets: “. . . Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”
One-thousand militia members spend the night surrounding the embassy. The Americans are trapped. The Iraqis don’t intervene. Eventually, the US marines fire tear gas, and two helicopter gunships zoom down to menace the mob, which disperses.
As the embassy siege comes to an end, Soleimani makes plans for a new wave of attacks on American troops. He boards a Syrian airliner to take him from Damascus to Baghdad.
A severed hand and a distinctive ring are all that remain.
It’s 12:32 a.m. on January 3, 2020. General Qasem Soleimani is sitting in the front row of an airbus A320 as it touches down at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq after its one-hour flight from the Syrian capital. He’s accompanied by two loyal Quds bodyguards and by two high-level Iranian officials. Soleimani trusts each of them implicitly.
They disembark and are met by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of the Kataib Hezbollah militia. They drive away together in two SUVs. Soleimani believes he’s completely safe. But at that moment, the two cars are being followed from 20,000 feet by at least two MQ-9 Reaper drones.
Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, has been tracking Soleimani’s movements. She knows Soleimani is meeting militia allies in Iraq to plan attacks on US troops. She also knows it’s time to deal with Soleimani, and Trump has already signed off a lethal intervention following the attack on the Baghdad embassy. Soleimani has been on the list of the US most wanted terrorists for years but has so far evaded assassination attempts. Now, though, his location and intention to harm US troops are beyond doubt.
Each drone is 36 feet long with a wingspan of 20 meters and weighs 5 tons – including fuel and weapons. Each has a camera capable of clearly photographing words on a golf ball from 3 miles away. Now, those cameras are trained on Soleimani’s vehicles.
Airforce pilots monitor each Reaper from Creech Air Force Base, 32 miles outside of Las Vegas. They monitor the two SUVs on video screens. They’re the only two vehicles on the road right now, but once they head into Baghdad, they’ll blend in with the other cars.
At 2:55 p.m. in Las Vegas, the order comes. It’s 12:55 a.m. in Baghdad. Soleimani is sitting in the back of one of the SUVs with Mahdi al-Muhandis. The only sound is that of their conversation – most probably discussions about the next atrocities to be unleashed on the US.
Then comes a sudden, terrifying sound: a split-second roar of a Hellfire rocket – the last sound Soleimani hears. Two missiles slam into his car. A third and fourth slam into the second car. The vehicles are obliterated – two flaming mounds of metal remain. Everyone is burned beyond recognition – but somehow the severed hand of Soleimani has been thrown clear and can be seen on the road shoulder, identifiable by his distinctive silver and red ring.
A mass killer was dead. The Iranians protested, but their protest was muted. Demonstrations around the world soon turned to anger and disgust – at the US. It wasn’t long before Trump and the US were being portrayed as the villains.
News channels in the US aired programs where commentators gave differing viewpoints. Would it have been less dangerous to keep Soleimani alive? Did the benefits outweigh the risks?
Trump gave an address in which he claimed to have carried out a preemptive strike before more attacks on Americans could take place. He praised the flawless strike and said Soleimani had been planning a “very major attack. And we got him.”
In Iran, a mob chanted “Death to America” and US flags were burned. Iran promised to strike back at a time and place of its choosing. The US should expect anything.
#WorldWar3 began to trend on Twitter.
The world began to take sides. Russia condemned the assassination while Israel and Saudi Arabia supported it. The UN said the attack was a violation of its charter. And the whole world waited for Iranian revenge.
Hours after Soleimani’s funeral, the wait was over. Half an hour after midnight, a US airbase in Iraq was the target of Iranian missiles designed to fragment into shrapnel on hitting their target, causing maximum casualties. But when the dust cleared, not a single US soldier had been killed. President Trump tweeted, “All is well.”
Everyone in Iran was tense, expecting further retaliation. An incompetent commander saw a strange image on the radar and believed it to be an incoming cruise missile. It wasn’t. It was a Ukrainian passenger jet traveling to Kyiv. Just three minutes after taking off from Tehran airport, it was blasted from the sky, killing the 176 passengers and crew.
Although, at first, the Iranians denied involvement – they claimed there was a fire in one of the engines – eventually they admitted to human error.
General Qassem Soleimani had – effectively – claimed his last victims.
About the author
BILL O’REILLY’s success in broadcasting and publishing is unmatched. He was the iconic anchor of The O’Reilly Factor, the highest-rated cable news broadcast in the nation for 16 consecutive years. His website BillOReilly.com is followed by millions all over the world, his No Spin News is broadcast weekday nights at 8 and 11 (ET) on The First TV, and his O’Reilly Update is heard weekdays on more than 225 radio stations across the country. He has authored an astonishing seventeen #1 bestsellers; his historical Killing series is the bestselling nonfiction series of all time, with over 18 million books in print. O’Reilly has received a number of journalism accolades, including three Emmys and two Emmy nominations. He holds a History degree from Marist College, a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University, and a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. O’Reilly lives on Long Island where he was raised. His philanthropic enterprises have raised tens of millions for people in need and wounded American veterans.
MARTIN DUGARD is the New York Times bestselling author of several books of history, among them the Killing series, Into Africa, and The Explorers. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three sons.
In the eleventh book in the multimillion-selling Killing series, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard reveal the startling, dramatic story of the global war against terrorists.
In Killing The Killers, #1 bestselling authors Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard take readers deep inside the global war on terror, which began more than twenty years ago on September 11, 2001.
As the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, the Pentagon burned, and a small group of passengers fought desperately to stop a third plane from completing its deadly flight plan, America went on war footing. Killing The Killers narrates America’s intense global war against extremists who planned and executed not only the 9/11 attacks, but hundreds of others in America and around the world, and who eventually destroyed entire nations in their relentless quest for power.
Killing The Killers moves from Afghanistan to Iraq, Iran to Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and elsewhere, as the United States fought Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as well as individually targeting the most notorious leaders of these groups. With fresh detail and deeply-sourced information, O’Reilly and Dugard create an unstoppable account of the most important war of our era.
Killing The Killers is the most thrilling and suspenseful book in the #1 bestselling series of popular history books (over 18 million sold) in the world.
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“This book goes deeper than any ‘Godfather’ movie” – Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner
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MAY 2, 2011
0045 HOURS (12:45 A.M.)
The man with thirty minutes to live sleeps in his beige pajamas.
Meanwhile, two US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters fly low over Pakistani airspace. The moon is a waning crescent. HAC—the helicopter aircraft commander—is up front in the left seat, his copilot to the right. “Chalk One,” as the lead bird is known, carries a dozen Navy SEALs on the hard metal floor in the cabin space behind the cockpit. Chalk Two ferries ten SEALs, a Pakistani American CIA translator, and a six-year-old Belgian Malinois dog named Cairo. Like the soldiers, Cairo wears Kevlar body armor and specially fitted night vision goggles.
The fuselage of each bird is painted black. Special metallurgy and heat-suppressing exhaust systems minimize the 60’s radar profile. Noise-reducing technology affixed to the tips of the rotors dampens sound. The pilots enhance their aircraft’s invisibility by using a flying technique known as “nap of the earth,” huggi; ng landscape contours as low to the ground as possible. The fully laden machines travel at a deliberate seventy-five miles per hour.
Death is coming in the darkness.
* * *
Each member of this special team of SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) commandos remains almost motionless on the floor. The 60s are equipped with crew seats, but it is a matter of pride that SEALs are too tough for such luxury. Many are asleep despite this dangerous mission. Their uniform consists of Crye Precision desert digital camouflage combat pants with a matching pullover shirt designed to be worn under body armor. Pockets along each pant leg contain gear vital to the mission: leather gloves, medical kit, energy bars, extra ammunition.
In case the mission goes wrong, every SEAL carries a few hundred dollars in American currency to buy local assistance and find a way out of Pakistan.
The fighters are navy, but the pilots are army. This is by design. The 60 is flown by both branches of the service, but it is widely acknowledged that army pilots are best in “infil” and “exfil”—infiltration and exfiltration, the dangerous business of landing a helicopter in a battle zone and successfully departing when the mission is over.
Tonight, infil and exfil are life and death.
* * *
Both Black Hawks took off sixty minutes ago from a secure airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In support, two larger CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew out fifteen minutes later, loaded with spare fuel for the return journey. The two “Bathtubs,” as the Chinooks are nicknamed for their elongated shape, will land at a secret base in Afghanistan close to the Pakistani border, there to await further orders.
The SEALs are headed toward a private compound near the town of Abbottabad, just under two hundred miles away. Locals call it the Waziristan Palace for its enormous size.* Located on Kakul Road, in a middle-class section of Abbottabad known as Bilal Town, the acre-sized facility is surrounded by thick walls ranging in height from ten to eighteen feet tall. Solid steel gates cover each entrance. Several structures and a large open courtyard for raising animals and growing vegetables fill the space inside.
The plan is for Chalk One to hover low over the courtyard. SEALs on board will invade the compound by sliding down a system of thick ropes attached to a strong point inside the helicopter, known as the FRIES—fast rope insertion/extraction system. “Fast-roping” greatly resembles a fire pole descent—thus the leather gloves each man carries. Once on the ground, they will spread out and begin their search for tonight’s target.
Meanwhile, Chalk Two will land just outside the compound walls. Cairo the dog, his SEAL handler, Will Chesney, the CIA interpreter, and a small sniper team will disembark to provide perimeter security. They will seek out any approaching force or anyone trying to escape. One squad of SEALs will remain on board Chalk Two at this time, then be flown into the compound, where they will fast-rope onto the flat rooftop of the three-story main house.
Unloaded, both helicopters will then fly to a designated location to await the order to return and pick up the combatants. Total time on the ground will be no more than forty minutes.
* * *
There are several buildings to infiltrate, but the main house is of greatest interest. It is thought that “the Pacer,” as the tall figure whom satellite cameras so often photograph strolling the grounds is called, lives in this structure. The SEALs will enter the residence seeking this man. If he chooses to come along peacefully, he will be bound and escorted into a helicopter for a flight to captivity.
Should the homeowner prefer to fight, he will be shot dead. The weapon of choice for these SEALs varies by man, whether it be the Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle, FN Mark 48 machine gun, or the H&K MP7 machine pistol that fires an armor-piercing cartridge. In addition, each man wears a holstered pistol. And no SEAL is ever comfortable unless he is carrying a very long and very sharp fixed-blade knife.
This April 1998 file photo shows Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
* * *
The target on this warm, humid night is the notorious killer Osama bin Laden, the fifty-four-year-old terrorist mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Formally named Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, he is six foot five, with a long black-and-gray beard. Saudi Arabian by birth, the terrorist was born the son of a billionaire who died in a plane crash when Osama was just ten.* Bin Laden is known to be frugal and soft-spoken but a strict father to the estimated twenty-six children he has fathered with his many wives.
The terrorist is the most wanted man in the world. People everywhere know his face; there is nowhere he can go without being recognized. Raised in a world of privilege, he is driven by a deep hatred for America. Bin Laden has turned his back on the peaceful tenets of the Muslim religion, preferring to live a life dedicated to killing US citizens. This has come at a cost: he spends his life on the run, taking extreme precautions to avoid being apprehended. But even from this remote hideaway, bin Laden controls a vast terror network. Extremists rally to his cause, and his message of hate does not fall on deaf ears in the world of the jihadi.
Most of all, bin Laden is a murderer. In addition to the almost three thousand innocent people killed on 9/11, he has used his considerable wealth to lead the terrorist organization al-Qaeda—“the Foundation”—in numerous deadly attacks around the world since 1998. In August 1996, bin Laden declared a holy war, a jihad, against America, operating from a hidden refuge in Afghanistan. For the past ten years, the most well-equipped intelligence agencies on the planet have hunted bin Laden, but he has been elusive. There have been numerous alleged sightings of the man, all of which have led nowhere.
Tonight will be different.
* * *
The CIA has confirmed that Osama bin Laden, his children, and his many wives have occupied the Abbottabad compound since 2005. Interrogation of al-Qaeda detainees at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba revealed the name of a bin Laden courier known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, real name Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In 2007, officials learned that this messenger was living in Abbottabad under an alias; careful tracking of Ahmed’s movements led the CIA to believe he might be sheltering bin Laden. US intelligence officials sought to confirm this hunch by obtaining a blood sample from one of the many children whom satellite photos showed to be living in the compound. These same images revealed the first intriguing images of the Pacer.
A Pakistan army soldier stands on top of the house where it is believed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Monday, May 2, 2011.
Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, considered the top physician in the nearby Khyber tribal regions, was recruited by the CIA to set up a vaccine clinic in Abbottabad. He had previously worked on several US-funded vaccination programs in Pakistan and willingly agreed. Afridi was not told the name of the target. Unbeknownst to the doctor, any blood samples that could be acquired would be compared with DNA known to belong to bin Laden to confirm a match. The operation was successful.*
After the verification of bin Laden’s location, the American military and the CIA developed “Operation Neptune Spear.”† Several different tactics were discussed, including a stealth bomber dropping munitions on the compound or a drone-fired missile. But none of those actions would confirm the truth about whether Osama bin Laden was alive or dead. So the decision was made to send in SEAL teams to do the work.
But the strategy is a high-risk gamble. The SEALs have all volunteered to travel into Pakistan without permission from its government, knowing full well that a Pakistani military headquarters is just two miles from the compound. Should they be captured alive, each SEAL is guaranteed hours of the most heinous torture before being executed, most likely by beheading, in a dank jail cell. Thus, the TOT—time on target—must be as short as possible.
There are so many things that can go wrong. The twin-engine UH-60 carries 1,200 pounds of fuel in each of its two tanks. That’s enough gas for ninety minutes of flying. Add in another 1,200-pound auxiliary tank, heavy stealth technology, and the combined weight of the men, and these aircraft are at the very end of their technical flying ability. Simply put: they might not have enough gas to get home. And “getting home” in this case means flying back into Afghanistan over the rugged Hindu Kush, some of the most difficult terrain on earth.
But for pilots and SEALs alike, many years of training have been preparation for a scenario just like this: neutralizing a sworn enemy, one who has killed not just in America but all over the globe for two decades.
Osama bin Laden is the most important target in the world.
* * *
Three minutes until the drop. The pilots close in rapidly. The sound of their rotors will be audible to those in the compound when the helicopters are two minutes out. The residence has been heavily surveilled, but even after months of planning, questions remain. Nobody knows if the walls or rooftops are booby-trapped, whether an underground escape tunnel will allow the occupants to flee into the night, or how quickly the nearby Pakistani military will respond to the incursion. But already, there is good news: no activity has been sighted anywhere in the area, a sign that the American pilots have successfully flown beneath the radar.
Now they need to maintain that cloak of invisibility.
Darkness helps. Power outages are common in this Pakistani garrison town, and on this hot night, Abbottabad is bathed in total darkness. All light in both helicopters is suppressed. The SEALs make last-minute personal equipment checks. The assault is about to begin.
The code name of the target: Geronimo.
* * *
Osama bin Laden is asleep, his fourth wife, Amal, at his side. There are bars and curtains with yellow flowers on his windows. Barbed wire rings the compound. Before going to bed at 11:00 p.m., the undisputed leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network ate dinner. Bin Laden prefers bread, dates, and honey; he rarely eats meat. The terrorist also does not use utensils, preferring to eat with his right hand, in the manner of the prophet Muhammad.
Bin Laden’s two-year-old son, Hussein, also sleeps in the room. No one pays attention to the power outage. These occurrences are so frequent they are no longer a cause for concern.
The terrorist, his wife, and his child prayed together before bed. Osama bin Laden sleeps just two to three hours a night. He is an anxious man, often lying awake in the darkness waiting for morning to come or taking sleeping pills when he cannot calm himself. But tonight is restful. So while her husband slumbers, it is Amal who hears the rotors of approaching helicopters.
* * *
“Mr. President,” an aide tells Barack Obama, “this is going to take a while. You might not want to sit here and watch the whole thing unfold.”
President Obama is in the basement of the White House’s West Wing, in the intelligence command post known as the Situation Room. The time is shortly before 4:00 p.m. A large television screen airs a live feed of the mission in Pakistan, transmitted from drones capable of circling as high as fifty thousand feet. The unmanned aircraft is invisible to the naked eye and is capable of remaining over the target for many hours at a time.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.
Operation Neptune Spear combines the efforts of the civilian CIA and military Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). So a similar viewing is taking place in a seventh-floor conference room at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, watched by agency director Leon Panetta, who has dedicated almost a year to this risky venture. Panetta is in direct contact with mission commander Admiral William McRaven at the SEALs’ departure base in Jalalabad.
But seeing the president depart causes others to follow him, into the office of a military adviser. The room is cramped, but that does not stop people from crowding into it, much to Obama’s dismay.
Barack Obama wears a white golf shirt and blue windbreaker bearing the presidential emblem. Though knowing full well the operation would proceed tonight, he intentionally played golf earlier, to avoid a departure from his normal Sunday routine. Being president means having your every movement and word scrutinized. Obama did not want to hint toward tonight’s operation in any way.
A long conference table covered with open laptops and various drinks fills the center of the small space. Vice President Joe Biden is openly nervous. He and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is also present, are ambivalent about the mission. Both men have been asking many questions about its viability, still remembering the 1980 American debacle in the Iranian desert, when eight US servicemen were killed and six aircraft destroyed after a botched effort to rescue American hostages. That incident damaged the presidency of Jimmy Carter beyond repair. There was also Somalia, in 1993, where a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, resulting in the deaths of eighteen Americans. That incident still is vividly remembered by the public because of a bestselling book and a subsequent Hollywood movie.
Failure tonight would be a disaster far worse than Iran or Somalia. And President Obama would take much of the heat.
Wearing a brown blazer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enters the room and takes a seat next to Secretary Gates. Antony Blinken, destined one day to become future president Joe Biden’s secretary of state, stands in the doorway. There is very little talking. The air is thick with tension.*
Everything is going according to plan.
Until it doesn’t.
* * *
Chalk One hovers over the Waziristan Palace, SEALs poised to fast-rope out the open doors. Suddenly, the eighteen-foot-high stone compound walls and hot night air contribute to a dangerous condition known as “vortex ring state,” which prevents the helicopter rotors from producing lift. Simultaneously, the tail of the 60 bounces atop the compound wall. Lack of lift pitches the helicopter forward and down toward the ground. The tail wheel acts as a pivot point, forcing the Black Hawk to tilt sharply to the right.
The main rotors dig hard into the loose soil of a vegetable garden. Pilot and copilot strain against their seat belts, helmets and harnesses holding them fast to their cockpit seats. In the cabin behind them, the unbelted SEALs pitch forward, falling onto one another. They struggle to remain inside the helicopter. Slipping out the open doors into the spinning blades would be a horrific way to die.
Events unfold quickly. The pilots immediately shut down the Black Hawk’s two engines. SEALs, many slightly injured, scramble to exit, guns at the ready. The crash has been anything but silent, and the invaders prepare for incoming fire from the compound.
Outside, Chalk Two lands in a field, but takes off the instant the SEALs and Cairo jump out. The dog is immediately let off his leash to search for threats. He has been in combat before and knows the difference between a helpless infant and a lethal terrorist.
The original task of these operators was perimeter defense, but now they move to blow the walls and enter the compound, not knowing the fate of their comrades in the crashed helicopter.
The invading SEALs now see bin Laden’s safe house for the first time. They have practiced on a life-sized version at a secret location in North Carolina. But this is the real thing.
“We opened the doors, and I looked out,” SEAL operator Robert O’Neill will remember. Seeing the high walls and knowing what must be done to complete the mission successfully, O’Neill thought, “This is some serious Navy SEAL shit we’re going to do.”
* * *
Osama bin Laden is now awake. A loud, bright explosion shakes the house as he crouches on the bedroom floor; the sound of the crashing helicopter cuts through the night with a noise so loud that a witness will later call it a “noise of magnitude I have never heard before.” Baby Hussein cries. Amal tries to turn on a light, forgetting about the power outage.
“No,” bin Laden commands. Opening the bedroom door, he screams down the stairs to his son Khalid. “Come up!”*
“Americans are coming!” yells Khalid, running up the stairs in white pajamas, clutching a loaded AK-47 automatic rifle. The crying voices of the many children in the three-story structure echo up and down the stairwell.
Outside, a new explosion rings through the night as SEALs breach the perimeter wall on the north side of the compound. Two bodyguards, brothers Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed and Abrar Ahmed, have sworn loyalty to bin Laden and stand ready to fight. The men are Pakistanis who oversaw the construction of the compound but have long feared that a night like this might come. Several times, they suggested that bin Laden and his extended brood relocate.
After a time, the terrorist reluctantly agreed but asked for postponement of departure until September 2011—the tenth anniversary of the terror attack on America.
Now, five minutes into the SEAL landings, as explosions destroy the big metal doors guarding the compound entrances, Osama bin Laden regrets his decision.
* * *
“It appears that we have a helicopter down in the animal pen,” Admiral McRaven says from Afghanistan over the live video feed. “Backup helicopter on the way.”
In fact, McRaven ordered one Chinook to fly to the compound just moments ago.
At CIA headquarters in Virginia, Director Panetta watches the crash of Chalk One with rising fear. A multimillion-dollar helicopter crashes, and it’s Black Hawk down all over again.
At the White House, President Obama will recall feeling “an electric kind of fear. A disaster reel played in my head.”
The mood in the small conference room is grim. More than a dozen of America’s top leaders fill the space, anxiously watching the screen. Mr. Obama sits off to the side in a small chair, leaning forward, eyes riveted. Secretary Clinton presses one hand to her face, covering her mouth.
The video feed is a series of monochromatic images. Twenty-four SEALs are now on the ground, with most inside the compound. Explosions and gunshots can be heard clearly as the SEALs apply breaching charges to blast doorways, even as the trapped occupants open fire with AK-47s.
The SEAL weapons are suppressed, making very little noise when they fire. So all audible gunshots are from bin Laden’s security team, which now includes twenty-three-year-old Khalid. The team from Chalk One can be seen entering the main house. Others make their way to a small annex known by the code symbol C1 on the SEALs’ laminated maps of the compound, secured in their pants pockets.
Suddenly, as the team is about to enter the building, rounds from an AK-47 assault weapon rattle above their heads. Glass shatters, falling onto the crouched Americans. Returning fire, the SEALs shoot into the darkness. There is no response. The firing stops. A woman yells to them, then slowly steps into their sight line. She is holding a baby.
“He is dead,” the woman says to the fighters. The SEALs never take their fingers off the trigger, fearing she may be wearing a suicide vest. Slowly, the invaders follow the wife of Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed into a bedroom. There, her husband—the courier for bin Laden who unknowingly led the CIA to this location—lies in the doorway. The floor is thick with his blood, and the SEALs will later remember the room smelling of heating oil. The demise of Saeed Ahmed is not seen by those watching in Washington, Virginia, and Afghanistan; the drone video cannot show the inside of the buildings. So, for twenty long minutes, the feed from space remains silent.
* * *
Cautiously, the SEALs leave building C1 and cross the compound to the much larger complex mission planners have labeled A1—the main house. The night is far from silent. Children continue to cry. Women are shrieking. A three-man team enters a long hallway with two doors on each side. As the SEALs creep forward, one inhabitant of the residence cautiously leans his head out of the first door on the left. The SEAL walking point immediately fires a single shot.
Unsure if the target is hit, the team moves quickly into the room. Abrar Ahmed lies wounded on the floor, an AK-47 nearby. Suddenly, the bodyguard’s wife jumps forward in the darkness, trying to prevent the SEALs from getting to her husband. The Americans have been warned that women in the compound might be armed and that some might even be wearing explosives. The invaders take no chances, opening fire.
Abrar and his wife, Bushra, both die instantly.
It is known that four men occupy the compound. Two are now dead. That leaves Khalid bin Laden and his father, directly upstairs from where the SEALs now stand.
* * *
In his third-floor bedroom, Osama bin Laden prays. His family is gathered around. “They want me, not you,” the terrorist tells two of his wives who have run upstairs to be at his side. There is confusion as some refuse to leave and others have no idea where to go. Americans are in the courtyard, and some SEALs have entered the main house.
Carefully, six SEALs climb to the second floor using a narrow spiral staircase. The steps are tiled. Fighting here will be at close quarters. Every footfall or whining door hinge spells trouble.
The SEALs see the image of a man standing on the stairwell leading to the third floor. He is seeking to conceal himself and does not present much of a target. Believing the individual might be bin Laden’s son, the SEAL walking point softly calls out in Arabic: “Khalid, come here.”*
The younger bin Laden is confused. Cautiously, he peers out from his hiding spot. He is promptly shot in the chin, the bullet slicing through his brain before exiting out the back of his skull. Khalid bin Laden falls backward onto the stairs. The SEALs continue their advance, stepping around Khalid, whose white shirt is drenched in blood. His loaded AK-47 is propped against a wall, never fired.
At this point, three of the four males occupying the compound have been eliminated.
Only Geronimo remains.
Two rooms stand at the top of the stairs. A curtain conceals the entrance to one. A man with a long beard pokes his head out; he thinks he is invisible in the darkness. The SEALs immediately open fire. The man withdraws back into the bedroom, but his AK-47 pokes out around the doorjamb.
Two SEALs press their advantage, bounding up the stairs and throwing back the curtain. Two young girls stand in the room. One SEAL tackles them, fearing they are wearing bombs. Terrified, they cry out, having never been touched by a man not of their own family. “Sheikh,” one yells toward the man with the beard.
Now comes the stand-off. One SEAL remains, staring into the eyes of Osama bin Laden, who is standing at the foot of the bed. The terrorist’s beard is his most prominent feature. His hair is cut short. Amal stands in front of him. Bin Laden keeps his hands on her shoulders, using the mother of his young child, who now sits sobbing just a few feet away, as a human shield. Amal is bleeding from one leg, having taken one of the bullets fired up the stairwell.
Osama bin Laden has had years to prepare for this moment. There is a chance he is wearing a suicide vest, or perhaps concealing a gun or knife, using his wife’s torso to prevent the intruders from seeing these weapons. Bin Laden is a man who hates Americans and would have no compunction about blowing himself up to take more American lives in his final act.
The SEAL weighs all these realities.
So it is that Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert O’Neill raises his weapon high, to accommodate bin Laden’s height. The barrel is aimed at a spot just over Amal’s shoulder. The SEAL does not hesitate. The first bullet cuts a furrow through the top of bin Laden’s skull. The second shot is insurance. So is the third. The terrorist’s tongue hangs from his mouth as his body goes limp. His head is blown apart.
Other SEALs enter the room, having made their way up the stairs. One by one, they fire into the corpse, payback for those who died on 9/11.
The message is radioed back to Jalalabad and then relayed to Langley and the White House. The acronym for “enemy killed in action” rockets halfway around the world.
“We heard McRaven’s and Leon’s voices, almost simultaneously, utter the words we’d been waiting to hear,” President Obama will write.
* * *
There is no celebration. Not yet. Osama bin Laden’s corpse is placed in an olive drab body bag, and SEALs carry him to the waiting helicopter outside the compound walls. Inside, the buildings are ransacked for intelligence. Computer hard drives, laptops, thumb drives, documents, and cell phones are seized. This treasure trove of information is the most captured in a single recent raid. Vacuum-sealed piles of opium are discovered beneath bin Laden’s bed, the source of his income in the many years since his bank accounts were frozen.
Meanwhile, the explosions have attracted a crowd. Cairo is kept on his leash as the interpreter warns away curious citizens arriving to see the source of the noise. Dogs are considered devilish and filthy in Muslim culture, and the mere presence of a snarling Cairo is enough to deter the crowd.
A Chinook arrives to ferry out operators and captured intelligence. Bin Laden’s wives and children will be left behind.* The dead terrorist has two emergency phone numbers and five hundred euros sewn into the fabric of his underwear. Space inside the helicopter carrying Osama bin Laden is so cramped that one SEAL has no choice but to sit atop the body for the flight back to Jalalabad. Photos are taken of bin Laden’s face as the first step in authenticating the terrorist’s identity.
Inside the compound, the downed UH-60 is blown up to prevent its technology from falling into the hands of the Pakistanis. The bright light and noise of the detonation is so powerful that it can be heard and seen for miles around. A Pakistani military response is surely imminent.
Time to go. The mission is now almost over.
But there is one more danger to overcome. The two US helicopters have a ninety-minute flight back to Afghanistan. A single Pakistani fighter jet could shoot the helicopters from the sky. The SEALs are apprehensive—the journey is especially long.
* * *
At 5:41 p.m., Eastern time, cheers go up in Washington, DC. This is the moment when both SEAL teams cross safely into Afghanistan. Nine minutes later, they touch down safely at Jalalabad Air Base. US intelligence will later learn that Pakistani authorities had turned off their radar on this hot Sunday night, and that even if there had been advance warning, their fighter pilots were unwilling to fly in the dark.
“Let’s see him,” Admiral McRaven says as the body bag is removed from the UH-60.
The corpse is dropped onto the cement hangar floor. CIA analysts hastily begin conducting DNA tests to confirm the identity of the body. The sample matches those recently taken from family members. In order to calculate bin Laden’s height, one very tall SEAL is ordered to lie down on the floor next to the terrorist’s body.*
* * *
At 11:35 p.m. Eastern, President Barack Obama addresses the nation. In his hastily written speech, he informs the world that the long hunt for Osama bin Laden is over.
CIA director Panetta, who has driven to the White House to share the triumph with the president, leaves shortly after the speech. He is stunned to see crowds lining the sidewalk, cheering this moment of national victory: “USA, USA, USA,” they chant.
Panetta will call it one of the best moments of his life.
* * *
In Afghanistan, the Navy SEALs and their army pilots are reveling in the mission’s success, laughing and rehashing the action moment by moment just a few feet from the body of Osama bin Laden. The sense of relief is palpable, with thoughts of the many things that could have gone wrong after the crash of Chalk One in everyone’s heads.
This is also a sad moment for Will Chesney, Cairo’s handler, who must soon say good-bye to the veteran dog after three years working together. Cairo often sleeps in Chesney’s bed and has been his constant companion through that time.*
But the night is not over. Shortly after landing in Jalalabad, the SEALs, Cairo, their harvest of intelligence data, and the body of Osama bin Laden board a C-130 Hercules cargo plane for the flight to Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base—150 miles away. There, they watch President Obama’s speech on a big-screen television, clean their weapons, store their gear, and grab a bite. The feeling of elation does not subside. The SEALs will soon continue to Washington, there to meet the president. Each will receive a Silver Star for bravery.†
* * *
As the SEALs depart for the United States, the body of Osama bin Laden is placed in the hold of a US Navy V-22 Osprey cargo plane and flown to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, in the northern Arabian Sea. The terrorist has been dead less than twelve hours. Rather than bury bin Laden on land, and have his grave become a shrine for terrorists everywhere, the team will dispatch the corpse at sea, where there is no chance his final resting place will ever be located.
In strict accordance with Islamic law, bin Laden is buried within twenty-four hours of his death. He is washed and shrouded in white cloth. There is no coffin. A US Navy sailor of the Muslim faith witnesses the cleaning and wrapping of the body.
And so it is that Osama bin Laden, wrapped tightly in the cloth, is placed inside a body bag with three hundred pounds of iron chains. The bag, resting on a flat board, is tipped over the side of the Vinson, sliding into the depths of the Arabian Sea. There are some eyewitnesses who suggest the body bag holding bin Laden might have been sliced open to allow creatures of the deep easier access to his remains. But that is unconfirmed.
What is confirmed is that the heinous mastermind of 9/11 has finally received justice.
But as one killer leaves the stage, many others are anxious to take his place.
There will be no shortage of terror killers in the years to come.
AUGUST 19, 2014
SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN SYRIA
The condemned man kneels on the rocky ground in an orange jumpsuit. He is emaciated and barefoot, hands cuffed behind his back. The bright sun casts strong shadows. The landscape around him is nothing but beige desert hills—no vegetation, no sign of life. The garish prison garb is intentional, a mocking reminder of the uniform captured terrorists are forced to wear at America’s Guantánamo Bay prison.
The executioner is clad in all black, face covered by a balaclava. He stands behind the condemned, right hand gripping his shoulder, left fist clutching a long steel-bladed knife. Both men know that a video crew is recording every word and movement. The desert backdrop offers absolutely no clue to the location of the grisly scene now being filmed.
James Foley is a good man. He stares straight into the camera. His head and face are shaved. Foley is forty and Catholic, raised in New Hampshire, a freelance journalist with a long history of covering war in the Middle East. Almost two years ago, on November 22, 2012, Foley was taken hostage by a Muslim militia while covering the Syrian Civil War. His hired driver and translator were not kidnapped, but fellow journalist John Cantile was also abducted with Foley.*
It is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, but in the Middle East that title goes to kidnapping. The motives of terror kidnappers are many, among them seeking to trumpet their atrocities, to influence foreign powers to remove their armed forces, and to convince corporations to do business elsewhere.
But the prime reason is money. Ransom payments raise millions to fund insurgent movements. This “hostage terrorism” makes it almost suicidal for foreign journalists and aid workers to do their jobs in places like Syria. And yet they still come, from nations all around the world, their caution overridden by a desire to find information or save lives in conditions where the term “adventure” does not begin to describe the danger. While some reporters think themselves brave and noble for pursuing this work, many officials from their home countries marvel at their naïveté and label them “useful idiots.”
But for James Foley, covering war was his profession, risks and all. “I had done several tours as an embedded reporter with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, for me, the frontlines felt natural. And I believed it was my job,” he has written.
At the time of their kidnappings, James Foley and John Cantile knew the risks of this hostile war zone, both men having previously been taken hostage and subsequently released. Foley was kidnapped in North Africa in 2011, while covering the fall of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddhafi.
“I woke up in a white washed cell, grimed with streaks of either blood or feces, or both. Sun peeked through from a barred window high on the back wall,” Foley wrote of his first morning as a hostage in Libya. “I spent the whole day thinking and trying to sleep, my mind wandering between anguish and confusion. I was given rice dishes with no silverware. I ate greedily with my hands.”
The journalist spent forty-four days being beaten and mistreated before his release. He went home to New Hampshire afterward, speaking openly about his time as a hostage. But despite his experiences, and well knowing the risks, he chose to go back to war again—this time to Syria.
Foley was considered too experienced to let a kidnapping happen again. But while journalists from more established outlets like major television networks always travel with a security detail—usually made up of heavily armed former Special Forces operatives—freelance journalists such as Foley and Cantile cannot afford such a luxury, making them prime targets for kidnappers.
Since being taken hostage, the pair have attempted to escape at least twice. Both failed efforts were immediately followed by extreme torture. They are not the only journalists being held for ransom on this day, but Foley stands out among the captives for his calm demeanor—even fellow hostages will describe his countenance as stoic during his imprisonment. In fact, Foley is considered a leader, sharing the small portion of food given him each day and reenacting scenes from favorite movies to keep spirits high. Along with Foley, there are three other Americans—Time magazine journalist Steven Sotloff and two humanitarian workers, Peter Kassig, a former Army Ranger from Indianapolis, and Kayla Mueller, from Prescott, Arizona. The kidnappers are hoping to receive millions in ransom for these individuals.
On one occasion, James Foley did successfully escape, but let himself be recaptured when Cantile was unable to get away, knowing the photographer would be severely beaten for Foley’s success.
Now time has run out for the journalist. The only thing that can save him is immediate payment of the terrorists’ ransom demand. But 100 million euros—roughly $132 million—will not be forthcoming.
Paying ransom to terrorists is against United States law. Foley’s parents are secretly looking for a way to violate this law, but there has not been any payout. As the kidnappers await the ransom, they mentally torture Foley—repeatedly forcing him to don an orange jumpsuit and kneel for his execution, only to have the murder called off at the last moment. Foley has also been ordered to stand against a wall with his arms spread wide as if being crucified. He has been waterboarded, a type of torture which involves pouring liquid into a captive’s mouth and nose to the point of drowning. The terrorists do not want to kill James Foley, preferring the ransom. But that prospect has dimmed.
American journalist James Foley, who went missing in Syria on November 22, 2012, and was ultimately beheaded by ISIS.
One week ago, August 14, 2014, Foley’s captors emailed the journalist’s parents, stating that the lack of ransom payment would ultimately result in their son’s death. In New Hampshire, the elder Foleys cling to hope, believing there is still time to negotiate.
They are wrong.
* * *
The camera crew filming the kneeling James Foley is highly technical. Grainy footage is a thing of the past for these video experts. A high-definition lens holds the captive and his would-be executioner in perfect focus. There are no shadows on camera, the result of professional lighting meters and filters instead of just the natural illumination of the noonday sun. Precise audio captures every word and sound. The footage, taken on a hill outside what might be the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, will be downloaded and edited with other images and sounds, then packaged in a four-minute-and-forty-second video, ready to be shown worldwide on YouTube.
It is a savage scene of brutality.
“I wish I had more time,” Foley says into the camera. “I wish I could have the hope for freedom, to see my family once again.”
And then it happens. The knife blade flashes in the desert sun. Foley’s executioner grabs the back of the orange jumpsuit to keep his victim from squirming.
The beheading takes ten barbaric seconds. Windpipe, arteries, spine—all severed. There is no lack of blood. The camera records every moment. Millions around the world will soon watch this horrific sight.
The hooded executioner lets go of the orange jumpsuit. Foley’s torso falls forward onto the rocky soil. His severed head, face covered in blood, eyes closed, is placed on the small of his back and positioned for the benefit of the lens.
Eventually, after the filming ends, the kidnappers will dispose of James Foley in the desert. His body will never be found.
A single militant group steps forward to claim responsibility. They were once called “al-Qaeda in Iraq” but now go by the name of “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” The acronym is the name by which the world will soon know these killers and their vile acts: ISIS.
* * *
As James Foley lies dead in the dirt, his murderers celebrate their cowardly act. It is done, they claim, for the god of Islam. And many more will die under that belief.
Foley’s fellow hostages now know they may meet the same fate as the forty-year-old from New England. And that horror is present every second of every day.
AUGUST 20, 2014
MARTHA’S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS
“Good afternoon, everybody,” President Barack Obama greets the gathered members of the press. He stands before a blue backdrop in the Edgartown School cafeteria, the hastily organized press conference interrupting his summer vacation. An American flag is behind him to the right. The presidential seal is affixed to the podium. He spoke with the family of James Foley this morning, offering his condolences.
“Today, the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group ISIL,” the president begins.
Obama is referring to ISIS, using one of their many acronyms. The use of the “L” refers to “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” a nod to the terrorist organization’s growing power throughout not just Syria but the entire Middle East.*
The Islamic State—also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh—emerged from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a local offshoot of al-Qaeda founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004.† This terrorist organization faded into obscurity for several years after the surge of US troops to Iraq in 2007. But the end of the Iraq War and the subsequent withdrawal of most US troops from the region, instigated by President George W. Bush, saw the reemergence of AQI. The group quickly took advantage of growing instability in Iraq and Syria brought on by the US departure to carry out attacks and bolster its ranks, and soon changed its name to “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). But that is the English translation. Throughout the Middle East, the terrorists are known by the acronymic Arabic nickname “Daesh.”‡ The acronym sounds similar to other Arabic words meaning both “to trample down or crush” and “bigot,” depending upon the conjugation. ISIS detests that label and cuts out the tongue of anyone speaking it aloud.
The United States made an early attempt to halt the terrorist advance. On April 18, 2010, a joint operation of United States and Iraqi forces fired rockets that shattered the ISIS headquarters in Tikrit, Iraq. The subsequent commando raid uncovered intelligence that linked the terrorists with Osama bin Laden, who was still alive at the time.
That American and Iraqi attack caused the Islamic State in Iraq to flee underground. A cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was named the group’s new leader on May 16, 2010. The Islamic State was once al-Qaeda’s representative in Iraq, but that connection was severed upon bin Laden’s death. In this way, al-Baghdadi became the most powerful terrorist on earth, simultaneously declaring that he would avenge bin Laden’s assassination with one hundred acts of terror. But even as the terrorist organization spread into Syria in 2013, formally becoming the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
For four years, ISIS’s leadership vanished, disappearing so completely that many wondered if it existed at all. This public silence led Iraqi authorities to make claims of al-Baghdadi’s death, though all were later found to be false.
But as the brutal death of James Foley can attest, ISIS is back with full ferocity.
Despite the growing threat, President Obama’s administration recognizes that it is not politically expedient to send troops into the region to halt the terrorist advance. The majority of Americans are opposed to military involvement in the Middle East. So despite the blatant kidnapping of four Americans, it is still US policy to downplay the ISIS threat.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that Americans are not allowed to pay ransom to terrorists. So while parents of kidnap victims like James Foley try to find the millions of dollars demanded by the kidnappers, they risk going to jail if they do so. Even more heartbreaking for these helpless family members is that not only do many foreign governments allow the payment of ransom to free their citizens, in many cases it is the government itself that pays for their release.
For Barack Obama, today’s speech is a minor embarrassment—just two years ago he thought so little of the militant organization that he referred to ISIS as “the JV team,” placing them second in importance behind a weakened al-Qaeda in the terrorist pecking order.* But now the president has no choice but to admit that the organization, led by the forty-three-year-old Iraqi-born thug Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a genuine threat to the lives of free people everywhere.
“Let’s be clear,” says Obama. “They have rampaged across cities and villages, killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children, and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims—both Sunni and Shia—by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can for no other reason than they practice a different religion.”
Obama continues. He is dressed in a blue blazer and light-blue shirt but no tie, having changed out of his more casual golf clothing for this public statement. Outside, the August afternoon is humid and hot, the air smelling of the Atlantic on this small coastal island off Massachusetts.
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
* * *
Almost seven thousand miles away, Kayla Mueller cannot hear the president’s words. The terrified twenty-six-year-old humanitarian worker is being held somewhere in a Syrian terrorist jail—like James Foley, she is a kidnap victim of ISIS. In fact, she knows Foley and was once held in the same compound as her fellow American. The US government is aware of her plight, but the media has only been told that an American aid worker has been kidnapped. Neither her name nor the fact that she is a woman has been made public. The taking of non–Middle Eastern female hostages is rare. Only one other American woman has been kidnapped: Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for the Christian Science Monitor, was released after three months, so there is hope for Kayla—even though she has now been held for one year.
Kayla is chained in a room with a rotating number of other female captives. The aid worker has learned to dread the sound of her prison door opening. The squeak of hinges might mean something as simple as a meal being delivered—or it might mean that torture is about to be inflicted.
Or it might mean another brutal rape for one of the women in this dungeon.
Kayla’s ISIS captors treat their female hostages as sex slaves, considering it their right under sharia law to force themselves upon the young women. ISIS soldiers regularly defile not only these captives but any female not of the Sunni Muslim faith, often violating girls not even yet in their teens. Thus far, Kayla has been spared because a white female American hostage is quite a prize. Not just any terrorist can claim her for his own.
Indeed, no less than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has designs on the young aid worker. The ISIS leader is a sadistic bully, an overweight man with a long salt-and-pepper beard, four wives, and a growing lust for his American hostage. He is forty-three and has no concerns about forcing sex upon a woman almost two decades younger. The terrorist believes that Kayla is an infidel and it is his right under sharia law to marry her and take her as his own.
* * *
Kayla Mueller was once a cheerful brown-haired humanitarian of Christian faith, which she formulated in Prescott. There, her father owns an auto repair business and her mother is a retired nurse. Throughout college at Northern Arizona University, Kayla was active in the campus ministry, then put that faith into action following graduation. Working for a number of relief agencies, Kayla traveled the world, enduring deprivation and hardship for no financial gain. For her, there was no better way to pursue her calling of helping those in need.
Since graduation, the brown-eyed, petite Kayla has served in India, Israel, and then Turkey. She flashed her broad smile often for refugees, offering them hope. There were no politics attached to her desire to help others—Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and fellow Christians all benefited from the food, education, and medical help Kayla’s assistance provided. “As long as I live,” the young woman once told an Arizona newspaper, “I will not let suffering be normal.”
* * *
It was December 2012 when Kayla Mueller arrived in the Middle East to work with Syrian refugees. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had begun a brutal crackdown on his own people that included bombings and mass murder, sparking a civil war. As soldiers from countries like Russia flowed in to join the fighting, thousands of Syrian noncombatants fled north into Turkey and claimed refugee status. A group of Muslim terrorists took advantage of the chaos to leave their sanctuary in Iraq and secretly invade Syria in large numbers. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has no wish to join the civil war, or to defend Syria from other nations. Its goal is nothing less than capturing these wastelands for itself and then forming a new “caliphate”—a duplication of what happened following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.
ISIS always enacts sharia law, a severe religious code dating back to the days of Muhammad, which requires women to cover themselves from head to toe and remain subservient to men at all times. For one and all, male or female, even small crimes like swearing can be punished by forty lashes with a switch that rakes the bare back and leaves lifelong scars. More severe crimes, like theft, can result in a hand being cut off with a sword. Adultery is punishable by death through stoning. But ISIS is not content solely to inflict ancient punishments. It also imposes its own brand of justice in modern ways on the conquered people of Syria and Iraq, using implements like power tools and electric cattle prods.
And, as in the days following the prophet’s demise, it is prophesied that the region will be ruled by a caliph granted the name “Abu Bakr”—“the Upright.” Thus, the current leader of ISIS is the barbaric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But that name is an affectation. He was born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. Fictional or not, his name will soon become synonymous with terror. And the fact that he is a murderer and serial rapist does not seem to bother his followers in the slightest.
* * *
A little more than a year ago, on August 3, 2013, Kayla Mueller decided to venture from the relative safety of Turkey into ISIS-controlled northern Syria. She is working for the Danish Refugee Council and a group called Support for Life. Based in the small town of Antakya, thirty miles north of the Syrian border, Kayla is restless. More than 2.5 million refugees have fled the war, and the camps are filled to capacity. Like the other aid workers, Kayla performs a multitude of tasks, but she most enjoys playing and painting with the children. Conditions are terrible. Heat, flies, a lack of plumbing and electricity, and the constant sight of human suffering are daily facts of life.
Kayla knows that crossing into Syria is an extreme gamble, but she is curious to see the countryside for herself. Refugees have told her of lush green valleys and verdant hills. They speak of the ancient city of Aleppo, where the once-lovely Queiq River still flows gently—though now the water is filled with the decomposing bodies of those massacred by ISIS. The unfortunates are often executed with their hands behind their backs, tape across the mouth, and a shotgun blast to the head before being shoved into the water to rot.
And yet, on a hot August morning where the temperature reaches ninety-eight degrees, Kayla Mueller believes a journey to this dangerous place is a worthy way to spend a Saturday. She pleads with her boyfriend to let her make the trip. She has been in the slums of India and Palestine, and now she wishes to see with her own eyes the suffering of Syrian refugees displaced by ISIS.
In Syria, kidnapping of foreigners is a daily fact of life. There is no such thing as guaranteed safety. Kayla Mueller knows this. She is also aware that the growing ISIS threat in Aleppo is just a thirty-minute drive on the other side of the Turkish border.
So, nine months into her mission in Turkey, Kayla Mueller gambles with her life. She crosses into Syria, traveling by bus with her Syrian boyfriend, Omar Alkhani, a photographer whose job is providing telecommunications expertise to a group of physicians known as Doctors Without Borders. Kayla’s plan is a simple dash over the border to help Omar fix a broken satellite dish at a hospital outside Aleppo. The couple agrees that she will not speak during the journey, for fear of letting those around her know she is American. Then they will sprint back home to Antakya before night falls.
But difficulty installing the equipment means that the long day grows dark before the work is done. Crowds at the border signal a long wait before getting back across. Rather than chance lonely desert roads at night, Mueller and Alkhani elect to wait until morning for their return. Kayla spends the evening speaking to refugee women about their plight.
On August 4, the pair is driven from the improvised surgical center in a vehicle bearing the Doctors Without Borders logo. Their destination is a bus stop. The taxi driver is Syrian and knows the way. Another aid worker from Spain joins them on the short trip.
The four never make it.
On the outskirts of Aleppo, a car full of ISIS fighters, clad all in black, begins following the taxi. They soon force it off the road. The terrorists step out of their vehicle and approach. Their faces are covered, their AK-47 assault rifles at the ready. Mueller and her three companions are taken prisoner. Hoods are placed over their heads. They are driven to a terrorist compound and put in chains. Kayla and her boyfriend are held in separate cells. The two are not allowed to speak with each other, but signal that they are still alive by coughing loudly enough for the other to hear.
At first, ISIS does not announce the kidnappings, or demand a ransom. No outsider knows where they have gone, least of all Kayla’s worried parents back home in Arizona.
Temperatures rise into the high nineties, and the victims are granted small amounts of food and water. “Just a little bit,” one of the many other prisoners will later recall. “We were starving.”
Another kidnap victim will add, “There was so little room [in the cell]. And it was dark, with no power. It was summer and it was so hot.”
ISIS maintains several detention facilities to house those they kidnap. To prevent US satellites and drones from discovering their location, Kayla and the others are moved from one confinement another. Meanwhile, in Arizona, her parents try to maintain calm, despite growing panic.
As the days pass, ISIS comes to a decision: the captives will be released, one by one. Among them is Kayla’s boyfriend.
But not Kayla Mueller.
She is an “American spy,” in the words of ISIS, and is tortured for evidence of her crimes. Her fingernails are ripped out and her head shaved. One cruel ISIS technique specific to the torture of women is known as “the biter,” using large tongs with metal jaws to clamp down on female breasts—always administered by a woman, in accordance with Islamic law. Another favored technique is to produce emotional terror by placing severed human heads inside a cage housing a female prisoner.*
This is the life Kayla lives for three long weeks.
Then the email is sent.
Clicking on a link at their home in Arizona, Kayla’s parents open a short video. Their daughter, noticeably thinner and sunburned, looks into the camera. Her head is covered by a green hijab. Her lips are pursed and chapped. Her voice is raspy. Terror fills her bloodshot eyes as she speaks.
“My name is Kayla Mueller,” she begins. “I need your help.
“I’ve been here too long and I’ve been very sick.
“And it’s very terrifying here.”
That is all. The video image of Kayla remains on the screen, but she speaks no more. Her father, Carl, will remember feeling “catatonic” as he watches his daughter in such unspeakable torment.
But this is just the beginning of the agony that Kayla Mueller will endure.
Three months later, on December 2, 2013, Kayla’s recently freed boyfriend, Omar Alkhani, pretending to be her husband, takes the extraordinary step of locating his former ISIS captors in an attempt to free Kayla, who has now been held for four months. He begs for mercy and the release of his “bride.” Alkhani is placed in a detention cell with Kayla so that he can see her with his own eyes as he makes this claim. A high judge of the Islamic State stands with them, closely watching the interchange. Kayla is dressed head to toe in a black abaya. Her face is covered at first, but her guards pull back the veil for just a few seconds so Alkhani can confirm her identity. The captors tell Kayla she will not be harmed if she tells the truth.
But she knows this is a lie. Alkhani’s brave action actually puts the terrified young American aid worker in a desperate bind. If Kayla acknowledges Omar as her husband after many months of claiming herself single, she will be executed for deceit.
“No, he is not my husband. He is my fiancé,” Kayla states.
For the charge of lying, Omar is detained and tortured by ISIS for seven weeks and one day. Among his cellmates during this time are American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
After fifty days, Omar Alkhani is released without a ransom, while Kayla Mueller remains a prisoner.
The reason is simple: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has decided that the time has arrived for his American captive to become his fifth wife. As this sham matrimony is described throughout the ISIS caliphate, Kayla Mueller will be “married by force.”
* * *
The spring of 2014 marks seven months since Kayla Mueller’s kidnapping. She is being held along with James Foley and twenty-two other Westerners—Italians, Germans, Danes, French, Spanish, and British. Kayla is the only woman. As a reminder of the fate awaiting them if their ransom is not paid, ISIS decapitates kidnapped Russian engineer Sergey Gorbunov in March and shows the horrified hostages a video of his body.
In April and May, fifteen of the Europeans are released after their ransoms are paid. Like America, the United Kingdom does not negotiate with terrorists. This leaves four Americans and three Britons in ISIS custody. The terrorists also keep hundreds of women from the Yazidi tribe of northern Iraq to use as sex slaves. Kayla is sometimes held with her fellow Westerners but at other times imprisoned with the Yazidi women.
On May 11, emboldened by the many kidnap victims being set free, the Mueller family and relatives of other Americans being held hostage ask for a meeting with President Obama. The request is denied. After two decades of US involvement in ongoing wars in the Middle East, the president has taken a firm stand against any American military involvement in Syria. This precludes a rescue operation.
Kayla Mueller in Turkey on June 9, 2013.
So while Obama is sympathetic, he believes a meeting with the families will accomplish little. There is also the specter of possible bad press—that could lead to increased pressure for military action.
“This was a clear reluctance to accept facts,” one critic of the Obama administration told the authors of this book. “Facts were being adapted to fit the political narrative.”
Yet later that month, there are signs of hope. Shortly after the White House rejection, the Mueller family receives a letter from Kayla, smuggled out of Syria by released hostages.
“If you could say I have suffered at all through this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through,” Kayla writes. “I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness.
“By God’s will, we will be together again soon,” she concludes. “All my everything, Kayla.”
* * *
More hope: just days after receiving Kayla’s letter, another contact reaches the Muellers from Syria. This time, it is ISIS sending an email to the Mueller family. The terrorists wish to set Kayla free, exchanging her for a Pakistani woman being held by the Americans for her role in killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. If this demand is impossible, ISIS states, it would instead accept 5 million euros—roughly $7.3 million dollars—for Kayla’s release.
To show “proof of life,” just as in the video clip sent so many months ago, the terrorists ask the parents to respond with questions to which only Kayla would know the answer.
Carl and Marsha Mueller are weary—and wary. There is no telling whether or not ISIS has any intention of releasing their daughter. “They tortured us with their emails,” Carl will recall. “And they reveled in it.”
But there is no choice. If the Muellers want to see their daughter again, the game must be played.
The Muellers respond on May 25.
“Music is ________?” they ask.
* * *
Three days later, in a graduation speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama sends a new message to ISIS, toughening his stance. It is just four months since his “JV” comments, and the spread of ISIS power throughout Iraq and Syria now seems unstoppable. The terrorist army is closing in on the Iraqi city of Mosul, yet another instance where a hard-won American victory in the Iraq War is reversed by ISIS advances.
“The most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” the president tells the cadets.
However, Obama stops short of promising any confrontation—and is actually hiding a major development. A short time ago, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same special warfare group that coordinated the bin Laden mission three years ago, approached the White House about another daring raid. This time, instead of ending the life of a madman, JSOC plans a mission to rescue Kayla Mueller and all the Western hostages from ISIS captivity. New information from an unnamed nation acting as one of America’s intelligence partners suggests that the kidnap victims are being held outside the city of Raqqa, one hundred miles south of the Turkish border. There, in an abandoned compound near an oil field, they are under heavy guard.
But this intelligence is thin and dated. By not having a military presence in Syria, the United States lacks the ability to produce the “exquisite intelligence,” a term common in the national security community, that could green-light military action. In the absence of hard data, any rescue force is in extreme peril should the situation on the ground have shifted. The chances for failure are high. On the other hand, it is not always possible to know the precise details of every mission. Risks are a part of any raid.
This places President Obama in an uncomfortable situation. He has repeatedly insisted that America will not send its troops into Syria. To do so now would be a complete reversal of his foreign policy. The American public is weary of war. Conflict in Syria, a nation that does not represent a clear threat to the United States, would undermine the gravitas of his administration. Until now, in the words of one senior US official, the White House “did not want to recognize this as a problem they needed to solve.”
So the president is conflicted. He can no longer ignore the fact that American lives are at stake. Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Peter Kassig, and Steven Sotloff could be murdered at any time.
Thus, Obama is prepared to green-light a rescue mission. But, as with the bin Laden raid, the odds must be in America’s favor. There cannot be another Black Hawk down.
Yet there is major risk in waiting.
Indeed, the measured caution and the White House bureaucracy will eventually doom Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig.
There are three conditions necessary to launching a successful hostage rescue: proof of life, a grid showing the likely imprisonment location (such as a street or house number), and final approval from the president. The Special Forces operators tasked with any rescue are always on alert, having trained extensively for such scenarios. Yet it is very often the last step—final approval—that holds up the actual mission. The time it takes to move up the chain of command to the president, who must approve all operations into an active hostile war zone, can be hours—or months. And as commandos await orders to launch, restless kidnappers very often move their victims to new locations.
This is on Barack Obama’s mind as he wraps up his remarks to the newly commissioned West Point lieutenants. For the first time in public, the president does not rule out commando operations to fight terror. He says quite clearly: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake, or when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, and our way of life.”
Left unsaid is that an audacious rescue plan is now in the works, designed to penetrate US forces deep into the heart of ISIS-controlled Syria. The level of risk is far beyond that of any hostage rescue attempt in recent memory.* As always, intelligence must be verified. This necessary but laborious process precedes the lightning-quick execution of the mission itself, described by one top administration official as “Slow, slow, slow, slow—BANG!”
The question is, when will the president of the United States ride to the rescue?
* * *
On May 29, ISIS sends an email reply to Arizona: “Music is EVERYWHERE.”
This is the correct response to the question posed by Kayla’s parents—something that only Kayla might say.
Even better, another short video clip accompanies the email. The young woman tells her parents that she feels healthy and then repeats the terrorists’ demands before the video ends. Unknown to the Muellers, Kayla has recently been moved from a cell so small she could not stretch out, into a bigger room with three other women. Anticipating her release, Kayla has been doing push-ups and other exercises to get strong for the journey home.
But in reality, the Muellers are losing faith in the American government. They desperately want to pay the ransom. Their choices are to go to jail for defying the “no concessions” law or passively to wait for a US rescue operation.
They choose to wait—but grow frustrated by the lack of communication.
“ISIS was being more truthful to us,” Marsha Mueller will one day recall.
* * *
As the summer of 2014 begins to unfold, James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig are simply helpless. ISIS is becoming more violent and arrogant. America and the world are watching.
But doing little else.*
American journalist Steven Sotloff (center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Dafniya front line, fifteen miles west of Misrata, Libya, on June 2, 2011.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2014
The woman with 157 days to live hides her panic.
Sadistic ISIS thugs have just shown Kayla Mueller video of Steven Sotloff’s beheading. This comes just three weeks after James Foley suffered the same fate. Kayla well knows that two of the British hostages were also recently beheaded. These were her friends, men with whom she shared her thirteen months of captivity. It is beyond her imagination that they would ever suffer such a horrible fate. Kayla struggles to keep her own fear in check, trying not to think about Mohammed Emwazi, the British-born ISIS soldier who sliced the throats of Foley and Sotloff. But Emwazi is a constant presence in her life, a jailer she sees almost every day. She is well aware that he could appear in her doorway at any time, butcher knife in hand.
Lack of food makes Kayla’s dire predicament worse. Today, like every day in captivity, Kayla is hungry. Her jailers do not feed her much. Breakfast is bread and cheese. Dinner is rice or macaroni. She was long ago stripped of her Western clothing and forced to don a long abaya, hijab, and veil.
Despite her plight, Kayla remains strong, even rebellious. She does not back down when Emwazi threatens her. He is fanatical about his radical Muslim ideology and berates Mueller for her Christianity. “If you don’t convert to Islam, this will happen to you—we will behead all of you.”
Beheading becomes Kayla’s greatest fear, preventing her from attempting escape. But each time Emwazi gloats that Kayla must convert to Islam, she quickly fires back, stating that she will never abandon her Christian faith.
In this way, Kayla contains her emotions, hiding her fear and putting forth a veneer of defiance. So far, the ISIS men have not touched her, although they delight in raping the captured Iraqi women. The fact that she is off-limits offers Kayla hope. She thinks this is because she is an American, and has no idea she is being saved for al-Baghdadi.
One other bit of news: there are rumors among the hostages of a failed rescue attempt two months ago by Americans.
What Kayla doesn’t know is that those rumors are true.
* * *
July 3, 2014. Two Black Hawk “Night Stalker” helicopters pass low over the Euphrates River and flare into a hover outside an oil refinery on the edge of Raqqa. It has been four hours since this covert hostage rescue mission went “wheels up” in the neighboring country of Jordan. In almost total darkness, a dozen Delta Force commandos flew over the hostile Syrian desert. Americans are about to fast-rope to the ground, then immediately advance toward their target with guns drawn.
In the skies above, two direct action penetrator helicopters (DAPs), armed with rockets and heavy-caliber machine guns, circle in search of ISIS ground troops. Farther up in the dark nighttime sky, drones survey the surrounding landscape. The United States does not make a habit of penetrating Syrian airspace, so little is known of the country’s government air defenses. Even less is understood about the terrorists on the ground, although it is assumed that an armed response will be likely.
The Delta Force rescuers believe the hostages are being held in buildings on the grounds of the refinery. They know this because Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye Ottosen was held here just three weeks ago, before his government paid a $2.3 million ransom for his release. Ottosen returned to Denmark, where he was interviewed by FBI agents on June 22. He told them exact details of the prison in which Kayla Mueller and the other hostages were being held. Based on that information, the White House approved the rescue mission. Special Forces personnel traveled from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to a secret location in Jordan, where the raid was rehearsed.
Once the operation was set in motion tonight, the four US helicopters encountered vicious winds and hellish sandstorms during the long flight to the refinery target. The exceedingly difficult journey is made worse by the near-certainty of combat.
Shortly after landing, the dozen Delta Force “snake eaters”—as they are often called for their willingness to do anything to complete a mission—are greeted by a wave of automatic-weapons fire. Black-clad ISIS fighters temporarily pin down the Americans.
Within moments, the terrorists take such heavy casualties from the circling DAPs that they fall back to wait for reinforcements. So many members of ISIS are killed that they never return to confront the Americans. Only one American is wounded in the fighting—helicopter pilot Michael Siler suffers a shattered leg when an ISIS round penetrates his cockpit. Not having the option of landing, seeking medical assistance, or even taking medication for his pain, Siler will fly five more hours without landing until the mission is complete.
The rescuers quickly search the compound. They find evidence that the American hostages were indeed once held there, but an hour of looking for false walls or other hidden rooms turns up nothing.
The Delta Force pilots and soldiers all do their jobs with precision. The intelligence reaped from captured cell phones and computers is enormous. The infiltration and exfiltration of the rescue force without a single loss of American life is a remarkable success, particularly in such a hostile environment.
But the hostages remain in captivity.
April 29, 2019: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first video appearance in five years, a month after Islamic State militants were driven out of their last stronghold in Syria.
* * *
On July 4, one day after the raid, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shows his face for the first time in four years. He is preaching in Mosul’s Great Mosque. The ISIS leader is dressed in black robes and matching turban. This public sermon puts to rest any rumors that he is dead or injured. The United States has placed a $10 million bounty on his head, but al-Baghdadi is defiant.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to ISIS just one month ago. Its conquest is obviously a great victory for ISIS. This is al-Baghdadi’s moment to gloat, particularly in light of yesterday’s failed rescue attempt. “Khalifa Ibrahim,” as he calls himself, is puffed up and arrogant. The name refers to his self-anointed role as caliph of the Islamic State’s conquered territory; it also references the prophet Abraham.* In his twenty-minute oration, al-Baghdadi declares himself the ruler of all Muslims. He states that slavery is a fact of life—followers of Islam belong to Allah, but nonbelievers are destined to become the property of Muslims. This reference to Kayla Mueller and the other American hostages is very much intentional.
Outside, ISIS fighters patrol the boulevards, searching for anyone in violation of Islamic law. Some wave large black flags, and all carry fully loaded AK-47 automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.
“Do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers, and be patient in the face of this hardship,” al-Baghdadi encourages the congregation. “If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it.”
On July 12, 2014, the Islamic State publicly announces that it will murder Kayla Mueller within thirty days unless its ransom demand is met. Carl and Marsha Mueller fly to secretly meet with White House officials about potential ways to save their daughter. They are told little that offers them hope. So it is that the days until the ransom deadline tick down slowly.
The beheadings will begin soon after.
* * *
Back in Syria, Kayla Mueller is transferred from a prison to a private home an hour away from where the other prisoners are being held. After the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Kayla and Peter Kassig are the only two remaining American hostages. They have been separated. Kayla will never see Peter Kassig again.
The young hostage can definitely feel a change in the behavior of her captors. With two Americans brutally beheaded and videos of the crimes flashing around the world, the United States is finally taking military action against ISIS. But that action is not helping Kayla at the moment.
Kayla is now in the small town of Shaddadah, in the custody of ISIS oil minister Abu Sayyaf and his wife, Umm. The other female captives in the house are the Yazidi women from northern Iraq. Some three thousand of them have been taken hostage and passed around by ISIS terrorists to be raped and abused.
This is when Kayla finally meets Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a frequent visitor to the Sayyaf home. The ISIS leader likes to stay up until midnight, then sleep until 10:00 a.m. He sometimes talks to the women but prefers to spend hours alone in his room. “Forget your father and your brothers,” al-Baghdadi tells the captives. “We have killed them, and we have married off your mothers and sisters. Forget them.”
If anything, the increased American pressure leads al-Baghdadi to take an even deeper personal interest in Kayla. He has ordered an email sent to her parents, taunting them about the failed rescue mission. The deadline for ransom payment came and went on August 10, and Kayla is still alive. Four days later, she turned twenty-six. Al-Baghdadi once again uses her as a bargaining chip, emailing her parents that in addition to the $7.2 million in ransom, the US bombardment of ISIS positions must cease in order for her to be released.
Al-Baghdadi wants Kayla to be treated better than the others. Umm Sayyaf is tasked with preparing the aid worker for the caliph’s visits, making sure he will be happy with her appearance. “There was a budget for her,” she will recall many years later, “pocket money to buy things from the shop. She was a lovely girl, and I liked her. She was very respectful, and I respected her. One thing I would say is that she was very good at hiding her sadness and pain.” *
But Umm Sayyaf is no housewife. She is an ISIS warrior, doing a job Islamic law prohibits a man from undertaking. Her task is to procure women for ISIS senior leadership, imprisoning them and listening to their screams as they are raped. She is not beloved by the other women of ISIS, who are deeply irritated that their husbands frequent the Sayyaf household for sex with young women. In late 2014, there are nine Yazidi girls in addition to Kayla under Sayyaf’s supervision.
There is no place to run for Kayla Mueller, so when al-Baghdadi decides it is time, she is led into his bedroom. “I am going to marry you by force and you are going to be my wife,” al-Baghdadi informs the terrified woman. “If you refuse, I will kill you.”
So Kayla Mueller submits to the rapes. Each time, she emerges from the bedroom crying. She is given the new name of Iman and told to begin practicing Islam.
She has now been held for sixteen months.
* * *
Late in November, Kayla is told that Peter Kassig has joined the list of the beheaded. Her spirits plummet. When two of the Yazidis attempt to coax her into joining them for a risky breakout, she declines, reminding them they will be killed if they fail. The young girls attempt the escape anyway and are successful, finding their way to Kurdistan, where US officials question them for intelligence regarding Kayla.
But while the freed women can offer details about Kayla’s physical and mental well-being, and even specifics about life inside the home where they were captive, they cannot give the precise location of the home where she is being held.
The truth is, Kayla Mueller has already been moved from the Sayyaf home to al-Baghdadi’s own residence in Raqqa. But when one of the caliph’s wives violently objects, Kayla is repositioned once again. So it is impossible to pinpoint her location.
But there is some good news for Kayla, as Umm Sayyaf says no harm will come to her. Because she is the new wife of al-Baghdadi, she is no longer a captive. Kayla Mueller is now part of the ISIS “family.”
* * *
The search continues.
On January 25, 2015, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appears on ABC News’s This Week. Interviewer George Stephanopoulous brings up the issue of kidnap victims in Syria. Without intending to, McDonough breaks the news that an American woman is in ISIS custody.
“As it relates to our hostages, we are obviously continuing to work those matters very, very aggressively. We are sparing no expense and sparing no effort, both in trying to make sure we know where they are and make sure that we’re prepared to do anything we must to try to get them home. Kayla’s family knows how strongly the president feels about this.”
One week later, President Obama appears on the NBC morning show Today. This is an unusual step for a sitting president, but with growing pressure to rescue Kayla, Obama has little choice. The United States, he says, is “deploying all the assets that we can, working with all the coalition allies that we can to identify her location, and we are in very close contact with her family, giving them updates.”
* * *
On February 3, a captured Royal Jordanian Air Force fighter pilot shot down while launching missiles on ISIS positions in Syria is placed in a cage and publicly burned alive. Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh is twenty-six years old, the same age as Kayla.
The video shocks the world, and calls for action against ISIS mount.
* * *
What happens next is unclear. Jordan launches more air strikes against ISIS-held positions. The date is February 6, 2015.
This is the last day of Kayla Mueller’s life. She is not beheaded. Instead, the terrorists say that Syrian bombs kill Kayla Mueller.
The truth is, Kayla Mueller is murdered. Umm Sayyaf will later confirm this during questioning after her arrest. She will claim that Kayla knew too much and presented a threat to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi.
Predictably, ISIS boasts about Kayla’s death on Twitter. The terrorists then send an email to Kayla’s parents. Included in the message is a photograph of Kayla, face bruised and an open wound on her cheek. She lies on her back beneath a shroud.
“May God keep you from any more harm or hurt,” Kayla’s brother, Eric, tells Kayla as he addresses the crowd at a packed memorial service later that month. His voice trembles. “Only now will you be able to see how much you truly did for the world, by looking down on it.”
But there is no burial. Rather than return her body to America, the sadistic al-Baghdadi disposes of Kayla in a hidden location—one that remains secret to this day.
* * *
“My immediate reaction is heartbreak,” President Obama says as news of Kayla’s death careens around the world. He has telephoned the Mueller family to offer his condolences. “She was an outstanding young woman and a great spirit. And I think that spirit will live on, the more people learn about her and the more people learn about what she stood for in contrast with the barbaric organization that held her captive.
“But I don’t think it’s accurate … to say the United States government hasn’t done everything we could. We devoted enormous resources—and always devote enormous resources to freeing captives or hostages anywhere in the world.”
* * *
On June 24, 2015, four months after Kayla Mueller’s death, President Barack Obama officially announces a change in US policy regarding kidnap victims. There will no longer be prosecution for American citizens who raise the money to make ransom payments to terrorists.
JULY 17, 2015
GUANTÁNAMO BAY, CUBA
If he is captured, a top secret prison cell awaits Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” echoes across Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, as it does precisely this time every morning. US military personnel immediately stop what they are doing and stand at stiff attention, saluting the nearest American flag, until the anthem is complete. More than five thousand American servicemen and -women, as well as their families, call this Cuban installation home, enjoying all the luxuries of a normal naval base—commissary, McDonald’s, child development center, and even hiking at the nearby Hutia Highway trailhead. But just over the hill from the base, on a barren stretch of rocky coastline fronting dark-blue, shark-infested waters, is a stark world of cellblocks, electric fences, and high cement walls surrounded by roll after roll of razor-sharp barbed wire.
This is the notorious Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been in United States custody before, but that period of incarceration in 2004 is nothing like what awaits him in Cuba.
Now two sailors in pressed white uniforms run the Stars and Stripes up the flagpole. But they stop when the standard is only halfway up. Flying the colors at half-mast is a sign of respect and mourning. And on this summer dawn of glaring sun and balmy trade winds blowing in off the Caribbean, sailors and marines stationed here in Cuba have much to grieve. Yesterday afternoon, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, an ISIS terror attack took lives on American soil. Four marines and a sailor were shot dead when an ISIS killer opened fire at a military recruiting center. The gunman, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a twenty-four-year-old American citizen of Kuwaiti birth, was then shot dead by officers from the Chattanooga Police Department.
To most Americans, the manners and behavior of terrorism perpetrators are largely unknown. But to the men and women serving a tour of duty at remote Guantánamo Bay, Islamic terrorists are not just the talk of the base but the flesh-and-blood reason Americans are posted to this far-flung location.
The purpose of Guantánamo Bay is detaining and interrogating the world’s most dangerous killers—war criminals who have sworn allegiance to men such as al-Baghdadi and bin Laden. The terrorists are treated not just as prisoners but as sources of intelligence about lethal operations.
Some methods of extracting information are simple, like sleep deprivation or standing in place for hours until the monotony becomes a degrading mental exercise. Others, such as the technique known as “waterboarding,” make a man believe he is about to die.
“Gitmo” is six thousand miles from the ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq and, at this time, houses forty inmates. There has been talk of shutting it down, though that is almost impossible: the men held within these walls are not welcome anywhere on earth. It is a common practice to release those detained at Guantánamo after a period of incarceration, but this is out of the question for some detainees. These hardened terrorists will never reject the global jihad. They are determined to inflict death and destruction, no matter what the cost.
Thus, the Guantánamo Bay detention center is not likely to be shut down anytime soon. United States officials consider the facility a most effective counterterrorism tool—and a place from where there can be no escape.
So it is that when the day comes that US forces capture al-Baghdadi, officials here at Guantánamo will only be too happy to make room for the ISIS butcher.*
* * *
Guantánamo Bay is the oldest overseas base in the United States Navy. First opened in 1903, the facility was leased from Cuba to serve as a coal depot. The lease was a paltry $2,000 in gold until 1974, when the rent increased to $4,085. Even after Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government in 1959, the United States continued to maintain control of the tactically important forty-five square miles on the southeastern corner of Cuba. The base was temporarily abandoned as a safety precaution during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, then immediately reoccupied once the emergency passed. For ninety-nine years, America has maintained control of Gitmo despite acrimony with Communist Cuba.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush declared a global war on terrorism. US troops entered jihadi strongholds such as Afghanistan to actively take the fight to murderous groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Taking prisoners was inevitable, particularly in a conflict where the enemy constantly lived and worked in the shadows. For their roles in killing Americans, these terrorists fall into a category known as “enemy combatant.” Remote Guantánamo Bay, which contained an empty facility that once housed Cuban and Haitian refugees, was the ideal location to confine these radical prisoners.
The first detainees arrived at Guantánamo Bay on January 11, 2002, just four months after the 9/11 murders. US marines led the twenty new arrivals down the steps of a military cargo plane.
Their citizenship is diverse: Afghani, Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Algerian, Yemeni, and more. The most dangerous prisoners are known as “high-value detainees,” coveted by interrogators because of what they may know. Each “high-value” terrorist is held in solitary confinement. Some are forced to wear headphones and opaque goggles to block out the sight and sounds of other inmates. Each cell has a prayer mat with arrows pointing in the direction of Mecca, the Muslim holy city, where adherents face as they bow and worship Allah five times a day.
Upon his arrival at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will be given a “detainee assessment” to categorize his mental and physical health. This is true for all arrivals. One example reads: “Detainee attended militant training on fitness, pistols, the AK-47 assault rifle, the PK machine gun, and the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at the al-Faruq Training Camp [outside Kandahar, Afghanistan] and taught small arms training there.”
The report also notes that this individual, Mohammed Ahmad Said al-Adahi, “has a history of depression and schizoaffective personality disorder.” *
An essential aspect of each detainee assessment is a history of each prisoner’s personal life and career as a terrorist, charting the various campaigns in which they participated. A typical report is ten single-spaced pages, listing places, dates, and names. Known aliases are listed, as are accomplices and employers.
But these complex assessments, loaded with pages of specific documentation and detail, are not easily written. The tight-lipped behavior that allows a recruit to rise through the ranks to terror leadership requires a strict adherence to confidentiality. In short, these detainees are trained not to betray information.
Thus, detainee assessments can only be written with the assistance of complex interrogations.
In almost every instance this ongoing questioning is assisted by the one activity most often connected with life at Guantánamo Bay: “enhanced interrogation.”
In truth, there is a revenge factor on the part of some American interrogators. Al-Baghdadi well knows that if he is captured, the United States will spare no painful, shame-inducing technique to extract every last bit of information from the man who raped and murdered Kayla Mueller.
* * *
The treatment Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might expect will mirror that of the most famous terrorist already in custody. High-ranking al-Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured on March 1, 2003, in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. He loathes America, a nation in which he once briefly lived, labeling it a “debauched and racist country.” The fifty-year-old Mohammed is not only the “principal architect” of the 9/11 attack, even appearing on Al Jazeera television to celebrate the first anniversary of the mass murder, he also famously beheaded the American journalist Daniel Pearl, who was taken hostage in the city of Karachi.*
After his arrest by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence, “KSM,” as the mastermind is known, does not go directly to Guantánamo. Instead, his interrogation begins at a clandestine “black site” in Afghanistan known as the “Salt Pit.” There, the terrorist is forced to be naked and subject to sleep deprivation, required to stand for days at a time without being allowed to doze. “Stress positions” are utilized frequently, placing the terrorist in small spaces for prolonged periods of time to induce claustrophobia and discomfort. KSM is beaten and slapped. Cold water is thrown in his face, and loud music is played to elevate his sense of disorientation. A hose is inserted into the terrorist’s anus through a technique known as “rectal rehydration” that causes him to both urinate frequently and defecate violently.
And that is just the beginning.
Eventually, KSM is flown to black sites in Jordan and Poland, where he is subjected to waterboarding exactly 183 times.* This is a technique once used by the Chinese on American prisoners of war during the Korean conflict in the 1950s. The hands and ankles are immobilized, and a towel placed over the individual’s face. The head is tilted backward. Water is then poured onto the cloth, saturating the fabric and slowly working its way into the nostrils and mouth of the captive. It becomes more and more difficult to breathe. Water soon enters the esophagus. The sensation of drowning is induced, and it is common for the interrogated individual to gag uncontrollably.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is then moved to another interrogation black site in Romania before finally arriving in Guantánamo Bay. The date is September 2006, more than three years after his capture. All the while, the terrorist resists the torture, refusing to admit his participation in 9/11 and other attacks. Eventually, after four years, KSM breaks. In March 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed finally confesses to planning the 9/11 attacks, as well as several other international acts of terror.†
Now, as the world searches for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, KSM remains in Guantánamo. It is twelve years since his capture, and he admits to participating in thirty-one terror plots. Most Gitmo prisoners are incarcerated in communal cellblocks known as Camps 5 and 6. But until April 4, 2021, KSM was held apart from other prisoners in a top secret compound known as Camp 7. Journalists from around the world have visited Guantánamo but were never allowed inside this special section of the prison.*
KSM now inhabits Camp 5, which is modeled after a maximum-security state prison in Bunker Hill, Indiana. It has individual cells, showers, and large outdoor cages for recreation.
If Khalid cooperates, he might be permitted to watch Arab satellite television—albeit with his ankles shackled to the floor in front of his chair. However, if KSM refuses to cooperate, he will not be allowed these privileges. Instead, he will remain alone in his cell.
* * *
It is impossible to know how much the threat of severe reprisal is affecting the killer al-Baghdadi. What is known is that this self-proclaimed “leader” of the Muslim world is now more arrogant than ever—and a direct threat to much of the world. Al-Baghdadi believes ISIS is winning the jihad. And he sees himself as an Islamic savior.
One who is about to strike again.
NOVEMBER 13, 2015
The daughter of the famous journalist Geraldo Rivera is in danger.
But she does not know it. Simone Rivera, a twenty-one-year-old Northwestern University exchange student, is spending a semester studying in France. On this Friday night, she is attending a soccer game at the Stade de France—the French national stadium. Simone sits with her roommate and two other friends. The international match between France and Germany is a popular place to be on this chilly autumn evening, and the eighty-thousand-seat stadium is sold out. France wears blue, and Germany white. Even French president François Hollande is in attendance.
Simone Rivera is just days away from finishing her final academic project and flying home for Thanksgiving when the first explosion startles the stadium. The blast occurs outside, along the Avenue Jules Rimet. It is nineteen minutes and thirty-six seconds into the game. The blast is loud enough to be heard over the noise of the crowd. Thinking the explosion is perhaps part of a midgame fireworks display, the audience cheers for a moment and then resumes watching the contest.
Yet Simone feels uneasy.
* * *
Paris is very aware of terrorism. The city is still grieving over the brutal murders of twelve employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist perpetrators were a group known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, led by ruthless Yemeni terrorist Qasim al-Rimi. That happened ten months ago. A citywide terror alert followed the mass slaying, and soldiers were deployed throughout the area, which is home to 2.1 million people. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders, in a related attack, terrorists took nineteen Jewish hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris, killing four. As in the Hebdo situation, the perpetrators were shot dead by police. Later, a massive rally was held in the Place de la République, where Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo condemned the murderers. Fifty-four Muslims who publicly supported the terror attacks were arrested as “apologists.”
Simone Rivera follows French news fervently. She knows the people of Paris and Muslim fanatics are at odds. Nearly one million Islamists around the world marched in support of those who killed the Charlie Hebdo employees. And militant groups such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban all praised the dead terrorists who committed the murders. In fact, more than three quarters of Muslim students in the volatile Seine-Saint-Denis district have voiced allegiance to the killers. “I’ll drop you with a Kalashnikov, mate,” one student informs a teacher trying to enforce a moment of silence, referencing the AK-47 assault rifle used most often by jihadists.*
* * *
The terror threat in France is ongoing. Three months ago, French authorities intercepted a thirty-year-old suspect en route to Syria, who told them that attacks on French concert venues were in the planning stages. And just yesterday, Iraqi security forces informed the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq that suicide bombers would soon strike a target in the West, location unknown. But, obviously, nonspecific information could not be acted upon.
* * *
Back inside the stadium, the first explosion mystified the crowd, but the game continues.
Then, ten minutes later, a second blast rocks the night. This time, the fans know something is wrong. Many panic and begin running for the exits.
Unbeknownst to the crowd, a full-blown terror attack is underway. A terrorist, using the alias of twenty-five-year-old Ahmad al-Mohammad, tries to gain entry to the stadium, hoping to slaughter hundreds. But a security guard at Gate D notices the cumbersome vest under his jacket. The Syrian terrorist flees, unable to complete his mission. Seconds later, he explodes the vest, killing himself and an innocent pedestrian outside the stadium.
Another explosion comes when Bilal Hadfi, twenty, blows himself up near Gate H. It will later be confirmed that Hadfi, a Belgian, fought with ISIS in Syria.
Over the stadium loudspeakers, spectators are told to stay calm. Incredibly, the soccer match continues on—the thinking being it is better to keep fans and players inside the stadium than have them run outside into danger. Quickly, Paris police cordon off the area. Then, at 9:53, comes a third explosion, more distant this time. It will later be surmised that a third terror bomber, recognizing that the stadium was now alerted, wandered off in search of a new target. Thus, an explosion takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant on the Rue de la Cokerie, four hundred meters away from the Stade de France. The bomber, a twenty-year-old Frenchman, succeeds in killing only himself.
Simone Rivera realizes that terror now reigns over Paris. “At halftime, we went to get food,” she will remember. “They wouldn’t let anyone leave the stadium at that point and they weren’t telling us anything and they just had a bunch of ambulances and people in uniform starting to look very nervous.”
The tension escalates as the game ends. Fans attempting to leave the stadium come face-to-face with armed police officers. Every exit is barricaded.
“No one was telling us what to do,” Simone will later recount. “We were all freaking out and then there was one point where we started to break away and then there’s this swarm of people running at us and we just all start running in this direction, not knowing where to go and then all the police officers were there with their guns ready.”
Simone and her fellow New Yorkers, none of whom speak French, follow instructions to remain in the stadium. Like many fans, they flood onto the field rather than go back to their seats.
Back in New York, Geraldo Rivera hears the news and immediately calls his daughter. But Simone’s phone is out of battery. She does not pick up. That night, while reporting on Fox News, Geraldo gets emotional. Holding up a photo of Simone, he tells the audience of her plight. “It’s my gorgeous daughter,” he says. “She just turned twenty-one years old. She’s a straight-A student. She’s a wonderful person and a very gentle soul.”
Uncertain of his daughter’s fate, the veteran journalist then goes off the air and books the next flight to Paris.
* * *
The night of terror is not yet over.
In fact, it is just beginning.
Even as Simone Rivera and other fans remain trapped for their own safety in the stadium, three terrorists drive through Paris in a small black Spanish sedan. They are armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. Their targets are the city’s soft underbelly: bars, cafés, and restaurants—the sorts of places where