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My first drone kill: One of the most wanted terrorists in Iraq

From the book, “Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies.” Copyright ©2017 by Brett Velicovich and Christopher S. Stewart. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

A Ranger team operating in the same area happened to be watching our live drone feed. We had a vast interconnected network across the battlefield, and it was necessary to collaborate. That they were watching was no secret. They didn’t hear our conversations or know many of the details about our operations. Usually they just monitored our feeds for situational awareness and in case one of their aircraft needed to cross into our drone’s airspace.

Most times this interconnectedness worked.

Our special ops group didn’t often hold specific territory. We went wherever we wanted—unlike the Rangers, who were responsible for specific swaths of terrain.

Just to eliminate any problems, Max, the assault commander, had gotten the Ranger commander on the line to tell him that we’d located Scarface in their operating area and that they should stand down.

“We’re good to go,” Max had said to me. “They’re aligned with us.”

On our monitors, the entire compound was now in view. Everyone had gone inside. The sun was out and there were no heavy winds or clouds on the horizon. Beautiful drone-flying weather. We were all set for a typical follow and began to wait it out.

I wondered if we should we bring in another asset just in case the one drone wasn’t enough. Do we need a backup plan?

Another ten minutes went by, just waiting, the drone orbiting the compound as I skimmed through old files we had on Nasir, looking for anything.

Then Jake saw something flash out of the corner of the screen. “Multiple vehicles are approaching the compound from the main road,” he called out. “What?”

“They’re coming fast.”

“Shit, those vehicles look large. Zoom in to see what kind of vehicles they are.”

The camera operator took us in.

What the fuck is this? Those are American Strikers. What’s going on?

Strikers were very distinct: eight big wheels, a rocket launcher, a manned turret. They were almost as large as tanks and built to carry troops into combat zones. Now there were four of them barreling toward the compound, speeding like they were going to conquer the territory, huge dust clouds rising in their wakes. One crashed right through the gate, while the other three followed behind and lined up in formation parallel to the house.

Who the hell were these guys?

In the Box, we stared in disbelief as the scene played out. Suddenly I had no control. It was scary. Not a situation anyone wants to be in. We watched as the Strikers’ rear door ramps dropped open and soldiers in full camouflaged combat gear jumped out, automatic weapons leveled at the compound and pressed up against the vehicles for cover.

Army Rangers.

The Predator camera operator confirmed: “U.S. forces in the picture.”

“Son of a . . .” someone yelled next to me.

“We just confirmed that they weren’t going to be there, right?” “Right?”

Everyone was looking around the room in agreement.

One of the soldiers had a loudspeaker pressed to his face and we could tell that he was yelling into it, probably calling for Scarface to come out.

Knowing him, he was not going to step out with his hands up. Meanwhile, Max was on the phone with the Ranger commander again. He was pissed, spitting into the mouthpiece. “What the fuck, I thought we were on the same page with this? Why are your guys at the fucking compound?”

After a brief, heated discussion, Max hung up. The Ranger commander blamed the whole thing on a breakdown of their comms system; he was unable to call his guys off before they showed up at the house.

“That’s such bullshit,” I said. “I don’t believe it.” The comms systems don’t just go down. It was clearly a case of the Rangers wanting to take credit for a big target. We were on their turf and they didn’t want anyone showing them up, even if we’d found the guy.

There was no time for bitching.

“All right, guys, it is what it is, but we need to support them now. Switch the Predator to squirter control.”

Squirters were people who scurried or “squirted” out the sides of a building or car or escaped an explosion.

The Predator now had a completely new mission to perform force protection of U.S. troops in the picture. We’d look for any threats to the Rangers and make sure no one escaped out the back.

But the compound was still quiet. For a solid five minutes or so no one came out, despite the megaphone.

Finally, a woman hesitantly walked out of the front door. She had three children by her side and her hands were full of something. The younger male walked out behind her. At the front of the house, the group came to a full stop.

Drone warrior

Typically, people were asked to stop moving in a situation like this to ensure they didn’t have any bombs or weapons.

The woman and children started to walk very slowly and carefully toward the soldiers and were then guided to places behind the Strikers. After a brief pause, one male followed, leaving one inside.

We all put our headsets on and switched to the Rangers’ radio frequency.

One guy was in the middle of explaining what they found out. “The woman told us that the male in the house asked to have all the guns brought to him. He hugged them goodbye, gave them his phone and money, and told them to leave immediately. She said the man told her that he was not coming out.”

That’s when the shots came.

I could see the muzzle of an AK-47 sticking out of a high window, spraying the ground in front of the house, like he had just blown threw a line of coke. The Rangers returned a blizzard of fire.

In our camera, we could see hundreds of bullets like little flashes of light, streaking the air, pummeling the house.

The barrage of bullets kept coming.

But the guy wouldn’t die. The muzzle of his AK-47 still stuck out sporadically through different windows in the house, spraying rounds everywhere.

Then, out of nowhere, the Striker launched a rocket, demolishing the top corner of the house and opening a huge hole in the roof.

“Switch to infrared,” I said.

Now the drone camera operator zoomed into the corner to see if we could get a glimpse inside the house.

Within minutes another rocket hit the same top corner of the house, opening an even larger hole and damaging the complete exterior. That’s when we saw a body curled on the ground: lifeless and contorted in a way that a body should not be.

The Rangers eventually stopped firing and a quiet settled over the scene. It seemed like hours had passed because of the chaos. After a long waiting period, the Rangers moved into the house.

Was this Scarface? Or someone else? I worried that there were others in the building. But my biggest concern was that Scarface was wearing a suicide vest and was trying to draw them in.

The drone continued to maintain a solid orbit around the compound, the camera still looking for other signs of life or squirters. It took a good five minutes for the all-clear but we finally heard it come over the radio.

“We have confirmed jackpot, one enemy KIA.”

In the Box, we were conflicted. We were of course happy that Scarface wouldn’t live to see through his attack on American forces. His death would be a big blow to the network. All that was good. But a part of me couldn’t help but wish we’d followed him for a few days or weeks longer. Manhattan and Brooklyn were still lurking out there.

Staring at the feed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the lifeless body. I’d found Scarface and brought the Rangers here. Intentionally or not, it was my first kill.

Brett Velicovich is a U.S. Army veteran and former military intelligence analyst with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. His memoir, “Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies” (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins Publishers), is on sale now. This article was approved for release by the U.S. Government’s Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Brett Velicovich.

Christopher S. Stewart is an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative reporting with several colleagues in 2015. His work has also appeared in GQ, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, New York, Paris Review, Wired, and other publications. He also served as deputy editor at the New York Observer and is a former contributing editor at Condé Nast Portfolio. Stewart is the author of “Hunting the Tiger” and “Jungleland.” He lives with his family in New York.

Christopher S. Stewart.

Source: Salon: in-depth news, politics, business, technology & culture > Politics

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