Douglas Laux was studying to be an eye doctor in 2001 when the events of 9/11 changed his life. Instead, Laux joined the CIA and spent a year learning Pashto, the language of Taliban fighters. His first office was in an old Russian prison in Afghanistan. That’s where Doug found his calling, hunting down arms dealers supplying IED explosives to the Taliban.
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True Spies Episode 92: Hunting the Wolverine

DISCLAIMER: This episode features strong language throughout.

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies Episode 92: Hunting the Wolverine.

DOUGLAS LAUX: In the center of the timeline is an explosion. To the right is the fallout, the deaths, the destruction - all of that. To the left is everything you could have been doing to prevent that from happening. 

NARRATOR: The desert wants you dead. It’s scorching by day, freezing by night, and brimming with poisonous beasties in a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes, and temperaments. And that’s at the best of times. As a military helicopter whips the sand into a frenzy, it becomes apparent that these are not those times.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I was terrified. And then we landed at my location and I was standing in a desert all by myself, going: “What have I just got myself into?”

NARRATOR: Specifically, it’s 2010. The United States is spearheading the latest surge of military action in Afghanistan.

DOUGLAS LAUX: The CIA is at the tip of the spear. They're going further than where SEAL Team Six goes. This s***'s crazy.

NARRATOR: This week’s true spy has just landed in the south of the war-torn country. Where, exactly, he can’t say. And that’s not just because it’s dark out.

DOUGLAS LAUX: They had taken away my night vision when I got off the 'helo' because it belonged to the helo and four other passengers. And so I couldn't see anything. Hey, a surprise to your audience. There are no nightlights in a desert in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: He’s en route to his first foreign posting - a CIA black site built on the husk of an abandoned Soviet prison. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: Afghanistan is often referred to as the graveyard of empires.

NARRATOR: Persians, Greeks, Mongols, Sikhs, Americans, Russians, and Brits. They all came to Afghanistan. They’re not there anymore. Douglas Laux, more than most, understands why that is.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Name's Douglas Laux, former CIA case officer. I did that for seven years and then I got out and I worked for Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, which is essentially SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, and the 75th Rangers. 

NARRATOR: Douglas Laux is no stranger to the edge. During his time in the CIA, he served in some of the world’s most dangerous theaters of war. His story is a remarkable one but it begins unremarkably, in what less charitable commentators dub ‘the fly-over states’.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I grew up in the Midwest, in the states of Indiana and Ohio, right on the border. You could throw a baseball from one state to the other. As you become an adult - through your childhood and adolescence - you grew up in a rural farming community amidst trailer parks. It's certainly going to have a great influence on who you become later in life. And so, with that being said, the most premier jobs within a 50-mile radius, would have been something like doctor or veterinarian or, I guess, plant manager of a local factory. So, if you had real aspirations and you were smart, you probably were going to try to be a doctor. And so of the 500-600 students in my class alone, I think three of us went to college. And even that was considered really special. And so I was among those three and it was my idea to become an eye doctor. 

NARRATOR: Which begs the question: What happened?

DOUGLAS LAUX: Why did I choose to become this war-zone case officer right from the jump-off? Why did I choose the most dangerous locations you could possibly go to? Why did I stop becoming an eye doctor and switch my track to political science and learn Japanese? Why did I have a bid from the Marines to enter Officer Candidate School? 

NARRATOR: That’s a lot of questions. And the answer? Like many of our true spies, the 9/11 attacks on New York were a pivotal moment for Douglas.

DOUGLAS LAUX: It kind of rewired everything inside me. And my father was a Vietnam veteran and I thought: “Okay, I'm going to get this over with - this college thing - because I know I need it someday. But then I'm going to join the Marines and become an officer in the Marines and go fight.” And that's all I wanted to do. My dad did it. Three of my uncles have done it. I have cousins that are in the mix. I got to at least do something. I got to get involved in this and I have to. So no, not anger. And I don't want to come off as the vengeful type. It wasn't that I got to get revenge for them hitting the Twin Towers. It was: "Man. We're at war and it's my country. And I love the United States. So I'm going to go get it on too."

NARRATOR: For a young man looking for frontline action, the US Marines are a sound option. But fate, if you believe in that sort of thing, had other plans.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And only by a caprice did I happen to see a flyer that said the CIA was coming to my university to give a speech. And then, the guy gave a speech. He was cat-called from the back the entire time about drones and waterboarding. He could barely get a word out. And he said: "Okay. If you're interested, apply online." And I did.

NARRATOR: The life Douglas chose began early one morning, in his final year of college.

DOUGLAS LAUX: The initial phone call I remember distinctly because I had gone out to some party the night before on a Thursday night. And I got a phone call at 8:01 am. So I answer my cell phone and it's a woman who's like: "Hey, you applied for a job with the federal government. I just want to talk to you about that." And I was like: “Hey, lady, I don't know if you know, but it's like 8:05 in the morning now. What are you doing calling me? This is really early. I'm a college student and it's kind of harassment.” And she's like: "We're with the Central Intelligence Agency." And I literally said: "Oh, f**! The CIA? This is the CIA calling me? Oh my God, the CIA. Oh! You're the CIA." And she's like: "Please, stop saying that." I'm like: "What? CIA?" She's like: "Yes, that. Don't say that." "Oh, don't say CIA?" And she's like: "What are you doing Monday at this time? I will call you back when you have had time to think about your decision." And I was like: "Oh, you're going to call me Monday at 8:00 am?” Because it was like: "Oh, no, I can't do that to me." But she was like: "Yes, Monday at 8 am. Please be prepared to talk intelligently about the process." And so it took off from there.

NARRATOR: As True Spies listeners know, The CIA’s hiring process is long, thorough, and arduous. For Douglas, it lasted well over a year. But eventually, he passed the Agency’s battery of physical, intellectual, and psychological tests. And, crucially, learned to keep his mouth shut.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I knew not to say CIA out loud and I was like: “Oh, you guys are with that organization in Virginia on the Potomac River? Yes, I do accept your offer.” 

NARRATOR: Now in his mid-20s, Douglas was ready to take the fight to the enemy. But, unsurprisingly, the CIA doesn’t make a habit of dropping its new recruits into war zones. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: When I first got accepted in the CIA, I started out as a trainee. They start everyone off on the same starting line and you're at nothing. You know nothing. The biggest difference between myself and a lot of the other case officers was - I have to always be careful because I still have respect for them, they're risking their lives to just as I did, and it's a very dangerous job and it's a very difficult job in a very trying job - but, like I said, given how I grew up, how I was raised and, in the environment I was raised in, a lot of s** that bothered them didn't bother me. So, dealing with nasty people. I was used to that. Dealing with really poor people - the Afghans, the Taliban, really impoverished people - I was used to that. Dealing with crass people, dealing with mean people... 

NARRATOR: But all that lay ahead of him. As a trainee, he was expected to curtail his adrenaline-junkie instincts.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So look, I started off on a desk. I did not like it. But I've also said previously, now with perspective: “I understand why.” Because you needed to see how those who were trained were doing it and you got to read their files every day and they would write back to headquarters. 

NARRATOR: From behind his desk, Douglas watched and learned.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And so it was hyper-beneficial because more than seeing how to do it correctly, [you see] what was incorrect. And if you're sitting on a desk and you get pissed at something that a field operative sends in, it's always because they didn't give you enough information. So they might say something like: Tom came to the meeting, he was 20 minutes late. He didn't show up with the disc. He seemed disheveled. We agreed to meet again in three days. And I'm reading that going: "Why was he late? Did you ask why was he disheveled? Did you ask? And by the way, if you did, good.” But you need to tell us that. You need to tell headquarters that, so we don't immediately send you a screamer back that says: “Fire him. Fire him immediately for being disheveled. Fire him immediately for not bringing what he said he would bring.” And so, yeah, I was always hyper-aware of that, that you need to really explain every single thing you do and decision you make and also your opinions. 

NARRATOR: All the while, Douglas is taking courses in tradecraft at the Farm, the Agency’s legendary training facility. He graduates. Now he feels ready for the good stuff - the messy, dirty work of war-fighting.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So, yeah, I got out of the Farm. I thought I was super-high speed. But I also had a big advantage and that was this: I really learned their bureaucracy while I was there as a trainee and I knew how to navigate it. And I knew what to avoid and what I could do to kind of sweeten the deal. And so when I got out of the Farm, I said: "Hey, I want to go to a war zone. And in fact, only Afghanistan. Oh, and in fact, not in Kabul. Oh, and in fact, I want to be sent to the Pashtun areas in the south or the east, the tribal areas, because I want to mix it up with the Taliban.” And they're like: "Yeah, no, actually, you're going to Baghdad, Iraq'. And that didn't sit well with me.

NARRATOR: As this episode goes on, you’ll learn something about Douglas. He generally gets what he wants.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I almost threatened to quit. I said I would take leave without pay, LWOP. And I said: "Okay, I'll just sit out for a year, and then when you're ready to send me to Afghanistan, I'll go." And that’s a really risky move. And they were like:”All right. Well, we can probably just fit you into the Gorge of Kabul and get you amongst everyone there.” And I said: “No, I want to go to a Forward Operating Base.” 

NARRATOR: A Forward Operating Base, or a FOB, is one of the means by which the US government projects its influence throughout an occupied territory. They range from basic barbed-wire encampments to well-equipped military hubs. In Afghanistan, FOBs allowed American forces to maintain a presence in the nation’s wilder reaches.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So then there was more discussion. And then finally, they said: “How would you like to learn Pashto?” And I said: "Well, what is that?” And they'd tell me: "Okay, that's what the Taliban speak, big boy. And that's who you wanted to go fight. So why don't you take a year of language training, master Pashto and then we’ll probably definitely send you to a FOB with the opportunity of going to a black site.” And so I said: "Sign me up for that language training immediately.” Because that is just a force multiplier. It'll make me a better officer, and it's going to probably - and did - help keep me alive. 

NARRATOR: Eventually, Douglas’s efforts paid off. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: I first learned that I was going to Afghanistan around New Year's Eve because it was the Khost bombing. And that's when seven - I believe seven - CIA officers were killed in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. And so, when that happened I got accelerated because I wasn't supposed to leave for another six months. So, I was with my girlfriend trying to cook up some sort of scheme to explain to her why I was leaving because she didn't know I worked for the CIA. Imagine trying to tell your girlfriend of three years at that time: "Hey, I'm moving out of Washington D.C. forever. This has been great. Can we try to still make it work? Oh, by the way, I can only call you maybe once a month. Do you think we'll last if I write you a cute letter twice a year? Oh, you're mad? Why are you mad? Oh, oh. I guess we break up then?” They think you're a psychopath. 

NARRATOR: Fair warning. If you’re thinking about pursuing an exciting new career with the Agency, know that it doesn’t come without sacrifices. For Douglas, there was no time to ruminate on his personal life. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was going to grab it with both fists.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Yeah, so I fast-tracked, and within no time I was in Afghanistan. And the first thing you notice is the smell. It really smells in Kabul. And the reason for that is because a lot of the Afghans burn feces for heat and it goes into the air and there's a lot of pollution and fecal matter in the air at any given time. It's acrid. But after a while, I had this seasoned dude tell me, you'll get used to it. And that's when you know you're a vet because you don't smell it anymore.

NARRATOR: But the pungent charms of Kabul were none of his concern. He wouldn’t be staying long.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So from there, because I was going to a Forward Operating Base, you take several other flights. It takes a really long time. It's very difficult, [and you take] various means of transportation. And I really can't say specifically, nor would I. 

NARRATOR: Which brings us back to the desert, and the cold, and the pitch-blackness of nighttime in rural Afghanistan. Douglas stepped out of the helicopter, closing off the penultimate leg of his journey to the FOB. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: And the stars weren't out that night, so you can see about one foot in front of you. If you can see your hand, you're lucky. And then a truck pulled up: “Get in.” And I was like: “Oh, right on. These are my guys.”

NARRATOR:  The truck deposited the young case officer inside the guarded gates of his new home. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: My first office was a former Russian prison we operated out of. It's pretty scary. But then, eventually you're like: “Man, this pretty badass. This is pretty ultra.” Really, this is exactly what I wanted. 

NARRATOR: The FOB’s true name is classified. For the purposes of this podcast, we’ll call it ‘Wadi Base'. Once Douglas had settled in - in so much as one can settle into a desert prison - he set about fulfilling his function as a war zone case officer. That is, to develop and recruit sources of actionable intelligence within the local population. As the weeks turned into months, and Douglas learned more about his new home, he found himself at odds with the Agency’s mission in Afghanistan. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: Osama bin Laden, one man, was always the number one thing on everyone's mind.

NARRATOR: Remember, this is 2010 - a year before the 9/11 mastermind was killed in Pakistan. The US intelligence community spared no expense in his pursuit. But Douglas argued that the CIA’s focus on bin Laden and al-Qaeda came at a cost. That the real threat to American lives came from elsewhere.

DOUGLAS LAUX: What I had found was the Taliban, for the Agency, it was not a priority. And let me clarify and say, that is my perspective. I am certain that the Agency would come back and say: "That's bull. We were hyper-focused on it." Well, I only speak for myself. No, they were not because I was the one guy who was really pushing it. And because I was at these Forward Operating Bases and there was no al-Qaeda anywhere to be found. And so, I was really butting heads with management at the time because I was telling them the people killing US soldiers are Taliban and the people planning all the IEDs.are Taliban. So we're in their backyard right now. The people fighting in the groves with AK-47s, firing RPGs, they're Taliban. The people self-detonating and blowing up girls' schools in Kabul are the Taliban. They're the number one threat to taking soldiers’ lives. ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] lives. So the whole community, not just Americans, any country they're fighting. “The Taliban is killing you,” is what I was banging on my drum. 

NARRATOR: IEDs - Improvised Explosive Devices - were the scourge of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Okay, so IEDs were obviously the biggest issue and biggest problem when it comes to casualties, injuries, death, destruction of both buildings - civilians and otherwise. I'll speak for Afghanistan because I know the figures. I think it's something like 88% percent - or something - of deaths of servicemen and women that were done by the enemy. So not accidental casualties, but what a police detective would call homicide. That's via an IED, via an explosion. Whether it's vehicle-borne, the Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) or a human did it. Or they can place it along the side of the road, a pressure-plate IED or remote-detonated IED. So it was without question the biggest problem. But at times it wasn't our biggest focus, especially when Osama bin Laden was still around. 

NARRATOR: Douglas began to aggressively hone in on the Taliban in his area of Southern Afghanistan. He was determined to disrupt the supply of the weapons that were killing his brothers and sisters in arms.

DOUGLAS LAUX: The title of my book is Left of Boom and what that means, in military speak - or, as we say in the US, Pentagon-ese - is everything that's done to prevent a bomb from exploding. So, on a timeline, in the center of the timeline is an explosion. To the right is the fallout, the deaths, the destruction. All of that. To the left is everything you could have been doing to prevent that from happening. Because once it's right of boom, you're just counting at that point. You know you're doing forensics but you didn't stop the casualties. 

NARRATOR: To get left of boom, Douglas needed to follow each IED explosion to its logical starting point - the person who built or supplied the device.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So I wanted to be left of boom, far left of boom. And so I just kept traveling down that timeline, running through various developmentals, people that I was turning and burning. 

NARRATOR: ‘Turning and burning’ is a catchy bit of jargon. But it neatly describes the process of recruiting sources, and using them to access more valuable ones. And in Afghanistan, ‘value’ was the name of the game.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Everything in Afghanistan, you learn very quickly, is trying to kill you. And so if that's your mindset from birth. It was a struggle. That, obviously, is going to influence how you're raised. And it's going to very much influence your mindset of how you approach the world and how you interact with people. And oh, by the way, they want to get out of this environment because they're survivalists. Let's say if their cousin’s in the Taliban and I come to you and say: “I'll give you $500 for a cell phone number." They're going to go: “What are you going to do? We're not going to talk about this again.” “I'll give you $500 for his cell phone number.” “I think you're going to arrest him.” $500. “Okay, here it is. There.” And you look at that. “Oh my God. That's terrible.” But, in their mind, it's like: “Okay. But that person had to suffer for me to coexist because we can't both exist on the same plane. If you chase two rabbits, you'll lose them both. So better him than me.”

NARRATOR: In short, money talks. And so did a variety of local assets once Douglas started flashing the black budget. But, even in Afghanistan, money only gets you over the finish line. To enter the race at all, you need to be on the racetrack.

DOUGLAS LAUX: The only reason I got the opportunity to know some things that other people didn’t is because I did take the risks. I put myself in their environment and few people did that. 

NARRATOR: Douglas speaks the local language. That’s a good start. But if you want to earn the people’s trust - okay, respect, at least - there’s so much more to consider. Personal grooming, for one.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I looked like them. I had a two-fister beard. And that means you can take two fists. And that's how long your beard is. So I grew a two-fister and they don't manicure their beards in Afghanistan. I'm sure you've seen the footage, so you just don't shave it. You don't touch it. Period. So it gets pretty gnarly. Dressing like the locals is ingratiating, but also it helps you with what's called the ‘first pass’. Meaning, if I'm driving in a vehicle and we're going 30 [mph] through - pick the town in Afghanistan - and I have a two-fister and I have your clothes on and I tan pretty dark...that's ‘first pass’. They don't look twice. People are going to just assume: “Yeah, he belongs here.”

NARRATOR: Douglas also worked with an Afghan interpreter to learn the local dialect of Pashto, as well as the customs and cultural markers distinct to the region.

DOUGLAS LAUX: How should I sit? How should I drink my tea? How should I present the tea? What should we eat? Why is he wearing that three-quarter prayer cap when the last guy wore a full-prayer cap? Does that mean he's higher in the mosque than him? Oh, he's a teacher at the Masjid (mosque), so that's why it's okay. Important to know because I wouldn't have thought to ask the question to your asset, but I can ask this interpreter, who's basically my cultural advisor, so that in reading the Koran with him… and just having basic concepts of that and a basic working knowledge of the Koran. So blending in. That's kind of what you're paid to do. 

NARRATOR: His hard work paid off. Soon, Douglas was processing a huge amount of information from his local assets. With each turn-and-burn, he got closer to the Taliban’s top brass.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I had to learn, okay, if this guy says that he has access to that Taliban area where all the Taliban guys live: "Okay, do you know anyone in the Taliban?” “No, but my cousin does.” “Okay, bring me your cousin.” “Hey, cousin, who do you know?” “I know the guy who delivers their fruit once a week.” “Great, bring him to me.” “Hey, so you have access to their compound? Great. You have a cousin who's in there? Bring him.” “Oh, hey, cousin, you don't want to work for me? Well, how about this money? Okay, so now you want to work for me?” “How many friends do you have? Bring me all of them. One by one.” “A Taliban commander? I'll go meet him. Where does he want to meet?” You know? And just starting at the lowest hanging fruit and building my way up, but not wasting my time with them. That's a rut that you can really get into as a case officer of taking that mid-level reporting and being satisfied with it, where somebody is telling you: “I spoke with the Taliban commander. And these are his plans.” My thought was, he can tell me directly what his plans are. Bring him to me.

NARRATOR: Eventually, Douglas struck gold.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Finally it came that I met a gentleman named Mahmud, and he flipped everything upside down because he informed me - where I had thought previously that there was some organization within the Taliban that was responsible for manufacturing these detonators and these initiators and the explosives themselves - it was an independent enterprise. It was a businessman, somebody who had his own personal mafia. And he was the furthest point left of boom where it was all originating from. And so, that's when it became my priority and I got the blessing of headquarters to make the Wolverine Operation my main focus.

NARRATOR: Mahmud, Douglas’s latest and greatest asset, is nothing less than a Taliban commander. He has the kind of access case officers dream about. Now, he’s working for Uncle Sam. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: So once Mahmud has established for certain that he is a Taliban commander with photos and all this other evidence that checked out, I knew I had a pretty big fish on my hands. And he was in some pretty high-level meetings. And, as almost everything is - I don't want to call it luck because you make your own luck - but kind of on a caprice he mentioned, offhandedly, he had some shipment coming in or something like this. Of what? 

NARRATOR: What exactly this shipment contained was a harder question to answer than you might imagine. The Pashto language is complex. The Foreign Service Institute, where US spies and diplomats learn foreign tongues, ranks it in their highest tier of difficulty alongside Arabic and Mandarin. It bears the legacy of Afghanistan’s various occupations in the form of loan words, or ‘cognates’, from other languages.

DOUGLAS LAUX: If it's not a cognate, they have to make up their own word for technology. So they don't know the term for ‘blasting cap’ and they don't know the term for ‘initiating device’, and they don't know the word for ‘Semtex’ or ‘C4’. And so there was an entire lexicon that we had to put together via when you're like intercepting their ICOM traffic radio. And I think they used to call RPGs ‘giraffes’ because they're long. You know what I mean? Like, they had animal names, right? And they might refer to a pressure-plate IED as 'hornets', because when you step on a hornet's nest, hornets fly up. When you step on a pressure plate, IED explosion comes up… so just understanding what they were talking about. And I honestly don't remember the word but he was talking about an initiator.

NARRATOR: A fuse. An essential component in the construction of IEDs.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So he was explaining what these were. And I was like: “Oh, f***. He's talking about getting initiators. What do they look like? Bring me some.” So he did. And I was like: “Oh yeah, that's exactly what I thought you were talking about. Who'd you get these from?” So he told me. I said: “Well, where'd he get ‘em from?” And then he told me. And so we started together. That's how it all initially began. And you know, I had an EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal], a bomb expert, look at what he had. And he was like: “Dude, these are very legit and these are very nice and these are very complex.” And so then it was like: “Okay, well, where the hell are they being manufactured? How is he getting nice stuff?” 

NARRATOR: Eventually, Douglas’s line of questioning led him to a shadowy figure working alongside, but separately from, the Taliban. The Wolverine.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And so once we started to figure out going left on that timeline where it was originating, we had this watershed, breakthrough moment where he tells me about the Wolverine, which is a code name I made up for this person.

NARRATOR: Mahmud was shocked that the Wolverine wasn’t already on the Agency’s radar.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So he's like: “How do you not know Wolverine? Everyone knows Wolverine.” And I'm like: “I've never heard of him. Who is he? Is he a Taliban commander?” No. “Okay. What does he do?” And he's like: “Well, he's the guy that gets us what we need.” As far as what? “I don't know, guns, ammunition, bombs.” So basically, he's an arms dealer. And that's what this guy does, and he specializes in selling his arms to the Taliban. And he's got his own little mafia and his own little protectorate and the Taliban - who could wipe the guy out, if they want to - they let him exist because he's got connections overseas in foreign countries that he can get this stuff from. The Taliban's not that sophisticated, but this guy is. And like, oh my God, we had no idea. 

NARRATOR: He can’t tell us exactly how - that’s classified - but Douglas was able to corroborate Mahmud’s intelligence. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: And we got the number for the Wolverine. So yes, we do listen to our enemies' phone calls. We were listening to the Wolverine’s phone. Why wouldn't we? If we had had Osama bin Laden's phone, we would have listened to it and known exactly where he was and saved a lot of money. 

NARRATOR: With this information, Douglas was able to build a profile of the Wolverine, including his address. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: And the Wolverine made a very smart decision to move out of Afghanistan. 

NARRATOR: Again, we can’t disclose which country the Wolverine decamped to. All we can tell you is that the US wasn’t currently at war with it.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And so, if he flees into any other country, we can't just send SEAL Team Six to go get him. Yes, we did that with Osama bin Laden, but that required the President of the United States to be informed every step of the way. With Wolverine, it wasn't that high level. 

NARRATOR: So, your target is essentially untouchable. He’s out of your jurisdiction, but the roadsides, Army bases and marketplaces of Afghanistan are still very much within his. Every IED that he supplies to Taliban insurgents costs lives. The timeline is moving closer to the center. How do you stay ‘left of boom’ when the brick wall of international diplomacy blocks your path?

DOUGLAS LAUX: And so we just had to wait and see if he would come into Afghanistan. And he never did.

NARRATOR: Clearly, a new approach was in order. Remember Mahmud, Douglas’s tame Taliban commander? Well, he was about to make himself even more useful.

DOUGLAS LAUX: So we came up with the idea that: “Fine, we will just get Mahmud to be his best friend. So that, basically, it's a one-to-one relationship.” 

NARRATOR: If Mahmud could get close to the Wolverine, he’d be able to provide up-to-date information about the flow of IEDs into Afghanistan. But he can’t just show up at the Wolverine’s doorstep. He needs an in - a golden opportunity to inveigle himself into the arms dealer’s circle. Eventually, just such an opportunity arose.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Wolverine had basically three lieutenants, three captains. So they got into a big argument. And one of the guys shot and killed one of the other guys of the three and then the other guy who shot him fled. So Wolverine was down to basically one subordinate, one main guy he could direct things to, to then disperse. So when I found that out through Mahmud, I was like: “You become one of them. Tell him.” And he's like, “I can't just demand it.” And I was like: “Bulls***t. You're in the Taliban.”

NARRATOR: As a high-ranking member of the Taliban, Mahmud’s friendship was valuable. Douglas knew that.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And I was like: ”Can you ever imagine a day where he would come after you and kill you?” He laughed. He's like: “No, because we would wipe out his entire family.” See? So he needs somebody and he'd be willing to take you because he knows you're trusted and you've bought from him before. So he's like: “Okay.” So he did. 

NARRATOR: Douglas’s reasoning was sound, and it didn’t take long for Mahmud to find a place at the Wolverine’s right hand - wherever that was. Again, his exact location remains classified. In any case, this was very good news for the CIA.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Mahmud was sitting next to Wolverine on a daily basis, and pretty soon he's taking surreptitious photos, on his phone, of him. So now we know directly what he looks like, not from some antiquated photo that somebody alleges is Wolverine. Now we have a trusted source who's going: “That's what he looks like as of breakfast this morning.” Whoa. “Oh, he switches out his phone every four days. Here's his new number as of last evening.” Whoa. 

NARRATOR: As well as a positive visual ID on the Wolverine, Mahmud was able to provide information that allowed the CIA to disrupt IED attacks inside Afghanistan. Now, proceed with extreme caution. If you show your hand, then the whole operation could end in a bust.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Basically, if you just start stopping his entire supply line, in the same manner, every single time, he's very quickly going to understand he's got a rat. Okay, obviously we can't in good conscience allow his explosions to still go off. But we had to come up with clever ways of how to capture each one so that nothing happened. Or maybe it got stopped at the border. Or maybe it was a faulty device that didn't blow up, or maybe the person - in placing it - installed it wrong and they blew up. You know? But we had to really control that narrative because if everything was being stopped at point X, he's going to go: “When the hell did they start to stop everything at point X?” Fine, we'll move to point Y. And then immediately everything stopped right at point Y. He's going to go: “Okay, somebody’s snitching me out, man.” And he's going to do an internal investigation.

NARRATOR: Which would not, presumably, end well for Mahmud. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: So we were super clever with that, which I really can't detail. I wish I could because I owe a lot of props [respect] to the people back at headquarters who helped me to dream up those ideas and figure out how to keep the momentum. 

NARRATOR: But, until the Wolverine resurfaces in Afghanistan, this is as good as it gets. The CIA can monitor and disrupt, but they can’t take kinetic action against his operation - that’s kicking down the door and arresting him, to you and me. All the while, the stresses of life at the FOB are taking their toll on Douglas. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: I was worn pretty thin and I didn't know if Wolverine would ever come back into Afghanistan. And so, I thought this could go on for five years before he screws up. After five years, he's going to think he's invincible. He's going to do something stupid. He's going to go to the Hajj, or he's going to leave his little fiefdom and we're going to nab him because we got everything. We're going to get him. So it doesn't matter if I stay, and I'm not staying for five more years. So I made the decision to pass it on to someone I really trusted at this black site. And then I just started supporting that guy from back at headquarters as well as on like R&R, you would say, waiting for my next assignment. 

NARRATOR: From headquarters in Virginia, Douglas continued to monitor the Wolverine operation. 

DOUGLAS LAUX: And, during that period, that time frame, he made a mistake. He went to an area where we could touch him. Okay? And when we knew he was going there, it was Mahmud who let us know: “Hey, guess what? He's going to this specific area. You guys can nab him.” That specific area was still in a foreign country. It was not in Afghanistan. Okay, so we had to work with the local police force to make that happen. And they did. And the Wolverine was apprehended, and we sent somebody to that foreign country to basically show our crown jewels of why this person was a terrible person and everything they had done. And here's all the evidence and all of the proof. And they said:  “Great, we're locking him up.”

NARRATOR: A happy ending? Unless you’re joining us for the first time on True Spies, you’ll know that those are few and far between - unheard of, almost. So don’t get your hopes up.

DOUGLAS LAUX: Fast forward. I went on to start working on the Syrian Civil War, which was hot. This would have been 2012-2013. ISIS was a big deal. So I switched over to that and sometime during that frame learned that the Wolverine had been released. So, not a happy ending to this story. What was my biggest success at the agency, now was my biggest failure because he was just straight-up released.

NARRATOR: The Wolverine had been let go, his captors citing insufficient evidence.

DOUGLAS LAUX: And that was just soul-crushing, absolutely soul-crushing, that I put 20-hour days in to take this guy off the battlefield, - or at very least take his components and his bombs off the battlefield - so some 18 year old didn't run over it, right? And so it meant a lot to me. And to learn that they just let him go was absolutely heart-wrenching. But that is the nature of the beast. No one said this story would be pretty, did they? 

NARRATOR: And there’s a final twist to this tale, for those who choose to believe it.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I had reason to believe, and I won't say which one. I'll let you use your imagination, but I had reason to believe he was being supported by basically a different country's version of the CIA. I really felt that, and I felt I had presented enough evidence for that as well. But if you're going to make an accusation like that, that could almost lead to a declaration of war. 

NARRATOR: This is not the kind of allegation that any intelligence agency can act upon lightly.

DOUGLAS LAUX: That's what my theory was. Well, I think that this host nation's version of CIA is helping the Wolverine and the Wolverines giving this to the Taliban, which is killing us. And the agency was like: "Yeah, brother. We almost have to have CCTV on that to come out live because that's front-page New York Times. Period. And until you can get us 100%, we can't go around. Thank you for telling us. We're going to keep an eye on it, but we cannot publicly state that at this point in time." And I don't think it ever was stated, which is why I don't really talk about it. 

NARRATOR: The life of a war-zone CO is not an easy one. Between his tour in Afghanistan and his time working on the Syrian Civil War, Douglas struggled with his mental health and substance abuse. He pulled through. But eventually, life in the war zone caught up to him.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I want to be clear, the CIA never pushed me out the door. Never. My burn rate was high and I knew that. But I wanted to accomplish as much as I could in the time that I knew I had because I started to think after my second tour, you're not going to do this for 25 years. So, the final straw though, was Thanksgiving one year in this Middle Eastern country. And I was working on the Syrian Civil War. I had a Thanksgiving dinner. Us Americans were having a very nice restaurant in this Middle Eastern country eating shish kebab for Thanksgiving. That was a first - just how everyone was very jovial, and laughing, and talking about where they were going next, and where they planned to live, and what car they planned to drive when they were in this next nice foreign country, working the cocktail circuit. And oh, for vacation, we're going to the Seychelles. And then if we get a tour in East Asia we'll probably end up going to Tahiti. And for me, it was like: “Dude, being a spy is f***ing hard.” You know? They're married with kids, so they do have an outlet. And, usually, their spouse works for the agency as well, so they can talk about things. And so, they had outlets, and I didn't. I kept it all bottled up. Again, that's my fault. I should have found an outlet. But yeah, sitting there, I said… because they're like: “Why are you so morose? Why are you so down in the dumps? Why are you so angry? Why are you always so angry, Doug?” And I just said: "Guys, I'm living a different existence than you with regards to this. There are wars and I'm fighting a war. It's not just classic espionage, and I meet you in a park, and I hand you an envelope, and you hand me a thumb drive." I'm getting shot at. I'm getting ADF indirect fire mortars. You know, my colleagues are getting killed by explosions or by bullets. They're having to go to the X, not run from it. I'm having a wildly different experience than you guys, and it's so dangerous and it's crippling me and I have no one to talk to about it. And you guys are talking about: "Should I get a Mercedes or BMW?” And so I went to the waiter, and I paid for the entire bill, and I just said: “Guys, goodbye. I'll be going home soon, and I'm never coming back. I can't. I don't want to do this anymore.” And with that, I left. And within three weeks or so, I think,I got back to the United States on Christmas Eve. And I never deployed again, and within a couple of months, I was out the door. 

NARRATOR: After leaving the Agency, Douglas worked as a consultant before publishing a memoir in 2016. Since then, he’s taken on a number of roles in the television industry. But his time in Afghanistan still looms large. In 2021, Coalition forces ended their occupation of the country. What happened next came as no surprise to Douglas.

DOUGLAS LAUX: I will never forget the conversation I had with that Taliban commander who said to me: "We'll wait. Because you will leave and guess what? If I die, it would be my son who returns. And if my son dies before you leave, it would be his son. My grandson will return, but we'll wait because time is on our side, not yours. And you will eventually leave like everyone else, and we'll be back. We will be back.’

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Douglas Laux’s book, Left of Boom: How a Young Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al Qaeda is available now. Join me next week for another edition of Tradecraft Secrets with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com

Guest Bio

Former CIA case officer Douglas Laux served undercover in the Middle East and Afghanistan for eight years. He documented his experiences in a New York Times bestselling memoir Left of Boom. He is now an accomplished DJ and appeared on eight episodes of the Bravo Channel series Spy Games where he built challenges for contestants.

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