True Spies, Episode 180: Terror on the Line
NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Daisy Ridley, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios. Terror on the Line.
JOSEPH ASSAD: 2006 and 2007 were the toughest years in the war in Iraq. Chaos. Iraq literally devolved into a complete anarchy. Everybody was being slaughtered. Every group was involved. And I remember thinking what seemed like an impossibility was now about to materialize in front of my face.
NARRATOR: At an undisclosed location, a short helicopter ride from Baghdad, a CIA officer finds himself at a military detention center. It’s just after midday. The air is dry, and the sun is piercing.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I have to take off my helmet, my vest, my weapons since I could not meet with a detainee carrying any weapons.
NARRATOR: It’s 2007, and Iraq is hell on Earth. Hot, stifling, and brutalized by an incredibly complicated war, nobody feels as though they’re winning. But in this detention center, our CIA officer is about to enact a plan that could help to calm the relentless rage.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I was overwhelmed.
NARRATOR: If it’s successful, his idea could help the Americans achieve a more peaceful and dignified exit from the country.
JOSEPH ASSAD: My brain is racing and I'm thinking: what will I ask him?
NARRATOR: He’s taken to a pod, which looks a little like a shipping container. It’s carpeted, gray, with a table, two chairs, and a camera. The rumble of the air conditioning unit shakes its thin walls.
JOSEPH ASSAD: It’s very noisy. Helicopters are taking off and landing. Sometimes you'll hear explosions. There's always commotion.
NARRATOR: He sees in front of him a frail, elderly man, with white hair and blue overalls. The old man is softly spoken. They’ve never met but the CIA officer knows exactly who is sitting in front of him.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I was shaking. This is he. This is the man that we have talked about. This is the man that we have been chasing and trying to get arrested. And here he was looking frail, looking weak. And I'm trying not to look frail and weak. I had to project confidence.
NARRATOR: The detainee has power and influence beyond measure. The CIA officer is here to ask him for a ceasefire - a request that he and his many, many Sunni Muslim insurgents stop shooting at the Coalition forces in Iraq.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Here I am, by myself, in a Blackhawk, being taken to a detention facility to meet with what is considered to be Iraq's top terror leader at the time.
NARRATOR: The meeting was only possible because the young officer - a rookie, a small fish in the big pond of the CIA - had a very simple idea. An idea that seemed almost unthinkable. Time to meet the officer in question.
JOSEPH ASSAD: My name is Joseph Assad and I was an operations officer in the Counterterrorism Center for the CIA.
NARRATOR: The Central Intelligence Agency recently declassified this file. It's a story that hasn’t yet been told - a True Spies’ exclusive.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Anytime you want to speak about something related to the CIA or your time in the CIA, you have to put your information in writing and send it to the PRB, the Publications Review Board.
NARRATOR: The name of this operation has been redacted.
JOSEPH ASSAD: They will redact certain sections that could compromise either ongoing operations, names of individuals, or locations.
NARRATOR: But in this case, we know the location all too well. Iraq in 2007 is a country shaped by conflict and anarchy. The land of poets, artists, and scholars is now a baking furnace of dust, heat, and death.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I always tell people there is a certain smell. I don't know if it is the burning tires, the spent munitions, the heat. If you had me blindfolded, I would recognize where I was.
NARRATOR: In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration designated Iraq part of a so-called ‘Axis of Evil’. They believed that it had weapons of mass destruction - including chemical weapons - and even a nuclear program. In 2003, the American-led Coalition invades. Operation Iraqi Freedom is in full force. Around 150,000 American troops enter the country. Their goal to oust dictator Saddam Hussein is a success. But at the same time, public infrastructure is eradicated. Civilians are left to fend for themselves. And hope, for almost everyone there, is in short supply.
JOSEPH ASSAD: The removal of Saddam's highly centralized dictatorship created a security and political vacuum in Iraq. He kept a lid on sectarian tensions and balance between sectarian groups such as the Sunnis, the Shia, the Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and many others.
NARRATOR: The two main Muslim groups, the Shi’a and the Sunni, are divided. They agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book but have been fighting for centuries over political, religious, and ideological differences.
JOSEPH ASSAD: There was an uptick in ambushes, car bombs, targeted killings, suicide bombings. Sunni terror insurgent groups and Shi’a death squads slaughtered each other and targeted multinational forces in Iraq. Torture and assassinations hit a fever pitch.
NARRATOR: This is the height of the War on Terror, and Joseph - an Arabic-speaking, Egyptian-American - is based in the Green Zone of Iraq’s capital Baghdad.
JOSEPH ASSAD: We were based in a compound near the US Embassy at an undisclosed location.
NARRATOR: The Green Zone in Baghdad is a heavily fortified sanctuary that now houses Coalition government officials and powerful friendly Iraqis. It was once Saddam’s control center and it’s now home to the largest CIA station overseas.
JOSEPH ASSAD: My specific duties were to reach out to Sunni insurgents and Sunni terrorists, trying to recruit sources within these organizations, in order for us to find out the plans and intentions of these terror groups, gaining intelligence that would stop terror attacks.
NARRATOR: Foreign fighters from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, and Morocco flood the country. Meanwhile, more and more Iraqis are becoming hostile towards what they now consider to be an occupying force.
JOSEPH ASSAD: You had checkpoints everywhere. You have armored vehicles. You have snipers. You have helicopters. You have aircraft. You hear the sounds of bombings and shooting day and night. There are rockets, and mortars are being lobbed from one side of the city to the other. It was utter chaos trying to figure out who is who, and what was the fighting all about.
NARRATOR: America has no way of predicting where this war is going, nor how it will end.
JOSEPH ASSAD: One thing that alarmed us is that we were seeing a level of coordination like never before between al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents. One of our primary objectives of our Sunni engagement initiative was to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda and nationalist insurgents.
NARRATOR: If these nationalist insurgent groups were to join with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network, the war could enter an unprecedented and brutal phase. They were feeding off each other. They were sharing the same ideology. It was only a matter of time. The rules of war were re-written after 9/11. Traditional espionage operations and Cold War-style asset recruitment were not going to work in the heat of Iraq. They were stuck in an unfamiliar land with an unpredictable and ever-changing enemy.
JOSEPH ASSAD: CIA officers spent a great deal of time brainstorming, coming up with creative ways to gain access to insurgent leaders at all levels of their organization.
NARRATOR: But nothing was working.
JOSEPH ASSAD: We needed a graceful way to exit Iraq.
NARRATOR: The Americans need to engage the tribes, reconcile with the insurgents, and install a government that can serve after they’ve left.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I arrived there in the summertime. It is hot. It literally was 120 degrees. We lived in pods. We had sandbags trying to protect us from shrapnel when rockets and mortars would hit the Green Zone.
NARRATOR: The Green Zone was protected by C-RAM; the Counter Rocket and Mortar system. C-RAM would sound an alarm if the base was coming under attack. This gives the residents less than five seconds to get into one of the many nearby bunkers. Despite the relative safety of the Green Zone, Joseph is constantly reminded of the dangers all around him.
JOSEPH ASSAD: In 2007, one of my colleagues, an Iraqi counterterrorism officer, had been brutally murdered. She had secretly left the Green Zone to visit her family but she never returned. She was stalked and killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, as we called it, AQI. The message from al-Qaeda was clear: “We know who you are. We know how to get to you.” They achieved their goal of spreading terror.
NARRATOR: Joseph needs to talk to the power-players inside those groups. No easy feat.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I love a big challenge.
NARRATOR: Just as he’s beginning his tour in Iraq, he’s called to an extraordinary operational meeting in a building known as ‘The Villa’. Previously used by the Iraqi government and Saddam's inner circle, it’s secure and extravagantly decorated. The glass windows have been replaced by a blast-proof barrier. The swimming pool has been drained. The lush gardens that once housed tigers and wild animals have been left to bake in the heat. Joseph is joined by the Chief of Stations - who is in charge of all stations in Iraq and who communicates directly with Washington. Also in attendance are the Deputy Chief of Stations, the Chief of Operations, and Joseph’s Branch Chief who is in charge of CIA operations in Baghdad.
JOSEPH ASSAD: One name kept coming up and that was the most senior Sunni insurgent leader in Iraq at the time. They redacted the real name. I will call him Abu Walid. That was the name that was approved by the Agency.
NARRATOR: It’s here a new directive is announced - create the space for a peaceful withdrawal of the American forces from Iraq. It’s given the highest priority. The CIA is extremely competitive and Joseph needs to make his mark. He’s 32 in a room full of gray-haired experience. If he can reach this potential asset, his career will be made.
JOSEPH ASSAD: In 2007, Abu Walid was on the Top 10 Most Wanted terrorists in Iraq.
NARRATOR: Joseph needs a quick, easy-to-implement solution to what could be a never-ending problem.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Abu Walid was so dangerous because he commanded the second-largest terror group in Iraq after al-Qaeda.
NARRATOR: The name of his group has also been redacted.
JOSEPH ASSAD: He has a relationship with Osama bin Laden, with al-Qaeda. Not only was he in command of the largest Sunni insurgent group, other terror organizations heeded what Abu Walid would say.
NARRATOR: Abu Walid is well known to the CIA. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and became a leader at the Services Office for the Arab Mujahideen, where he met al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. It’s here they conducted fundraising and the recruitment of terrorist fighters from all around the world. Walid becomes the Sharia Law commander for his Sunni insurgent group in Iraq, providing the religious justification for them to engage in conflict. He approves or denies the death penalty for people who have been captured, whether they be Shi’ite fighters, Coalition forces, or even collaborators.
JOSEPH ASSAD: They were well-armed. They were very violent. They have been committing targeted assassinations, car bombings, truck bombings. They were beheading individuals, drivers, journalists. They were the epitome of evil in Iraq and have committed so many heinous acts against civilians as well as other militant groups. Nothing was working in reaching out to these insurgent leaders.
NARRATOR: Joseph gets a seat in the room because he knows the name Abu Walid very well - he recently recruited a team to keep tabs on him, and now the insurgent leader is a high priority target. Joseph looks down at his notes, then at the wall to the side of him where the grand portraits were once mounted. A bolt of inspiration strikes.
JOSEPH ASSAD: What are you thinking?
NARRATOR: He is going to pick up the phone, call Abu Walid and invite him to meet face-to-face to discuss him laying down his arms. The room falls silent.
JOSEPH ASSAD: You are going to pick up the phone and call a terrorist leader and say… “Hey, man, would you like to come over and have some chai, some tea, and have a little chat?”
NARRATOR: This has never been done before. But Joseph is confident that his skillset will carry the plan through.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I was a native Arabic speaker. To me, picking up the phone and speaking in Arabic, using the right lingo with somebody came natural.
NARRATOR: He’s humored for a moment by the senior officers in the room.
JOSEPH ASSAD: For about 11 seconds, you feel good that somebody is willing to entertain your idea. After that, terror and fear just overwhelmed me. This is not going to work but now I have to follow through. I have to make that phone call.
NARRATOR: The ops manager gives him the green light there and then, saying…
JOSEPH ASSAD: “You can't make things worse than they are.”
NARRATOR: The Executive Branch of the US government is briefed on the plan to call Walid. The Americans have nothing to lose.
JOSEPH ASSAD: The chances of a terrorist leader such as Abu Walid, answering a call from an unknown number was slim to none. I remember thinking, I don't want to be the guy that messes this up.
NARRATOR: Joseph’s naive plan is now poised to become one of the war’s most crucial moments. If it succeeds, he’s contributed to America leaving the country in a dignified manner. No more deaths. If it fails, then it’ll push Abu Walid deeper underground and increase resistance to the occupying forces.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I'm trying to do something that I felt would make a difference in the war. Something that is out of the box.
NARRATOR: Very quickly, his plan is put into action.
JOSEPH ASSAD: So I picked up a clean phone. That's an operational phone that's never been used that would not trace back to the CIA.
NARRATOR: He’s nervous and full of doubt. Alone, in a quiet spot inside the Green Zone.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I turned the phone on and I remember my hands are sweaty.
NARRATOR: Painfully aware of the risk he’s taking, he dials the number for Abu Walid. It’s 115 degrees outside. Fifteen minutes earlier the C-RAM alarm had sounded, alerting the compound to incoming fire. Imagine the pressure.
JOSEPH ASSAD: And I'm dialling in that number for the first time.
NARRATOR: The phone rings and rings. He has a sinking feeling. Nothing. He tries again.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I couldn't get through. But then finally, Abu Walid answered the phone. I said, “As-salamu alaykum, Sheikh,” an Islamic greeting. Peace be upon you, Sheikh. I also refer to him as Shaykh or Shaykhna - our sheikh or ‘the’ sheikh - which is also a term of respect. It acknowledges that he is the Sharia and spiritual leader of the group, and that's how his followers would refer to him, both in the religious term, but in terms of their hierarchy culturally.
NARRATOR: The word ‘Shaykhna’ will also hint to Walid that Joseph is Muslim. He’s actually a Christian, but he’s happy for Walid to believe whatever’s most convenient.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I introduced myself. I used an alias. We use aliases in order to protect our identity.
NARRATOR: He calls himself Sam. Abu Walid is intrigued by this caller. He can’t quite place his accent. Joseph is well-traveled and can speak many Arabic dialects.
JOSEPH ASSAD: It was the weirdest moment of my life, I felt that the biggest accomplishment here was the fact that he answered the phone.
NARRATOR: Obstacle one is complete; the subject answers the phone, and he isn’t immediately hostile. Time to face obstacle two: get him to agree to meet.
JOSEPH ASSAD: And I told him I was with American intelligence. And I was calling to invite Abu Walid to meet in Baghdad. Abu Walid sounded shocked and asked, “How did you get my number?” I ignored his question. I want to set up a cordial meeting to discuss a ceasefire and reconciliation issue with you.
NARRATOR: The phone line disconnects. Silence. In these circumstances you rarely get a second shot. One of the most notorious terrorists in Iraq, Abu Walid, has generated a serious amount of paperwork over the years. He’s been tailed, tracked, tapped, and monitored. All of that work, all of that research, the thousands of hours poured into this operation, have now gone up in smoke in a few seconds.
JOSEPH ASSAD: My CIA colleagues kind of were happy that I failed in a way thinking, “Well, we knew this was not going to work. That was a nice try.” So I had to redeem myself. I had to figure out a way, how do I clean this up?
NARRATOR: Joseph will have to report everything that happened. He’s trembling, scared for his career, and utterly humiliated. The CIA then determines that Walid is not currently in Iraq and because of the call, he’ll be spooked.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I am confident that what Abu Walid did was, he took his SIM cards out of the phone. He smashed the phone thinking that the phone call could be the precursor for a kinetic strike against him.
NARRATOR: That’s a military euphemism for direct, physical action against a target. But the CIA doesn’t give up easily, and quickly identifies a new number for him.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I immediately sprung into action and I wanted to call him.
NARRATOR: But how do the CIA know they’re talking to the right person?
JOSEPH ASSAD: We have things that we call targeting packages. And in these targeting packages, we have a lot of assessment backgrounds, photographs, sometimes even the voices of these individuals. Abu Walid was a known figure. He issued religious edicts, opinions as a spiritual leader in Iraq. There were videos of him. There were sermons. There were directives. So we had a good idea of what he looks like, as well as how he sounded when I called him. I had no doubt that I had Walid on the other end of the line.
NARRATOR: Joseph, as ‘Sam’, tries once more.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I was utterly surprised that he answered my call again.
NARRATOR: This time Joseph skips the pleasantries.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Instead of slamming down the phone, Abu Walid listened carefully. He wanted to confirm my phone number for future contact. He would call me “Ibni or ابني”, which is ‘my son. He would refer to me as his son because he saw that I respected him as a sheikh, as a leader. He said that he would consider my proposal and will contact me soon to arrange a meeting in Baghdad.
NARRATOR: Joseph leaves the phone on charge 24 hours a day. Several days go by. Nothing. In the eyes of the CIA, the operation has died. Joseph tries to locate him, speaking to his sources and analyzing the leader’s previous movements. He hears through an unreliable source that Walid is still considering his proposal. Then, out of nowhere, the phone rings but it’s not Walid. Joseph is perplexed. As far as he knows, there is only one person with this number and it’s the terrorist. So, the voice on the phone surprises him. It’s speaking in perfect American English. It’s the US military and they’re looking for somebody called Sam. Joseph’s phone - that sits on charge 24 hours a day waiting for contact from Abu Walid - has just received a call but it’s not the Jihadist leader.
JOSEPH ASSAD: The military asked us, are we familiar with any ‘Sam Green’ that would be affiliated with Abu Walid?
NARRATOR: Joseph confirms that he is ‘Sam’. He’s then given the news.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Coalition forces captured Abu Walid at an undisclosed location.
NARRATOR: One of the Top 10 Most Wanted terrorist leaders in Iraq was detained trying to re-enter the country. Joseph is phoned before the name even gets officially reported.
JOSEPH ASSAD: The circumstances of his detention are classified but he was accompanied by so many other people - women and children included - thus avoiding a kinetic strike in an area where we thought terrorists were coming back into Iraq.
NARRATOR: Walid is on a kill-or-capture list. Fortunately for him, the US military has plumped for the second option. And now that he’s in custody, he keeps asking for somebody in the American forces. The CIA breathes a sigh of relief. If the leader of Iraq’s second-largest terrorist group had died at the hands of the Americans, they’d be kept in the country even longer having to deal with the fallout from the ensuing power vacuum.
JOSEPH ASSAD: He only knew my first name. He said he had saved my phone number as ‘Sam Green’ because I resided in the Green Zone.
NARRATOR: But, this is a common stalling tactic. Captured insurgents will often ask for somebody in the forces they claim to know. To prove it, the military makes him turn on the phone, and he shows them the number. The CIA call a critical meeting to discuss next steps. Joseph convinces his management that he needs to go and see Walid in person. He’s then put on a Blackhawk helicopter to go and meet the terrorist leader.
JOSEPH ASSAD: The doors are open with gunners on both sides in order to return fire in case we are attacked.
NARRATOR: It’s loud. It’s intimidating. And he’s hooked to the floor of this death machine to stop him falling should the trip take a turn for the worse. The heat is suffocating, they’re operating in broad daylight, and they’re severely vulnerable to attacks from the ground.
JOSEPH ASSAD: And at one point, the helicopter automatically fired flares. When they see a reflection on the ground, sometimes it's mistaken for incoming fire. I had no idea whether this was incoming or outgoing fire. I have never experienced flares and I may have let out a little scream.
NARRATOR: The military personnel on board are unfazed but Joseph has turned pale. The weight of his weapons and protective clothing keep him rooted in his seat. He’s armed, just in case the Helo goes down and he has to fend for himself.
JOSEPH ASSAD: We're skimming over power lines flying very low. And it's about a 45-minute ride from Baghdad to an undisclosed location in northern Iraq where Abu Walid is being held.
NARRATOR: The helo lands in the military base and Joseph is unclipped as the blades keep slicing through the air. Joseph is shaking, his ears are ringing. He ignores the sandstorm swirling around him. He ponders for a second; meeting a terrorist must be approached soberly. One misstep with Walid here and the consequences could be dire.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I don't know what to think… Whether I had something to do with Abu Walid showing up in Iraq. Was this a coincidence? Was he planning a terror attack?
NARRATOR: Joseph is taken through the detention facility - the spartan building in which we began this episode. He’s stripped of his weapons, is read the rules and signs all the paperwork. The pod-like shipping container housing Walid is small, and noisy. He opens the door and the cold air hits him.
JOSEPH ASSAD: When you walk into these pods, there’s an air-conditioning smell, the AC is running 24/7. When I first saw Walid, I was in disbelief. He seemed frail, smaller than I thought he looked in pictures.
NARRATOR: The elderly Walid comes off as very gracious, very polite, and has trouble walking - not what you would expect in a leader of a terrorist organization that has ordered the murder and assassination of countless people, including many Americans.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I extended my hand. I said, “As-salaam alaikum, Walid. I am Sam.” And he immediately looks at the military personnel that were with us and said, “I told you, I told you I was not lying. I was here to see Sam.”
NARRATOR: What happens over the next few minutes is remarkable.
JOSEPH ASSAD: He immediately tried to put on me that I had betrayed him by getting him detained. “You told me this, and I came to Iraq, and I was going to meet with you, but they detained me.”
NARRATOR: Imagine, for a second, you’re working for the CIA and - all of a sudden, through a series of unlikely events - you’ve come face-to-face with your main target. Would you trust Abu Walid on what he says? He could be here to commit more atrocities, or be on his own mission to see the faces of his enemies to share with his vast networks.
JOSEPH ASSAD: My phone call was a lifeline to Abu Walid. He used that to claim that he had arrived in Iraq to meet with me.
NARRATOR: But the question that keeps running through Joseph’s mind is: Why is Walid back in Iraq? The only times he had left the country previously had been to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in other jihadist activities. That, or to lay low in one of Iraq’s neighboring lands.
JOSEPH ASSAD: He was in communication with al-Qaeda senior leadership outside of Iraq and being fed information directly sometimes from Osama bin Laden to fight against Coalition forces, given the way he would receive funds, instructions, equipment, weapons, as well as fighters to resist the occupying forces.
NARRATOR: Joseph needs him to agree to a meeting in the Green Zone in Baghdad to discuss the ceasefire.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I provided a pitch which I had prepared which was what I had intended to do in a phone call had it been longer than a few seconds.
NARRATOR: As it turns out, Walid is not impressed with Joseph’s smooth, well-practiced recruitment pitch. There’s no more time for mind games. Joseph lays it out straight.
JOSEPH ASSAD: There are two things that could result from Abu Walid not agreeing to go along with the pitch. One was [that] he was to remain in jail. The second, a significant consequence. At the time, the US military, while we wanted to get out of Iraq, we were having to surge people into Iraq in order to stabilize the situation. And undoubtedly we would have expanded this conflict against nationalist insurgents and it would have been far more catastrophic. Thousands, if not tens of thousands more lives would needlessly be lost in Iraq as a result.
NARRATOR: Joseph then gets into why it would personally benefit Walid.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I told him, “You're being squeezed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which pretends to be your friend, but are taken over by bringing foreign fighters. They're commanding Iraqis. They are now dominating the scene, building their power base, stealing resources, destroying other Sunnis. Meanwhile, Iran is squeezing you from the other side and you are focused on the Coalition. You are spinning your wheels. We are not your enemy.”
NARRATOR: Joseph tells him it’s not complicated, it’s not political; the threat to his organization and his people is real.
JOSEPH ASSAD: It is not going too far to say that the Sunnis would have been wiped out. Consider laying down your weapons and stop fighting us. We would also like you to consider allowing your people to participate in the political process and populate local governing positions to save the future of Iraq's Sunnis. That was my ask, and it was carefully and politely worded.
NARRATOR: The CIA knows that Abu Walid has been having his doubts about fighting alongside al-Qaeda and bin Laden ever since the Americans reacted so forcefully to 9/11. Joseph decides to take advantage of that doubt.
JOSEPH ASSAD: There was an incident in which his forces had to kill three al-Qaeda leaders after they kidnapped a family, accused them of espionage and of cooperating with the enemy. They murdered the two children in front of their parents and Abu Walid said that was a turning point, to see that the al-Qaeda brutality has reached a new level and that they did not want them to remain in Iraq.
NARRATOR: Abu Walid says that he issued the edict to have the commanders killed. Even for a terrorist leader such as Walid, AQI are taking things too far.
JOSEPH ASSAD: And he told me at one point that he had complained directly to bin Laden that what al-Qaeda was doing in Iraq was tearing Iraq apart. Their fight was to rid Iraq of an occupation, whereas al-Qaeda was mayhem, destruction.
NARRATOR: The two keep verbal sparring until Walid says something which surprises Joseph.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Abu Walid said the word ‘aqtanat / اقتنعت’ which translates into a very forthright declaration. “I am now convinced.” He could not have chosen stronger language in which to agree to the proposal.
NARRATOR: It’s a major breakthrough and it might change the course of the war in Iraq. But Walid has conditions.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Abu Walid said that he would be willing to lay [down] his arms against Coalition forces but not against Shia death squads. He provided many examples of how Shia militias and death squads were obliterating entire Sunni neighborhoods, and he could not fathom being asked to lay down any arms against them. Therefore, it was decided that we would proceed with the first step and that was a cessation of hostilities against Coalition forces.
NARRATOR: Another request is made by Walid. He wants Egypt and Saudi Arabia - two major Sunni countries - in the room as guarantors.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I knew in conflict resolution, there is a process to any reconciliation, and I was skipping quite a few steps. However, I told Abu Walid, “I give you the guarantee of the United States of America, of the Intelligence Community. And if that is not good enough for you, I don't know how good the word of any other third party would be.”
NARRATOR: This isn’t to Walid’s liking, but he agrees that the bureaucracy involved in making this happen would be vast and time consuming. Joseph wants to keep it simple.
JOSEPH ASSAD: What was being asked was in the best interest of Iraq's Sunni population.
NARRATOR: Walid now knows that time is against him and his people, and he agrees. Planning for a meeting in the Green Zone to make the ceasefire official begins immediately. Getting a known terrorist leader into the Zone requires supreme levels of organization; every risk must be assessed, every ounce of danger weighed.
JOSEPH ASSAD: We also started the process of asking the military to release him from detention, process him out so he can attend this meeting.
NARRATOR: The meeting is set, two weeks after the initial handshake. Surveillance and security around the Green Zone is amplified. After all, this could be an opportunity for Abu Walid’s final act of jihad, taking out hundreds of US personnel.
JOSEPH ASSAD: When you're in a war zone, time is relative. You can't tell somebody to show up at 11:00 and expect him to be there. There are so many other considerations, such as checkpoints, violence, a terror attack. Many times we would cancel meetings with our sources due to a car bomb.
NARRATOR: He arrives by himself as agreed. He’s searched and checked. He walks through the concrete barrier checkpoints on his own. He meets with Joseph who escorts him, on foot, to an undisclosed location run by Coalition forces. Members of the top military leadership in Iraq are there, including US generals, British generals, commanders, and the CIA.
JOSEPH ASSAD: And I will never forget that due to the involvement and presence of some of the British commanders to break the ice they had offered Abu Walid some tea and coffee and some scones and little cucumber sandwiches.
NARRATOR: Joseph is still in shock that his phone call has made it this far. He introduces Abu Walid to the room. They want to make the ceasefire official, to protect all of the countries who form the MNFI - the Multi-National Force - Iraq.
JOSEPH ASSAD: He is convinced that a ceasefire with Coalition forces was the way forward, that he had spoken with ‘Sam’ and he now fully understands that the intentions of US forces and Coalition forces was not to remain in Iraq, not to steal Iraq's resources. They were looking for a way out.
NARRATOR: The meeting goes off without a hitch. No mistakes are made. The peace agreement is signed.
JOSEPH ASSAD: It was very cordial. It was measured. And there were no points of contention.
NARRATOR: Once a decision like this is made, how on Earth do you get that message out to fighters, and how do you ensure they obey the order? Joseph’s job is far from over. The US tails Abu Walid as he leaves to make sure he sticks to his word.
JOSEPH ASSAD: When he left the meeting, he went directly to meet with other leaders of other insurgent groups. There was a large [group] of terrorist leaders gathered in a farm outside of Baghdad.
NARRATOR: Walid faces opposition to the ceasefire from various groups. He’s also accused of being an American agent. Factions of the US military want to seize the opportunity of having so many of the most-wanted terrorists all in one place. They’re in the middle of nowhere, away from civilians, no collateral damage. They want to call in a strike.
JOSEPH ASSAD: You strike, and yes, you're guaranteed to take out these terrorist leaders. But if you develop these targets, see where they go and go along with Abu Walid’s promise, we had nothing else. Sure we knew that even if he had signed something, he did not have to honor that.
NARRATOR: Tensions are rising between the CIA and the military. The military wants to take the shot.
JOSEPH ASSAD: I panicked. In terms of contact with insurgent leaders, this would have destroyed not just reconciliation efforts with his terrorist organizations, but with any other future organization that we want to reach out to.
NARRATOR: The future of the war is still so uncertain.
JOSEPH ASSAD: There would be retaliatory attacks against Coalition forces, against Iraqi forces. It would have just deepened the abyss.
NARRATOR: Fortunately for the CIA, the strike doesn’t materialize. But no matter how much equipment, skill, personnel, funding, grit, and perseverance they have, what happens next is completely out of their hands.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Twenty-four hours later, Abu Walid made the most important decision of the entire war. He gave approval for a ceasefire. Had we taken him out, we would not be here talking about this today. It would be a different outcome in Iraq.
NARRATOR: The leaders disperse. Joseph can breathe. What happens next vindicates Joseph’s one-shot-in-a-million plan.
JOSEPH ASSAD: His group immediately and unconditionally ceased all hostilities against US forces and Coalition forces. The amount of power that Abu Walid had is scary, that he is able to command thousands of fighters to fight or lay down their arms. And it went to show how a direct approach, a personal approach, a simple one at that, could have huge consequences.
NARRATOR: How Abu Walid actually made this happen, we’ll never know - the information was redacted. But his order reverberates across Iraq. He was, after all, the leader of Iraq’s second most powerful terrorist group.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Abu Walid’s directive had a domino effect as more and more Sunnis came to the same realization and decided they should try an alternate method to achieving their objectives.
NARRATOR: Joseph’s foresight - that Abu Walid’s immense influence could span tribes, organizations, and borders - had been proven accurate. There was no Plan B. Joseph’s deceptively simple idea of just phoning Abu Walid resulted in a relative easing of the fighting in Iraq and allowed US forces to withdraw. More horror was to come in the shape of ISIS. But at this moment, the country had hope again.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Sometimes we really do face mountains. The important thing to remember is not to let intimidation or uncertainty fool you into thinking the obstacles are immovable. And we in the CIA never thought that this day would come when the leader of Iraq's largest insurgent group would issue a directive unconditionally and immediate[ly].
NARRATOR: From something so small, came huge and positive consequences.
JOSEPH ASSAD: Many lives were saved. It doesn't matter if one life was spared by Abu Walid issuing that statement because somebody called him out of the blue and asked him to come and have some chai, have some tea, and discuss reconciliation.
NARRATOR: Joseph made it clear that he credits his CIA colleagues and senior field managers for the success of this operation. He added that he was grateful that he was cleared to share details of this operation for the first time, and that this is only a small window into the incredible hard work and sacrifices that his CIA colleagues continue to carry out on a daily basis. Next week on True Spies, you’ll meet the British policeman who mounted an international mission for justice.
Joseph Assad is a SPYEX consultant and former CIA officer....