True Spies Episode 19: The Targeter
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 19: The Targeter.
NADA BAKOS: Our team was in charge of evaluating whether there was a connection between Saddam, Iraq, 9/11, and al-Qaeda. We found before the invasion that there wasn't.
NARRATOR: On September the 11th 2001, the radical Islamist group al-Qaeda ended more than a decade of relative peace and prosperity for the USA. As the world looked on, America mourned 3,000 souls. Less than two years later, it was locked in an intractable conflict with Iraq. Today, the region is still suffering from shockwaves. But how did one event lead to the other? The architects of 9/11 were mainly Saudi Arabians - a key US ally in the Middle East, incidentally. What on earth did Iraq have to do with al-Qaeda? This is the story of one woman’s controversial mission to find out.
NADA BAKOS: My name is Nada Bakos. I'm a former analyst and CIA targeting officer. I worked on the Iraq war in the counterterrorism center. I was at the CIA from 2000 until 2010.
NARRATOR: In an address to the UN in February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for war.
COLIN POWELL (UN SPEECH): Iraq and terrorism go back decades but what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
NARRATOR: Maybe that wasn’t the name you expected to hear at the end of that sentence. In the years following 9/11, Osama bin Laden was certainly allocated the lion’s share of column inches in the world’s press. But as the invasion loomed, it was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a little-known Jordanian extremist, who was about to hit the front page.
NADA BAKOS: So the first time most people had ever heard of him was Colin Powell's UN speech because he's a nobody on the stage and now, all of a sudden, he's on the global stage as a terrorist because we now have talked about him. And so I'm sure that built his ego.
NARRATOR: In another life, Zarqawi had been an ordinary street thug in Jordan. After becoming radicalized in prison, he’d taken up the extremist cause.
NADA BAKOS: The CIA had known about him since the mid-90s when he was co-located in Herat, Afghanistan. And when he was conducting operations inside of Jordan, where we were working with Jordanian allies, watching him kind of evolve there as well.
NARRATOR: Around the turn of the millennium, al-Zarqawi crossed into northern Iraq to lead Ansar al-Islam, a fledgling Iraqi terrorist organization with loose ties to al-Qaeda.
NADA BAKOS: He was the B- or C-team, where al-Qaida was the A-team. And he was working with them in [a] large part when all the rhetoric started about whether or not we were going to invade. So he saw that as an opportunity. It's gonna be the first time he's going to be on the world stage.
NARRATOR: But could the presence of al-Zarqawi in Iraq give the US government the justification they needed to settle an old score?
NADA BAKOS: There's a lot of people who surmise that there was this leftover agenda. George W. Bush wanted to complete the circle for his father, Bush Sr, who had to deal with pushing Saddam out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Whether or not that's true, I'm not sure. I do think that [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Dick] Cheney always had Saddam in their crosshairs. They wanted to finish some kind of pursuit against Saddam.
NARRATOR: Coupled with some famously inconclusive intelligence about the Iraqi dictator’s weapons-manufacturing capabilities, the idea that his government could be harboring anti-American jihadists like Zarqawi was enough to galvanize an already hawkish White House. In other words, the hunt was on. Time to learn a little more about the hunter. Nada Bakos had joined the CIA one year before 9/11. Talk about timing. Born in a farming community in rural Montana, her decision to join the Agency must have seemed slightly out of left field to her friends and family.
NADA BAKOS: So my mom had a bachelor's degree in social work. My dad was a farmer.
NARRATOR: Cocooned in the bosom of the Rocky Mountains, Nada dreamed of foreign travel, of a life less ordinary.
NADA BAKOS: And so it just seemed like a natural segue to start looking for jobs within the US government. And I looked at the intelligence agencies in addition to the State Department, and I found a job within the CIA that I went ahead and applied for.
NARRATOR: Just went ahead and applied, eh? Surely there’s a bit more to it than that. Remember, Nada has no connection to the Agency - no military background, no friends in high places. What makes a person think they’d be a good fit for one of the largest and most powerful intelligence organizations on earth?
NADA BAKOS: One of the skill sets that I have is actually being able to see the forest through the trees. So I think I have an innate ability to be able to apply my skill set to being a CIA analyst, where I could sift through tons of information and be able to pull out the salient pieces that were relevant for us.
NARRATOR: After the usual battery of physical, psychological, and ideological assessments - think polygraphs, written tests, and hours of grueling interviews - Nada was in.
NADA BAKOS: So the career analyst program is the training program that analysts go through when they first join the agency, and it teaches them how to analyze without bias.
NARRATOR: The career analyst program - CAP for short - gives would-be analysts the tools to deliver crucial intelligence to policymakers in Washington. And whether it’s a lengthy written report or a top-secret memo, that information needs to be totally unimpeachable.
NADA BAKOS: Then it goes through a whole scenario of how to write like an analyst. There's a specific writing style that the CIA uses to communicate to the policymakers.
NARRATOR: Put yourself in the shoes of a trainee analyst. As part of the CAP, you’ve been tasked with gathering information on an imaginary, but plausible, real-world scenario involving the US military. The people in charge of foreign policy need to know everything about that scenario before they can make a decision. Any ambiguity in your language could mean the difference between life and death for American troops. Your fingers are hovering over the keyboard. What do you write? How do you write it?
NADA BAKOS: It's very concise, so you have to have a very specific style to write for the president, a very specific style to write for a longer paper. That's a research paper. And most of it is really just so that you convey as much important information as you can in very few words.
NARRATOR: When lives are on the line, brevity is the soul of security. Soon, Nada was able to put her training to work.
NADA BAKOS: So the first analytical department that I joined was the Office of Transnational Issues. I was on a team that was looking at illicit finance and it's a transnational team so we didn't have one specific geographic area.
NARRATOR: The Office of Transnational Issues was the perfect proving ground for a rookie analyst. Cases were long term, the approach was strategic. It was an environment that gave Nada room to grow.
NADA BAKOS: That one actually was a great office to start in because you really got a taste for the type of analysis that you're expected to do, the products you're expected to write. You have time for mentorship instead of just hitting the ground running as you would in counterterrorism at that time.
NARRATOR: But counterterrorism was about to become a priority. On the morning of 9/11, the world came to a standstill. Inside the CIA’s Virginia HQ, the response to the slaughter was stunned but not surprised.
NADA BAKOS: I was in the office that day. It was pretty... It was sort of surreal on one hand, but it was kind of like: ‘Okay, now we all understand what their target was.’ Because it wasn't a mystery that al-Qaeda was looking at attacking the United States. It had been communicated to Congress and the administration but we didn't have a time and place. So preparing for that is obviously really difficult if you don't know where it's coming from and when. But it was just an immediate reaction from everybody that: ‘This is al-Qaeda.’
NARRATOR: Individually, everyone had their own reaction to the massacring of 3,000 innocent civilians. Some stopped what they were doing and wept. Some got angry. Some were just numb. Nada Bakos made a decision.
NADA BAKOS: The team that's charged with evaluating whether Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, al-Qaeda, is in the counterterrorism center. So I switched shortly after 9/11 to the counterterrorism center to work on this team.
NARRATOR: The counterterrorism center moved at a very different pace to the Office of Transnational Issues. The team that Nada joined worked long, unsociable hours in the service of one goal - finding a definitive link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. But when the ‘right’ data failed to emerge, the Pentagon took matters into their own hands.
NADA BAKOS: There was considerable pressure. So much so that the Department of Defense under Doug Feith created their own intelligence team to evaluate any connection they thought they would find between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
NARRATOR: One thing you need to know about American government agencies - they don’t always see eye-to-eye. Doug Feith’s newly founded Office of Special Plans circumvented the CIA’s rigorous intelligence protocols, delivering raw information without context and without explaining the reliability of their sources - the exact opposite of what Nada and her fellow analysts had been trained to do.
NADA BAKOS: They came up with some really spurious connections that were false, that didn't make any sense, that you could poke holes in them a million miles away. But they kept trying to push that bottom line and use some of that information to justify moving forward, which... I guess in a way they were successful with that.
NARRATOR: Regardless of the actual quality of their information, by the spring of 2003 the White House had all the justification it needed for war. The first bombs hit Baghdad on the 19th of May. A full-scale invasion came hot on their heels. The world looked on as Saddam’s government was dismantled. The dictator’s ousting was symbolized in the iconic footage of US Marines toppling his 40-foot statue in Firdos Square as cheering Iraqis looked on. So far, so good, but the invasion’s optimistic tone was short-lived. Nada was about to find that out first-hand.
NADA BAKOS: We needed volunteers from our team to go to Iraq shortly after the invasion. You had one colleague go prior to me, and then I went after him.
NARRATOR: If the CIA was to identify the Iraqi government’s links to terrorist groups, and specifically that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it needed people on the ground - ‘in country’, as they say at the agency. Information from sensitive detainees - many of them members of the shattered Iraqi intelligence service, which the Americans suspected of aiding and abetting Islamic terror groups - would need to be pumped for information in person by the people most skilled at processing it: CIA analysts. Nada, the farmer’s daughter from Montana, had always wanted to live abroad. Now, she was getting her wish. Looking back, she had no idea what she was in for. If you gave her a hefty intelligence dossier, she could condense it down to its key elements in a matter of hours. Put her in range of a rocket launcher and she was less confident in her skill set.
NADA BAKOS: The career training that you go through for being an analyst has nothing to do with being in the field necessarily. I mean, you learn how to work with our operations colleagues. And so, you know how to travel. You know what happens in the station, so you know what to do when you go there. But we're not... typically we weren't in stations. It wasn't something that we would be assigned to, like an operations officer, prior to 9/11.
NARRATOR: Surely though, the great and venerable CIA wouldn’t allow a rookie analyst to fly into a war zone without some specialist training?
NADA BAKOS: Well, we had special training set up for everybody prior to going. But it wasn't robust as it is now, or even a year later after I went. We didn't have a whole this-is-what-you-do-in-a-war-zone kind of training. We had weapons training set up initially. So, handgun and long gun.
NARRATOR: Phew. That’s something, at least…
NADA BAKOS: I wasn't able to do it right before I first went because my boss's boss literally said to me and my supervisor: 'Well, I can't spare her for those extra days to go do that training. So I'd rather have her come back in a body bag then go do weapons training.’
NARRATOR: Well, that’s one management style. Put yourself in Nada’s shoes. You’re an analyst with about three years experience working in the CIA’s air-conditioned headquarters - a rookie, essentially. You’ve just been denied even basic weapons training. And you’re about to drop into one of the most dangerous places on the planet. How would you be feeling the night before you flew into a war zone?
NADA BAKOS: Anxious, but also kind of excited because I think now, looking back, I was an adrenaline junkie in a lot of ways. So, I mean, I was really ready for a new experience and I didn't know what to expect.
NARRATOR: Call it bravery, call it naivety. Either way, Nada had a feeling that she was about to have the experience of a lifetime. She wasn’t wrong. Late at night, about two months after the invasion had begun, she was on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC. Nada looked up at the hulking form of the Lockheed C-130 transport plane that was to carry her and a select group of colleagues into the heart of war. Her stomach churned. The C-130 is known to civilians as ‘the Hercules’. Insiders gave it a different nickname: ‘the trash hauler’.
NADA BAKOS: On the plane, I was in there with a lot of cargo. There's like a white pickup truck strapped down in front of me, just like a few feet from my knees. So we're just... It's like you're just riding in the belly of the plane, right? And it was not luxury. There was no bathroom. There was a bucket with a shower curtain, and it's a long ride so you don't really have a choice. So that was probably my first indicator that I'm not going to be living in any kind of luxury - not that I thought I would, but it was an eye-opener.
NARRATOR: It had been barely a month since those triumphant images of Saddam’s toppled statue had been splashed across newspapers around the world but if Nada had been expecting a liberator’s welcome, she had another thing coming.
NADA BAKOS: We all know now that Paul Bremer had made the decision with the administration to basically fire, essentially, whoever is working for the government. Like starting over completely - without an actual plan of: ‘How do we replace all this infrastructure and who's going to hold it together?’ - which is a huge problem right away. So if you don't have people providing water and electricity and who you call when things go wrong, there's no government interface that they had prior to the invasion. Things went downhill pretty fast.
NARRATOR: She would find out just how fast sooner rather than later. America’s enemies in Baghdad, including terrorist insurgents and what remained of Saddam’s military, took advantage of the chaos. They would not be going down without a fight.
NADA BAKOS: So as we approached Baghdad in the plane, I was able to sit in the jump seat because I was just really curious. I wanted to see, sit up front. How often do you get to do that on a plane? And I actually started noticing these... [what] looks like fireworks to me, but I figured it wasn't fireworks. As we were descending over Iraq and the pilot said: ‘Oh, well, that's just tracer fire.’ And I'm thinking: ‘Just tracer fire?’ I know we're in a big plane, but to me having anybody shooting at you, regardless of how big the bullets are, just doesn't seem very comforting.
NARRATOR: And comfort would remain in short supply throughout Nada’s stay ‘in country’.
NADA BAKOS: We were staying at the airport and it was in Saddam's - his VVIP terminal is what it was called. It was his personal terminal at the airport. So it was just a bunch of cots set up in the middle of the airport. And it was a small terminal specifically for him.
NARRATOR: The letters V-V-I-P suggests at least a touch of opulence. This wasn’t the case. Once, the terminal had been fabulously well-appointed, as befits a billionaire dictator. Now, with its windows shot through and dust coating the marble floors, it presented a shabbier face to its new occupants. Yes, living conditions for the CIA’s team of analysts left something to be desired. But nevertheless, Nada was keen to get to work.
NADA BAKOS: I ended up meeting the team probably about an hour after I got there when they showed me where to put all my stuff. And you know where to put your gun if you have a gun, which I didn't. And then we worked in these secure trailers, essentially, so they can't be penetrated by signals intelligence and everything. And I went in there, found a desk, asked where I could sit, and just started working.
NARRATOR: There was no time to bed in and see the sights, such as they were. Even though the war had already been waged in Iraq, the White House was conscious that its grounds for an invasion were flimsy at best.
NADA BAKOS: At that point, we're still having to look backward for the administration to see if there's any evidence to support why they invaded.
NARRATOR: When American boots first hit the ground in Baghdad, the Iraqi government had scattered. Saddam, and most of his officials, had either fled or been arrested by the US military. Those that had been captured could have access to information that would be crucial to Nada’s mission. In fact, that mission was twofold: to justify the war, and to find Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One, after all, might very well lead to the other.
NADA BAKOS: So we're having to ask all the detainees that they have at this point about every little detail that we know of and see what we can uncover. And then we're also looking at detainees that are being brought in by the US military - that they have sought either trying to do something against coalition forces or that they suspect they're a foreign fighter, or anything like that.
NARRATOR: Every day, the military was bringing in foot-soldiers and insurgents alongside members of the Iraqi government - bureaucrats, secretaries - and spies. It was Nada’s job to find out what they knew. But a one-size-fits-all approach to information-gathering is never going to work with such a diverse array of detainees. Think tactically. What do you have to factor into your plan of attack? How do you build a rapport?
NADA BAKOS: Yeah, it depended on the person, so Tariq Aziz obviously stands out to me... He's probably one of the most well-known politicians out of Iraq. My interactions with him were very different to the majority of the general detainees because he was very much of the mindset of: 'Of course, I'll talk to you. I'm captured.’ And so, the conversations with him were actually interesting because I could ask him all of the questions that I was just curious about. And it really didn't have a lot of value around intelligence, sometimes. [It was] just to keep the rapport because we wanted to make sure that - if there was something we needed to vet and analyze and have him confirm - we had cooperation, a cooperative relationship.
NARRATOR: For an analyst, former foreign minister Tariq Aziz was a dream detainee but he was still a prisoner. And a smart prisoner wants to know the limits of your relationship. Can he take advantage? What would you let him get away with?
NADA BAKOS: So there was a couple of times where I actually had to visit him in the hospital because he'd had a heat stroke. And we had a conversation about my name, Nada, being an Arabic name. But as I'm having this conversation with him, he takes off his hospital gown and opens a flap and all he has on is his underwear and starts just flapping it against himself. Yeah, acting like he's keeping himself cool.
NARRATOR: What would you do? One of your most high-ranking detainees is pushing against your authority. Do you walk out? Call a supervisor? Slap him?
NADA BAKOS: And he's really doing this to just try to see if he can get a reaction from me. And I didn't react at all. I mean, I'm sitting fairly close to him on another cot just across from him. And I just pretended like nothing was happening. He was an interesting guy.
NARRATOR: Through detainees like Tariq Aziz, Nada and her team were beginning to piece together intelligence on one of the US government’s most dangerous adversaries in Iraq: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But by August of 2003, Nada’s first stint in-country was over. Coming down the runway at Dulles Airport, she thought back to her experiences in Iraq and she thought about Zarqawi. In his twisted world, his star was on the rise, but the CIA’s progress had been slow so far. What was he planning? Where would he strike? A few days later, she had her answer.
NADA BAKOS: So prior to the invasion, he was working on building this poisons’ network that really didn't amount to much. Then, during the invasion, really his M.O. was bombings and vehicle bombs.
NARRATOR: On the afternoon of August 19th, a string of vehicle bombs exploded outside the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, local headquarters of the United Nations. Among at least 21 others, the UN’s special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed.
NADA BAKOS: So the UN bombing was unique in that it was one of the first multiple-vehicle bombs that we ended up seeing. And it was large. It was something that we hadn't seen on that scale, except for non-war zones.
NARRATOR: This was a statement of intent from Zarqawi. Colin Powell and the US government had given him a reputation to live up to. He was intent on doing just that. Ten days later, he struck again. This time, the target was a Shiite mosque. Up until now, his targets had been military or at least affiliated with the invading forces. Now, it seemed, his intent was far broader - and far more deadly.
NADA BAKOS: It became very clear after [that] he started just killing Iraqis in general, anybody in the general population that he didn't see as far as cooperating and working with him. He saw them as infidels and would communicate that.
NARRATOR: Back in Virginia, the CIA’s counterterrorism unit watched in horror. Nada and her team spent hours poring over endless pages of data on Zarqawi. Who was protecting him? Who could reveal his location?
NADA BAKOS: He's not super strategic, but he's good at mobilizing people. He's good at building loose network coalitions that he doesn't have, feel like he has to have his thumb on all the time. And he's like the opposite of bin Laden as a leader.
NARRATOR: Zarqawi’s hands-off approach, while somewhat haphazard, worked to his advantage.
NADA BAKOS: He's not super charismatic, but he gets people to trust him and he trusts them to conduct operations where he doesn't have to be intimately involved in everything at every time. So that's why he was probably pretty effective throughout the country - orchestrating several bombing attacks - as he's leaving it up to some of the local cells to be able to figure out when to pull it off. While they would talk about the target, he didn't necessarily always, always have to have a say over that.
NARRATOR: The terrorist leader’s limited contact with his foot soldiers made him fiendishly difficult to trace. Even if the military detained one of them, there was often little they could offer in the way of actual intelligence. By the beginning of 2004, Zarqawi’s newfound notoriety was earning him friends in low places.
NADA BAKOS: So the administration was looking for all these connections with al-Qaeda. Well, they're starting to help form one because Zarqawi now is on the set, the world stage, and al-Qaeda is paying attention. And now they want him to join their organization.
NARRATOR: The alliance that the US government had so feared had finally been realized. In fact, some would say that they spoke it into existence themselves. From now on, Zarqawi would be the self-styled leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. For Nada, Zarqawi’s newfound confidence was deeply disturbing. More than that, she was developing a fixation on the shadowy terrorist. Where would he strike next? How far would he go? In her role as an analyst, she was largely bogged down in the politics of the war, trying to find that elusive link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. All the while, innocent Iraqis and American servicemen were being killed, maimed, and wounded by Zarqawi’s improvised explosives. He couldn’t be allowed to continue.
NADA BAKOS: So I was getting a little tired of answering all these backward questions from the administration, just constantly trying to justify the invasion when, right now, we've now been dealing with Zarqawi blowing several things up and killing a lot of Iraqis, let alone coalition forces. So I was tired of just writing about it and wanted to do something about it. So I had the opportunity to move to the operations side and help start building a targeting team, which was still kind of a new type of job for the CIA.
NARRATOR: To catch Zarqawi, Nada would need to become a different kind of analyst altogether. Highly specialized and highly skilled, the CIA’s targeting teams use intelligence to paint a target on the back of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. But extracting a name or locating a safe house isn’t enough - you need to totally isolate your target. How do you disrupt their recruitment? How do you disrupt their flow of weaponry, supplies, and intel?
NADA BAKOS: It's really collecting intelligence on the time and place of a lot of those things, in addition to targeting his leadership, so that you can take out some of the more influential members. It's always at that time through working with US military and coalition forces. So you're either able to arrest them so that you can interrogate them, or else you're looking at situations where your only option at that point is to use kinetic action, which is some kind of bombing.
NARRATOR: Now heading up the targeting team in charge of eliminating Zarqawi and his organization, Nada set to work from her office at CIA headquarters. After hundreds of hours of painstaking research and analysis, she almost felt as if she had a window into the mind of her deadly prey.
NADA BAKOS: Because he started out as a street thug, he seemed even more strict about his version and interpretation of Sharia law and his version of Islam. It's like he was repenting for something that he'd been his whole life. And now he was this sanctimonious person who is going to save the world because his way - obviously - was the most important and most effective way to go about spreading Islam, his version of Islam.
NARRATOR: But even the most comprehensive study of the man couldn’t have prepared Nada for what Zarqawi did next. Nick Berg was a 26-year old telecommunications engineer from Pennsylvania who’d traveled to Iraq to rebuild radio towers. By the spring of 2004, he had been uncontactable for weeks. On the 11th of May, Nada heard a knock on her cubicle wall. A colleague. There was something she needed to see.
NADA BAKOS: We had to watch the Nick Berg video so that we could see if we could identify anybody in the room with him, and if one of them was Zarqawi.
NARRATOR: In the video, Berg wore an orange jumpsuit. He delivered a statement - his name, where he was from, the names of his family. Behind him stood five men dressed in black, wearing ski masks to cover their faces. Only one of Berg’s captors wanted to be recognized. Nada’s throat dried up. This was him. This was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He stepped forward to read a statement of his own. In it, he proclaimed that the killing of Nick Berg was to avenge the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers were committing horrific acts of abuse. He pulled a small knife from a scabbard on his chest. You’ve probably guessed what happened next.
NADA BAKOS: And at one point, I just had to get up and leave… By the time 2006 rolled around, I had just seen so many graphic videos that these guys had produced… there’s just only so much of that you can watch.
NARRATOR: The video was horrific, but it strengthened Nada’s resolve. The targeting team redoubled their efforts. Months later, in early 2005, an opportunity finally presented itself. Most normal Iraqis were exhausted by the constant bombings, abductions, and executions that had become part of daily life in the country. At great personal risk, one brave local had passed vital intelligence to an American soldier. During a narrow window in the dead of night, Zarqawi would be traveling in a white pickup truck on a stretch of highway to the north of the city. There was no time to lose. A CIA surveillance drone was scrambled and positioned over the highway. In the meantime, American Special Forces moved into an ambush position on the ground. From her office at Langley, Nada watched and waited. And waited. And waited. There was no sign of Zarqawi. Had he changed his plans? Had he been tipped off to the tip off? The military was on the verge of driving back to base. Nada’s heart sank and then it leaped into her throat. A white pickup truck roared into view.
NADA BAKOS: At that point, we had probably 80 percent confidence that it's him driving the pickup with another person inside the truck. And we then just kept the camera following him with a drone for some time.
NARRATOR: As Nada’s eyes followed Zarqawi down the road, she allowed herself a glimmer of hope. Could this be the moment she’d trained for? Suddenly, the pickup lurched forward.
NADA BAKOS: As soon as he was able to hear the drone then he sped up and he was probably driving 80, 90 miles an hour on some of these nonexistent dirt roads, essentially. So for a while there, it was touch and go. It's like, is he going to end up crashing? Are we actually going to be able to catch up to him and capture him? Because that would be ideal at this point. And to be able to interrogate him. So Zarqawi is driving very fast. And he ends up turning very quickly into this farmhouse area and into this shelter or this grove of trees. And so we lose coverage.
NARRATOR: Zarqawi was no bin Laden, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that the tree canopy would camouflage him from the drone’s camera. Surely a few well-placed Predator missiles would cut a swathe through the foliage.
NADA BAKOS: Inside Iraq, the drones that we had, they are not armed. They don't have missiles. So it's not that kind of situation. So we need Special Forces to catch up to him. And we're trying to keep, basically, the drone coverage so that we're keeping them at least contained in an area - because we are pretty sure they're going to run. They're going to go pick up and run because we haven't seen the pickup drive off anywhere at this point. And so we're continuing to do these concentric circles, trying to figure out: ‘Where are they running to?’ But this grove of trees is pretty big and they can make their way quite far just by having coverage.
NARRATOR: In the office, the atmosphere deflated. That glimmer of hope was fading fast. If Nada was blind, so were Special Forces. Could al-Zarqawi really get away?
NADA BAKOS: So by the time that US Special Forces pulled into this farm, al-Zarqawi had gotten out of the pickup, along with the person who was riding with him, and had taken off.
NARRATOR: Confirmation crackled through from the Special Forces radio. Zarqawi had escaped but the chase hadn’t been entirely fruitless.
NADA BAKOS: They had left everything behind - his laptops - in there. Everything's in there. He's got a cell phone. They wasted no time grabbing things, so we were at least able to capture that equipment.
NARRATOR: The military seized technology that could have harbored crucial intelligence about the terrorist’s network. So then, time to get to work. Wasn’t it?
NADA BAKOS: So the US military captures this equipment. Now, we all know right after 9/11 it seemed like the CIA wanted to be more military. The military wanted to be more like the CIA. And so there's all this bureaucratic infighting going on, a little bit. Well, the military does not have the capability and the specialists to crack this stuff open. They don't have people with expertise like the CIA - and even the FBI - so we kept asking for this equipment over, and over, and over, and we wouldn't get a response.
NARRATOR: This wasn’t just pettiness from the Department of Defense. It was recklessness too. Zarqawi knew that the Americans had his tech. It wouldn’t be long before he took steps to render any information stored on those machines completely useless. His contacts would be alerted. His safe houses would be moved. He wouldn’t risk another chase. The military held onto the equipment for two weeks. Eventually, Nada managed to arrange a meeting with General Stanley McChrystal, head of Special Operations Command. She needed answers, now. If they were just as capable as the CIA, what had they managed to uncover?
NADA BAKOS: We asked about the laptop in the middle of the meeting and the guy sitting next to McChrystal pipes up and says: ‘Well, we have determined that it's foreign-made.’ And literally, I'm about to lose my mind in this meeting because it's like: ‘Really? You've read, like, Toshiba or whatever on the top of the damn laptop? And that's it?’ And he's like: ‘Well, it's encrypted. We can't get in.’ It was everything I had to not just throw the chair at the screen at this point.
NARRATOR: To his credit, General McChrystal had not been aware of the situation prior to the meeting. An hour later, Nada had the laptop. To this day, she has her own theories about who was behind the delay.
NADA BAKOS: Around that time is when General Flynn came on. I don't know if you're familiar with General Michael Flynn.
NARRATOR: Ring any bells? More recently, Michael Flynn was, briefly, President [Donald] Trump’s national security adviser. In 2017, he resigned after admitting that he lied to the FBI during their investigation into Trump’s links to Russia.
NADA BAKOS: He was the head of the intelligence for Special Forces at the time, and he did not like the CIA. Still doesn't. Hates them because he had a conflict with the CIA in Afghanistan and basically was kicked out of the country because [in my opinion] he's really bad at his job. And I can't prove it, but I don't think it's a coincidence that that stuff wasn't handed over when it needed to be.
NARRATOR: Internal politics aside, what was on Zarqawi’s machine? A list of names? Weapons blueprints? The location of his next attack?
NADA BAKOS: Some really creepy videos around pornography, some bizarre photos of animals swallowing other animals. I mean, it's just some really weird stuff. I mean, it just sort of... it just really spoke to probably how screwed up mentally Zarqawi was as a human.
NARRATOR: Useless. Despite her best efforts, Nada had been thwarted. First by Zarqawi himself, and then by her own side. She kept working, tirelessly. But in that kind of environment, how long could you go on? By the end of 2005, seven high-profile leaders in Zarqawi’s organization had been killed or captured by American forces, acting on the intelligence that the counterterrorism center had procured. In relative terms, things were going well - until they weren’t. On February 21st, 2006, four men dressed in Iraqi military uniforms approached the Al-Askari Mosque in the ancient town of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. This was a sacred site for Shia Muslims, marking the final resting place of two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The men, ski masks concealing their identities, overpowered the Mosque’s nine-man guard. These were not Iraqi soldiers. As dawn broke over Samarra, the first explosion shook the mosque.
The second tore the golden roof off the iconic landmark, revealing a twisted, smoking mass of steel and concrete. The attack at the Al-Askari Mosque tipped the already broiling tensions between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis into full-blown sectarian violence. Militias flooded into Baghdad and, by the end of the week, an estimated 1,000 people were dead.
As the country spun out of control, the targeting of one, specific individual became less of a priority. By this stage, so many insurgents were operating within Iraq that Nada’s team seemed doomed to a kind of perpetual terrorist Whac-A-Mole. Even if Zarqawi was killed, Nada reasoned, someone else would take his place. She had done her best but it was time to go.
NADA BAKOS: So I was kind of the last original team member still working. There were a couple of people left, but they've moved on to at least other offices within that, working on the Iraq issue. And I was just burned out. I mean, I've been on this since 2002. I just needed to move on. It's not that common to stay in a war zone account that long and I should have, honestly, moved off a year before that. But I just still have this sense of responsibility of... we screwed this up as the United States. How do we fix this? [I] kept thinking, having this delusion, that I could somehow help.
NARRATOR: Not every spy story finishes in a blaze of glory. Not everyone gets their man. Spies are ordinary people like you and me. People dealing with some of the most stressful situations on the planet within systems that sometimes seem designed to curtail their effectiveness. That takes its toll.
NADA BAKOS: As an analyst, we didn't know so at the time but a lot of people who worked on some of the war zone issues ended up with PTSD. I think a lot of my... I don't know to what extent I would have felt this had I not spent time in Iraq, the intensity of it.
NARRATOR: Over the course of three years in and out of Iraq, Nada had gathered mountains of intelligence on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sacrificing her mental health in the process. On the 7th of June 2006, as she settled into a new role at the CIA, it finally paid off.
NADA BAKOS: I was actually on a work trip with some colleagues for my next job. And I walked down into this hotel lobby and they said: ‘Look at the TV. Look at the TV.’ And there was this cry of: ‘Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq.’
NARRATOR: Think about it. You’ve spent most of your career chasing down one man - gathering data, patiently observing, waiting for him to slip. You thought this moment might never come. How would it feel to know that he was gone, but that you weren’t part of the endgame? Jealous? Bitter?
NADA BAKOS: I was never more relieved than when I found out that they actually killed Zarqawi because he was such a true monster. He had killed so many Iraqis and so many innocent people.
NARRATOR: Some things go beyond professional pride. Sometimes knowing that justice has been done is reward enough. Today, Nada has mixed emotions about her time in the counterterrorism center.
NADA BAKOS: I had reservations prior to the invasion. It just didn't make sense to me. It's like: ‘Why are we spending all this effort and time and money on Iraq when we've got this issue over here with al-Qaeda? We're looking at a stateless actor and we're invading all these countries.’ [It] didn't make any sense. But we're all professionals. We do what we need to do within the role that we have. I wouldn't have done anything they asked me to do that was illegal, but I was doing the job that I was hired for. So I went also. I had this delusion that maybe I could make some of this less awful, but maybe I did, maybe I didn't.
NARRATOR: And today, Nada is still trying to make a difference.
NADA BAKOS: The last couple of years [I] have actually really focused on extremism online and how to mitigate those organizations and individuals from having an impact. And what do social media companies need to do as far as policies and engineering products to mitigate some of those tactics that extremist organizations use?
NARRATOR: In 2020, Nada’s crosshairs swing across a huge variety of threats from white supremacists to state-funded terror groups. The targets change. The mission stays the same.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another debrief 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.
In 1999, 30-year-old Nada Bakos moved from Montana to Washington, DC, to join the CIA as an analyst. Within years Nada found herself on the frontline of America’s war against Islamic extremists, helping to determine if Iraq had a relationship with 9/11 and al-Qaeda. She was also instrumental in finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.