An Ex-Insurgent's Covert War on Al Qaeda in Iraq

The American operatives were openly skeptical when the sheik said they might find a valuable ally in Abu Ahmed. The Americans knew who the young man was: a longtime insurgent organizer and spiritual leader. U.S. forces had been trying to kill or capture him almost since the Iraqi resistance began. But the sheik, a powerful tribal leader from Anbar province, knew Abu Ahmed better than the Americans did. "They said, 'He's a terrorist'," the sheik recalls. "I said, 'No, don't judge him—you can use him'."

The sheik was right. For more than a year, Abu Ahmed and the Americans have been indispensable partners in a covert war against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans provide the resources, while Abu Ahmed provides the inside knowledge he gained from his years with the insurgency. Their teamwork has turned, captured or (in a few cases) killed dozens of extremists. "Is it strange to go from wanting to kill [Americans] to wanting to work for them?" the slender, scholarly young Sunni says. "Definitely, yes." But Iraq's hope for a lasting peace depends on Abu Ahmed and other Iraqis like him. "He's an ace in the hole" for the Americans, says one U.S. official familiar with Abu Ahmed's role in the shadow war. "He's the real deal."

Abu Ahmed and the sheik are unsung heroes in the Iraqi people's fight to reclaim their country from the jihadists. To use their proper names or recount their stories in too much detail would be to put their lives at risk. Fighters on the battle's other fronts have received far more coverage: the Sunni tribal leaders whose Awakening Councils first rebelled against Al Qaeda's reign of terror, the Americans whose troop surge finally rolled back the warring sectarian factions, the Sons of Iraq whose neighborhood patrols have helped to keep the peace since then.

While they have all helped to reduce Al Qaeda's grip on Iraq, the group still has a solid foothold in the country. That's what Abu Ahmed, the sheik and possibly hundreds of other anonymous Iraqis are fighting for: to eliminate the last vestiges of the extremist group. "The hive is still there," says Abu Ahmed. "If you kill the swarm but leave the queen, you've done nothing." (Key details of his story and his cooperation with the Americans are confirmed by well-placed Iraqis as well as by two U.S. officials, one of them recently retired. Both Americans are familiar with Abu Ahmed's case but forbidden to speak on the record.)

In many ways Abu Ahmed's story is also Iraq's story. His transformation traces an arc followed by many of his countrymen, from all-out war against the Americans to revulsion against Al Qaeda's psychopathic ideology. Abu Ahmed personifies what went wrong in Iraq, and then went right, but could still go terribly wrong again.

From childhood Abu Ahmed was drawn to religion. As a teenager in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, he gravitated to the Salafist branch of Sunni Islam. Often known as Wahhabis (a term many of them consider derogatory), the Salafists preach a revivalist version of Islam, calling for a return to what they consider the faith's original beliefs and practices. In general, Salafists reject Western-style secularism and permissiveness, and they particularly abhor what Abu Ahmed calls the "superstition and lies" of Shiite Islam.

Young Abu Ahmed studied hard in his Qur'an classes and in due course became a teacher. He took the most promising of his young students on meandering road trips into the backcountry of southern Iraq, visiting with Bedouins in the desert and sharing meals with the poorest of the poor. But their travels caught the attention of Saddam's police, who repeatedly jailed the young teacher as a suspected political agitator. His father visited him every week with food, fresh clothes and money for bribes, so the guards would spare Abu Ahmed from the prison's weekly mass punishments. At night in his cell the young man brooded on the evils of Saddam's regime. "His injustice filled Iraq," Abu Ahmed says of the dictator.

Nevertheless, Abu Ahmed didn't welcome the American troops who overthrew Saddam in the spring of 2003. Many hard-line Salafists consider it a sacrilege for outside forces to occupy Muslim soil—as Osama bin Laden once objected to American troops being based in Saudi Arabia. In May 2003, Abu Ahmed attended a meeting of about 50 Salafist imams and religious scholars at a house a few miles south of Baghdad. They agreed on a threefold plan to prepare for war against the Americans: gather arms from Saddam's storage depots, collect money left behind by the regime and steal intelligence files from government offices. Later that month, on May 20, the fledgling insurgency struck its first blow against the Americans, ambushing a U.S. military unit in Baghdad.

Since he had no military training or experience, Abu Ahmed focused on logistics: supplying and transporting weapons and money, organizing safe houses and coordinating the operations of different cells. His wife drove when he had guns to deliver—the Americans were less likely to stop and search a car with women or children inside. "Our marriage was like that from the beginning," Abu Ahmed says. "She was often afraid; she knew the car was full of weapons, but she did that with me."

By the middle of 2005, Abu Ahmed had risen to the top tiers of one of Iraq's best-equipped resistance groups, with hundreds of fighters battling American forces throughout Iraq. But the dangers of his work made him practically a hermit. He stayed away from public events and gatherings, and only one of his brothers and a couple of friends knew where he lived.

Nevertheless, his life then was relatively pleasant compared with what it became after Feb. 22, 2006. That was when a gang of men blew up one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, the golden-domed Al Askariya mosque in Samarra. The resulting sectarian blood feud fueled a merciless Shiite backlash, which in return drove thousands of Sunnis into the arms of Al Qaeda.

In mere weeks, Abu Ahmed's insurgent group hemorrhaged two thirds of its fighting force. "We lost control of our people," he says. When the group's Saudi bankrollers realized what was happening, they cut off funding and supplies. "They wanted to prevent a sectarian fight," Abu Ahmed recalls. "They had experience in Afghanistan, and what they did was wise." The Saudis remembered the factional warfare that had torn the Afghan mujahedin apart in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, and they had no desire to see such a bloodbath right next door in Iraq.

They may have been wise, but they were also too late. In the midst of the violence, a very senior Qaeda leader ordered Abu Ahmed to carry out a recruiting and fundraising mission outside Iraq. Abu Ahmed said no—and Al Qaeda's killers responded by decapitating his father and brothers. "Everything was out the window after that," Abu Ahmed says. Within three weeks, he made sure the killers' own heads had been chopped off. Senior Qaeda men contacted him personally to apologize. But Abu Ahmed didn't buy their story, and he refused their offers of compensation. "They told me, 'If you hadn't killed [your father's killers], we would have'," he says. "But I was convinced they had planned to do this." He set off on his own—fatherless and brotherless, pursued as a terrorist by the Americans and no longer able to trust the insurgency's fiercest supporters.

But he wasn't as alone as he thought. He had first met his friend the sheik back in 2005. Even then the older man had no use for Al Qaeda: all that brutality is bad for business, as he sees it. Although Abu Ahmed was "stuck in the fighting," the sheik nevertheless saw the young insurgent as a potential ally. "I didn't try to convince [Abu Ahmed] directly," he recalls. "I had to be smarter than that."

Whenever possible, the sheik arranged for Abu Ahmed to meet with Iraqi widows and orphans, so the young insurgent could get a close look at the human cost of warfare, and urged him to do more humanitarian work. It was slow going, but the encouragement began to take root. The sheik appealed to Abu Ahmed's sense of nationalism. "I said, 'We don't want the Americans to stay here forever, but what we have now is bad'." The sheik was convinced that Al Qaeda's sectarian war would end with Iran stepping in to defend Iraq's Shiite majority. The only alternative to living under Iranian rule was to help the Americans stop Al Qaeda. "I told him, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend—for the time being'."

One day in mid-2007, the sheik sat down in Baghdad with a group of Americans in civilian clothes to talk about getting rid of Al Qaeda in Iraq. "We started to discuss the future, and our talk came around to names," he says. The Americans were interested in Abu Ahmed, but they were more interested in capturing him than working with him. "They asked what did I think. I said, 'We can't kill all the terrorists.' They knew I knew Abu Ahmed. I said I would convince him."

Negotiations between the former insurgent and the U.S. operatives continued via intermediaries for months until they finally met face to face in late 2007. Abu Ahmed wasn't sure what to think of the men. They expressed surprise at his appearance, saying they had imagined he was at least 10 years older. They had intelligence photos supposedly of him—all showing someone else. They told him three aliases they had for him. All three were wrong. Abu Ahmed took a liking to his new acquaintances anyway. He could work with them, he decided. And they clearly needed his help.

Abu Ahmed has dedicated himself ever since to tracking down the purveyors of Al Qaeda's toxic ideas in Iraq. He keeps a little book in which he lists individuals and their roles in the Qaeda hierarchy. Some are old friends; others are former students; and still others are foreign jihadists he got to know in his insurgent years. He goes to talk to them, one by one, and tries to get them to see Al Qaeda's corrosive influence not only on the resistance effort but also on Islam itself. More often than not, they eventually agree to join him, he says. Sometimes it takes more than one visit. He recently sat down at a house outside Baghdad with a senior insurgent plotter and organizer. "He is very dangerous," Abu Ahmed says. "But he also listens." At last word, the man was still thinking it over.

Money can be a powerful incentive. Abu Ahmed says his friend the sheik has put up roughly $1.5 million—on top of an undisclosed sum from the Americans—to attract recruits to the fight against Al Qaeda. The cash has helped him wean away dozens of top-tier members from the insurgency. "All I'm doing is correcting the holy warriors' souls," he says. "Poverty is more dangerous than occupation."

But in some cases Abu Ahmed finds that all his arguments are useless. "I always have a backup plan," he says. Sometimes his American friends have helped him persuade incorrigibles to flee the country, using what Abu Ahmed calls "instruments that will make them fear"—a simple phone call, for instance, in which reams of personal data are relayed back to an unrepentant individual, along with the implicit message that he could easily be found and eliminated. If gentler methods don't work, Abu Ahmed may give the Americans the necessary information to have the subject arrested.

But the worst offenders can't be allowed to live, Abu Ahmed says—not Al Qaeda's foot soldiers but its propagandists and ideologues. "The ones who need to be killed are the ones who create the thoughts," says Abu Ahmed. "The ones who need to be killed give the justification for the thoughts, and the ones who need to be killed are the ones who publish the thoughts, because they have reached the point of no return." At last count, Abu Ahmed and his American partners had gone through 63 names in his book. "Five of them we decided to kill," he says.

Abu Ahmed won't go into detail on the subject except to mention two recent "strategic victories" that he says Al Qaeda will need months to recover from. American officials in Baghdad say the pace of victories against Qaeda leaders has picked up in recent months, with the help of up-to-date information from a growing network of former insurgents. In the past year or so, Abu Ahmed estimates that he has recruited about 70 former insurgents. His friend the sheik directs a group of about 20 men like Abu Ahmed—and he's hardly the only sheik working with the Americans. "We do think [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is facing serious problems," says a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Killing their leaders does make it harder for them, especially when you kill their financial people."

Even so, the extremists are continuing their fight. Abu Ahmed says Al Qaeda in Iraq maintains a "security wing" of high-ranking, fully committed "consultants" who direct its Iraqi operations from relative safety. They're the most dangerous of all, Abu Ahmed says. He estimates there are about 20 altogether, based in Iraq and nearby countries. U.S. officials won't confirm specific numbers but agree that the remaining senior Qaeda leaders are few enough to be counted.

Al Qaeda's surviving main force appears to be effectively cornered, the Americans say. The extremists are making their stand in Mosul. "Geographically and ethnically, it works for them," says one senior U.S. official familiar with the situation. "It's close to the Syrian border, close to supply lines; it has a multiethnic population where they can hide, and where Iraqi security forces have not been that successful. [Qaeda operatives] come down-valley from there to Baghdad. We see increased desperation in what they're doing."

But there are signs that the extremists are adapting. "We've heard that they're trying to rebrand themselves by using other names," says the American official, "and we see evidence that they're trying to recapture some status." The group has mostly shifted its focus back to fighting the Americans, instead of attacking Iraqi targets such as government offices and Shiite mosques (although at least 60 people were killed in bombings last week during the Shiite holiday of Arbaeen). Abu Ahmed heard much the same thing recently when he visited an acquaintance outside Baghdad who has not renounced the insurgency. "Al Qaeda came back here," Abu Ahmed says the man told him. "There is an agreement that we will not interfere with them if they do not interfere with us." Abu Ahmed says the group has made similar peace deals with Sons of Iraq commanders in parts of Baghdad, promising to refrain from violence in their neighborhoods in exchange for safe quarter.

And Al Qaeda remains a threat despite its drastically reduced circumstances. Abu Ahmed says the group maintains car-bomb factories in some places and arms caches in others. "Even if the areas they have are few, terrorism does not need a country," he quotes another insurgent acquaintance as saying. "You only need a hundred meters to conduct a terrorism operation." Abu Lina (the nom de guerre of another active insurgent) says the group's leaders are lying low while they focus on gaining new members among impressionable young Iraqis: "They spend their time talking, recruiting, convincing."

There's no shortage of willing listeners. Many Sunnis retain at least vestiges of the nationalist fervor that fueled the insurgency. Abu Ahmed says he occasionally has arguments with his wife about his decision to work with the Americans. She still blames the U.S.-led military occupation for the suffering their country has endured since the war began. Some of Abu Ahmed's old acquaintances have temporarily quit the insurgency, only to melt back into the cycle of violence as seamlessly as they left it. "A lot of them are like chameleons," he says. He's also seen entire groups of former insurgents sell their fighting skills "like goods in a market" to the highest bidder, like the hired guns who once made Haifa Street one of the most dangerous in Baghdad.

Abu Ahmed says he only hopes to save as many lives as he has to take. He likes working with the Americans. "They are very respectful and understanding," he says. "They're very smart." He was impressed that they worked on public holidays. At first, he admits, he was even a little intimidated by their abilities and their curiosity about Iraqi tradition, culture and history. "Whatever I tell them, whether it's small or not, they analyze it because they know they'll need it for another time." He remains proud of the work he did in fighting the occupation. He's no less proud of what he's doing now. "Every phase of life has its own logic," he says. "Every fruit ripens at its own pace."