Just after midnight, the commandos began clearing the compound room by room, pausing only to blow through doors, walls, and barricades, the explosions rattling windows throughout the quiet Pakistani neighborhood. In a firefight at the main house, they killed three men and a woman, then climbed to the third floor, where they found in the darkness the tall, bearded man who had been America’s sworn enemy for years.
The Osama bin Laden manhunt was one of nearly a dozen in U.S. military history. What happens when an entire army goes after a single man?
Half a world away, the president and his advisers huddled in the White House Situation Room. Their video feed of the commandos’ mission didn’t capture what was going on inside the house, and for the previous 25 minutes, agonizing silence had filled the room as they waited for news. Then, at approximately 1:10 a.m. Pakistan time, Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta heard a familiar voice on the command net.
“Geronimo!” announced Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command. A few moments later, McRaven declared, “Geronimo, EKIA!”
As the world now knows, Geronimo was SEAL Team 6’s signal that it had located and killed Osama bin Laden during its daring raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1. The choice was a nod to history and the U.S. military’s first manhunt, when army cavalry chased the renegade Apache across Mexico for 16 months in the mid-1880s.
Soldiers have been hunting down enemies of the state since antiquity. Following the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, Alexander the Great’s army pursued Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, all the way from Mosul to eastern Iran. For nearly 20 years after the Second Punic War, the Romans attempted to kill Hannibal as he fled into exile.
The United States itself has deployed the military 11 times to kill or capture a single man. American forces have mounted hunts in sweltering jungles and frigid mountain ranges, desolate deserts and teeming urban labyrinths. These campaigns have sparked tactical and technological innovations, including the first mechanized infantry assault, the first dive-bomb attack, and the first combat deployment of Stealth bombers.
In all but three of these expeditions, U.S. forces got their man. Surprisingly, human intelligence typically provided the key to success, not superiority in technology or numbers. Where U.S. troops can work with indigenous forces and deny cross-border safe havens, they’re more likely to catch their prey.
Yet catching or killing the target doesn’t guarantee strategic success. The pursuit often forces the fugitive to go to ground, which can render him strategically ineffective and create space for others—including lieutenants, splinter groups, or rivals—to step in. Ultimately, a campaign’s strategic outcome hinges chiefly on whether the manhunt disrupts or destroys the target’s support network.
Here are five of the U.S. military’s biggest and most celebrated manhunt operations. Not all of them snared the prize, but each account is filled with drama, tragedy, courage, and larger-than-life figures.
* * *
‘I’ll Kill You If It Takes 50 Years’
On May 17, 1885, the Apache war captain Geronimo and 120 Chiricahua Apaches broke out from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, triggering mass hysteria and the first strategic manhunt in U.S. military history. Geronimo had for a long time been at the center of bloody Indian rebellions against settlers in the Southwest and Mexico. The violence had been so persistent that even the battle-hardened general William Tecumseh Sherman had recommended abandoning Arizona altogether.
Brigadier General George Crook, commander of the Department of Arizona, led the hunt to find Geronimo. Crook was a brilliant Indian fighter, having proved himself during the 1872–1873 Tonto Basin campaign and in the 1882 Sierra Madres campaign against the Apaches. On June 11, 1885, he sent roughly 3,000 troops—three-quarters of them cavalry—to seal the Mexican border. He also deployed two columns of cavalry into Mexico, one on each flank of the Sierra Madres.
Crook’s forces managed to score early tactical victories, but the Chiricahuas’ mobility and intimate knowledge of the terrain limited the Americans’ success. The campaign, as Southwest historian Robert Utley said, “was an exhausting and largely profitless struggle against heat, insects, hunger, thirst, and fatigue.”
In early January 1886, however, Captain Emmet Crawford’s scouts came across a Chiricahua trail that led to Geronimo’s band, holed up in a range known to Mexicans as the Devil’s Backbone. Crawford drove south, pushing his men 48 hours without sleep, and surprised Geronimo’s camp just before daylight on January 10.
Although the Indians escaped without casualties, Crawford captured Geronimo’s supplies—a terrible blow in the harsh winter. Geronimo signaled that he wanted to surrender, but the next day a force of Mexican irregulars attacked the American camp (though it’s not clear why). As Geronimo sat on a hillside laughing, Crawford was killed.
Geronimo still indicated that he might surrender and promised talks in “two moons.”?In March, he and Crook sat down for negotiations. If the Apaches refused to return to the reservation, the general told the warrior, “I’ll keep after you and kill the last one, if it takes 50 years.” Once again, Geronimo promised he would surrender. This time, however, he reneged after a two-day drinking binge. Crook, with Washington second-guessing his moves, resigned and relinquished command to Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles.
Miles was vain, pompous, and unabashedly ambitious; Theodore Roosevelt later called him a “brave peacock.” He received 2,000 reinforcements and deployed 5,000 troops—one quarter of the entire U.S. army—against Geronimo and his remaining 20 warriors. Miles planned constant pursuit to pressure Geronimo and organized an elite command—“one hundred of the strongest and best soldiers that could be found,” he said.
On May 5, 1886, a column of 105 men under Captain Henry W. Lawton of the 4th Cavalry left Fort Huachuca, in southeastern Arizona. Geronimo’s trail was cold, and the operation quickly degenerated into a trial of endurance as the command marched 1,396 miles over two months, nearly all through rough, high mountains.
With his ambitions imperiled, Miles drastically adjusted his strategy. First, nearly 400 Chiricahua who had abandoned the war were exiled to Florida. If they aren’t sent away, Miles warned, “their boys of today will become the Geronimos of a few years hence.”
The general also commanded First Lieutenant Charles Gatewood to find Geronimo and offer new terms of surrender. Accompanied by a small party, Gatewood crossed into Mexico on July 19, then linked up with Lawton’s column about 250 miles south of the border on August 3. Some two weeks later, farmers told Lawton’s men that Geronimo was about 75 miles to the northwest, near the town of Fronteras. Gatewood’s small detachment rode nonstop that night and the next day, finally picking up Geronimo’s trail and then, days later, catching up to him.
After all the months of pursuit, the drama concluded quietly. In a tense conference, Gatewood delivered Miles’s terms. The next morning, Geronimo announced his band would surrender.
On September 7, the Apaches were loaded onto trains as the 4th Cavalry band played “Auld Lang Syne.” That marked the collapse of the last significant Indian resistance to Western settlement. It is unclear which played a bigger role in achieving the mission’s strategic goal of establishing peace—Geronimo’s capture or the exile of the Chiricahuas from the Southwest.
Though eventually extended some freedoms, Geronimo was held as a prisoner for the rest of his life. Time transformed him from monster to legend. In 1905, at the request of newly elected president Theodore Roosevelt, he was brought to Washington to ride in the inaugural parade. As Geronimo came down Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback, people hollered “Hooray for Geronimo!” and threw their hats in the air.
* * *
Pancho Villa 1916–1917
Patton’s Big Shootout
Thirty years after Geronimo’s capture, U.S. forces once again entered Mexico with the mission to capture or kill one man. On March 9, 1916, the legendary Mexican revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa led 500 men in a cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico. His “Villistas” rode into the desert town wildly shooting and shouting “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!” In three hours, Villa’s men killed 17 Americans and wounded 7—the first attack on U.S. soil by a foreign military force since the War of 1812.
To forestall Congress from declaring war on Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the army to pursue Villa. The army’s Southern Department was commanded by Major General Frederick Funston, who 15 years earlier had led the daring raid that captured the Philippine insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo [see “Other U.S. Manhunts”].
But Funston was known for starting brushfires in the media—a risky trait in a politically sensitive operation. So the War Department issued orders for Brigadier General John J. Pershing, the venerable 55-year-old veteran of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War—to lead the expedition into Mexico.
Pershing’s command, known as the Punitive Expedition, initially consisted of three brigades totaling 4,800 men, as well as a squadron of eight airplanes. He assumed Villa had taken refuge somewhere in Chihuahua, a province roughly the size of Virginia and the Carolinas combined and dominated by the Sierra Madres, where deep canyons offered countless hideouts.
On March 16, the Punitive Expedition entered Mexico in two parallel columns, just as General Crook had done in 1885; the columns were to converge at Colonia Dublan, about 125 miles into Mexico. The expedition’s 2nd Brigade covered 123 miles in its first two days—the longest march ever by the U.S. Cavalry, and a last hurrah for the American soldier on horseback.
Pershing deployed two of his exhausted regiments down two approaching valleys to reach the area near San Miguel de Babicora, where Villa was reportedly hiding, from the east and west simultaneously. The 7th U.S. Cavalry, George Custer’s former regiment, marched under extreme conditions, with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees during the day and plummeting to below freezing at night.
Villa, it turned out, was nowhere near Babicora. But Colonel George A. Dodd soon learned that the bandit had fought Mexican forces at Guerrero, in the heart of the Sierra Madres. His men marched through the night—without a map or local guides, Dodd took a route that doubled the distance—and emerged on a bluff overlooking the town early the next morning, March 29. In the ensuing fight, at least 30 Villistas were killed while the 7th Cavalry suffered only five wounded.
Meanwhile, Villa had been shot in an assassination attempt during the previous day’s battle against government forces. His leg in a splint and wild with pain, he had been loaded into a wagon and carried out of Guerrero just hours before the 7th Cavalry arrived. If Dodd had known the direct route to town, he probably would have encountered Villa on the road.
This was the first of several near misses during the early days of the Punitive Expedition. Still, the Americans scored victories over Villa’s forces and killed several of his subordinates, including General Julio Cárdenas, the commander of Villa’s elite bodyguard.
Cárdenas was found by a tall, thin, reedy-voiced aide to Pershing—Lieutenant George S. Patton, then just 30 years old. On May 14 Patton and a handful of men set out in three cars to buy corn for the horses. Patton played a hunch about where Cárdenas might be hiding and approached a hacienda near the town of Rubio.
Three men attempted to flee, and a fierce firefight followed. When the shooting was over, Patton and his men left with three corpses strapped to their car—among them Cárdenas.
Despite these successes, Villa continued to elude Pershing. The general grew frustrated by pro-Villa Mexican soldiers who interfered with the hunt whenever possible. He told a friend, “I feel just a little bit like a man looking for a needle in a haystack with an armed guard standing over the stack forbidding [him] to look in the hay.”
The discord with Mexico came to a head on June 21 when U.S. and Mexican forces met near the town of Carrizal. The Americans foolishly charged the entrenched Mexicans, at the cost of 14 killed, 12 wounded, and 24 captured. With the two countries moving toward war, President Wilson called a halt to the hunt for Villa in order to defuse tensions. To give the Mexican army an incentive to fight Villa, Wilson left Pershing’s troops—now 10,000 strong—to idle in the sweltering Mexican desert. Seven months later, however, Mexican forces defeated the rogue at Jimenez, finally giving the president the pretext for withdrawing the expedition.
On February 5, Pershing’s troops recrossed the border into New Mexico, to enthusiastic cheers. They had scattered Villa’s forces, killing 203, wounding 108, and capturing 19 of the 485 Villistas who had attacked Columbus. Although Pershing’s troops did not get their man, Villa was never again a serious threat to U.S. security. In 1923, he was gunned down. Authorities never definitively concluded who orchestrated the assassination, in part because the bandit had so many enemies.
* * *
Augusto Sandino 1927–1932
‘A Marine Never Surrenders’
The manhunt that arguably most resembles the pursuit of Osama bin Laden is the nearly six-year campaign to catch Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan rebel who promised to “drink Yankee blood” and kept the Marines at bay by holing up in a mysterious, Tora Bora–like mountain stronghold.
Sandino emerged as a threat to the United States after a brutal civil war in his country between Liberal and Conservative factions—the Conservatives having long enjoyed military backing from American officials. Signed May 12, 1927, the U.S.-brokered Tipitapa Agreement committed U.S. Marines to an unprecedented peacekeeping operation in which they would guarantee the ceasefire, supervise elections, and train a new, nonpartisan Guardia Nacional. Sandino, however, refused to disarm. Although offered a governorship, he claimed he was “the one called to defend the ideals of [his] country,” and withdrew his men into the rugged mountains of Nueva Segovia, near the Honduran frontier.
U.S. officials initially did not see Sandino as a threat. He had not opposed American intervention, and since the Tipitapa accord, desertions had left him with fewer than 30 men under arms. Yet within a month of the treaty, Sandino began kidnapping Europeans and plundering mines—both of which attracted volunteers and cash to his cause. On July 2, Brigadier General Logan Feland, the Marine commander, dispatched 80 Marines and 74 Nicaraguan volunteers to disarm the rebel. But Sandino struck first. After midnight July 16, he attacked the remote Marine outpost at Ocotal with about 560 men, promising his troops they could loot freely. The Sandinistas besieged the Marines in Ocotal’s city hall, and at dawn requested their surrender. Captain Gilbert Hatfield replied, “Go to hell. A Marine never surrenders. We remain here until we die or are captured.”
The battle continued under a tropical downpour. At about 10:15 a.m., the skies cleared and two Marine patrol planes on a recon flight saw the village under siege. Four hours later, five Curtiss biplanes appeared and began history’s first dive-bombing attack. By their second pass, the battle was over, with roughly 300 Sandinistas killed against two Marine casualties and three Guardia wounded.
After this debacle and other setbacks, Sandino retreated into the jungle and adopted guerrilla tactics. In October his men downed a Marine plane in the hills west of the Jícaro River, in north-central Nicaragua. Its two airmen were captured and executed, and Sandino then ambushed the rescue columns, killing seven.
Marine commanders hoped to regain the initiative by attacking Sandino’s mountain fortress, El Chipote, whose location was secret. On November 23, aircraft discovered it about five miles northeast of the ridge where the Sandinistas had mauled the Marine rescue columns. A Marine officer described El Chipote as “a well-fortified mountain with a great many trenches.” The U.S. air squadron attacked it almost daily, but the heavily wooded terrain sheltered Sandino’s troops.
When it became clear that Sandino could not be bombed off El Chipote, two patrols totaling nearly 200 men made a two-pronged assault. The guerrillas ambushed both columns, which retreated into the abandoned hamlet of Quilalí. In a situation that would recur for American troops in Mogadishu 65 years later, the battered Marines were besieged by an insurgent force more than twice their size. An airfield was hastily constructed on Quilalí’s main street, and for three days, First Lieutenant Christian Schilt made 10 landings and takeoffs under heavy enemy fire to deliver medicine and ammunition and evacuate the wounded. Although Schilt was awarded the Medal of Honor, the offensive was a failure, and the columns were withdrawn.
Once again, the Marines changed tactics, opting for a combined air-infantry assault. While U.S. aircraft pounded El Chipote, more than 300 Marines massed at San Albino for the final assault on Sandino’s stronghold. This detachment advanced cautiously, directing mortar and grenade fire on every suspected ambush site. It took six days to move the three miles from El Chipote’s base to the summit. When a patrol reached the crest, it found the earthworks occupied by straw-filled dummies. The rebels had fled.
The Marines pursued Sandino for four more years. Although they captured or killed many of his lieutenants, the people of the frontier provinces loved the rebel and guarded his whereabouts. Whenever the Americans drew close, Sandino slipped into the mountainous jungle and across the border into Honduras, which the Marines didn’t have the jurisdiction to enter.
On December 31, 1930, eight Marines repairing a telegraph wire were ambushed and killed. With the American public reeling from the Great Depression, the Hoover administration brought the hunt to an end. The morning after the inauguration of a new Nicaraguan president in January 1933, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines sailed for home. One hundred thirty-six Marines had died during the campaign. Though technically a failure, it achieved the strategic goals that had prompted the United States to intervene. The pursuit of Sandino kept his operations confined to remote areas where he could not seriously disrupt the 1928 and 1932 Nicaraguan elections. And although far from morally ideal, the U.S.-created Guardia maintained Nicaragua as an American ally for nearly 50 years in the face of first Nazi and then communist infiltration of Central America.
Ultimately, Sandino could not escape a brutal ending. Though he signed a truce with the government after the Marine withdrawal, the Guardia and Sandino’s followers continued to wrangle. On February 21, 1934, Sandino, his brother, and two former Sandinista generals were arrested and executed on orders from the head of the Guardia, Anastasio Somoza García, the future president and dictator of the country. Sandino’s legacy proved a problem for the United States: The Sandinista socialist political party created by his followers would overthrow the Somoza family in 1979 and rule until 1990, despite the best efforts of President Ronald Reagan and arms middleman Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel.
* * *
Manuel Noriega 1989–1990
Chasing Pure Evil
Historical revisionism has been kind to many who’ve been targeted by U.S. manhunts. Hollywood romanticized Geronimo and Pancho Villa, while Sandino became an icon to anti-American leftists. But it is difficult to find anything redeemable in General Manuel Noriega. Of his first meeting with the Panamanian dictator, in 1983, Colin Powell said, “I immediately had the crawling sense that I was in the presence of evil.”
Although U.S. intelligence agencies relied on Noriega, he was no friend to the United States. He counted terrorists as allies, armed Marxist rebels in El Salvador, and passed classified information to Warsaw Pact states. Thanks to Noriega’s ties to Colombia’s Medellín cartel, two U.S. grand juries indicted him on February 4, 1988, on drug trafficking and racketeering charges. Noriega responded with a campaign to harass U.S. military personnel and dependents stationed in Panama. Nearly two years later, Noriega stood wielding a machete before his puppet National Assembly and declared Panama at war with the United States. The next night Panamanian troops opened fire on four off-duty American officers—killing a Marine lieutenant—and detained and abused a navy lieutenant and his wife.
President George H. W. Bush convened a war council on December 17, 1989, in his office beneath the large oil painting The Peacemakers, depicting Abraham Lincoln with his top military leaders near the end of the Civil War. His primary objective: Get Noriega. Within 56 hours, 11,000 airborne troops were en route to join the 13,000 soldiers and Marines already in Panama. H-hour was set for 1 a.m. on December 20.
Invasion commander General Maxwell Thurman first wanted to cut off the strongman’s means of escape from Panama City. Two two-man Navy SEAL teams swam under Balboa Harbor and planted explosives in the propeller shaft of Noriega’s fast patrol boat. At almost exactly H-hour, the explosion ripped a hole in the boat, sinking it. Meanwhile, SEAL Team 4 came ashore in the city’s Paitilla Airport to disable Noriega’s personal Learjet. The price was steep: Four commandos were killed and eight more wounded as a Panamanian guard caught a platoon on the open tarmac. The unexpected casualties to the elite force shocked the special operations community and proved controversial for years.
In addition to cutting off avenues of escape, the Americans wanted to destroy the elite units of the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) that were trained to rescue Noriega in the event of a coup. The 2nd and 3rd Ranger Battalions conducted an airborne assault against the PDF’s Macho de Monte (Mountain Men) at Río Hato, a key base. (A Stealth bomber attack—the first of its kind—preceded the assault, but it was ineffectual.) The Rangers jumped from only 500 feet, resulting in an orthopedic nightmare of broken legs and ankles. After five hours of intense room-to-room, building-to-building fighting, the Macho de Monte had all surrendered or melted into the surrounding jungle.
The 1st Ranger Battalion was ordered to seize control of Panama City’s Torrijos-Tocumen Airport, a possible escape hatch for Noriega and entry point for loyal reinforcements. As the other Ranger companies assaulted objectives held by the PDF at Tocumen, the 1st Battalion’s Bravo Company secured the perimeter and established roadblocks around the airfield. At one point, two hatchbacks hurtled toward one of the roadblocks at full speed. When the Rangers shot out the front tires of the lead vehicle, the second car screeched to a halt, turned around, and disappeared into the night. Later, it was discovered that Noriega was in that second car.
The H-hour assault on dozens of targets decimated the PDF. But Noriega remained at large. From an undisclosed location, he recorded a speech exhorting his supporters: “We’re in trench warfare….Our slogan is to win or die, not one step back!”
On December 21, more than a day after H-hour, President Bush acknowledged U.S. forces’ success but added, “I won’t be satisfied until we see [Noriega] come to justice.” Delta Force had primary responsibility for hunting the dictator, and between December 21 and 24, it launched 42 raids on known and suspected Noriega safe houses, making several bizarre discoveries—pictures of Hitler, pornography collections, $8 million in U.S. currency, and an altar decorated with jars of human organs.
On Christmas Eve, an exhausted Noriega—wearing a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and an oversize baseball cap—sought asylum at the papal nunciature, the Vatican embassy. U.S. forces laid siege for 11 days. Finally, just before 9 p.m. on January 3, Noriega emerged, wearing a tan uniform with four stars on each shoulder board. Within hours the man who had controlled a tropical paradise as “the Maximum Leader” was occupying a Miami jail cell as Prisoner 41586.
Noriega’s capture ended the threat to Americans in Panama, reduced the country’s role as a transit point for narcotics, and set Panama on the path to democracy. However, as with the Geronimo manhunt, these strategic objectives were achieved in large part because the target’s support network and military arm—in this case, the PDF—were demolished.
In 2010, the former despot was extradited to France, where he was convicted on money-laundering charges. He’s expected to return to Panama soon to serve time for crimes he’s been convicted of there.
* * *
Saddam Hussein 2003
‘The Fat Man’ and the Tyrant
The United States commenced Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 with a single objective: remove Saddam Hussein from power. After months of military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and Sisyphean diplomacy at the United Nations, President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam and his sons: Leave Iraq within 48 hours, or face war. Although the invasion was not to begin before this deadline, Bush’s advisers unanimously agreed to a secret air strike against the dictator when a CIA source reported that Saddam would spend the night of March 19 at an estate southeast of Baghdad.
At 3:38 a.m., local time, on March 20, two F-117 Stealth fighters took off from Qatar. As the jets raced north, the GPS on one of pilot David Toomey’s bombs went dead. The EGBU-27s had never been used in combat, so Lieutenant Colonel Toomey pulled out an instruction manual, rebooted the computerized guidance system, and hoped for the best. Around 5:30, the pilots released their ordnance, and all four bombs hit their targets. A CIA source reported someone resembling Saddam had been pulled from the rubble, and agency director George Tenet called the White House Situation Room: “Tell the president we got the son of a bitch!”
Yet several hours later Saddam appeared on Iraqi television—apparently alive and well. Over the next few weeks, U.S. forces launched two more missions targeting the dictator. Navy SEALs conducted a nighttime heliborne raid against his palace on Lake Thar Thar, near Tikrit. Two B-1B bombers dropped four tons of explosives on a building in Baghdad that Saddam had been seen entering. Communications chatter picked up by the National Security Agency suggested Saddam had been killed. Yet within days, Abu Dhabi television broadcast a video allegedly showing Saddam surrounded by supporters.
After Baghdad fell, U.S. forces began rounding up senior officials from Saddam’s leadership. Task Force 20—a secret special operations unit that included members of Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and the British Special Air and Boat Services—led the operation, netting 27 fugitives by June.
In July, Al Jazeera aired an audio recording that the CIA confirmed featured Saddam urging Iraqis to resist the “infidel invaders.” U.S. officials announced a $25 million award for information that proved he was dead or led to his capture.
At 10 a.m. on July 22, about 20 members of Task Force 20 rang the doorbell of a house in Mosul with tall, Greek-style columns—and two-foot-thick concrete walls and bulletproof windows. Backing them were some 200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Major General David Petraeus. Inside the house were Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay, among others. The commandos attempted to storm the house three times, but were repelled by intense small-arms fire from the second floor. Over three hours, the 101st fired AT-4s, Mark 19 automatic grenade launchers, and .50-caliber machine guns. Kiowa helicopters pumped in 2.75-inch rockets. Finally, hoping to avoid a prolonged siege and fearing that insurgents might assemble and trap the U.S. forces in an ambush similar to Mogadishu a decade earlier [see “Other U.S. Manhunts”], Petraeus authorized firing 18 TOW antitank missiles through a window. At 1:20 p.m., Task Force 20 made a last assault on the house, its walls pockmarked and gouged by the barrage, and finished off the survivors.
Although Iraq celebrated the deaths of Uday and Qusay, Saddam was still at large. In September and October, U.S. forces conducted 11 raids in their hunt for Saddam. The frequent tips about his whereabouts failed to pan out; commanders called them Elvis sightings.
Task Force analysts began to focus on the inner circle of Saddam’s bodyguard, and particularly Muhammad Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit, nicknamed “the Fat Man.” On December 12, commandos caught Muhammad Ibrahim in a raid in Baghdad. After hours of interrogation, he revealed two possible locations for Saddam in Ad Dawr, a Baathist stronghold about nine miles southeast of Tikrit.
At 8 p.m. on December 13, nine months after the invasion, the Task Force’s commandos fast-roped onto the objectives—one a house, the other a farm—from hovering helicopters. Beams from red-lensed Maglite flashlights and rifle laser sights pierced the clear night. At the farm, Muhammad Ibrahim led the team to a ramshackle hut where they found two men, some AK-47s, and $750,000. Still there was no Saddam.
Then a call came over the command net: “We have Jackpot.”
The Joint Operations Center asked for clarification, and an excited special operations soldier replied, “We’ve got Jackpot.”
The Task Force’s commander, then-Rear Admiral William McRaven, who almost never jumped on the communications line, cut in.
“Do you mean Big Jackpot?” he asked.
“Yes, we have Big Jackpot.”
Minutes earlier, Muhammad Ibrahim had reluctantly led the commandos to a spider hole outside the shack. A dirty, bearded man with unkempt gray hair was yanked out. In halting English he said, “I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq. I am willing to negotiate.”
A soldier replied, “President Bush sends his regards.”
Saddam was captured on the same farm where he had taken refuge in 1959, when, as a young hit man for the Baath party, he had been part of a failed assassination attempt on the Iraqi president. After his capture, U.S. forces and the Iraqi people briefly united in a sense of deliverance; attacks against coalition forces in Iraq dropped 22 percent over four weeks. Yet this proved a brief respite from the country’s descent toward civil war, a communal bloodletting symbolized by the target of America’s next strategic manhunt, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist mastermind operating in Iraq. Though regime change had at last come to Iraq, the hunt for Saddam had not crippled the broader Sunni network that fueled the Iraqi insurgency and would deny the United States its strategic victory for several years.