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News | Dec. 13, 2013

Our Place in History: “We Got Him!” The Anniversary of the Capture of Saddam Hussein

By DIA Public Affairs

“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!” These were the words spoken by L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, to announce to the world that Saddam Hussein had been captured by U.S. forces. It was Dec. 13, 2003, at approximately 8:30 p.m. local time in Iraq that Saddam was found, huddled in a spider hole near a farmhouse in Ad Dawr, close to his hometown of Tikrit. Many members of the U.S. intelligence community and military contributed to the capture, which would have been impossible without their involvement. While acknowledging the importance of these other contributions, this article will focus on the involvement of one DIA employee whose contribution proved particularly significant.

The chain of events that ended with Saddam’s capture outside of Tikrit began March 19, 2003, when the U.S.-led coalition launched its offensive against Saddam’s regime. The offensive proved quick and decisive, and major combat operations were formally concluded May 1. In the months that followed, the political and military activities of the coalition aimed at establishing a stable post-Saddam Iraq and the efforts of the intelligence community focused principally on the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) (the search for WMDs was, in fact, the main focus for DIA at the time as the agency served as the executive agent for the Iraq Survey Group).

Securing the peace, however, proved more difficult than political and military planners had expected, and violence steadily rose in the course of 2003. In the summer and fall, insurgents and terrorists conducted a spate of bomb attacks against high-profile targets in Baghdad, including the Jordanian embassy, the UN headquarters and the headquarters of the International Red Cross. Coalition troops also became the target of violence as insurgents developed and employed increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As a result, 408 coalition troops were killed from the time major combat operations ended May 1 to the end of 2003. U.S. occupation authorities viewed these attacks as the last gasp of former regime “dead-enders” and therefore felt confident that the insurgency could be nipped in the bud if Saddam and other leading figures of the old regime who were still on the loose could be brought to justice. These were the high-value targets (HVTs) depicted in the famous deck of “most wanted” playing cards, which were created by five DIA Army employees.

The focus on former high-ranking individuals seemed like it could deliver the desired results. Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a firefight July 22, 2003, after a special operations task force with the support of the 101st Airborne Division tracked them to a house in Mosul. Now if only Saddam, the ace of spades, could be apprehended, it would break the back of the insurgency and allow the rapid transformation of Iraq into a peaceful and stable democracy, or so the thinking went. But the trail was cold, and weeks turned into months as coalition forces searched for Saddam, in vain.

It was at nearly the same time that Uday and Qusay were killed that a DIA interrogator arrived in theater who helped to breathe new life into the search for the fallen dictator. Army Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, who was trained as an interrogator at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca after attaining Ranger qualification as an infantryman, started at DIA in fall 2001. He deployed to Baghdad in July 2003 and was soon assigned to be the full-time interrogator attached to the Special Operations task force operating in the Tikrit area. Despite its notoriety as Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit did not occupy a very prominent position in coalition efforts to pacify the insurgency. The prevailing mindset was largely focused on hunting down the HVTs who had occupied high-ranking positions in Saddam’s Baath Party and the Baath-dominated Iraqi state, and it was believed that few, if any, of these figures remained in the Tikrit area.

But as Maddox gained more and more experience on the ground, he started to realize that focusing on links between elites from the Saddam era might be the wrong approach. The military defeat of the regime put an end to the party and state structures that dominated the country throughout Saddam’s reign of terror. As these power structures collapsed, high-ranking regime figures fell back on their tribal networks. Saddam had maintained his power in part by manipulating these networks and other sectarian loyalties, but in the power vacuum created by the fall of the regime, tribal associations took on renewed centrality in Iraqi society. The best way of getting to Saddam and other key figures driving the insurgency was therefore not to try to connect the dots horizontally between former regime elites, but rather to piece together vertically, from the bottom up, the complex networks of tribal affiliations that formed the framework of power in emergent post-Saddam Iraq.

Maddox quickly recognized the value of such an approach, and his work in this direction was kick-started by a departing interpreter, who provided Maddox with a list of former regime bodyguards and their kin living in the Tikrit area. He trained his attention on these bodyguards and other lower-ranking individuals like drivers and cooks who had never wielded real power but who possessed tribal affiliations that placed them within Saddam’s extended kin network. Maddox gained the opportunity to interrogate these figures as the Special Operations task force to which he was attached conducted “hits” in and around Tikrit rounding up suspected insurgents. By piecing together information gleaned from these interrogations, Maddox painstakingly constructed a detailed link diagram of the network of figures behind the insurgency, similar to the link diagrams being worked by the intelligence element of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, which was based in the area and under the command of COL James Hickey. After conducting approximately 300 interrogations, Maddox was able to gain unparalleled insight into the structure of the insurgency in the area, but the main target, Saddam, still remained at large.

An important break came Dec. 1, when a former driver gave up the name of Muhammad Ibrahim. Ibrahim, it turned out, was Saddam’s right-hand man and a leader of the insurgency. Over the next two weeks, upwards of 40 members of Ibrahim’s extended family were interrogated in an attempt to piece together Ibrahim’s own kin network, track him down, and ultimately zero in on Saddam. 

The decisive moment came on Dec. 12, the very day Maddox was slated to leave the country. During a raid on a house in Baghdad that functioned as an insurgency command center, Ibrahim was picked up. Initially, Maddox did not even realize that Ibrahim was among the figures who had been detained. It was only while interrogating one of Ibrahim’s lieutenants captured during the raid that he discovered Ibrahim was already in U.S. custody.

It was now 5 a.m. on Dec. 13, and Maddox was scheduled to leave Iraq at 8 a.m. on a C-17 that was carrying Adm. William McRaven, so there was no time to spare. Maddox frantically questioned Ibrahim and was just about ready to give up hope when Ibrahim finally relented, divulging a location where he said Saddam could be found. Maddox hurriedly passed on the information to his analyst colleague in Tikrit as he rushed to the plane, hoping for the best as the C-17 took off into the unknown. It was not until the next day in Doha that Maddox learned that the information provided by Ibrahim had, in fact, been accurate: Saddam was found in his spider hole in Ad Dawr during Operation Red Dawn, a joint action conducted by a special operations task force and Hickey’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. The ace of spades was caught. 

Maddox subsequently received several awards for the indispensable role he played in Saddam’s capture, including the DIA Director’s Award and the Legion of Merit. Of course, the capture would not have been possible without the hard work of many individuals from other intelligence agencies and the U.S. military, but Maddox’s contribution was truly singular. His astute reading of the new contours of society and power in post-Saddam Iraq prompted him to move away from the prevailing Baghdad-centric focus on HVTs and to concentrate instead on the intricate web of tribal affiliations that re-emerged with new force following Saddam’s defeat. It was by painstakingly constructing from bottom to top the tribal network driving the insurgency that Maddox was able to zero in on Saddam’s location.

The capture stoked hopes that the situation in Iraq could be rapidly turned around. A lull in violence did in fact set in, but it proved short lived. By spring of 2004, the Sunni Arab insurgency was worse than ever, al-Qaida in Iraq was growing bolder and bolder, and Shiite militias were well on their way to becoming an intractable problem. It was clear that the road to a stable, peaceful, and democratic post-Saddam Iraq would be a long one, where the U.S.-led coalition would be confronted with the enduring challenges of insurgency, terrorism and sectarian discord.

As the conflict would continue through the end of 2011, each phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) would place novel intelligence requirements upon DIA, which in its role as a combat support agency would adapt and evolve in response. The story of Saddam’s capture was emblematic of some of the new challenges DIA would face. An effective strategy demanded intelligence that moved beyond issues of a strictly military character to address social and cultural questions as well, so that the root causes of the insurgency and the other problems plaguing post-Saddam Iraq could be properly understood and then resolved.

The cumulative result of DIA’s adjustments in response to OIF’s requirements would produce a fundamental transformation of the agency. By the end of the conflict, DIA would become a completely new type of combat support agency, one that is capable of deploying subject matter experts to serve alongside the warfighter on a scale and with an intensity that far surpassed anything DIA was able to do in the past.

Note: Much of the presentation of Maddox’s activities is derived from his own telling of events: Eric Maddox and Davin Seay, Mission: Blacklist #1: The Inside Story of the Capture of Saddam Hussein – As Told by the Solider Who Masterminded His Capture.