Searching for Saddam: The two most important people in Saddam's network of protectors.

The social network that caught a dictator.
Feb. 24 2010 6:57 AM

Searching for Saddam

The two most important people in Saddam's network of protectors.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on the capture of Saddam Hussein. 

Izzat al-Douri.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri

Staff Sgt. Eric Maddox did not want Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri on his chart. As a special-operations interrogator in Tikrit, Maddox had been building link diagrams similar to those created by Col. Jim Hickey's intelligence shop, adding names as he gathered information from detainees. As much as al-Douri, the red-headed confidant who many considered Saddam's second in command, was a highly wanted man—the King of Clubs on the Army's deck of cards—Maddox was convinced that he had long ago parted ways with his boss. Like Hickey's men, Maddox believed the path to Saddam depended on tracking down much lower-profile players in and around Tikrit. There was only one problem: The top command—Maddox's bosses' bosses—didn't agree, and wouldn't be pleased to see a link diagram without big names like al-Douri represented. To avoid conflict, Maddox made two versions of his charts: The one he and the analysts actually worked off of, and the one they displayed prominently any time someone important was around.

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Maddox wasn't lacking in names to fill out his diagrams. When he joined the special-ops group in July, an interpreter showed him a list of all the former bodyguards who lived in the area, as well as their kin. Among many others, there were 40 Musslits on this list. This told Maddox two things: First, the Musslits were an influential family in the region. Second, Saddam Hussein had alot of bodyguards.

As he interrogated more and more people, Maddox discovered something curious. While some bodyguards were clearly mixed up in the insurgency, others seemed to have essentially retired. (One very high-ranking ex-bodyguard, Maddox learned, had been hanging around at home in plain sight since the war began.) Now he had to figure out which of Saddam's old protectors were still in touch with him—a task for which studying pre-war roles was not very useful. As Maddox writes in his memoir of that time,  Mission: Black List #1, "Iraq was a completely different place than it was before the war."

 Eric Maddox. Click image to expand.
Eric Maddox

Throughout the hunt for Saddam, Maddox and his counterparts had to make lots of subjective decisions about who—out of all these bodyguards and all these Musslits—was most significant. Lt. Col. Steve Russell had a hunch that the brothers Rudman and Mohammad al-Musslit were important based on their wealthy Tikrit estates, photos of them with Saddam, and intelligence reports that kept turning up their names. Later analysis by Maj. Brian Reed, the brigade operations officer who would write his dissertation on the link diagram, proved that Russell's intuition was backed up by network theory.

One way to measure the importance of a particular person in a social network is to look at his "betweenness centrality." A person scores highly on this measure if he's a connector—that is, if he's likely to lie on the shortest path between any two other nodes, helping form the connection between them. An individual doesn't need to connect directly to many nodes to have a high betweenness value; he may simply bridge two social circles, such that a path from one to the other will inevitably pass through him. In a network of my work and college friends, for example, my betweenness would be off the charts—I'm the guy who bridges the gap between two otherwise unconnected groups. Serendipitous connections can lead to high betweenness values as well. Just think about all the unexpected connections you've seen on Facebook. For instance, I have a co-worker who went to high school with a college friend of mine. This gives them both high betweenness scores in my network—even if I was out of the picture, co-workers could trace a connection to my college classmates through this link.  

Below is an interactive re-creation of the core of Saddam's network. I've pieced this together from Reed's dissertation, public accounts, and interviews with the officers who were on the ground in Iraq. As you can see, Mohammad al-Musslit is clearly the vital link between Saddam and the entire Musslit clan. Rudman also scores highly as the chief of operations for the insurgency. To learn more about a person's role in the insurgency, mouse over his photo. To understand how people are connected, mouse over the line between them. (Family names are listed below given names.)

The calculations behind their scores involve some reasonably complex math, but the reason for the brothers' importance is clear: Rudman and Mohammad stand squarely in the path between Saddam and the extended Musslit family. Adding to their importance, the brothers also connect Saddam—via a marriage in the Musslit family—to a second clan that had a role in the insurgency. (The link diagram constructed by Reed and Maj. Stan Murphy, the brigade intelligence officer, is included in Reed's dissertation in a highly redacted form. I was able to identify Rudman and Mohammad in the diagram based on reporting and inference from surrounding nodes. I was not, however, able to identify the second family that the Musslit brothers connected up with.) Curiously, one of the other men in Reed's diagram with a high betweenness score had been dead for two decades when the 4th Infantry Division arrived in Tikrit. Even so, he was important to the network because he formed one of the few links between the Musslits and the aforementioned second clan that was also active in the insurgency.

Rudman and Mohammad, by contrast, were still very much alive. The network and his instincts were telling Maddox the same thing: These were the guys who would lead him to Saddam Hussein. But instinct alone, no matter how well-supported by a link diagram, is not a very solid basis for organizing a raid and putting American soldiers in harm's way. Maddox had to earn the trust of the special-ops commanders with proof that his diagrams reflected behavior on the battlefield. Maddox did make his share of mistakes—recommending raids that turned up no one and opposing raids that did. But as interrogations continued to confirm what the network had predicted—who was important, who wasn't—the team's commander and analyst began to take greater risks based on the network. Eventually, Maddox became a part of the team that planned and executed raids. It was an unusual role for an interrogator.

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In Tikrit, Maddox increasingly spent his time sorting through dozens of Musslits, trying to find a path to Rudman and Mohammad. The Musslits weren't just Saddam loyalists. While Tikriti men commonly called one another Ibn 'Amm or 'Amm—cousin or uncle, depending on the age difference—the Musslit family was legitimately related to Saddam on his mother's side. According to a handwritten family tree compiled by Iraq expert Amatzia Baram, the Musslit clan shared with Saddam a common great-grandfather—the man who was the original Musslit. The children of this common ancestor included Saddam's maternal grandfather Talfah and a man named Omar, the grandfather of the Musslits who were organizing the insurgency.

Major General Ray Odierno (C), commander of the 4th Infantry Division of the US army, listens to the commander of the 1st Battalioin, 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, colonel Steve Russell (R). Click image to expand.
Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno and Lt. Col. Steve Russell 

Just tracking Musslits, however, wasn't going to lead to the few who were closest to Saddam. In order to create a detailed picture of the insurgency, Maddox and his colleagues needed to continue filling in the bit players. In addition to the five prominent families that seemed to be running the show, 1-22 Infantry commander Steve Russell and his men began to track a network of second-tier families who were more directly involved in street battles. Every raid contributed new information to the hunt. Capt. Timothy Morrow, Russell's intelligence officer, recalls confiscating elaborate renderings of Saddam's family tree—one of which listed "Adam and Eve" at the very bottom—that were crucial to filling in names on the link diagrams. As Russell told me when I visited him in Oklahoma:

There were actually two families that were not in the main five network but that we realized were very important families. They were guys that were organizing major resistance against us. They were guys that were organizing the employment of sophisticated roadside bombs unlike what we had faced before. … We had fought them in the streets over the summer. We had their names. It wasn't until we started getting a number of them and connecting the dots between them that we realized, Holy cow, look—the dad of this group of folks is married to Saddam's half-sister. Then it was, like, the light came on. It was like, These guys really are connected.

On July 22, Saddam Hussein's psychopathic sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed by American forces in Mosul. (The firefight had escalated after they shot and killed one of the army's bomb-sniffing dogs, which prompted an explosive retaliation.)   Their deaths gave soldiers like Maddox more leeway to focus on insurgents who might not have famous names. While Mohammad and Rudman were still considered the most valuable targets, analysts began sketching a fuller picture of the rest of the clan. There appeared to be a division of labor among them: Some would cook, some would deliver food (possibly to Saddam), some would manage the insurgency. The hope was to build a pathway through the network of Musslits—from cook to high-level operative, and from all those cousins at the bottom up to Mohammad and Rudman at the top.

The house where Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay were killed in Mosul, Iraq.
The house where Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay were killed in Mosul, Iraq.

In the days after Uday and Qusay were killed, Steve Russell and his troops in the 1-22 Infantry raided the farm of Faris Yasin Omar al-Musslit for the third time. While they failed to nab Faris, this operation did unearth photos that helped the 1-22 identify a new batch of high-ranking bodyguards. Soon after, an armored battalion under Hickey's command used this newly acquired information to snag Nazhan Ibrahim Omar al-Musslit, one of Rudman and Mohammad's brothers. They were getting closer to the heart of the Musslit family.

In piecing together a trail through his network, Maddox says detainees often simply told him what he wanted to know. "They're not going to tell me about the insurgency," he explained. "But they'll talk about who's drinking buddies with who." In thinking that they were deflecting the interrogators, lower-level operators were in fact leading Maddox closer to his target. These detainees, in a way, were making precisely the same mistake that the American military made at the start of the Iraq war. Institutional information about the insurgency wouldn't bring coalition troops closer to Saddam's hiding place. The social information that these lower-level Musslits provided was much more valuable. Maddox wanted to know the names of Saddam's friends, not his former colleagues.

On Aug. 3, Russell's troops raided an elaborate complex of farms owned by the Musslit family. Once again they didn't find any of their targets, but they did collect more photos of the family and a particularly valuable living source: Omar al-Musslit himself, the grandfather of most of the Musslits who were causing trouble. Russell notes with irony that Omar's national identity number was 666—appropriate for a man who had spawned so many of Saddam's henchmen. In the next week, the 1-22 Infantry continued to pick up members of the five families. And after yet another raid on Rudman's personal farm, the groundskeeper revealed they had missed Rudman and Mohammad by less than 24 hours.

Read Part 4: The Fat Man.

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Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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