Searching for Saddam: Saddam had a lot of bodyguards. Which one was hiding him?

The social network that caught a dictator.
Feb. 23 2010 7:35 AM

Searching for Saddam

Saddam had a lot of bodyguards. Which one was hiding him?

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

The raid on the al-Hadooshi farm.
The raid on the al-Hadooshi farm

The raid on Mohammad al-Hadooshi's farm had to happen fast. The plan had been to storm several targets in nearby al-Oja, where Saddam Hussein was born, as a way to divert the enemy. But the insurgents had struck first, firing RPGs at members of the 1-22 Infantry. Now 1st Lt. Chris Morris, the recon platoon leader, made the snap decision to raid the farm with his scouts before the enemy could regroup. There was, after all, a slim chance that Saddam himself might be on the premises.

The farm, which belonged to Saddam's bodyguard and drinking buddy, was evidence of the lucrative life that the dictator's closest friends enjoyed. Sitting below a bluff near the Tigris, it included a fish hatchery and an orchard of citrus, dates, plantains, and other staples of the fertile region. The surrounding bluffs provided a natural defense, limiting the available routes of approach and making an attack particularly risky. Nonetheless, the recon platoon was able to overwhelm the guards at the compound as reinforcements arrived.

Saddam was nowhere to be found. However, the 1-22 got several consolation prizes: $8 million in U.S. currency secreted away in two fireproof bank boxes, much of it still in Chase Manhattan wrappers; another $1 million or so in Iraqi currency; sniper rifles, night-vision goggles, and other sophisticated weapons; and the personal jewelry collection of Saddam's first wife (and first cousin) Sajida, the mother of his sons Uday and Qusay. In the inexpert appraisal of the 1-22, the jewelry was worth another $2 million.

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Included among Sajida's personal effects were her national ID card, passport, and what would turn out to be the most valuable find of the night: the Saddam family photo album. Among the birthday and wedding photos were many images of Saddam with his cabal of personal bodyguards. It was no secret that most of Saddam's protectors—known as Himaya, a term that broadly encompassed bodyguards, confidants, and other inner-circle players—hailed from Tikrit. Many of them were now within reach—if only anyone knew their names. (To learn more about how the U.S. military used the photo album in the hunt for Saddam—and to view 10 rare photos from that album—click here  to read a companion slide-show essay.)

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In the coming months, coalition forces used a grueling series of raids to flesh out a diagram of who's who in Tikrit. Many of these operations were overseen by Lt. Col. Steve Russell, commander of the 1-22 Infantry that had raided the Hadooshi farm. Russell reported to Col. James Hickey, the brigade commander who ordered up the social network of the Iraq insurgency. Russell's battalion helped fill out that diagram by gathering photos and other documents from the farms and houses of suspected insurgents, taking a lot of fire in the process.

Russell and his intelligence team originally worked off the "Black List" of Iraq's most-wanted men. This was an extended version of the Defense Intelligence Agency's deck of cards with hundreds of names of lower-level government officials, like members of Saddam's Special Security Organization. But the Black List was far from authoritative: The target of one of Russell's raids, supposedly a dangerous operative, turned out to be a 12-year-old boy.

Russell believes the list's many errors were due in part to failures to understand local nomenclature. Men in Iraq have five names: Their given name, their father's name, their grandfather's name, their family name, and the name of their hometown, which is often omitted. (My name, for example, would be Christopher Timothy Geoffrey al-Wilson al-Charlottesville—my dad is Timothy, his father's name is Geoffrey, and I'm from Charlottesville, Va.)

"The Western understanding of names as first and last … caused many analysts to garble and confuse" the names of their Iraqi targets, Russell explained to me via e-mail. After they began to understand the naming code, though, analysts had a head start in constructing their social network diagrams. Once you learned a man's complete name, you already had an abridged family tree.

After the episode with the 12-year-old, Russell decided his team would choose its own targets. His intelligence officer, Capt. Timothy Morrow, began to assemble files on players who didn't appear on the Black List—guys who, it was becoming increasingly apparent, were the ones running things in the region.     This didn't require any fancy software or interlaced databases. Instead, Morrow kept a simple Excel file. As he made connections, he mapped them by hand in PowerPoint. When he would go out to smoke a cigar, he would take his link diagrams with him and pore over them for clues.

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Any fan of Law and Order or The Sopranos can picture law-enforcement officers tacking photos on a bulletin board, mapping the structure of some criminal conspiracy. Formal social network analysis is more complicated. While the concept of the social network has cropped up in academic works for hundreds of years, it wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that it became a rigorous discipline.   In many ways, social-network theory arose out of necessity. As one seminal volume on the theory notes, "[A]nthropologists studying urbanization … found that the traditional approach of describing social organization in terms of institutions (economics, religion, politics, kinship, etc.) was not sufficient for understanding the behavior of individuals in complex societies."

Sopranos.
The Sopranos

That sentence could have been written about the Iraq war. The power structure in the country, particularly in the hinterlands outside Baghdad, could not be easily described with an institutional approach. Even studying tribal kinship patterns was not sufficient by itself to understand the insurgency.

"Just because two guys are in the same tribe doesn't mean they're buds," explains Brian Reed. Reed, the operations officer under Col. Jim Hickey, proved to be a valuable consigliere in the task of mapping the insurgency. Reed, who is now a lieutenant colonel, had a masters degree in sociology and had first been exposed to network theory as an undergraduate at West Point.While kinship was a start, Reed explained to me, unspooling the insurgency required examining individual connections and building out the network piece by piece. "It just kind of happened," Reed says, holding forth at a diner in his native Philadelphia with a highly redacted copy of Saddam's network spread out on the table in front of us. A traditional institutional chart, he said, "doesn't account for all the nuances of relationships. You're never going to tease out all these cats."

Applied network theory involves sophisticated algorithms for identifying communities, measuring the importance of each actor, and locating the most-essential ties. For example, social-network analysts might take a group of people and calculate how many connections exist between them. If nearly everyone is connected to everyone else, this community has a high "density" and is considered very stable. (If everyone is literally connected to everyone else, the technical term is "clique.") If a few people hold the group together, it is far less stable.

When Reed returned home from Iraq and pursued his Ph.D. in sociology, he would write his dissertation on Saddam's network, applying these sorts of calculations. On the ground in Tikrit, however, there was by necessity a lot of seat-of-the-pants analysis. In practice, this was as much about identifying what they didn't know as what they did. "[Col.] Hickey had a talent where he could look at the network and see the gaps," Reed explains. To carve a path through Saddam's loyalists and find their way to the network's center, they would need to fill those gaps.

Saddam Chart.

By way of analogy, consider how sexually transmitted infections spread from person to person. As Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discuss in their recent book   Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, the best way to track the spread of STIs in a relatively contained group—like students at a particular high school—is to draw a social network diagram of who's sleeping with whom, noting who's got what STI. The contagion is fairly simple to track if you have complete information about the students' sexual activity. But if you don't—a likely scenario considering how eager high school students are to discuss their sex lives with adults—then you have to start searching for gaps in your network. If you've sussed out the high school's Patient Zero and know the identities of the infection's most recent carriers, you still need to figure out who transferred the STI along the way.

This is precisely what Hickey, Reed, and Russell were trying to do. They had a socially transmitted insurgency on their hands, and they knew who Patient Zero was. Now they needed to find the guys in the middle—the ones standing between Saddam and the men pulling triggers in the street.

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Steve Russell hadn't wanted to meet the two business men who came to his office on June 13. He had been in command of the 1-22 Infantry for all of two days and he'd already seen his share of Tikritis come through to air their grievances. Walk-in informants like these were so common (and usually so unreliable) that Russell almost turned these two away. But the men refused to relay their message through the sergeant, and Russell agreed to meet them.

Russell's visitors were businessmen from al-Oja, Saddam's hometown. Their family had once owned land in the area, they said, but Saddam had murdered their father and seized their property years ago in the process of transforming the town into a resort for his closest friends. Now they had a way to get revenge: Give the Americans a crash course on Saddam's inner circle.

The two men quickly proved to have loads of actionable information. Their intel on Saddam was so valuable—data points that proved essential to filling out the social network of the insurgency—that Russell would soon arrange regular late-night meetings at clandestine locations to go over confiscated photos. Six years later, Russell still closely guards their identities.

In their first meeting, the two men explained that Saddam had three tiers of protection while he was in power. At the top were 25 inner-circle bodyguards who stayed with the dictator at all times. Next were 40 second-level bodyguards with more nuanced roles: his driver, his cook, and his mechanic among others. Below them were large teams of "route clearers" who would travel ahead of Saddam on several alternate routes when he was on the road. In pre-invasion Tikrit, these men were local big shots feared by much of the population. Most owned houses in Tikrit and satellite farms outside the city.

As the men and other informants identified new bodyguards, the images went up on the link diagram. As the network began to take shape, Russell identified three distinct strata in the insurgency: the guys calling the shots at the top, those carrying out their orders at the bottom, and an amorphous middle tier—made up largely of former bodyguards—that connected the two. It was no surprise that very few of these men were pictured in the deck of cards or included on the extended Black List. These were the men Saddam trusted to protect his life, not run his government. Now that he was on the run, it was these bodyguards Saddam turned to for protection, not his oil minister or his tribal affairs liaison.

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The wall in Steve Russell's office is a small museum of artifacts from Iraq. Russell, now a Republican state senator in his native Oklahoma, points out a pair of large Iraqi flags. "One of these martyr banners is for Uday and Qusay," he says, referring to Saddam's two sons who were killed in a firefight in Mosul in July 2003 and buried in Tikrit. He points to some black turbans. "Some of the headdresses belonged to people who didn't need them anymore." As I'm leaving, he lets me hold a brick of expensive Italian marble from one of Saddam's palaces.

Since he retired from the service, Russell has embarked on a speaking career in which he recounts his days in Tikrit. He is the unofficial historian of the hunt for Saddam Hussein, having preserved as many photos and documents as possible, anticipating that they would otherwise be swallowed by the Army bureaucracy. These mementos form the basis of his forthcoming memoir, based on the hunt and capture of Saddam. (Update, April 27, 2011: Russell's memoir, We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt & Capture of Saddam Hussein, is now available.)

When we first sit down, Russell shows me a PowerPoint slide with hundreds of names: the people in Tikrit who formed Saddam's protection network. Next to each name is the date that person was captured or killed. "I now know the names and the events and the actions of the people who killed my soldiers," he says. "I don't bear them any malice. OK, it's war—got it. But it's haunting."

Russell's files reveal why it was essential to think of the insurgency as a social network, not an organization. Power was decentralized. And since the primary motive of any insurgent is not to be captured, information has to be decentralized as well. Many people I interviewed referenced the resistance movement in Algeria, as recounted in the movie The Battle of Algiers. Members of the National Liberation Front were each supposedly aware of only three other members: the person who recruited them and the two people they recruited—essentially, a terrorist version of a chain letter. In the movie, there is a memorable scene in which the French officers assemble a tree diagram of the NLF's network, filling in names in the hope of sketching a path back to the leaders.

The insurgent network in Tikrit was not so rigidly organized, but it was similarly fragile. As Brian Reed would later calculate in his Ph.D dissertation, Saddam's network had very low density, a measure of how "knitted" or interconnected the players are. To wit: Of all the possible connections between the 214 people on Reed's chart, just 1 percent were actually present. There simply was not a lot of overlap in relationships.

For Russell and his men, this lack of connections was no academic musing. To develop a plan of attack, they needed to know all the different ways that two connected people (known as a dyad) were hooked together through intermediates (the jargony term for this is "dyadic redundancy"). If someone's ties are redundant, the network can quickly recover from his loss. If someone's ties are unique, then they are irreplaceable. This was the case with the National Liberation Front in Algiers, where the dyadic redundancy was basically zero—if an NLF rebel was killed, his mental Rolodex would go with him. In Iraq, the redundancy was almost as low. That meant that finding Saddam would require precisely the right path. Since very few people were thought to know where the dictator was at any given moment, killing them—or severing links to them—could set the hunt back months.

Russell's task, then, was to carve a path through the network without disrupting it. Based on what he learned from the businessmen, Russell began to focus on the middle tier of 40 bodyguards in and around Tikrit. For one thing, they were not nearly as well hidden as Saddam's top lieutenants. What Russell and his men had originally thought was called "40th Street" in Tikrit in fact translated as "Street of the 40"—a posh neighborhood for these operators.

One name in particular stood out to Russell. Several days after he arrived in Tikrit, he sat in on a raid with the outgoing battalion commander. The target was the farm of a former Saddam bodyguard named Rudman Ibrahim Omar al-Musslit. Along with his brother Mohammad, Rudman was far down on the extended list of hundreds of persons of interest in Iraq. Both had served in the regime's Special Security Organization, a group devoted to smoking out any threats to the regime's stability. In one telling sign of the family's proximity to Saddam, Mohammad showed up alongside the dictator in several photos in the Saddam family album.

Russell knew immediately that the Musslit brothers were important. While Rudman wasn't around on the day of the raid, there was no mistaking his wealth: At his farm was a beautiful white stallion, a major status symbol in a country without a lot of horses.

The two Musslit brothers were too important to the insurgency to be rounded up easily. Fortunately, they had at least eight brothers and another bevy of cousins—the Yasin Omar al-Musslit clan—and not all of them were so well-concealed. This, Russell hoped, would be his path through the network: the cousins, then the brothers, and then hopefully Saddam.

Read Part 3: The Brothers Musslit.

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Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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