Searching for Saddam: A five-part series on how social networking led to the capture the Iraqi dictator.

The social network that caught a dictator.
Feb. 22 2010 8:06 AM

Searching for Saddam

A five-part series on how the U.S. military used social networking to capture the Iraqi dictator.

Traffic had slowed to a crawl in Baghdad's Azamiyah district as drivers stopped to ogle the president. It was April 2003, and Saddam Hussein cheerily greeted his subjects as a few bodyguards tried to keep the crowd at bay. Someone handed Saddam a bewildered baby, which he hoisted up in the air a few times and handed back. When he reached a white sedan, Saddam climbed onto the hood to survey the sea of loyalists.

Not long after—possibly that same day, just a few miles away from where Saddam went on his celebratory walk—U.S. Marines in Baghdad tore down a 40-foot-tall bronze statue of the Iraqi dictator. At the time, American intelligence officers didn't know whether Saddam had survived a hailstorm of 2,000-pound bombs and Tomahawk missiles fired at the beginning of the war. When grainy footage of the Butcher of Baghdad's last promenade surfaced 10 days later, most analysts were preoccupied with determining whether it was authentic. Nobody was particularly worried about the guy next to the dictator, a heavyset man in a brown striped shirt and sunglasses. He wasn't anyone on the deck of playing cards depicting the regime's 55 most-wanted members, and the coalition troops had much bigger priorities than hunting down bodyguards.

It would be months before anyone realized that this man was the key to capturing Saddam Hussein. His identity was classified, but those on his trail would take to calling him "Fat Man."

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The war in Iraq will always be remembered for the failures of intelligence that preceded it and the insurgency that bedeviled coalition forces long after President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations. Amid all that disaster, the capture of Saddam Hussein has become a forgotten success story. It's an accomplishment that wasn't inevitable. In a five-part series that begins today, I'll explain how a handful of innovative American soldiers used the same theories that underpin Facebook to hunt down Saddam Hussein. I'll also look at how this hunt was a departure in strategy for the military, why its techniques aren't deployed more often, and why social-networking theory hasn't helped us nab Osama Bin Laden.

In the war's early days, coalition forces raced through the deck of the cards. By May 1, 2003, when President George W. Bush stood beneath that infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner, 15 of the men on the cards had surrendered or been captured. Coalition troops bagged another 12 top targets in May, including one of Saddam's sons-in-law.   But despite snagging all those high-profile detainees, the trail to Saddam—if he was alive—was not getting any warmer. And when the military did catch someone important, he usually wasn't much help.

Consider the case of Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Khatab, Saddam's trusted personal secretary and the Ace of Diamonds. Abid, a ubiquitous presence behind the dictator in pre-war photos, had controlled access to Saddam during his years in power. Newspapers trumpeted his mid-June capture as the war's biggest feat. "Captured Iraqi May Know Fate of Saddam," the Associated Press declared. But hopes that Abid could lead the United States to Saddam were quickly dashed. The trusted aide, who some called "Saddam's Shadow," told interrogators he and Saddam's two sons had parted ways with the dictator a while back, after Saddam became convinced they could survive longer if they separated. This was bad news for the war effort for two reasons. First, if Abid was to be believed, Saddam Hussein was alive. Second, Saddam appeared not to be seeking protection from the men on the deck of cards. If the military was going to locate him, it would have to start from scratch. In searching for Saddam, the military was targeting the wrong people.

Saddam's personal secretary
Saddam's personal secretary

The deck of cards didn't help in the hunt of Saddam, very simply, because the cards had many of the wrong people on them. Virtually every single person in the deck, which was produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency, was a member of Saddam's regime. Many of the men on the lower-numbered cards were essentially middle managers, like the deputy head of the tribal affairs office (Nine of Clubs) and the trade minister (Six of Hearts). While it was reasonable for these men, as government officials and members of the Baath party, to be on a wanted list, capturing them was neither going to cripple the budding insurgency or lead the American-led coalition to their former boss. Their power vanished the moment the regime collapsed and Iraq was once again governed by tribal networks. An extended catalog of hundreds more targets, known as the Black List, had similar inadequacies. While there were some valuable targets near the bottom of the list—men like the "Fat Man" who would prove central to the post-invasion insurgency—they were mixed in with people who were misidentified, completely innocent, or both.  

So, why weren't Saddam's post-war cronies in the deck of cards? The war's architects had failed to account for the fact that Iraqi society functions completely differently than our own. Saddam's regime had been built on top of the country's ancient tribal traditions—a heritage that he either suppressed or tried to co-opt, depending on how much he needed the backing of the sheikhs at the moment. (As the New York Times wrote in a cautionary note two months before the invasion, tribes are the "ultimate swing voters in the brutal politics of the Middle East.") When Baghdad fell, the institutions of Saddam's regime fell along with it. Suddenly, the Baath Party regional chairmen—the guys that populated the bottom of the deck—lost any connection they once had to Saddam (unless they happened to be related to him).

Who should the coalition have been going after? A careful study of Iraq's tribal structure, particularly around the Tikrit region where most of Saddam's top men were from, would have uncovered an entirely different cast of troublemakers. Most were high-ranking bodyguards, many of them related to Saddam, who lived in opulent houses and farms outside Tikrit. Some had served in Saddam's alphabet soup of security forces, but their influence with the president derived from their personal connections, not the contents of their résumés.

Information about Iraq's social fabric was easy to find before the war. In 1997, Iraq expert Amatzia Baram, now a professor at the University of Haifa, published perhaps the most influential paper on Saddam's tribal policies. The study described how, by the mid-1990s, Saddam had incorporated powerful tribal leaders into his government and granted them a certain autonomy, leading some of these sheikhs to overstep their authority. The paper got the attention of weapons inspectors as well as then-Iraqi U.N. representative Nizar Hamdun, who sent it to Baghdad. (Baram believes Saddam read it himself; about five weeks after the paper came out, Saddam issued a decree reasserting that the government's laws superseded tribal ones.)

Nor was there a scarcity of information on Saddam's peculiar personality. Jerrold M. Post, who formerly headed the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, published a long analysis of the dictator in 1991. From his youngest days, Post notes, Saddam was a consummate survivor who made sure to keep himself protected at all costs. When the war began, Saddam knew coalition forces were going after his top lieutenants; Post guesses that Saddam figured his odds of surviving were better if he ditched his government allies and went on the lam.

But to whom would he turn instead? Twenty-four years of murderous rule, punctuated by repeated coup attempts, had made Saddam understandably paranoid. "His conspiratorial mindset had wheels within wheels," Post says. Now that Saddam lacked the muscle to bully his associates into submission, he had to turn to those he felt he could trust most. As anyone familiar with The Godfather knows—and, as Post notes, Saddam was a huge fan of that film—in times of crisis one turns to family for trust and support.  

If the deck of cards had been drawn up based on this understanding of how Saddam operated, it would have included the families in Tikrit who had strong ties to the regime. It's possible that even the fat man in the brown-striped shirt—the bodyguard tailing Saddam through the streets of Baghdad—would have made the cut. Even if Saddam and his sons had perished on the first day of the war, these were the kind of people who could carry on an insurgency in his stead.

On one point, however, the Americans guessed right. After Baghdad fell, Saddam went where he always did when he was in trouble. He went home.

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Tikrit.
Tikrit

The nine months Saddam spent in the womb were devastating for his mother Sabha. First, her husband—a member of Tikrit's Majid family in the Abu Nasir tribe—died, most likely of cancer. (Some accounts say he just disappeared.) A month before Saddam was born in 1937, her elder son died of cancer as well. According to one scholarly account, Saddam's mother went so far as to try to abort him before a Jewish family took her in and nurtured her to health. As soon as he was born, Saddam was sent to live with his mother's brother, Khayrallah Talfah Msallat, a radical Iraqi nationalist and the author of the charming pamphlet Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies.

Sabha would remarry a man named Ibrahim Hasan, with whom she would have three sons, Saddam's half-brothers. Saddam lived with them for several years before returning to his uncle, who would become his political mentor. Six decades after his unstable upbringing, Saddam would again bounce from house to house. The families that surrounded his childhood—Msallat, Hasan, Majid—would be the same ones he returned to as a man on the run.

There were two American units set up in Tikrit by the time Saddam reached his hometown. A small, secretive special operations team working out of one of Saddam's palaces focused on hunting down major fugitives. The much larger 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division was in charge of maintaining peace and stability in the entire Tikrit region. Catching Saddam would be a large step in that direction, but it was never explicitly part of the 1st BCT's mission.

By June, insurgent attacks began to pick up speed and ferocity. Bradley Fighting Vehicles were struck by RPGs and a brazen attack on a military building left 19-year-old military police officer Pfc. Jesse Halling dead. The worst seemed yet to come. The Republican Guard in the area had not engaged with coalition troops during the first phase of the war, leaving abundant supplies of weapons and people willing to use them.

James Hickey. Click image to expand.
Col. James Hickey

In mid-June, Col. James Hickey took command of the 1st BCT and prepared for a major series of raids, known as Operation Desert Scorpion. Hickey's goal was not simply to kill or capture as many insurgents as possible. The archetypal warrior-scholar, Hickey holds advanced degrees in diplomacy, public policy, and Russian. "War is a thinking man's game," he told me in his office at the Pentagon. This war effort, Hickey emphasized to his troops, was foremost about reconnaissance: Who were all these insurgents, and where were they coming from?

Diagnosing the insurgency in these early stages proved close to impossible. While the 1st BCT's intelligence shop had gathered a great deal of information about individual bad guys, nobody had put it together into a coherent picture. Hickey wasn't pleased. What he needed, the colonel told his intelligence officer, Maj. Stan Murphy, was a chart that showed the personal relationships of everyone they captured or wanted to capture.

Saddam Chart.

This chart would become a social network diagram of the bad guys in Tikrit. The lines connecting their faces delineated who belonged to which of several influential families, how those families were intertwined by marriage, and who among them connected directly to Saddam Hussein. As Desert Scorpion continued over the next several months, the diagrams ballooned into sprawling networks. They showed no explicit hierarchy since none existed. Unlike in a traditional organizational chart, The Butcher of Baghdad was not at the top of this diagram. He was at the center, a yellow dot labeled "Saddam Hussein."

This shift in thinking about how the enemy organized itself was a long time coming in the Army. Through World War II, the U.S. military was accustomed to fighting an enemy structured like we are, making combat a clash of egos between generals. Prof. David Segal, an expert on military sociology at the University of Maryland, recalls the scene in Patton when the general, having beaten back a Panzer division, reacts angrily when he is informed that his archrival Erwin Rommel was not present due to "severe nasal diphtheria." While that brand of warfare might be 65 years old, Segal maintains that the American military perpetually refights "the last war we liked." In that model, the enemy is always organized in a hierarchy, like in this 1945 organizational chart of the Nazi military from a contemporary U.S. handbook.

Hitler chart.

Modes of warfare have evolved since 1945, of course, but the vertical image of the enemy has persisted. Part of the trouble is that, until very recently, soldiers received very little exposure to sociology—a subject that views a group of people more like a blob or a network than a totem pole. As Joint Forces Quarterly laid out in a 2005 article (PDF), the military had almost none of this in its curriculum at the time of the Iraq invasion. Most of the soldiers I spoke with said they had little or no formal training in network theory—they built their social networks by instinct, moving around the faces when intelligence revealed an unknown connection. (It didn't hurt, though, that one influential officer—Maj. Brian Reed, who we'll meet in the second part of the series tomorrow—had a masters degree in sociology.)

The Fat Man.
The Fat Man

Social networks have two fundamental units, nodes and edges. In a visualization of one's Facebook friends, for example, every node would be a person and every edge would indicate a friendship. (Incidentally, Saddam was captured about three months before Facebook was founded.) In a network of your friends, you'd be at the center—everyone would be connected to you. Of course, everyone would not be connected to everyone else. Your friends from school would exist in one highly connected clique, your friends from work in another. There would also be some unexpected connections; perhaps a co-worker went to high school with a friend from college. (You can see a visualization of your Facebook friends here.)

What Hickey was looking for were those unexpected connections—surprising bonds that might eventually lead to Saddam Hussein. As the Saddam social network came together, it started looking a lot like the New York Mafia. There were five families in Tikrit with close ties to Saddam's operation: the Hasans, Majids, Musslits, Hadooshis, and Heremoses.   It was this network, as well as a similar one maintained by the special operations forces in the area, that would eventually lead them to the "Fat Man," and from there to Saddam. To get there, they were going to have to start banging down doors.

Read Part 2: Saddam Family Photos.

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