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).