BAGHDAD — The driver was sweating as his white Kia pickup truck sped alongside a rain-slicked Baghdad freeway towards a neighborhood bustling with open-air markets.
With each jolt and switch, his pulse quickened. Hidden within the truck’s chassis was 1,100 kilos of military-grade explosives that the Islamic State deliberate to make use of in an audacious assault on New Year’s Eve consumers within the Iraqi capital.
A reckless driver on Iraq’s notoriously chaotic roads would possibly clip him, unintentionally setting off the bomb. A conflict at considered one of Baghdad’s frequent checkpoints might escalate into gunfire, probably igniting one hellish fireball.
But there was another excuse he was afraid. The driver, Capt. Harith al-Sudani, was a spy.
For the previous 16 months, he had labored as a mole, posing as a militant jihadist within the Islamic State whereas passing vital info to a secret department of Iraq’s nationwide intelligence company.
His document was gorgeous: He had foiled 30 deliberate vehicle-bomb assaults and 18 suicide bombers, in response to Abu Ali al-Basri, the company’s director. Captain Sudani additionally gave the company a direct line to a number of the Islamic State’s senior commanders in Mosul.
A 36-year-old former pc tech, he was, company officers mentioned, maybe Iraq’s best spy, one of some on the earth to have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Islamic State.
But now, on this final day of 2016, as he cruised alongside the four-lane crosstown freeway towards his assigned goal, the markets of Baghdad al Jdeidah, he had a nagging suspicion that his cowl had been blown.
Every day he remained embedded with the Islamic State was one other day he risked his life. Today he had been caught in a small lie, the second in a matter of months.
If the half-ton of C-Four plastic explosive driving alongside him didn’t kill him, the Islamic State would possibly.
Before he left on this, his penultimate mission, he despatched his father a textual content.
“Pray for me,” he mentioned.
Listening to the Enemy
Iraq’s counterterrorism intelligence unit, the Falcon Intelligence Cell, could also be crucial group on the entrance traces of the warfare on terrorism that just about nobody has heard of.
This article relies on interviews with the director of the company, members of Captain Sudani’s unit and its commander, his family and friends members, and a evaluate of transcripts and video of operations, and textual content messages to and from Captain Sudani.
Little identified exterior of the very best ranges of Iraqi and allied intelligence businesses, the Falcons have positioned a handful of spies contained in the ranks of the Islamic State. Its intelligence helped oust the extremists from their final city strongholds final 12 months and it now aids the hunt for the group’s leaders, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Recently, an Iraqi-American sting based mostly on Iraqi intelligence led to the arrest of five senior Islamic State members who had been hiding in Turkey and Syria. Iraqi officers say the Falcons have foiled a whole bunch of assaults on Baghdad, making the capital the most secure it has been in 15 years.
American army officers contemplate the company pretty much as good as they get amongst non-Western spy companies.
“It has proved to be an extremely valuable unit,” mentioned Col. Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman for the American-led army coalition in Baghdad. The Falcons, he mentioned, have diminished the specter of the Islamic State by infiltrating its cells, killing its leaders and terrorists, and destroying its weapons.
Mr. Basri, the Iraqi intelligence chief, credit the group’s undercover work.
“A drone can tell you who has entered a building but it can’t tell you what is being said in the room where the men have gathered,” he mentioned. “We can, because our people are inside those rooms.”
Not many individuals in Mr. Sudani’s life credited him with the audacity or ambition to be a spy.
Not his father, Abid al-Sudani, a strict disciplinarian who demanded unstinting obedience from his eldest son and put him to work after faculty in his small print store.
Not his professors at Baghdad University, who flunked him out. Intoxicated by the freedoms of pupil life, he blew a coveted alternative, neglecting his research and chasing girls.
His father gave him an ultimatum — buckle down or be kicked out of the household dwelling.
“It was a decisive moment for him,” mentioned his youngest brother, Munther. “He was really disappointed that he couldn’t live how he wanted to.”
Mr. Sudani settled into an organized marriage and returned to high school, learning English and later, Russian. He took a secular job monitoring surveillance programs for Iraq’s oil infrastructure.
At the identical time, close to each day terrorist assaults had been tearing Iraq aside. They ended up giving Mr. Sudani a possibility, and a function.
As the federal government and the American occupation forces struggled to stem the insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq, Mr. Basri, then the intelligence director within the prime minister’s workplace, created a particular unit with a slender mission: concentrating on terrorist management ranks.
In 2006, he recruited 16 males from Iraq’s elite army items and police academies. He referred to as his new unit Al Suquor, or the Falcons.
“I searched for them like a man searches for a wife,” he mentioned. “We were ready to take on any challenge.”
Another of Mr. Sudani’s brothers, Munaf, was an early recruit. While Harith was bored along with his job and spent most evenings taking part in video video games or hanging out in tea outlets, Munaf got here dwelling from work brimming with enthusiasm.
Munaf urged his brother to use, saying his pc and language abilities made him a pretty recruit. Harith did, and in 2013 was supplied a job monitoring net site visitors and phone calls of terrorist suspects.
The change reworked him.
“He was enthusiastic about his life for the first time in a long time,” mentioned Munther. “He was happy. We all could see it.”
In the summer season of 2014, a brand new insurgency burst on the scene. A jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State seized giant swaths of Iraq and Syria, declaring it a Muslim caliphate. The Falcons took on a brand new mission: penetrating the group with undercover brokers.
Mr. Sudani volunteered. His commanding officer, Gen. Saad al-Falih, mentioned he was motivated by images of youngsters killed in Islamic State assaults.
“He couldn’t let them do that,” General Falih mentioned. “He was a father himself.”
Mr. Sudani was promoted to captain and commenced coaching to cross as a jihadist.
When he was younger, the Sudani household had lived in Ramadi, in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland. The Sunni minority had dominated Iraq underneath the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. After the Americans ousted him in 2003, extremists exploited the anger of disempowered Sunnis to construct the insurgency that may later grow to be the Islamic State.
Captain Sudani’s capability to undertake the Ramadi accent would assist his credibility with the group.
But as a Shiite, he was unfamiliar with Sunni rituals and prayer. So he pored over the Quran, memorizing verses favored by jihadists and studying the chants they used for praying and killing.
He would grow to be referred to as Abu Suhaib, an unemployed man from a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. His mission: infiltrate a infamous Islamic State lair in Tarmiya, a city close to the intersection of two highways that was a hub for suicide bombers heading to the capital.
On a September evening earlier than his mission was to begin, he stayed up along with his brother Munaf, ingesting tea and listening to crickets chirp within the heat air as Munaf gave him a pep discuss.
“He was the first of us to volunteer for such a mission,” Munaf mentioned. “It was a real risky thing he was doing.”
The subsequent morning, Captain Sudani walked right into a mosque in Tarmiya that the native Islamic State cell used for conferences. He stayed inside all day, longer than he and his superiors had deliberate.
Munaf, who was a part of the surveillance crew monitoring his brother, was sure that one thing had gone terribly improper.
Around nightfall, he acknowledged his brother’s loping silhouette coming to the prearranged exfiltration spot.
Captain Sudani reported a hit — the cell had welcomed Abu Suhaib. He was going again to dwell with them in Tarmiya.
The Bomb Courier
His first days with the Islamic State had been full of coaching on faith and explosives.
A number of weeks later, a senior Islamic State official in Mosul referred to as. He assigned Captain Sudani a key half within the logistics chain for suicide bomb missions in Baghdad. Believing him to be a Baghdad native, the group thought of him essential to get bombers previous checkpoints on the outskirts of the capital and inside town.
In weekly telephone calls, Mosul would order Captain Sudani to satisfy suicide bombers arriving in Tarmiya from Islamic State-held territory, or to choose up a automobile bomb.
Each time, he would alert the Falcons. Their activity could be to intercept him and his lethal packages earlier than they reached Baghdad.
A chase automotive would comply with Captain Sudani as he drove, utilizing jamming tools to dam the sign to the bomb’s detonator, which is often set off remotely by cellphone. Communicating by telephone or hand alerts, his comrades would direct him to a spot the place they might disable the bomb. If he was transporting a bomber, they’d lure him out of the automotive to be arrested or killed.
Then the Falcons would stage faux explosions and difficulty faux information releases, generally claiming giant casualties — a part of the trouble to maintain Capt. Sudani’s cowl intact.
The strain took a toll on his well being. He complained of chest pains, which he thought had been anxiousness assaults.
“Imagine being the driver of a truck filled with 300 kilograms of explosives,” Munaf mentioned. “You are thinking you could die at any moment. He did this over and over again.”
His lengthy, unexplained absences from dwelling raised contemporary tensions inside the household. Only his father and Munther knew about his secret life. His spouse, Raghad Chaloob, thought he was neglecting her and their three youngsters.
“I regret that he didn’t tell me,” she mentioned later, sitting of their one-bedroom condominium inside the Sudani household home. “I guess he knew I would be worried if I knew the truth. No one wants her son to grow up without a father.”
Suspicion and Lies
The longer Captain Sudani labored undercover, the better his threat of publicity.
Still, he selected to proceed. General Falih mentioned Captain Sudani informed him that he had lastly discovered a function in life.
“It was a golden time for us,” General Falih mentioned. “It was a golden time for him.”
The Falcons’ operations had been essential in turning the momentum of the American-led coalition’s battle towards the Islamic State. Its intelligence led to the deaths of seven high Islamic State leaders and guided dozens of coalition airstrikes, in response to Hisham al-Hashimi, an unbiased Iraqi safety analyst.
By mid-2016, there was rising optimism that the group may very well be defeated.
Capt. Sudani’s handlers in Mosul had elevated his duties, asking him to scout neighborhoods and cafes in Baghdad as targets for potential assaults. On one such mission, he tried to sneak in a uncommon go to dwelling.
While there, his Islamic State commander referred to as, demanding to know the place he was. Captain Sudani mentioned he was on the goal neighborhood. The commander informed him he was mendacity, citing his telephone’s GPS coordinates.
That might have been the primary purple flag.
Munaf informed his brother that it was time to finish his mission. Capt. Sudani refused.
By December, nevertheless, he was firmly within the Islamic State’s cross hairs.
The group was on its heels militarily, shedding floor in Syria and struggling to carry on to Mosul. Its response was to carry out more and bigger terrorist attacks, loudly declaring its continued relevance by inspiring mayhem world wide.
On Dec. 19, the group despatched a tractor-trailer careening through a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens.
On Dec. 31, the Mosul commander informed Captain Sudani he had been chosen to participate in a spectacular New Year’s Eve assault, a sequence of coordinated bombings in a number of cities world wide.
Captain Sudani picked up the white Kia within the jap Baghdad neighborhood of Al Khadra. As standard, he phoned the Falcons to debate the place they’d intercept him.
The plan started to unravel as quickly as he veered off town’s predominant crosstown freeway towards the Falcons’ protected home. His telephone rang. It was Mosul, asking his location.
Captain Sudani assured the caller that he was en path to the goal. The handler mentioned he was mendacity. Captain Sudani frantically struggled to invent an excuse. He informed Mosul that he should have made a improper flip.
Spooked, he referred to as his Falcons teammates, telling them they wanted a rendezvous a lot nearer to the deliberate assault web site.
He turned the truck-bomb again on the street to Baghdad al Jdeidah. Munaf, who was a part of the chase crew, used hand alerts to direct his brother to the brand new assembly level.
Eight brokers dismantled the bomb. They eliminated the digital detonator, 26 plastic baggage of C4, ammonium nitrate and ball bearings from the chassis and door panels of the automobile.
In minutes, Captain Sudani was again on the street to the market and parking the pickup at its supposed location.
Just earlier than midnight on New Year’s Eve, Arabic media, citing Iraqi safety officers, reported a white truck had exploded exterior Al Bayda Cinema in Baghdad al Jdeidah, inflicting no casualties.
Captain Sudani’s mission was a hit.
What he didn’t know was that the Islamic State had planted two bugs within the truck, permitting the extremists to listen to his whole dialog with the Falcons.
“He felt that he was under suspicion,” General Falih mentioned later. “We just didn’t realize how much.”
In early January 2017, the Islamic State referred to as Captain Sudani for one more mission. It could be his final.
He was despatched to a brand new location, a farmhouse exterior Tarmiya. It was too distant to watch and had no simple escape route.
Munaf informed him to not threat it, saying the change of process was suspicious. Capt. Sudani determined to go.
“Looking back, I can’t believe that he trusted them,” Munaf mentioned. “I think he was blinded by a need to make us proud.”
On the morning of Jan. 17, he entered the farmhouse.
Just after sundown, the Falcons crew alerted General Falih that one thing was improper.
Munaf referred to as their often stern father, who broke down.
“I had never seen him cry before,” Munaf mentioned. “He kept pleading with me to save his son, but there was nothing I could do.”
Because Tarmiya was an Islamic State stronghold, it took three days for Iraq’s safety forces to plan and mount a rescue operation. A mixed military and police drive raided the farmhouse. One Iraqi officer was killed.
When the constructing was cleared, there was no signal of Captain Sudani.
For six months, the Falcons gathered proof. They found the bugs within the Kia truck. Informers prompt that the jihadists had taken Captain Sudani to Qaim, an Iraqi city managed by the Islamic State and past the federal government’s attain.
In August, the Islamic State launched a propaganda video exhibiting militants executing blindfolded prisoners. The Falcons had been sure that Captain Sudani was considered one of them.
“I grew up with him, shared a bedroom with him,” Munaf mentioned. “I don’t need to see his face to know my brother.”
‘A Wound on My Heart’
In dying, Captain Sudani has achieved a degree of fame uncommon within the shadow world of spies.
Iraq’s joint operations command issued an announcement about his sacrifice for the nation. The Falcons revealed an ode to his bravery.
On the rutted, filth street in entrance of his father’s home, a pair of large posters lauding the hero-son adorn the courtyard wall. A portrait of him is tattooed throughout Munther’s chest.
But the Sudani household continues to be struggling to get what they contemplate correct respect. Because they don’t have a physique, they’ve been unable to acquire a dying certificates, a prerequisite to obtain advantages on account of fallen servicemen.
“I have a wound on my heart,” mentioned the daddy, Abid Al-Sudani. “He lived and died for his country. The nation should cherish him the way I do.”
For the Falcons, Captain Sudani’s successes helped it win greater budgets, a wider appreciation amongst allies and higher coaching for its males. The Americans and the Russians are actually serving to it penetrate the Islamic State, Iraqi intelligence officers say.
The city of Qaim was taken by Iraqi safety forces final November.
The Falcons despatched a crew to attempt to recuperate Capt. Sudani’s corpse. They by no means discovered it.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Tarmiya, Iraq, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.