Report: Closing in on Al Qaeda in the Triangle

Iraqi soldiers conduct a joint search mission with US troops near Yusifiyah [Getty]. Click to view.

Coalition forces may have narrowed the search for the missing soldiers missing since last Saturday’s attack

U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces, backed by the local tribes in Karbala and Anbar provinces, have poured into the region known as the Triangle of Death, where three U.S. soldiers were captured by al Qaeda in Iraq after a complex attack on a U.S patrol about 12 miles west of Mahmudiyah. The search appears to have been narrowed down to the region near where the attack took place last Saturday, and the U.S. military may have caught a break. Operations appear to be focused in the regions around Yusifiyah and Mahmudiyah, which largely consist of farmlands.

Multinational Forces Iraq stated it captured 11 suspected al Qaeda believed to be involved in the operation. Four are said to be “high value suspects,” which may have led to information on the soldier’s whereabouts. “Right now our focus is on searching for the missing soldiers, and we’re trying to isolate the areas where we think they could be,” said Major Kenny Mintz, the brigade operations officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. “The (captors) don’t have freedom of movement; if they have the soldiers, they can’t move them from where they are. We’re doing a deliberate search of the areas for the people responsible for the soldiers we’re looking for.”

The likely search area – red circle is capture area, yellow likely search region. Click to view.

The U.S has poured over 4,000 troops into the region, and are back by an unspecified number of Iraqi Army, police and tribal allies throughout eastern Anbar and Karbala. An American military intelligence source informed us the Anbar Salvation Council has devoted assets in the region and are working tribal and insurgent contacts to develop leads in the case. “Every asset has been brought to bear in the hunt for the missing troops,” according to a Multinational Forces Iraq press release, “including search dogs, trucks with speakers, unmanned aerial vehicles, law enforcement advisers, and both U.S. and Iraqi troops.” Pamphlets have been dropped via air and phone tip lines have been established.

While it was initially thought the al Qaeda assault and kidnap element would move the captured soldiers from the Mahmudiyah region into the desert expanses in eastern Anbar province, where al Qaeda maintains a base of support, the al Qaeda team appears to have stayed in the farming regions just south of Baghdad. Either al Qaeda never planned to move the soldiers far from the capture point, or the cordon was established quickly enough to have trapped the terrorists in the box. The U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces maintains a network of forward outposts in Mahmudiyah, Yusifiyah and Sadr al Yusifiyah which would make safe transit through these regions difficult.

Yusifiyah has been an al Qaeda stronghold in the past. Task Force 145 fought pitched battles against al Qaeda in the winter and spring of 2006, and nearly captured Abu Musab al Zarqawi before he was killed in Baqubah n June.

Al Qaeda in Iraq mocked the U.S. efforts to recover their soldiers, and stated the efforts may in fact endanger their lives. While al Qaeda has claimed it has captured the soldiers, it has yet to release photographs, video or audio to support the claim.

Al Qaeda will want to broadcast footage of the captured soldiers both to demoralize the U.S. public and to reap the rewards of a major propaganda coup. The U.S. will likely have Internet access locked down in the region to prevent the tape from being transmitted digitally, but an individual courier should eventually be able to slip the cordon. If the kidnap cell did not bring its own recording equipment, it will either push to a safe house to make the recording, or a team will press to reach it. Either act can lead to exposing the location of the soldiers. But their chances of survival decreases as soon as the tape is made.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • pedestrian says:

    There has been no video of hostages yet but warning about not to engage in searches has been given. This may indicate the hostages are captured in an area surrounded and the warning indicated that there may have been a near miss for an encounter.

  • Storms says:

    I haven’t seen the reporting (or reasoning) which would indicate why these three soldiers are thought to be alive? Given their training and the combat environment, I’d be surprised if any soldier would allow themselves to be taken alive. Might this not be a similar situation as the ambush from last June inwhich the bodies of two of our servicemen were taken?

  • Closing in

    Al Qaeda in Iraq claims to have captured three American Soldiers during an ambush of a patrol. They issued a press release telling coalition forces to stop searching for them. What you are doing in searching for your soldiers will

  • RJ says:

    4000 troops looking for a couple of guys in an area where those citizens don’t seem to know what’s going on, an area of farms, etc.? Perhaps asking the Israelis for some insight might be helpful. As an aside, I wonder how many dollars are being spent in this hunt? If we give an operational cost of 15 bucks per hour per troop…
    New warfare in the 21st century might suggest a different approach to finding these captured troops, but I’m just speculating.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 05/16/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • yankeewombat says:

    I think both the capture – if that is what has happened – and the use of large numbers to rescue these men has a lot to do with the information war distorting the situation well beyond what used to be war like WW2. Emotionally I understand trying to rescue them, but rationally I think the military has to think through the asymmetry of 4000 troops being tied up to rescue three soldiers. I’m not saying I know the answer, just that it seems a very efficient way for the enemy to get us to act in a certain way. On the other hand if we roll up a whole organization in the boxed area maybe that will deter the enemy from doing at again. I hope they three soldiers make it out alive.

  • BobK says:

    I have to agree completely:
    This is what AMERICA does, protect those that protect us. This is a PROMISE made to each person we ask to do battle for us. If it was your sisters 20 year old soldier son would you ask this question?
    Proud Father of an Infantry Soldier
    They are our brothers. Soldiers are brothers to each other. They are family to each other. If it were you, you would never stop looking for your brothers and there are never too many people to help find your brothers. These men went across oceans at our country’s bidding…those missing are a part of us.
    Posted by Lisa | May 16, 2007 10:39 AM

  • madconductor says:

    “I’m not saying I know the answer, just that it seems a very efficient way for the enemy to get us to act in a certain way.”
    I agree with that assertion – in fact it was the first worry I had. But I read in Bill’s post the suggestion:
    “Either al Qaeda never planned to move the soldiers far from the capture point, or the cordon was established quickly enough to have trapped the terrorists in the box.”
    That makes me think their plan didn’t go “as planned”. And backup plans usually have bad endings.
    But I’m hoping for the best.

  • Glenmore says:

    “…rationally I think the military has to think through the asymmetry of 4000 troops being tied up to rescue three soldiers.”
    1) Military operations are purposefully asymmetric.
    2) The 4000 troops are not ‘tied up’ searching for their brothers – the cesspool they are searching in has needed cleaning for a long time and I am sure it was coming up pretty soon in the plans anyway. The current situation just moved up the timetable a bit and bumped up the motivation a whole lot. Even if they are not successful in finding the missing soldiers they are looking for, they are going to find a lot of very valuable targets. This campaign may be more successful done this way, now, with no lead time/warning, than the conventional way we have been operating elsewhere.

  • Bill says:

    “This campaign may be more successful done this way, now, with no lead time/warning, than the conventional way we have been operating elsewhere.”
    Yeah it’s about time the gloves come off. My question is this? Why did it take 3 missing soldiers to get this response? If the war would have been fought this way from the beginning it would be over by now and we could move on to IRAN and clean that cesspool out too.
    I hope to God they find the soldiers alive. And if not I hope they make those responsible pay and not in a courtroom.

  • the tapper says:

    I pray that these young men will be found alive, but given the track record of these animals?? reading these remarks, I marvel at the cohesiveness displayed. To bad our Nation doesn’t have the same teamwork and act as one!

  • mwl says:

    This operation is exactly the right thing to do, regardless of what the expense may be. It sends a message to various groups that vitally needs to be sent.
    First, AQI is learning the same lesson now that Hezbollah learned last year after snatching IDF troops: If you mess with one of us, you mess with ALL OF US. And you will pay a very, very high price.
    The people of the “Triangle of Death” are learning that if you don’t want U.S. Troops knocking down your doors and turning over every last rock in your territory, you don’t encourage AQI to operate there.
    The ASC and associated auxilary elements are learning that just as they may need us, so do we need them. Their participation is acknowledgment and validation of the work they’ve done, and the part they will play in Iraq’s future.
    Finally, U.S. troops see that no effort will be spared to recover them if they suffer the misfortune to be captured. This is vital to morale. Contrast what’s happening now to Britain’s response to the abduction of 15 of their sailors and Marines by Iran. With which organization would you prefer to serve?

  • ramsis says:

    if anything even if we never see these brave soldiers alive again maybe this operation will result in the capture and killing of numerous al-qaida operatives inside the “triangle of death”. May god be with these men and their families in these terrible hours.

  • greg says:

    Why don’t all soldiers in Iraq have some kind of tracking device on them ? Preferably this could be hidden under the skin or something, that would let us find them. I once heard about some type of dust that the soviets could put on something to track it without the subject even knowing it was on them. Can someone tell me why we are not doing this ? They would have been found the next day !

  • ramsis says:

    greg: I have to agree with you. this technology has been offered for tracking pets and even children. why it is not in any of our troops is a complete mystery.

  • VOA says:

    Never leave a soldier behind. That is the rule. It is the rule for many good reasons. Morale, concience, keeping a promise, hope….. Trying to +Reason or Rationalize+ this a a type of force mismanagement for three men is basically tantamount to a write-off for the bigger picture.
    I won’t rationalize 3 men, 2 men or even 1 man EVER as a write-off.
    Our soldiers, men and women fight for freedom and when given the call to arms. They serve and die if they must – but they don’t get kidnapped and then just nothing is done because that would be force mismanagement! AQ keeps no prisoners. They slaughter them for internet videos and further terrorism. There is no prisoner swapping with them. We must act, and as stated above, when you mess with one of us – you mess with all of us.

  • Buck Smith says:

    I think Bill’s post indicates that there are lots of risks for Al Quaeda posed by our hunt for the soldiers. Yes, we are reacting to their attack, BUT they have to put a lot of intelligence assets on the line to benefit from the capture.
    Part of the trick to beating Al Quaeda is to get them to mass their forces where we can fight them. This manhunt does that. So the does the war in Iraq, by the way.

  • coldoc says:

    “greg: I have to agree with you. this technology has been offered for tracking pets and even children. why it is not in any of our troops is a complete mystery.”
    It is not really much of a mystery. Having a beacon on you makes it hard to “sneak” up on the enemy and surprise him. If he has the same monitor equipment as you do, then he knows where everybody is located! Gives info on troop strength and deployment.
    I had to work my way through all this when working on a battlefield medical system that would locate wounded troops. The ops types wouldn’t accept any system that would potentially disclose positions to a savy enemy. This is exactly why we don’t use the same technology to prevent “friendly fire” incidents.

  • coldoc says:

    To have 4000 troop assets looking for the missing soldiers as fast as they did tells me that the troops were “in-place” for another reason. I would suspect that an intense sweep of this area was just about to happen anyway. This area is part of the “belt” around Bagdad that is being cleared now as part of the surge.

  • Jimbo says:

    of course the US should use any and all means necessary to try to locate these boys. anything else would be immoral. they are in my prayers.

  • Trivr says:

    I’d be curious to know how the military can feel so confident the general location of the soldiers and that they’re still alive. How would you know they haven’t been moved hundreds of miles? This hostage situation seems to differ significantly from our dismal luck in past situations. I wouldn’t be so sure we don’t have some sort of tracking device on them, or maybe it’s just due to increased info from the locals.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Very likely.
    MG Lynch mentioned that ops were planned to clear some of those areas in Jun when the last Bde arrives.
    Only one additional US Bn has shown up there since this started, the rest was already there.
    – 2nd Bde-10th Mountain (Augmented with armor from 3-3).
    – 4th Bde-6th IA Div (5xBns augmented with elements of IA 2-9 Tank Bde)
    New arrival: 1-23 Inf Bn (Strykers) from 3-2ID in Baghdad…

  • john e morrissey says:

    if we are ever to defeat these madmen, it is absolutely essential that we make it crystal clear to all who kidnap americans, particularly our soldiers, that we regard the cost of protecting our soldiers as an honor but the costs to them will be more than they can bear.Julius Caesar wrote the book on dealing with terrorists.No injury to small to avenge,response certain and orders of magnitude above the damage done to us or our men.If 4000 troops are not enough then 10000 must be sent.If detaining 11 is not enough then 111 is next.The payback on investment here is survival.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Additional augments to search:
    Elements of I SOF Bde and US 1st ACB plus 1-23 Inf Bn (Strykers) augmenting search.
    The triangle may never be the same…

  • Dennis Keating says:

    I hope that the search intensifies, goes house to house, in the widest and most thorough manner, so that any idea of harboring or being found to support the kidnappers is seen as an idea as good as inviting al-Zarqawi to dinner. You never know who else will come.

  • Storms says:

    One last question: The details of this attack (at least, those that have been released) do indeed indicate very “sophisticated” attackers…. Much like the execution of the five Army officers in Karbala on January 20th. With Iranian intelligence officers still in US custody, does anyone else suspect that these attacks are coming from Tehran-trained soldiers rather than indigenous Fedyeen?


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