They're relentless manhunters, often referred to ambiguously as the "coalition forces" in mission briefings and reports. Yet this shadowy group, Task Force 145, is a veritable all-star team of Special Forces. The Task Force has now been thrust into the spotlight after leading the way to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Reportedly, Task Force 145 was a Pentagon post-9/11 creation formed in the summer of 2003 when the military merged two existing special operations units assigned to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein and his sons in Iraq. TF 145 is composed of elite personnel from American Delta Force, Navy SEAL Team 6, Army Rangers and British Special Forces, as well as members of the FBI and CIA. According to a recent article in the Army Times, TF 145 is divided into four subordinate task forces in Iraq: Task Force West, Task Force Central, Task Force North, and Task Force Black, which is made up of the British Special Air Service "saber squadron" and the British Special Forces Support Group.
"Task Force 145 uses a process that they call the unblinking eye, which is essentially a very tight linkage between intelligence and operations, meaning that as soon as they have intelligence they want to act on it, rather than sit and dwell on it for days at a time," said Sean Naylor, who reported a piece on TF 145 for the Army Times.
The group is currently based out of a secret base in Balad, Iraq. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, TF 145 was assigned one main task: Capture or kill terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and dismantle his al Qaeda network.
After years of tracking him, the unit played an integral role in digging up the intelligence that led to al-Zarqawi's death early Wednesday morning.
Setting Up Camp in Saddam's Base
According to reports, these special operations groups were allowed to operate seemingly under a different set of rules than traditional military personnel. Allowed to wear civilian clothes and grow beards and long hair, TF 145 has also come under fire in the past for aggressive interrogation tactics.
"Anytime there was even a smell of Zarqawi nearby, they would go out and use any means possible to get information from a detainee," one military official said in a New York Times article in March.
In 2004, an early incarnation of the task force reportedly set up shop in one of Hussein's former military bases outside Baghdad, converting it into a top-secret detention and interrogation center.
The center was reportedly called Camp NAMA, said to be a ribald acronym for Nasty Ass Military Area, with a reported slogan of "no blood, no foul." One of the most reported aspects of Camp NAMA was the "Black Room" -- an interrogation cell adorned with 18-inch hooks jutting from the ceiling, remnants of Hussein's torture chambers.
When the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was made public in April 2004, attention shifted next to the task force. Camp NAMA came under scrutiny and was later closed that summer amid charges of serious prisoner abuse.
"The reality is, there were no rules there," a Pentagon official said in the Times article.
However, that reputed cowboy mentality that drew criticism to Camp NAMA also allowed the group to rev up its pace, reportedly going on six to seven missions a day. Using a combination of intelligence, interrogation and ground and air assaults, TF 145 raided and destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq safe houses and, whenever possible, captured operatives.
"You'll hit a place, get intelligence that drives you to another one. We're cops -- hit, go; hit, go," an unnamed special forces operative said in the Army Times article, describing Task Force 145's fast-paced technique.
A Near Miss Last Year
It was that "unblinking eye" technique that almost nabbed al-Zarqawi back in February 2005. Using gathered intelligence, segments of the group reportedly set up an ambush for al-Zarqawi on a stretch of highway along the Tigris River.
But just as the noose tightened al- Zarqawi -- grudgingly respected in the military for his evasiveness -- found a way out once again.
"My understanding of what went wrong in 2005, when they almost got him, was that there was a lieutenant from a ranger regiment in command of one roadblock. And when al-Zarqawi's vehicle came into view, one of his machine gunners told the lieutenant that he had the vehicle in sight and asked permission up, and the lieutenant denied him that permission, because the lieutenant did not believe he had a 100 percent positive ID of Zarqawi in the vehicle," Naylor explained to ABC News.
In total, the group has been credited with capturing or killing roughly 200 al-Zarqawi associates and operatives since 2004. In April it was reportedly behind two major raids on al-Zarqawi troop safe houses in Yusufiyah. During those raids 12 al-Zarqawi troops were reportedly killed and the now famous April 25 al-Zarqawi video, featuring him firing a Squad Automatic Weapon, decked out in New Balance running shoes, was reportedly first discovered.
The hunt continued from there. According to reports, it was from intelligence gathered by TF 145 that al-Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, was located and tracked, eventually leading military forces and two 500-pound bombs carried by F-16s to al-Zarqawi's hideout. TF 145 was reported to have been one of the first groups on the scene along with Iraqi police to secure the area and locate and identify al-Zarqawi's body.
"Although al-Zarqawi's capture is reason to rejoice, we must be -- caution (sic) not to be overly optimistic, as one man's life does not signify an end to an insurgency," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell on Thursday, in a press conference from Baghdad announcing al-Zarqawi's death.
"I would imagine in the next hours, days and weeks, they will focus on taking down as much of al-Zarqawi's remaining organization as possible," said Naylor.
"The military said they discovered a treasure trove of intelligence in the building that they destroyed during the operation to kill al-Zarqawi. And we know that simultaneously with that operation they were conducting 17 other raids, which seems to indicate they already had a substantial amount of intelligence on how the top tiers of his organization were put together," Naylor said.
"They will not want that intelligence to go stale without being exploited and acted upon, so I think that if Task Force 145 was busy before they killed Zarqawi, they'll probably be even busier in the days following his death," he said.
While currently in the media spotlight in the United States, TF 145 is roaming in the shadows in Iraq and beyond once again.