As the month of June comes to a close, Australians have found yet another reason to sit back and knock the froth off a few cold ones in a celebratory fashion. Australia’s most wanted terrorists, Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, were reportedly killed in a drone strike in the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq. The pair were allegedly getting into a car when they were struck, delivering a fitting end to two of Australia’s most notorious extremists.
Despite this incredible news, I must admit that the reports of Sharrouf and Elomar getting smoked by a coalition air strike evoked slight feelings of disappointment in me. Let me be clear: I was not disappointed that they were dead. Far from it. I was actually disappointed because my glamorized dream involving a team of operators from Australia’s Special Operations Command slotting both of these parasites was instantly crushed.
Despite their deaths being the preferred outcome, I had to face the fact that I was never going to wake up to hear the news that Australian Special Forces had found, fixed, and finished these bastards. There would have been something remarkably poignant about the Islamic State poster children for Australian recruiting being killed by our most elite.
Even though I fully acknowledged that the chances of our Special Forces delivering Sharrouf and Elomar their tickets for the 72 Virgin Express were negligible, these two still provided an important impetus for our commitment to the region. They personified for most Australians why our government had made the decision to send Special Forces to support Iraqi troops in their fight against the Islamic State in the first place. Images broadcast across the world of Sharrouf and Elomar, as well as Sharrouf’s seven year old son, holding up severed heads of Syrian soldiers was enough to convince the vast majority of Australians that a military response was justified.
The importance of having a personal belief in the mission cannot be underestimated. Toward the end of my career, my overall personal investment in bettering Afghanistan was actually quite minimal, but comparatively, my investment as part of the Tactical Assault Group (East) (TAG-E) was incredibly high. Despite the kinetic nature of my deployments to Afghanistan and the fact that I was a part of something incredible, my resolute commitment has always been to the protection of Australia and Australians. I became much more personally invested in my role within TAG-E based on the threat that was emerging and, even though we were never used, the investment was based on the mere thought that we could be called on to protect our country and citizens within a domestic environment.
If a terrorist or hostage incident occurred that was outside the scope and capabilities of state and territory law enforcement agencies, then it would fall to TAG-E to resolve. There was no one to call after us; we were the last lifeline and we relished the commitment. There was an intense sense of pride in knowing that I formed part of this capability to the Australian government and this responsibility to the Australian public.
There was one occasion in Afghanistan, however, where I felt an incredible attachment to the mission we were tasked with. In 2011, during my third Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) deployment, Australian soldier Lance Corporal Andrew Jones was killed by an Afghan soldier in a green-on-blue incident. Shafidullah Guhlamon shot Lance Corporal Jones at Combat Outpost Mashal in the Chora Valley near Tarin Kot on 30 May, 2011. Guhlamon escaped over the wall of the outpost and was last seen running into the green belt.
Almost immediately, the SOTG was utilised as a quick reaction force of sorts to find Guhlamon before he slipped out of the area completely. We flew into a Chora Forward Operating Base (FOB) where we were greeted by two Australian Defence Force Investigative Services (ADFIS) officers who had just returned from their preliminary investigations at COP Mashal. We immediately noticed the weapon they were holding; they explained to us that it was the AK-47 that Guhlamon had used to kill Lance Corporal Jones.
For those of us who saw this, it just added to the impetus we were already brimming with to find Guhlamon. We cast a wide net over Chora and searched the entire valley; every compound was searched and many kilometres were covered but to no avail. He had clearly escaped the area and left little trace of his whereabouts.
Finding him became a high priority and a number of assets were dedicated to this task. It took little less than a month before he was finally tracked down in his home village in Khost Province and was killed by United States Special Forces and their Afghan partner force. Guhlamon was reportedly cornered by the assault teams, and when he refused to surrender, he drew a weapon and was killed.
There was something bittersweet about this story and the way in which it unfolded and ultimately ended. Although I still acknowledge the fact that the killing of Guhlamon would not detract from the tragic death of Lance Corporal Jones, in my personal opinion this was the only suitable outcome given the circumstances. Taking Guhlamon alive and putting him through the Afghan judicial system would have been more or less pointless. I was part of SOTG rotations where we were targeting the same insurgents as in previous rotations because they had simply bribed their way out of prison. I have always felt that Guhlamon’s death at the hands of United States Special Forces in this instance was the only appropriate sentence for this murderer.
Sharrouf and Elomar’s deaths were also befitting of their chosen paths and were a welcome way for most Australians to close out the month of June. Although a much more gratifying story would have been my romanticized idea of their deaths being the result of an Australian Special Forces-led operation, the good news is that they are now scattered in pieces far away from Australia, with no way of ever setting foot in the country again.