(The following is a true account as told by an operator from the 75th Ranger Regiment.)

“Your forces will return greater in number than they were before. We also remind you of the haunting words our Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi told you. ‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah’s permission until it burns the crusader army.’” – “Jihad John” of ISIS, standing over the decapitated body of former Army Ranger Peter Kassig on November 15th, 2014.

Once upon a time, the U.S. military’s number one terrorist target was not Usama bin Laden. He had faded from memory and faded even further in his operational importance within Al-Qaeda’s ranks. UBL was just a symbol, an icon of the jihadi movement.

In 2005 and until his death in June of 2006, the number one target for the U.S. military and special operations community was Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ), the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of U.S. and coalition soldiers. He personally murdered, even beheaded, numerous prisoners, and his al-Qaeda foot soldiers targeted thousands of innocent Shia Muslims throughout Iraq to the point where bin Laden had to disavow Zarqawi for his countless atrocities committed against the civilian population.

It was Zarqawi who masterminded the February 2006 bombing on the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, the holiest site in Shia Islam. His actions plunged Iraq into a civil war between the Sunni and Shia populations, which led to the deaths of over 50,000 Iraqis from 2006 to 2007. This was also the deadliest period for U.S. and coalition forces, accounting for 38 percent of the total deaths in the eight-year war. Beheadings, torture chambers, death squads, mass executions, and suicide car bombs became the norm in Iraq. A more contemporary terror group that we’ve all grown to know in recent months, ISIS, is a direct by-product of the legacy Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda left in Iraq. We now see the same brutal tactics AMZ developed years before.

Zarqawi undoubtedly would be the most dangerous adversary the United States faced in the Global War on Terror. As for his death, it is common knowledge that AMZ was killed by an airstrike on June 7, 2006, following an extensive search effort by General Stanley McChrystal’s JSOC Task Force 145. In the end, a prisoner captured by the task force revealed the location of multiple safe houses in the Baqubah area. Following visual confirmation, Delta Force commandos from the unit’s reconnaissance team, hidden nearby in a palmetto grove, guided two 500-pound bombs from an Air Force F-16C—completely destroying the safe house.

Zarqawi's safe house
Zarqawi’s safe house—post 500-pound GBU renovation.

The Department of Defense’s report claimed Zarqawi died a short time later from massive internal bleeding and ruptured lungs after he was pulled out of the rubble. A small team from Task Force 145 comprised of Rangers and Delta Force commandos arrived just moments following the bombing to conduct a damage assessment and recover the bodies for identification.

Before their arrival, the Iraqi police pulled a wounded Zarqawi out of the rubble and loaded him onto a stretcher in the back of a waiting ambulance. An alive, coherent, talking, badly wounded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was just minutes away from being taken to a hospital where the likelihood of his subsequent survival was a possibility. Before the Iraqi ambulance could depart from the area, the Delta team stopped and commandeered the vehicle. They were in utter disbelief that a survivor had made it out alive, and in even more disbelief to find it was their target, Zarqawi.

This was never meant to be a capture mission; the use of the 500-pound bombs is clear evidence of that. Indeed, Zarqawi would have been a treasure trove of information. But there was never a guarantee he would allow himself to be captured alive. Or if he would ever break under grueling interrogation. Being the high-profile target that he was, a subsequent arrest would mean he’d be consistently surrounded by high-level U.S. officials from the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, and the Department of Defense. Torturing Zarqawi with the hopes of further dismantling Al-Qaeda in Iraq was never on the itinerary.

For the Delta Force commando in the back of the ambulance, the decision regarding Zarqawi’s fate likely came down to only one choice. Zarqawi was a symbol of the jihadi movement, an even more powerful one than the inactive recluse Usama bin Laden. The operator knew Zarqawi needed to die; he needed to become a martyr for his cause, as twisted as that cause was. As a captured prisoner of the United States, Zarqawi’s men would further exert their evil on the innocent Shiite civilian populations in a misguided quest to secure his release.

“Shut the door,” the man called to his teammate. No call was made over the radio to the Joint Operations Center in nearby Balad Air Base to update their current situation. It would likely be better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. These Delta commandos operated at a level of responsibility and decision-making that even other special operations units found to be unrealistic. They exist to hunt down terrorists around the world. But more importantly, they exist to save the lives of others.

A dead Zarqawi - photo released by the DoD.
A dead Zarqawi – photo released by the DoD.

He looked down upon the face of true evil. The conscious Zarqawi struggled to free himself of the stretcher, but his broken and wounded body was unable to react to what the mind was asking of it. When the Commando stepped away from the ambulance Zarqawi had passed to the other side.

Zarqawi would find out sooner then he thought, that Allah would have no virgins or “garden of bliss” waiting for him in heaven.

This decision was likely made on the ground; a strategic decision that carried with it the weight of all armed forces in Iraq. It was the right decision which surely saved hundreds if not thousands more lives and brought about the beginning of the end to Al-Qaeda’s reign in Iraq.

The men of Delta Force and the 75th Ranger Regiment continued to spearhead the ground-combat operations in both Iraq and occasionally in Syria as part of Task Force 145 (later renamed Task Force 88) resulting in the death and capture of hundreds of high-level Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State of Iraq terrorists, to include the death of Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri in 2010.

After Hitler, the only people featured in Time Magazine’s “red X” cover design, from left to right: Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and Usama Bin Laden.