(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.