It was another hot summer night. Sweat trickled from under the helmets of the Rangers creeping through the back streets of Mosul. They had left their Stryker vehicles almost two kilometers behind them so as to not alert their target as they approached his home. Parking so far away entailed significant risk. If the Rangers took fire en route to their objective, they wouldn’t be able to reply with the Strykers’ machine guns, nor quickly evacuate any casualties on the vehicles. But the target that night was worth the risk. Although the coalition referred to Abu Khalaf as al-Qaeda in Iraq’s emir of Mosul, he was really the organization’s number two, second only to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian who had taken charge after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The same military organization responsible for Zarqawi’s demise was now on the trail of Abu Khalaf. That organization was the Joint Special Operations Command, which controlled the military’s most elite units—Delta Force, SEAL Team 6 and the 75th Ranger Regiment, among others—and combined them in a task force in Iraq with the mission to crush al-Qaeda in Iraq. For years the task force had hunted Abu Khalaf without success.

Today, June 24, 2008, it had located him and was striking before he had a chance to slip away. This was the most important mission in which almost any of the Rangers had participated, and it exemplified the machine that JSOC had become. Two files approached Abu Khalaf’s house from the rear. As they moved through the streets, one of two small civilian-style aircraft overhead “sparkled” the objective, briefly illuminating it with an infrared light that looked like a spotlight in the Rangers’ night vision goggles, but was invisible to the naked eye. If any insurgents ran from the building and somehow escaped the Rangers’ cordon, one of the aircraft would track them with a pulsating infrared spotlight so that they could be dealt with after the initial assault.

Tonight’s mission was a platoon mission. One of the platoons had stayed to guard the vehicles. The other three squads of eight men each moved to the objective, hugging walls and staying in the shadows. One squad would take the lead in the assault, breaching and entering the house with the platoon sergeant, the unit’s most experienced soldier. Another stayed in reserve to the front of the objective. The remaining squad split into two teams of four, each taking position on a corner of the block.

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the vehicles, the Rangers were a block from the objective. The four-man sniper/observer team and the isolation squad split off. The rest of the assault force paused at the corner, out of sight of the house. The entire assault force was itching to move. Every second they waited increased the chance of compromise. But the platoon leader wanted to wait until the sniper/observer team was in position on a roof adjacent to the objective. The team’s role was to ensure that the Rangers had “as many eyes and muzzles over all the apertures of the house as possible,” said a Ranger on the mission.

The four Rangers on the team were moving as fast as they could, shimmying from one flat rooftop to another across a 30-foot-long graphite ladder. After examining pictures of the neighborhood, the team leader had picked a site his men could reach without being seen. But they had to cross seven rooftops to get to it.

The assault force knelt and waited. The tension mounted. The Rangers were kitty-corner from the home of the most powerful insurgent leader in northern Iraq, out of direct line-of-sight of the objective but bathed in streetlights. Finally, the team leader called to say that his team was in position. The trip across the rooftops had taken all of nine minutes, a pace that was “unbelievable, when you think about what’s involved, moving four guys across one ladder,” said the Ranger. “But…it feels like it’s an eternity when you’re sitting on a fairly well-lit street corner at 11 p.m. in one of the most hostile cities in Iraq.”

Abu Khalaf’s compound was defended by a high wall and heavy steel gate. His thick front door provided further protection. The Rangers would need to breach each simultaneously. The assault squad leader scampered up a ladder, dropped down into the compound, and moved quickly to place an explosive charge on the door. The others readied the charge on the gate or climbed ladders to cover him as he set the door charge.