Captain Harith al-Sudani was part of an Iraqi elite intelligence group called the Falcons — he infiltrated ISIS and was able to prevent many attacks on the country. For bravely defending his country, Capt. al-Sudani paid the ultimate price.
The driver was sweating as his white Kia pickup truck sped along a rain-slicked Baghdad highway toward a neighbourhood bustling with open-air markets.
With every jolt and turn, his pulse quickened.
Hidden in the truck’s chassis was 1,100 pounds of military-grade explosives that Daesh planned to use in an audacious attack on New Year’s Eve shoppers in the Iraqi capital.
A reckless driver on Iraq’s notoriously chaotic roads might clip him, accidentally setting off the bomb.
A clash at one of Baghdad’s frequent checkpoints could escalate into gunfire, potentially igniting one hellish fireball.
But there was another reason he was afraid. The driver, Capt. Harith Al Sudani, was a spy.
For the past 16 months, he had worked as a mole, posing as a militant in Daesh while passing critical information to a secret branch of Iraq’s national intelligence agency.
His record was stunning: He had foiled 30 planned vehicle-bomb attacks and 18 suicide bombers, according to Abu Ali Al Basri, the agency’s director.
Al Sudani also gave the agency a direct line to some of Daesh’s senior commanders in Mosul, Iraq.
A 36-year-old former computer tech, he was now, agency officials said, perhaps Iraq’s greatest spy, one of a few in the world to have infiltrated the upper reaches of Daesh.
But now, on this last day of 2016, as he cruised along the four-lane crosstown highway toward his assigned target, the markets of Baghdad Al Jdeidah, he had a nagging suspicion that his cover had been blown.
Every day he remained embedded with Daesh was another day he risked his life.
Today he had been caught in a small lie, the second in a matter of months.
If the half-ton of C-4 plastic explosive riding alongside him didn’t kill him, Daesh might.
‘Pray for me’
Before he left on this, his penultimate mission, he sent his father a text.
“Pray for me,” he said.
Little known outside of the highest levels of Iraqi and allied intelligence agencies, the Falcons have placed a handful of spies inside the ranks of Daesh.
Its intelligence helped oust the extremists from their last urban strongholds last year and it now aids the hunt for the group’s leaders, like Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Recently, an Iraqi-American sting based on Iraqi intelligence led to the arrest of five senior Daesh members who had been hiding in Turkey and Syria.
Iraqi officials say the Falcons have foiled hundreds of attacks on Baghdad, making the capital the safest it has been in 15 years.
Basri, the Iraqi intelligence chief, credits the group’s undercover work.
“A drone can tell you who has entered a building but it can’t tell you what is being said in the room where the men have gathered,” he said.
“We can, because our people are inside those rooms.”
Motivated by photos of children killed in Daesh attacks, Al Sudani became an undercover agent known as Abu Suhaib.
His mission: infiltrate a notorious Daesh lair in Tarmiyah, a town near the intersection of two highways that was a hub for suicide bombers heading to the capital.
“He was the first of us to volunteer for such a mission,” his brother Munaf said.
“It was a real risky thing he was doing.”
In weekly phone calls, a senior Daesh official in Mosul would order Al Sudani to meet suicide bombers arriving in Tarmiyah from Daesh-held territory, or to pick up a vehicle bomb.
Each time, he would alert the Falcons. Their task would be to intercept him and his deadly packages before they reached Baghdad.
A chase car would follow Al Sudani as he drove, using jamming equipment to block the signal to the bomb’s detonator, which is usually set off remotely by cellphone.
Communicating by phone or hand signals, his comrades would direct him to a place where they could disable the bomb.
If he was transporting a bomber, they would lure him out of the car to be arrested or killed.
Then the Falcons would stage fake explosions and issue fake news releases, sometimes claiming large casualties — part of the effort to keep Al Sudani’s cover intact.
On December 31, the Mosul commander told Al Sudani he had been chosen to take part in a spectacular New Year’s Eve attack, a series of coordinated bombings in multiple cities around the world.
Al Sudani picked up the white Kia in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Al Khadra.
As usual, he phoned the Falcons to discuss where they would intercept him.
The plan began to unravel as soon as he veered off the city’s main crosstown highway toward the Falcons’ safe house.
His phone rang. It was Mosul, asking his location.
Al Sudani assured the caller that he was en route to the target.
The handler said he was lying.
Al Sudani frantically struggled to invent an excuse.
He told Mosul that he must have made a wrong turn.
Spooked, he called his Falcons teammates, telling them they needed a rendezvous closer to the planned attack site.
He turned the truck-bomb back on the road to Baghdad al Jdeidah.
His brother Manaf, who was part of the chase team, used hand signals to direct Al Sudani to the new meeting point.
Eight agents dismantled the bomb.
They removed the electronic detonator, 26 plastic bags of C4, ammonium nitrate and ball bearings from the chassis and door panels of the vehicle.
In minutes, Al Sudani was back on the road to the market and parking the pickup at its intended location.
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Arabic media, citing Iraqi security officials, reported a white truck had exploded outside Al Bayda Cinema in Baghdad al Jdeidah, causing no casualties.
Al Sudani’s mission was a success.
Bugs in the truck
What he didn’t know was that Daesh had planted two bugs in the truck, allowing the extremists to hear his entire conversation with the Falcons.
“He felt that he was under suspicion,” his commanding officer, Gen. Sa’ad Al Falih, said later.
“We just didn’t realise how much.”
In early January 2017, Daesh called Al Sudani for another mission. It would be his last.
He was sent to a new location, a farmhouse outside Tarmiyah.
It was too remote to monitor and had no easy escape route.
On the morning of Jan. 17, he entered the farmhouse.
Just after sunset, the Falcons team alerted Falih that something was wrong.
Because Tarmiyah was a Daesh stronghold, it took three days for Iraq’s security forces to plan and mount a rescue operation.
A combined army and police force raided the farmhouse.
One Iraqi officer was killed.
When the building was cleared, there was no sign of Al Sudani.
For six months, the Falcons gathered evidence.
They discovered the bugs in the Kia truck. Informers suggested that the militants had taken Al Sudani to Qaim, an Iraqi town controlled by Daesh and beyond the government’s reach.
In August, Daesh released a propaganda video showing militants executing blindfolded prisoners.
The Falcons were certain that Al Sudani was one of them.
“I don’t need to see his face to know my brother,” Munaf said.
In death, Al Sudani has achieved a level of fame unusual in the shadow world of spies.
Iraq’s joint operations command issued a statement about his sacrifice for the nation.
The Falcons published an ode to his bravery.
But because the Al Sudani family do not have a body, they have been unable to obtain a death certificate, a prerequisite to receive benefits due to fallen servicemen.
“I have a wound on my heart,” said his father, Abid Al Sudani.
“He lived and died for his country. The nation should cherish him the way I do.”