Between 2003 and 2004 Blackwater security expert Frank Gallagher managed the impossible — keeping Paul Bremer, the de facto head of state for newly invaded Iraq, alive through a violent insurgency. At times, it was a close-run thing. This was one of those times.
In his book, Frank Gallagher has captured all the drama and difficulties of operating in a violent war zone, post-Saddam Iraq. As head of my person security detail, Mr. Gallagher vividly captures the tense and dangerous duty he and his dedicated colleagues from Blackwater carried out under the most trying circumstances. On a number of occasions, some of them revealed in this book, Gallagher and his team literally saved lives — mine and others — through their quick and professional reactions to danger. If you want a flavour of life in post-invation Iraq, this is the book for you. — L. Paul Bremer III, Former Presidential Envoy to Iraq
6 December 2003:
On a Red Zone run, Ambassador Bremer came out of his meeting with Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, at Haki’s house in Baghdad, and turned to me and said he would be going to the airport with the secretary of defence. This was not part of my detailed plan for the day. We had expected to head directly back to the Green Zone and the palace. My initial reaction was to protest the move, but I could see from the look in his eyes that this was not open for debate. I answered, “Yes, Sir” and relayed the information to the team.
The road to BIAP was referred to in many ways — none of them favourable. We usually called it the highway of death, as the insurgents repeatedly targeted and killed coalition forces making the dangerous journey to between the airport and the Green Zone. Adrenaline pumped as I made a mental checklist of the items we had not been able to do to make this trip as safe as possible: no advance team; no helicopter briefing; the route had not been cleared; no idea/intel of events that had occurred on Route Irish that day.
Many major components of a regular mission were not in place. The flip side was that, as this was an unscheduled visit, no one knew we were heading out there, and we would be travelling with the additional man and firepower that accompanied Secretary Rumsfeld. I notified the team that there had been a change in plans and that we were off to the VIP lounge at the airport. Needless to say, some of the radio traffic back to me expressed grave concern about doing the mission, a la “Are you nuts?!”
The twenty minute trip out to the airport was uneventful. However, the eighteen or so car motorcade with US Army Apache helicopters, Kiowa helicopters, and my two Little Birds certainly told everyone in the area something unusual and noteworthy was taking place at the airport this evening. Imagine eighteen vehicles moving as if controlled by one mind. We called it “the motorcade dance.” All were moving within mere feet of each other. All were rolling at 60-70mph. It was a thing of beauty. We arrived safely, and the meeting began.
I gathered my men and explained that getting back to the Green Zone was going to be an adventure, and to make sure that everyone was aware of the dangers — a truly unnecessary step as they all knew the risks. While we had the advantage of surprise on our way to the airport, this would be lost on the return. We should expect a lot of unwanted attention on the way back. We laughed and said our goodbyes to one another and promised to have a cup of mead in Valhalla later that evening. One has to love the macabre sense of humour among security contractors.
At 2320, the meeting broke up. Ambassador Bremer and Brian McCormick came out, and we loaded them into the motorcade. We were the first motorcade to leave that evening, the irony of being the advance motorcade heading down the highway of death was not lost on any of us. Earlier, because we had no idea how long we would be there, I had told Hacksaw to have the Little Birds land at the airport and stay with us. I could not risk having the ambassador come out, and us not having the helos. Our adrenaline levels spiked. It was late. And very dark. The Little Birds were in the air flying top cover and scanning for potential issues. Due to the manpower issues I had only one shooter in each bird, Shrek and another guy.
We had two up-armoured Humvees working as our lead CAT element in front of the protection detail motorcade. Our lead car, driven by Travis T had Riceman sitting in the front-right seat working as the tactical commander. Behind him we had two additional shooters staring intently out the windows, peering into the darkness for signs of trouble. The limo had Q behind the wheel, and I was sitting in the front-right seat with the ambassador directly behind me. Brian Mac was sitting behind Q. The follow car had a driver, and Ski sitting right-front acting as the shift leader. Behind them were two more shooters watching their areas of responsibility, and behind them in the third row we had Doc Jones. Following up as rear security were two more up-armoured CAT vehicles.
From my position in the limo, a level-6 armoured SUV, I could watch Q at the wheel and Hacksaw flying lead helo above. As we progressed, Hacksaw reported a suspicious vehicle backing down an on-ramp on the highway. He radioed that he was going to fly over and check it out. The shift leader gave the command to shift the limo to the left (away from the side of the road and away from the entrance to the on-ramp and toward the center median) while the follow and lead cars shifted to the right.
Seconds later, all hell broke loose.
I heard something hit my window. While I was trying to figure out what it was there was an explosion of light and sound. The limo veered. Q fought to retain control. Temporarily blinded by the explosions we could see nothing. I leaned over the seats to check on the Ambassador and Brian just as the Ambassador asked what had happened. “Bomb and AK fire, Sir,” I told him. Despite the sound of the explosions, we could still hear AKs being fired at us. I asked the boss if he was ok, and he confirmed he was. I could see the back of the limo had sustained severe damage (the rear window was gone and the door itself was bent), and I directed him and Brian to get down. Despite the damage, Q was firmly in control of the vehicle. The bad guys were shooting at the limo as we sped away at roughly 60mph through the smoke-induced fog. Neither Q nor I could see anything more than five feet in front of us. Q was driving purely by instinct and training.
Over the radio, I heard shift leader, Ski, calling out “TUNA, TUNA, TUNA” — our code to drive directly through an ambush, getting off the “X” and out of the kill zone. The smoke cleared and I looked to my right to see the follow car driver about twenty-four inches away from me using his car to shield the limo — his side mirror touching Q’s at 60mph. I asked for a casualty report and learned that two of our four CAT team vehicles were damaged, but limping along. No injuries to any of the detail or CAT team members.
As all this was happening, Ambassador Bremer leaned over and casually asked Brian Mac, “Tell me again why we shouldn’t go to Davos?” They had been discussing the upcoming trip to Davos when the attack happened. And, in typical Bremer fashion. He never panicked, just went right back to the subject at hand.
As the AIC I had to make the painful decision that the damaged CAT vehicles were o their own. I was unsure of the damage to the limo, and the Ambassador’s safety always came first.
The shift leader radioed me again to ask if we were all right. I responded, “That’s an affirm.” Apparently the damage to the limo was far greater than I realised. The follow car guys could see it, we couldn’t. We were advised to slow our vehicle down to make sure we reached the Green Zone safely. Q throttle back to about 45mph. And we made it back.
Inspecting the damage to the motorcade vehicles after arrival we found several bullet holes in the rear of the lead vehicle. The limo had lost its back end (the non-armoured hatch area), the electronic countermeasure (ECM) device had been destroyed, and we found shrapnel and bullet holes in the armoured area just behind the rear seats where the Ambassador and Brian had been sitting. The ECM blocks radio and telephone signals from being able to set off explosive devices. The IED must have been command detonated, meaning that, rather than being radio controlled, it was hardwired to explode when the terrorist pressed a button to initiate the device. In hindsight we concluded we had happened upon the ambush site before the insurgents had finished their nasty surprise for us. They must have shot at us hoping that we would slow down or stop and engage them. There were additional bullet holes in the right side of the car and, of course, one that was even with my head on my window. The follow car had extensive shrapnel damage and bullet holes riddling the body. When the explosion went off the heat from the blast convinced both the shift leader and the driver their feet had been badly burned. Fortunately it had been only painful, not permanent. Fifteen minutes later by CAT vehicles finally limped in. All the tires had been destroyed and they had sustained extensive shrapnel damage.
The ambassador took a look at the car and asked again if everyone was ok. I said we were all fine. He turned and walked to his office and went right back to work. I met with Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA), who asked if incident would be on the news. I told him there was no way we would be reporting it. The ambassador called me to his office, and we talked about keeping the incident quiet and whether he should mention it to his wife or not. I told him he might want to mention it to his wife or not. I told him he might want to mention it because this way if she heard about it, she would know he was safe.
Minutes later, I got a call from Brutus telling me that one of the Dirty 30 teams had been attacked on the road, and that they heard sounds of an attack fifteen minutes before their guys had been hit. I told him the first attack had been against us. Our convoy to the airport had drawn a lot of attention.
I notified Blackwater that we had been hit but suffered no casualties. They thanked me for the briefing. I also called Jimmy Cawley from the Secret Service as gave him the details. I knew the Secret Service would want to know the details firsthand and not through the media, if news of the attack became public. He was thankful that no one was hurt and that Bremer was safe.
Somehow, the news didn’t leak out for two weeks. Who leaked it, I still do not know. Someone in Washington spilled it to the DC press. Very quickly everyone knew about it, and the Iraqi press pressured the ambassador for his reaction. He calmed stated that it had happened two weeks earlier and it had not altered or changed the way he did his job or how he conducted business as evidenced by the schedule that he had maintained since. Dan Senor added at a press conference that the Ambassador had full faith in his security team to keep him safe. There were some family members of guys on the team who were not happy when they heard about it, but we had all survived. No harm, no foul.
In retrospect, I am still not sure who the bad guys thought they were attacking or why no one ever took credit for the attack. The mission to the airport had been unscheduled but extremely high profile, so I think we were just a target of opportunity. Wrong place, wrong time.
That night, after making my calls, I had headed over to Blackwater Boulevard to check on the guys. It was by then about 0100.
Me: “Everybody OK?”
The team, all talking at once: “Damn, that was close.”
“Have a drink.”
“How’s the boss?”
“Shit, they almost got us.”
And on it went for about thirty minutes. I trudged back to my trailer and tried to sleep. The adrenaline was slowly wearing off, and my thoughts were filled with the usual thousand “what if” questions. I finally dozed off.
We found out the next day that the IED consisted of eight howitzer shells wired together. Only the first two had gone off. The six that had not exploded were placed in our direction of travel. In other words, as we drove away from the first explosion, we were meant to roll right over another three times more powerful! Thank God the guys who wired it had made a mistake, and that we were moving fast, otherwise the results would have been different.
One more of our nine lives had been used up. How many did we have left?
This chapter was excerpted from Frank’s new book, “The Bremer Detail,” available to buy now on Amazon.
Top Photo: Getty Images. Frank is pictured wearing a blue shirt, escorting Ambassador Bremer (suit and tie) through the streets of Baghdad.