Top secret army cell recruiting Iraqi insurgent double agents
London Telegraph | February 4, 2007
Deep inside the heart of the "Green Zone", the heavily fortified administrative compound in Baghdad, lies one of the most carefully guarded secrets of the war in Iraq. It is a cell from a small and anonymous British Army unit that goes by the deliberately meaningless name of the Joint Support Group (JSG), and it has proved to be one of the Coalition's most effective and deadly weapons in the fight against terror.
Its members - servicemen and women of all ranks recruited from all three of the Armed Forces - are trained to turn hardened terrorists into coalition spies using methods developed on the mean streets of Ulster during the Troubles, when the Army managed to infiltrate the IRA at almost every level. Since war broke out in Iraq in 2003, they have been responsible for running dozens of Iraqi double agents.
Working alongside the Special Air Service and the American Delta Force as part of the Baghdad-based counter-terrorist unit known as Task Force Black, they have supplied intelligence that has saved hundreds of lives and resulted in some of the most notable successes against the myriad terror groups fighting in Iraq. Only last week, intelligence from the JSG is understood to have led to a series of successful operations against Sunni militia groups in southern Baghdad.
Information obtained by the unit is also understood to have inspired one of the most successful operations carried out by Task Force Black, in November 2005, when SAS snipers shot dead three suicide bombers.
The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq up until his death in June last year, followed intelligence obtained by the JSG, as did the rescue of the kidnapped peace campaigner, Norman Kember.
"The JSG is the coalition's secret weapon," revealed one defence source. "Their job is to recruit and run covert human intelligence sources or agents - we never use the term informer. The Americans are in awe of the unit because they have nothing like them within their military."
During the Troubles, the JSG operated under the cover name of the Force Research Unit (FRU), which between the early 1980s and the late 1990s managed to penetrate the very heart of the IRA. By targeting and then "turning" members of the paramilitary organisation with a variety of "inducements" ranging from blackmail to bribes, the FRU operators developed agents at virtually every command level within the IRA.
The unit was renamed following the Stevens Inquiry into allegations of collusion between the security forces and protestant paramilitary groups, and, until relatively recently continued to work exclusively in Northern Ireland.
The JSG recruits men and women of any rank from all three services up to the age of 42. Volunteers attend a two week pre-selection course where those not in possession of the unique set of skills required to handle agents successfully are weeded out.
Candidates who get through pre-selection then spend the next four months at the Intelligence Corps headquarters at Chicksands, Bedfordshire, being taught driving and close-quarter battle skills - operators must be capable of using a wide variety of weapons but must be expert shots with a pistol.
But most important of all, -volunteers must be able to befriend people they may actually despise, win their trust and persuade them to become agents, which in some cases will mean getting them to inform on friends and relatives. Those who eventually pass the course can expect to be posted to Baghdad, Basra and Afghanistan.
Sources have told The Sunday Telegraph that in Baghdad intelligence is obtained in a variety of ways. Some of it comes through phone calls to a confidential hot-line where callers can either talk to a member of the JSG or arrange a meeting inside the "Green Zone". It is too dangerous for operators to meet agents at a secret rendezvous in other parts of the city.
With so many Iraqis entering the zone every day, those who want to pass on information can do so with a certain amount of anonymity. But a risk still remains. All potential agents are warned that anyone suspected of being a coalition spy will be tortured before being murdered. If he is married, his wife will be gang-raped in front of their children, who will in all probability also be murdered, they are told. Despite the risks, JSG operators deal with dozens of Iraqis every week who are -prepared, for a variety of reasons, to become informers.
"Some Iraqis come to us because they are simply fed up with the violence," said one source. "They may have had -members of their families -murdered, tortured or kidnapped. Unlike much of the middle class which has already fled the country, they may be too poor to leave and so they come to us to see if they can make a difference.
"They may have a little bit of information or detailed knowledge of a planned attack. We also have to deal with terrorists and that presents us with a difficulty. We are happy for them to pass us information but it is made absolutely clear to them that as a member of a terrorist group they are criminals and they should cease all activity immediately - we have had cases where Shia or Sunni men have provided us with information and as part of the debriefing process we have discovered that they are terrorists themselves. We warn them that they are running the risk of being killed or captured and that they should get themselves into a position within the organisation where they will not be directly involved in murder."
To senior American officers in Baghdad, the JSG is playing a vital role in the most important theatre of the war on terror.
"In many respects, Afghanistan is a side issue and that is something the Americans understand better than British politicians," said a source. "Ask any senior officer in Baghdad, given a choice, which war would they be prepared to lose and they will say the war in Afghanistan.
"In many respects the war in Iraq has redefined insurgent warfare. Think of the very worst of Northern Ireland combined with the very worst of the Balkans and you are coming close to life on a daily basis in Baghdad. The situation is chaotic and bordering on being hopeless. The Iraqis have absolutely no faith in their army or police force because they are all or nearly all linked to militias.
"Only the coalition forces can bring real security - if the war is lost chaos will reign and the whole of the region will be dragged into a bloody and catastrophic ethnic war."