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Inside the Navy SEALs' Hunt For Al Qaeda

As the dust settled in the wake of 9/11, the only thing clear was that the United States was facing a new type of combat, and that our nation’s enemies were hiding out in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. Into this new climate, Brandon Webb and his fellow Navy SEALs embarked on one of the most critical missions in the War on Terror. By January 2002, Webb and company had penetrated deep into enemy territory, where they found a terror camp unlike any seen before. Inside the hunt for Al Qaeda.

From The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, by Brandon Webb | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

Shortly after New Year’s Day 2002, my fellow SEALs and I learned we would be going on a mission to the province of Khost in Afghanistan, a few hundred miles northeast of Kandahar and nestled in the mountains right up against the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This was the home of the infamous Zhawar Kili cave complex, the location where Osama bin Laden is said to have officially declared war on America in 1998. My platoon had shipped out soon after 9/11, first to Kuwait, then Oman, before finally arriving in Afghanistan in mid-December.

Zhawar Kili was an elaborate complex of caves and tunnels built into the mountainside and one of the prime regions where Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership was believed to have fled after we bombed their hideouts at Tora Bora, some 50 miles to the north. It was also a major corridor to Pakistan.

Hard information on Zhawar Kili was sketchy at best. We knew there was a base camp consisting of three large tunnels, with an unknown number of rooms, caverns, and sub-tunnels. We also knew there was an extensive system of caves and tunnels built into the mountain ridge above the base camp. The place was a frigging warren, encompassing arms depots, communications, hotel-like residences, a mosque, a kitchen, a medical facility…an entire terrorist town drilled into the face of a mountain, with room for some 500 people.

It was also a fortress, and damn near invincible. It had been hit by U.S. air strikes shortly after hostilities commenced on October 7, 2001, but to little effect. In order to really nail this place, we needed people on the ground exploring the caves on foot and coming back with the specific coordinates that would allow precision strikes.

This was not originally our mission. The Zhawar Kili site was too large and complicated for our platoon of 16. We were going to need some reinforcements, so our numbers were appropriately goosed with the addition of a ground unit of about 20 Marines. We had our two-man Air Force Combat Control Team, Brad and Eric; and our two Explosive Ordnance Disposal guys, Brad (a different Brad) and Steve. We were also assigned two guys from the FBI to provide forensic expertise and DNA sample collection from enemy grave sites, one guy from the Counterterrorist Intelligence Center (CTIC), and a chemical-weapons expert from the Army’s Chemical Reconnaissance Detachment (CRD), for his expertise in comb­ing through whatever we would find out there.

It was a three-hour insert by helicopter from Bagram Air Base to the Zhawar Kili complex. We were let off in the mountains predawn, about 4 a.m. Then we set off, patrolling our way in the direction of the caves.

A few kilometers in, I looked over at our breacher, Shawn, who was carrying a hooli­gan (a big metal breaching tool) on his back, along with a ton of explosives. Brad and Steve, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) techs, had their explosive equipment too. Choate, our assistant officer in charge, carried photographic and video equipment to document whatever we would find. These guys had to be miserable. We still had miles to go, and we were gaining altitude.

About an hour in, we took a water break. I sat down on the ground next to Shawn. “How you doin’, brother?” I felt bad for him. “Dude,” he said, “right about now I would welcome stepping on a land mine.”

Soon we were back on our feet, but by the time we got within proximity of the site, everyone was completely worn out, even Cassidy, our team leader. I saw Cassidy and Smith huddling up for a couple of minutes.

Then Cassidy came over to us. “All right, everybody,” he said, “we’re going to ditch our armor and stash it. We’ll cache it right here and pick it up again on our way out.”

Everyone started shucking their plates. Cassidy looked over at me. “Hey, Webb. Aren’t you going to stash your plates?” I shook my head. “Nope. I didn’t wear any.” Cassidy looked at me for a moment, then grinned. “You son of a bitch.”

From The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, by Brandon Webb | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass: This was critical strategic thinking. You look at the kind of enemy we were up against: Here was a dude running around with nothing but a wool blanket, a wool hat, an AK-47, and maybe a little water and bullets. Not only did this guy know the terrain like the back of his hand, but he was also fast on his feet, running through the hills like a mountain goat. We needed to modify our equipment load if we wanted any hope of matching pace with the guys we were hunting.

By the time we reached the complex the sun was coming up. We started in at the base camp, taking a cave at a time. Our planes had pounded the hell out of the place. There had been quite a few people here the night before, but there was nothing now but bits and pieces of bodies, hardly anything even identifiable. It was a scene of pure carnage.

Inside the caves up on the ridge it was a whole other story. As we started penetrating into the mountainside, it became clear that our bombing raid hadn’t done shit. This place was in mint condition. These caves were so deeply burrowed that many of them were still completely intact. Hell, some went back a good half mile. Several of the tunnels were reinforced by steel beams and lined with brickwork, with plenty of evidence of Soviet craftsmanship left over from the ’80s.

Those first few hours going deep into the caves and tunnels were intense. We had no idea what we’d find in there. Fortunately we did not encounter a single person—but we were stunned at how much we found in the way of matériel. There were massive amounts of ordnance, ammo, and fuel. And they had stocked up on some big hardware, too, including tanks and other Soviet-era combat vehicles. These guys had prepared for quite the campaign.

We found classrooms with posters on the walls sporting anti-American slogans. On one the artist had cobbled together a photo of bin Laden in the foreground with two planes crashing into the Twin Towers in the background. I stared at this freakish piece of propaganda nearly open-mouthed. This thing was created as an Al Qaeda recruiting poster for the mission it illustrated. In other words, it had been put together before the event it was depicting had taken place. Standing there deep in the bowels of this godforsaken mountain on the other side of the world, staring at a picture of the attack on New York City that was composited and hung here before the attack itself actually occurred...It was one of the eeriest experiences I’ve ever had. I still have that poster.

It was hot, tedious, nerve-racking work. Within about four hours we had the whole place cleared. Fortunately, we hadn’t run into any resistance.

Now that we knew we were alone and had a general sense of the lay of the land, we went back through the whole place a second time, gathering up intel, collecting the smaller items we could bring back with us, and planting demolition in areas we would later blow up. After taking everything we could, we got the complex ready for the explosion. The blast created a huge fireball that nearly took out half the mountain. The secondaries cooked off for probably four to six hours. It was January 6, but it sure looked like the Fourth of July.

The next day four of us—Cassidy, Osman, Brad, and me—went out before dawn to patrol a site where a C-130 gunship had engaged some forces the night before, to see if we could find any bodies. Before we could do any serious searching, we heard voices coming from some nearby caves. The four of us instantly hit the ground and waited. As we watched, a group of enemy fighters—20 of them, at least, and all armed—started pouring out of a cave above us.

If this were happening in the movies, we would all just jump up to our feet and blow these guys away. But in real life it doesn’t work that way. We were outnumbered at least five to one, and we were not armed with machine guns. This was not the O.K. Corral, and if we leaped to our feet we would all be mowed down in short order. There was no hiding until they were gone, either: These guys were headed our way. We would have to call in an air strike, and do it fast.

From The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, by Brandon Webb | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

There was a B-52 nearby. Brad got it on the radio. It was my job to give him the coordinates, but there was a snag: The only way to ensure that the team in the B-52 dropped their fireworks on the other guys and not on us was to give them the exact location. Typically we’d do this using a high-powered laser rangefinder hooked into a GPS, so that when it ranged the target it would give us not only the distance but also the target’s GPS coordinates. And these bombers are extremely accurate with their ordnance, like vertical snipers in the sky.

But we’d only planned for a simple 12-hour mission and didn’t have all our usual equipment. Typically, for a full-on recon mission, I’d have at least a good sniper rifle. We didn’t even have a decent rangefinder.

Training, training. As a SEAL sniper I’d been taught to estimate distances on the fly even without all the regular tools, using only my five senses and my gut. But usually I’d be shooting a 10-gram bullet from the muzzle of a rifle. In this case, we were shooting a 1,000-pound “bullet” out of a 125-ton aircraft, flying 20,000 feet above us at near the speed of sound, at a target less than 500 yards away from where we sat. And I had to get it right.

Those 20-plus Al Qaeda, or Taliban, or who the hell knew who, were trickling down the slope heading straight for our position. They hadn’t seen us yet, but it would be only seconds before they did. If we were going to do this thing, it had to be now.

“Brandon!” Cassidy hissed. “You need to Kentucky-windage this drop!” Kentucky windage is a term that means basically this: Wing it. Give it your best shot. I gave Cassidy a bearing I estimated as 100 meters past the group. If I was going to be off at all, better to guess long than short, and if I was balls-on accurate, a drop 100 meters behind them should at least buy us a few seconds to adjust and drop a second time.

Now the enemy cluster was so close we couldn’t wait any longer. We quickly moved to cover—and that’s when they spotted us. There were a few alarmed shouts and then the sounds of small-arms fire.

There is nothing quite so galvanizing as the distinct crack! snap! of semiautomatic weaponry being fired over your head, the crack! being the sound of the initial shot and the snap! being the bullet breaking the sound barrier as it zings past you.

We returned fire. I sighted one guy wearing a black headdress, dropped him. Quickly resighted and dropped a second, this one wearing the traditional Afghan wool roll-up hat. I sighted a third—then glanced up and saw vapor trails in the sky. The B-52 was flying so high it was invisible to us, but I knew exactly what was happening up there: They were dropping the first bomb.

When you are this close to a big explosion, it rocks your chest cavity. You want to make sure your mouth is open so the contained impact doesn’t burst your lungs. Brad got the call: We were seconds from impact. We opened our mouths, dropped, and rolled.

The Joint Direct Attack Munition is a big bomb and extremely accurate. When the first set hit, it shook the mountain under our feet, throwing rubble everywhere.

I whipped around and glanced back to assess the strike. Perfect—about 100 yards behind the target. I rolled again, adjusting numbers in my head, and shouted the new coordinates to Cassidy. Then an unexpected sound sliced through the strange silence: the wail of a baby crying.

My stomach twisted. I had a five-week-old baby boy at home whom I’d not yet held in my arms; hopefully I would survive this war to meet him face-to-face. Someone up on that hillside had a baby they would never see or hold again. I knew these people had made the decision to bring their families out here to this godforsaken fortress, knowingly putting them in harm’s way. It was their choice, I told myself, not ours. But I’ll never forget the sound of that baby’s cry.

We opened our mouths, ducked, and rolled. The second drop took them all.

Several days later we went out on another village op. There were genuine bad guys hiding out there, and there were people who were just up in the mountains, living the simple life. We could usually tell the difference pretty clearly… but not always.

There was a place we’d been watching for a few days now. These people appeared to be farmers, but we were not 100 percent positive. We decided it was time to go out there and see up close. I was set up as sniper overwatch to guard the platoon as they went in to meet the people and talk.

It was morning. I watched as Cassidy and his team made their way to where a small group of these guys had congregated in a few buildings. It wasn’t like we were storming the place; this was more of a diplomatic mission.

Having dug into my sniper overwatch position, in the kind of well-concealed hide we’d been trained to construct in the stalking phase of sniper school, I used the scope on my .300 Win Mag sniper rifle to get a closer look at these people. The villagers clearly saw Cassidy and the guys approaching. Something was going on there, but I couldn’t tell what.

I relayed my observations to Cassidy on the radio and told him to be on his toes.

As I continued moving my rifle in a small oscillating arc, shifting my view back and forth between Cassidy and his team and the little knot of Afghan farmers, I noticed one guy standing off to the side. He had a gun.


The man had his rifle slung casually over his shoulder, and there was nothing threatening about the posture. I couldn’t tell if he was a bad actor or an innocent farmer. I was leaning toward farmer...But why was he carrying a gun? Alarm bells were going off in my head.

Cassidy and the team were now close to the house. Man, oh, man, I was thinking.

Do I take the shot? Will it put Cassidy in a tough spot?

The guy was about 600 yards away. I knew I could take him out in a heartbeat. I felt my finger against the trigger. Breathe out…focus…squeeze…pop.
It would be that easy. But if I did, it would certainly com­plicate the situation. If I shot the guy and it turned out he was innocent, we’d have quite a scene on our hands.


What do I do? I had all the information I was going to have. There was no more intel to weigh, no path of logic to make the wiser choice. It came down to pure instinct. Do I take the shot or not?

I breathed out…focused…squeezed...

I decided not to take the shot.

A moment later Cassidy and the guys were there talking to these Afghan farmers—and suddenly I caught a glimpse of movement way off to my left. Some character in Arab dress, clearly not Afghan, was hightailing it out of there, tearing along a little goat trail up the mountain toward Pakistan.


This guy could have been out there on his own, but I didn’t think so. The farmer I’d been targeting had been standing sentry. They were covering for this Al Qaeda dude or whoever he was, and the moment they had Cassidy and his team engaged in conversation, one of them had told him to take off.

I switched to my binoculars and caught him scurrying up the hill, closing in on a kilometer away. I couldn’t get an accurate shot off in time, and I couldn’t chase him, because I’d have to leave my hiding spot and would no longer be supporting Cassidy and the team.

I got back to Cassidy on the radio and told him what happened. I could see him now, going back and forth with the farmers, who were hotly denying everything. But I’d seen enough to know they were lying.

Thinking back over the whole sequence, I didn’t see what I would have done differently. With the information I had, giving this farmer the benefit of the doubt still seemed to me the right decision. Yes, these Afghan villagers would sometimes harbor other Afghans who were Taliban or Arabs we would call Al Qaeda. But for the most part, they were not bad people; they were just trying to get along and survive, to go on living there in the mountains the way they had been for generations without getting caught in the crosshairs of battle.

When we first arrived, in Kuwait and Oman and finally Afghanistan, we were hyped up and angry and ready to deliver payback. We were coming right off the shock of 9/11 and had all sorts of people e-mailing us from the States, voicing their support and cheering us on. Along with the caricature of the white devil and 3 echo on our platoon patch, I’d had a legend stitched underneath that read embrace the hate.

That’s the mode we operated in, and our rules of engagement certainly supported that: When in doubt, take them out. But as we got more immersed in the culture and began to see things from the point of view of the people who lived there, things began to shift a bit. I’d been in Afghanistan long enough now to understand that not everyone had to die.

From The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, by Brandon Webb. Copyright © 2012, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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