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Snap Judgment

To Catch A Terrorist

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST: Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Man On A Mission" episode. Today, we've got stories from fellas who know exactly what they're supposed to do. Sometimes you force yourself into a scenario to enact your plan, all right, but other times the scenario comes knocking. SNAP JUDGMENT's Anna Sussman spoke with Hamody Jasim.

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ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: When American troops marched into Baghdad, a 17-year-old boy named Hamody Jasim opened his front door and saw an American soldier named Brad standing outside.

HAMODY JASIM: This probably was the happiest moment of my life, opening the door and finding somebody out there in front of your door that's just going to change everything. It's going to change your whole entire life.

SUSSMAN: The American troops told Hamody that they were building a new Iraqi army, and Hamody actually ran to the recruiting station to enlist.

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JASIM: I didn't wait a minute. I wanted to be part of that army really bad. My parents were totally against it, but I had a conversation with my dad and my dad said, you know what? At the end of the day, this is a job that will take your life. He said, you're not going to make it. They're all over the place and what are you - you guys are not even a hundred soldiers. What are you going to do to fight a whole country? You're not going to make it. And I just told my dad we'll see. We'll see what happens.

SUSSMAN: Because Hamody had been waiting for a chance to fight Saddam's government since he was a little boy. His childhood living under the Baathists was marked by fear and violence.

JASIM: Being chased by Saddam's Republican Guard, running away from my life - it was just - I didn't have any rights.

SUSSMAN: He had two uncles executed by Saddam's regime. There was one time when his whole town was accused of plotting against the Baathist government.

JASIM: And all of a sudden, we see the Republican Guards coming in with the large, empty trucks, trying to put everybody they can to kill them and put them into the mass graves. So many people were killed that day - executed. So many people were actually led to the mass graves alive.

Basically, Saddam considers everybody traitor. It doesn't matter if you are 1 day old, if you are an elder, if you are a child, if you're a young guy, you were considered a traitor by Saddam troops. To be honest with you, I couldn't believe Saddam would go away, you know? I thought Saddam would live for 500 years and we would never get rid of him.

SUSSMAN: So even when the Americans came to town, Hamody doubted that was really the end of Saddam's regime. He had the feeling he was signing up for a very long fight.

JASIM: Something in my guts told me that these guys are going to come back and they're going to do the same thing again, but this time, they're going to be even more furious. And I was number 19 soldier that joined the Iraqi military.

SUSSMAN: Within a year, Hamody was promoted to sergeant major.

JASIM: A sergeant major usually - it's somebody between the age of 40 to 50 years old.

SUSSMAN: He was 19.

JASIM: But it wasn't - it didn't matter because nobody wanted to do it. I was moved to be the command sergeant major for the ministry of defense and to be in charge of the security from the inside and the outside of the Iraqi MOD, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

SUSSMAN: The Iraqi Ministry of Defense, or MOD, was an actual, physical government building that bordered the Green Zone. Hamody walked into the MOD to scope it out, and he was, well, stunned by what he saw.

JASIM: Because I went in there and all of a sudden I see all these ex-Iraqi military generals.

SUSSMAN: He saw high-ranking members of Saddam's old military, guys who he says committed crimes against humanity. He saw one general who actually ordered the massacre in his hometown.

JASIM: And this is somebody I was supposed to salute as a - being back is a two-star general. To me, it was just not acceptable. That was the enemy. There was no way this guy was here to build a new Iraq.

I found out these guys were showing up to the Green Zone, showing up at the U.S. Embassy, telling them that they want to get their jobs back and they should not fire the old Iraqi army. And you're telling me that I have to protect that building from the inside and the outside while the terrorists are not even outside of the wire. They're actually inside of the building itself.

SUSSMAN: Hamody was convinced these military officers from Saddam's old army were positioning themselves to pull off a slow-motion coup.

JASIM: So if you wanted to really - to attack or kill any American adviser who would hold that kind of rank, major into a general, that was the only place in Iraq that you can get a hold of these kind of Americans.

SUSSMAN: Hamody made sure to stay extra vigilant. He kept his eye on one guy in particular, General Ziad (ph), a former general in Saddam's army who seemed not right.

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JASIM: I ended up checking on him, doing a little bit in his background and he ended up living in an area where most terrorists were living. But I was wondering how come every good Iraqi officer was getting assassinated every time they go home, but this guy wasn't? He would go home every single day and nothing would happen to him.

SUSSMAN: Hamody told the Americans about Ziad, but they needed real proof against such a high-ranking officer. So without raising any suspicions, he started tracking Ziad. And against the rules late one night, Hamody decided to sneak into the general's locker room and break the lock on his locker.

JASIM: Because that was an elite Iraqi officer locker and I was just breaking the law by opening his locker and going through his belongings. It was either a touchdown or either not. Either I was going to get something or either I was going to be in trouble.

I opened the lock and there was a uniform and behind the uniform there was this small black bag. And I looked at the bag. There was - kind of dark inside of locker at the time. I couldn't - I felt there was something in there. I was very nervous. I was about to close the locker, and as soon as I opened the bag, there was a full belt that was full of C-4. I realized at the time it was a suicide belt. Definitely the amount of explosive they had in that bag was really powerful. And I had to hit the emergency button to get everybody out of that building. I wasn't sure if that belt would blow up on me.

SUSSMAN: When he hit the evacuation button, officers and secretaries filed out of the ministry of defense. And then he had to walk the suicide belt out of the building and carefully hand it over to an explosives specialist.

JASIM: Everybody was watching, you know, and everybody - it kind of - inside of my head was - what was going through it at the time was what they were going to say inside of their head, what they were going to be thinking. Now everybody knew this guy works for the Americans.

SUSSMAN: To a lot of people in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, the Americans were occupiers.

JASIM: You're kind of being looked at as the traitor. I felt like a dead man that day, I kind of have to say.

SUSSMAN: He found out pretty quickly through his contacts that there was an aggressive plan to have him assassinated.

JASIM: I knew my time was up. I knew that I wasn't going to make it, and something inside of me said, you know what? There's only one thing that's going to hurt me is - how is my mom going to handle it when I get killed? While I'm thinking inside of my head, I'm like, you know what? I'm going to die anyway. At least let me do something good.

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JASIM: One morning, I was sitting in the office and I got this call on my radio. My soldiers in the front gate of the MOD telling me that there is a woman there needs help and if I can just come out and talk to her. So I came out to talk to the woman. Her son was kidnapped by unknown people and they were - gave her a call, told her that they had her son and if she doesn't bring them any money - they wanted at the time around $20,000 cash. And I remember that I lost my own cousin that way.

It was really difficult watching that woman being broke and sitting on the ground crying. I can't imagine my own mother being in that position. That woman was trying to kiss my own boots, my military boots, for help. And I didn't know what to do. I was really nervous at that time. I didn't know how I was going to help her.

SUSSMAN: This was totally outside the purview of Hamody's job. It was a huge risk.

JASIM: So at the time I was dying anyway. I said, you know what? Give me a few moment. I'll be back.

SUSSMAN: Without alerting their superiors, Hamody and his team drew up a plan to try and free this woman's captive son.

JASIM: We were going against every rule at the time because the Iraqi army had no idea what we were doing. What we were doing is taking our military equipment, putting on civilian clothes, going out the wire on our own without anybody permission.

SUSSMAN: Hamody and his team found the kidnapper. He says it really wasn't that difficult. They just did a little work tracking down cellphone numbers. They put masks over their faces, silencers on their guns and busted down the gate of the kidnapper's house.

JASIM: And we open the gate, basically, the door to his home, and immediately they were sleeping all in one room.

SUSSMAN: They were the kidnapper's family, asleep together on the floor.

JASIM: We had to put the guns on them. My heart was, you know, I had a quick heart beating. It was kind of, like, sad and an enjoyable moment at the same time that to see - to see that how would they react. How would it happen when it happened to them?

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JASIM: It was a really hard position looking at their face and saying I do have an innocent person in between my hands. Half of my heart was doing the job that I needed to do and half of my heart was so much worried about what if something happened.

SUSSMAN: You can think you're in control, but you can't be - you can't be 100 percent in control.

JASIM: Mentally we were, but I thought, like, emotionally we were not in control. Our emotions - at the end of the day, we're human. I was afraid of something, you know, like, when - when you have the gun in your head, anything can go wrong - anything. And it was difficult. It was like playing with fire.

We're hoping things won't go wrong. I mean, the thing is, we didn't want any - we didn't want any child to go through what we went through. Most of my team members were people that was anti-government who went to prisons as young kids as well who was tortured. And our only game or plan was to play the same game back at them. If we don't get what we want, their families will get hurt as well. We have to pretend that we are as bad as they are and we're willing to do anything to get what we want.

SUSSMAN: Does that make you the same as them?

JASIM: It doesn't make you the same as the. Inside of us, as a human being, we're not like them. We had a different intention.

SUSSMAN: Doesn't everybody who's in that position think they're doing it for the right reason?

JASIM: Exactly. What we call this is that's the ugly side of war. And inside of us, did we feel bad guys? Yeah, of course, you're human. You're going to have some guilt. We do know there's some innocence in that circle.

SUSSMAN: I worry how you were kind of victimized as a kid by these Baath Party members, how eager you were to join the military. It sounds - it sounds possible - I guess it sounds like you might not know the difference between vengeance and justice.

JASIM: Justice had to be served at the time. I know that you like that part. It's called terrorist negotiation.

SUSSMAN: And it worked. The kidnapper buckled. With his own family held at gunpoint, he released the hostage boy.

JASIM: The mother was kind of, like, in front of my team trying to thank me and thank my team, saying that I was the terrorist - I was a terrorist whisperer.

SUSSMAN: Word of Hamody the terrorist whisperer got around fast, and pretty soon, he says people were lined up at the gates of the ministry of defense to plead their case to him. He made more rescue attempts and some succeeded and some didn't. But the more people Hamody rescued, the more angry he made his Baathist adversaries. He discovered through some intel that one general in particular, a man named General Mezher (ph), was given the job of personally assassinating him.

JASIM: So Mezher was the guy who was going to make this happen.

SUSSMAN: Mezher was actually a former naval intelligence officer to Saddam. Mezher had been the local bookshop owner when Hamody was a kid.

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JASIM: So my neighborhood happened to be with so many ex-Iraqi military officers. So many military officers that was in the Iraqi army lived in the area, so...

SUSSMAN: Were you scared of them?

JASIM: These people are very high up within the Baath Party and very powerful. And they're always in their mad moods and they're always angry. And I couldn't wait to change that face myself in that office.

So my lucky day that Mezher was the guy, the book guy, from my town where I grew up who was selling books to me, but he has only seen me as a child. He has never seen me as an adult. That actually changed the whole entire thing for me because I know who he was while he doesn't know who I am.

SUSSMAN: So Hamody made some phone calls to his hometown, made sure Mezher's family still lived in the same place, put his team in position and then handed himself over to Mezher, arms up.

JASIM: I decided to walk to Mezher and hand myself in while my team went out that day. They went inside of Mezher's home. They kept his family hostages. At the same time, I walked to Mezher's office and told him, Mezher, I am here ready to surrender to you. And Mezher actually stood up. He smiled and he grabbed me from my elbows. And he said, I'm going to crush your head with my shoes after I kill you. And that was the sentence that came out of his mouth.

I said, you know what? Before you do that, why don't you give your wife a call? And I mentioned his wife's name as well. He kind of looked like he was about to have a heart attack. Why don't you go ahead? Give her call. And he picked up the phone and he called his wife and one of my PSD team answered the phone for him. He couldn't stand himself at the time. He couldn't even stand on his feet. He went back, sat on the chair. I looked at him. I said, you know what? I'm going to let your family go. But I know it wasn't going to end that day. I know I had to leave.

SUSSMAN: Hamody went back to his office, poured gasoline on his family photos and lit them on fire. He destroyed his computer. Then he actually got on his motorcycle and drove out of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and over to the Americans in the Green Zone.

He continued to work as an intelligence source, but within six months, he was shot and almost killed. The Americans sent him to a military hospital and then put him on a flight to evacuate him out of the country.

JASIM: I was sitting on a window seat. What if something goes wrong in the airplane and the plane has to turn back to Baghdad? The pilot made an announcement at the time when we left the borders of Iraq. When we entered the Turkish border, that was the moment when I was really relieved. That was the moment that I kind of felt that I was going to live.

SUSSMAN: I guess I just wonder if it scares you looking back at what you did.

JASIM: Oh, of course, and sometimes I look at myself and I just look at myself, I look at the pictures and I say this was crazy kid who wanted to retaliate back on those terrorists. And when you're young, you're pretty much crazy. You do everything - every crazy thing that's out there, and that's what really made it happen is that I was young and I was willing to do anything.

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WASHINGTON: Hamody has written a whole lot about his experiences fighting alongside the Americans. It's in a book called "The Terrorist Whisperer." We put a link to it on our website, snapjudgment.org. The original sound design you just heard was created by Leon Morimoto and the story was produced by Anna Sussman.

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WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP continues - what happens when a young musician puts everything on the line. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Man On A Mission" episode continues, stay tuned.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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