'Pray for me': the Iraqi spy who infiltrated Islamic State
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'Pray for me': the Iraqi spy who infiltrated Islamic State

Baghdad: The driver was sweating as his white Kia ute sped along a rain-slicked Baghdad highway toward a neighbourhood bustling with open-air markets.

Munther al-Sudani, the brother of Captain Harith al-Sudani, shows off a tattoo of his late brother in Baghdad.

Munther al-Sudani, the brother of Captain Harith al-Sudani, shows off a tattoo of his late brother in Baghdad.

Photo: New York Times

With every jolt and turn, his pulse quickened. Hidden in the truck's chassis was 500 kilograms of military-grade explosives that the Islamic State 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, Captain Harith al-Sudani, was a spy.

For the past 16 months, he had worked as a mole, posing as a militant jihadi in the Islamic State while passing critical information to a secret branch of Iraq's national intelligence agency.

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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. Sudani also gave the agency a direct line to some of the Islamic State's senior commanders in Mosul, Iraq.

Abid al-Sudani with his wife, Laisa Hashim Shuaith, the parents of Captain Harith al-Sudani, outside their home in Baghdad, on May 8.

Abid al-Sudani with his wife, Laisa Hashim Shuaith, the parents of Captain Harith al-Sudani, outside their home in Baghdad, on May 8.

Photo: New York Times

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 the Islamic State.

But now, on this last day of 2016, as he cruised along the four-lane cross-town 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 the Islamic State 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-tonne of C-4 plastic explosive riding alongside him didn't kill him, the Islamic State might. Before he left on this, his penultimate mission, he sent his father a text.

"Pray for me," he said.

A mural of the late Captain Harith al-Sudani outside his family home in Baghdad in May.

A mural of the late Captain Harith al-Sudani outside his family home in Baghdad in May.

Photo: New York Times

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 the Islamic State. 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 Islamic State 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.

Photographs of Captain Harith al-Sudani are laid out at his family's home in Baghdad.

Photographs of Captain Harith al-Sudani are laid out at his family's home in Baghdad.

Photo: New York Times

"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 Islamic State attacks, Sudani became an undercover agent known as Abu Suhaib. His mission: infiltrate a notorious Islamic State 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 Islamic State official in Mosul would order Sudani to meet suicide bombers arriving in Tarmiyah from Islamic State-held territory, or to pick up a vehicle bomb.

Iraqi border guard troops patrol the Syrian border near Qaim, in April.

Iraqi border guard troops patrol the Syrian border near Qaim, in April.

Photo: New York Times

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 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 Sudani's cover intact.

On December 31, the Mosul commander told 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.

Sudani picked up the white Kia in the eastern Baghdad neighbourhood 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 cross-town highway toward the Falcons' safe house. His phone rang. It was Mosul, asking his location.

Sudani assured the caller that he was en route to the target. The handler said he was lying. 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 Munaf, who was part of the chase team, used hand signals to direct Sudani to the new meeting point.

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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, 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.

Sudani's mission was a success. What he didn't know was that the Islamic State 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, General Saad al-Falih, said later. "We just didn't realise how much."

In early January 2017, the Islamic State called 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 January 17, he entered the farmhouse. Just after sunset, the Falcons team alerted Falih that something was wrong.

Because Tarmiyah was an Islamic State 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 Sudani.

For six months, the Falcons gathered evidence. They discovered the bugs in the Kia truck. Informers suggested that the jihadis had taken Sudani to Qaim, an Iraqi town controlled by the Islamic State and beyond the government's reach.

In August, the Islamic State released a propaganda video showing militants executing blindfolded prisoners. The Falcons were certain that Sudani was one of them.

"I don't need to see his face to know my brother," Munaf said.

In death, 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 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."

New York Times