How Social Networking Helped Capture Saddam

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A five-part series running on this week illustrates how the capture of Saddam Hussein was the result of some creative intelligence work. While the military focused on capturing and questioning top government officials, a group of men in the U.S. military honed in on a social network of family and friends that led to Saddam's capture. Chris Wilson, the author of Searching for Saddam, discusses how Saddam was caught.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a spider hole on a farm along the Tigris River, nine months after his regime was toppled. How he was found is the subject of a five-part series in by Chris Wilson, who joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRIS WILSON (Associate Editor, Hi, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And Chris Wilson, your thesis here is that Saddam Hussein was found thanks to some applied sociology, network theory.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, that's exactly right.

SIEGEL: What happened?

Mr. WILSON: After Saddam escaped Baghdad just a couple of days after the coalition troops moved in, he went back to his home region in Tikrit and really kind of disappeared, and so what the coalition troops had to do was figure out who all these families in Tikrit, who were hiding him, were, and the way to do that was to build a giant sort of Facebook-style social network diagram.

SIEGEL: So there were U.S. military intelligence types who were building illustrated charts, family trees, charts of social acquaintances and political relationships of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. WILSON: Exactly, and it turns out there were five families in Tikrit who were really important, as well as a couple of other families who sort of played intermediate roles. So it was sort of like the New York mafia.

SIEGEL: At the time, as you write in your article, there was much attention paid to the deck of cards, like the 55 most wanted Baathists, and the U.S. military put out a deck of cards with their pictures on it. That was not going to be a lot of help in finding Saddam Hussein.

Mr. WILSON: No, and the reason is that after his administration fell apart, Saddam went to the people he could trust, and those were not kind of bureaucrats in his regime. It wasn't the trade minister or the oil minister. It was his family, and these were not people who were on the deck of cards.

SIEGEL: So the kinds of people whom intelligence agencies might have been prepared to look for, political allies or associates, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about whose second cousin's son might have a place where he could hide out for a while.

Mr. WILSON: Exactly, and that's exactly why this social network diagram was so important was that we were really starting from scratch and figuring out who these protectors were.

SIEGEL: Now, let me ask you this question. The Saddam Hussein bodyguard, whose farm was actually the place that Saddam Hussein was discovered at, was pictured in a video of Saddam in Baghdad after U.S. forces had already reached the capital. Wouldn't any theory, simple or complex, intuitive or book-learned, lead everybody to want to question everybody in the video with Saddam Hussein when he was last seen in public?

Mr. WILSON: Certainly, although at the time, we didn't really know whether this video was authentic or not, and it wasn't until we started mapping these families out that we really had the capability to figure out who these kind of lower-level bodyguards were, who didn't have a lot of name recognition, you know, among sort of intelligence analysts ahead of time.

SIEGEL: But the process you describe is not an A to B to C to D to E to F in finding him. There's a lot of hit or miss here involved.

Mr. WILSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, many, many raids. Certainly, the majority were dry holes, as they say. They didn't come up with the target. However, often, they would come up with very interesting intelligence on these raids, such as photographs of Saddam with his bodyguards. That was very telling about who was important.

You know, Saddam was the sole source of authority in Iraq, and you really wanted to have your photo taken with him, as you were, you know, a rising star.

SIEGEL: Take us through the end of what proved to be the successful search for Saddam Hussein, say the last three people in the chain to that spider hole on the farm.

Mr. WILSON: Sure. So by this point, the officers and the intelligence analysts were convinced that Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit, this bodyguard, was the key to Saddam, and so they had tracked this guy Mohammed to a farm with a little lake, a sort of fishing lake, that they knew he liked to fish with a buddy, yeah, raided that farm, didn't find either him or the buddy but found his fishing buddies and cousins.

And from there, apprehended them, were able to follow both Mohammad and his friend to Baghdad and finally tracked Mohammed down at a safe house that his friend owned. And from there, it was actually a very short time before he broke down and drew a little map of the farm where Saddam was hiding.

SIEGEL: So part of the wisdom in all this is understanding that a fisherman in Iraq, who may not have any particular political record or military record, might be very important just because of whom he knows, whom he fishes with.

Mr. WILSON: Exactly, and, you know, we think of all the kind of random connections we have with strangers through people who, you know, we maybe vaguely know but who connect us to all sorts of different social networks.

And, you know, the other kind of lesson here is that you have to be willing to go after people like this who are not themselves considered a threat but who very well may know where somebody very important is hiding.

SIEGEL: Chris Wilson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WILSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Chris Wilson is the author of a series in called "Searching for Saddam."

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