It was the suicide vest that clinched it.
John C. Myers, a veteran law enforcement officer embedded in the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq’s Anbar province, was certainly familiar with the outlawed amphetamine Captagon. Since arriving in Ramadi in the summer of 2009, he’d learned that the drug’s hallucinogenic effects, similar to those of the recreational rave drug Ecstasy, made it popular with Iraqi cops looking for a jolt.
A top drug smuggler arrested in Anbar earlier that year described drug labs in Syria and warned his Iraqi interrogators that insurgents were making a fortune dealing drugs.
But Myers, 52, a tall, taut fitness fanatic who’s spent more than 20 years in law enforcement, didn’t really focus on the tiny white pills until June, when Iraqi cops found 16 of them in the vest pocket of a suicide bomber who’d attacked an American convoy in the Anbar province capital.
“That was my ‘aha’ moment,” Myers says. Drugs were paying for terrorism and terrorists were being paid in drugs.
He tried to connect the dots the way he would during complex drug busts back home. But Iraq is a puzzle palace — much tougher to get to know. Drugs were hardly an issue during his first tour here in 2004, when he had trained Iraqi security officers to protect Baghdad’s new leaders. But after years of insurgency, civil war, and political strife, drugs such as Captagon were now a high-profit way to finance remnants of an insurgency under growing American pressure, as well as a way for the enemy to reward foot soldiers.
Roughly half of the 46 groups the State Department designates as terrorist organizations are involved in the drug trade, according to Michael A. Braun, former operations director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Terrorists prefer operating in political vacuums. So do drug dealers. So their networks are bound to connect in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in failing states such as Somalia and Yemen. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the global illegal drug trade generates an estimated $322 billion a year.
To the soft-spoken, hard-nosed Myers, cracking Ramadi’s terror-trafficking connection was just one more seemingly impossible challenge he’d need to meet; the kind of difficulty he and his colleagues in Iraq had overcome hundreds of times before. Six years after Myers first arrived in Iraq, he’d become part of an elite cadre of American officials quietly effecting one of the little-known successes of the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq.
Myers is one of about 400 active-duty or retired cops and federal agents embedded with U.S. Army and Marine units in Iraq.
Recruited to train and assist local police, he’s part of a deliberately low-key, $70 million effort known as the Law Enforcement Professionals program, or LEP. Though few have heard of it, officials credit LEP with making a significant dent in the criminal enterprises cropping up in the chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Enterprises that lead to things like drugs in a terrorist’s pocket.
As part of his counterterrorism mission, Myers decided to focus on the trafficking in Captagon, also known as “Zero-One.” He enlisted the help of Lt. Col. Paul Touchette, supervisor at the provincial governor’s headquarters, and Col. Mark Stammer, the brigade commander. Obstacle No. 1: persuading Iraqis to help with the crackdown.
The Iraqi law enforcement-intelligence group Myers had created, Task Force CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Against Terrorism), was stretched thin chasing down die-hard insurgents planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and assassinating government officials.
Myers had to convince an underfunded, overworked Iraqi police staff that targeting Zero-One smugglers would starve insurgents of the funds they needed to carry out suicide strikes. Stammer and Touchette exchanged glances and smiled as Myers laid out his plans. Neither was worried. “Just do it, John,” Stammer told him, blessing the new mission.
Myers would find a way.
John Myers never minded the scorching heat of Iraqi summers or the bone-numbing cold that desert nights in winter guaranteed. Fact is, he loved this assignment — drinking endless cups of chai tea or bitter black coffee with his Iraqi counterparts, trying to understand them better. He even enjoyed being in Anbar province — the Sunni heartland, Iraq’s equivalent of America’s Wild West.
He taught his Iraqi charges American-style forensics and watched their confidence swell as terrorist attacks dropped from 15 per day to less than one.
The isolation of Anbar was strangely familiar to this son of a truck driver from Mingo Junction, population 5,000, an old steel town in Jefferson County, Ohio, most famous as the spot where much of the gritty Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter was filmed. An average student, he excelled at football, baseball, and wrestling — all things physical. But he saw small-town boredom take a toll on his high school mates.
After losing several close friends to drugs, Myers signed up for law enforcement — maritime training with the Coast Guard.
In a civilian career that spanned two decades in Ohio and Florida, Myers was drawn to undercover operations — donning wigs and sunglasses, operating under “deep cover” to buy drugs and other contraband. Along the way he learned to create interagency task forces that worked as a unit rather than as competitors. He retired in 2003, but soon missed the action. Less than three years after hanging up his badge, he volunteered to train cops in Iraq.
His first tour in Baghdad was satisfying enough — organizing wrestling competitions for Iraqi youth in his spare time — but it was his second tour as a law enforcement professional in Anbar where Myers felt most at home. He was doing what he loved, building law enforcement coalitions, working with local cops who were eager to learn, and helping plan missions for his protégés.
When Myers wasn’t at work, he would be in the gym, pumping iron, running on the treadmill. Working out was a semi-religion for him, a discipline that kept him sharp.
His living quarters in a small compound behind the governor’s office had at least some of the comforts of home: three computers, for instance, one of which was unclassified, allowing him to watch action movies and Miami Dolphins games. From his office, he used Skype to stay in touch with his wife of 28 years, their three grown-up children, and their two grandchildren.
“They have totally supported me in this mission,” he says.
Myers knew well the 82nd Airborne had inherited a province last year that was stable, but far from secure. Iraq’s largest province, with a mostly Sunni Muslim population of about 1.5 million, Anbar had once been a key al-Qaida stronghold. It is also the birthplace of the Sunni tribal-led counterinsurgency that helped stabilize Iraq and contributed to Gen. David Petraeus’ surge successes.
Sniper attacks and crude car bombs have replaced the massive suicide bombings that once plagued Anbar, but the heavily fortified governor’s compound in Ramadi continues to be a target. One of the most devastating attacks occurred in December 2009 when suicide bombers detonated explosives outside the facility, killing 24 and wounding 57.
Among the wounded was Qasim Mohammed, Anbar’s dynamic, 55-year-old governor, widely admired by Americans for his economic ambitions and role in the Sunni tribal “awakening.”
He lost his left hand, but the attack gave Mohammed political leeway to appoint controversial officials dedicated to reform. Myers soon found himself working with an energetic new police chief, Brig. Gen. Baha Hussein al-Karkhi, a professional former military officer recruited from Baghdad to clean house in the Anbar capital. After screening the 29,000-man police force, he fired 3,000 staffers when background checks revealed possible ties to insurgents.
“I had quantity, but not quality,” says the brigadier general. “Some on my force had simply taken off their head scarves and put on badges.” He estimates 10 percent of his officers still have ties to insurgents.
Working with Stammer and al-Karkhi, Myers studied Anbar’s police. What he found were the same intelligence silos that plague America’s war on terror: Iraqi counterterrorism police and anti-narcotics units operated separately; both had valuable information not being shared.
“Myers drank tea with them, talked to them, encouraged them. He was non-stop energy and so eager to work,” says Lt. Col. Touchette.
Touchette is a fan of LEP, but doesn’t hand out such praise universally. “You needed to take the pulse of some [LEP agents] to see if they were alive,” he says. Myers, he adds, is exceptional.
Myers brought in American specialists to train a 17-member task force from five different agencies on modern policing techniques: processing a crime scene, dusting for prints, photographing a bomb site, collecting evidence, making undercover drug buys — “the stuff that most CSI fans know about,” he says.
By April, Task Force CLEAT was hitting pay dirt. The arrest of the “Tier-1,” or top Syrian drug smuggler, confirmed Myers’ suspicions about growing ties between drug and terrorist networks. In April, CLEAT staged an operation that confiscated 50,000 Zero-One pills. In May, the task force scored its single largest Zero-One seizure when, based on an intelligence tip, it stopped a truck in western Anbar. In a hidden compartment were 91,000 tablets, with a street value ranging between $1 and $5 a tablet, as well as 50 pounds of hashish valued at nearly $200,000.
Following up on another tip in June, CLEAT investigators found nine pounds of amphetamine powder — the main raw ingredient for manufacturing up to 1 million Zero-One tablets. “It was then we said — Wow!” Myers says. “The smugglers are trying to make their own pills and open up for business.”
By the time the 82nd Airborne left Iraq in the fall, the U.S. Army had trained some 2,000 police officers and Task Force CLEAT had proven its worth.
In just five months, it had seized more than 165,000 Zero-One pills and charged 13 people with violating Iraq’s anti-drug laws.
Largely because of Myers’ work, the CLEAT model has spread beyond Anbar. A military spokesman in Baghdad confirms there are now five Iraqi CLEAT task forces targeting terrorism, drug trafficking, and other violent crime throughout Iraq. Task Force CLEAT, says Stammer, has become a “pillar of the backdoor effort to stop terrorism by attacking the sources of its funding.”
But the work continues. Interpol and U.N. records show a growing obsession with Zero-One, particularly in the Middle East and the Gulf. In December 2009, the United Arab Emirates raided a warehouse and seized 4.2 million Captagon pills, the report states, among that country’s largest drug hauls ever. In January 2010, Saudi Arabia cops seized more than 8 million pills with an estimated street value of $77.9 million.
“Mark my word,” the DEA’s Braun told a Senate committee last year. “Operatives from al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and Hamas are rubbing shoulders with the Latin American and Mexican drug cartels.
“They are frequenting the same seedy bars and sleazy brothels. And they are talking business.”
As John Myers packed up to head home, he could hardly believe 15 months had passed. Having already signed up for a new training mission — this next one in Afghanistan — Myers hoped that he would be able to return to Iraq one day to see how his men were faring.
Thanks to the 70 or 80 specialized investigators he had trained personally, Task Force CLEAT was up and running. He had turned over the mission to a new batch of LEPs.
He had shared final cups of chai with his Iraqi counterparts and said his goodbyes to Brig. Gen. al-Karkhi, who had given him a letter of appreciation. Myers was leaving with not only a sense of accomplishment but also optimism about Anbar’s law enforcement capabilities, and Iraq’s future. His Iraqi counterparts loved their country.
He had grown increasingly impressed with their work ethic, their perseverance, discipline, and their ability to get the job done with few of the resources American law enforcement officers take for granted.
With an hour or so to kill before his chopper flight to Baghdad, he headed to the gym for one last workout. On the treadmill next to him was Capt. Saad Abdel Wahab Kassar, head of Ramadi’s drug enforcement unit whom he had trained. Saad was sweating, pounding the treadmill’s rubber mat at a sharp incline and a fierce pace.
Myers couldn’t help but smile. His protégé was jogging barefoot.
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.