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An elite soldier on using drones to hunt terrorists — and giving the kill order

“You're watching these guys and they're totally normal.”

US Conducts Air War Against ISIL From Secret Base In Persian Gulf Region
A U.S. Air Force pilot grasps a flight control and weapons firing stick while preparing to launch a MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from a ground control station at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

“We use this word ‘target.’ They're ‘targets,’ but these are human beings. These are real people, and we are making real life-and-death decisions.”

That’s what former military intelligence analyst Brett Velicovich remembers thinking as he hunted down some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan using drone surveillance. He helped elite special operations forces find and track terrorists, and at the age of 25, he told them where to get the bad guys.

In his new book Drone Warrior, Velicovich describes his experiences using drones — a relatively new technology at the time he was serving — to do his job. I spoke over the phone with him on Tuesday to talk more about what it was like being responsible for the death or capture of terrorists and the strange intimacy of watching mass murderers go about their daily lives, buying groceries and taking their kids to school, as he surveilled them day after day from the air.

“You're watching these guys and they're totally normal. You see them dropping their kids off at school. You see them having tea or coffee at a local market,” Velicovich told me. “It's almost like People magazine or something. You always have these ‘the stars are just like us’ type of feelings.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.


Alex Ward

Why has the US military chosen to rely so heavily on drones?

Brett Velicovich

I think it comes down to the basic principle that information is power. Drone technology gives us this information unlike any other wars before us.

Think about how wars were fought for centuries. We've really not known much about our enemy. Vietnam, it's a little gray helmet in a trench. You don't necessarily know who it is that you're fighting. You just know that he's coming to kill you. He's trying to hurt the soldiers around you, and you've got to kill him first.

What drones have given us is this ability to know so much more about our enemies than we've ever known in the history of wars. That's because we can use drones to look at the enemy from different angles and follow them and make a conscious decision: “Yes, that is the guy we're going after. That is the person we need to capture.”

It's saving lives across the battlefield because it's providing soldiers an understanding of what's in front of them, so that they can go into a house or they can go drive down the road and they can know, if a drone's overhead, that that drone is feeding them information about what they're about to get into.

Alex Ward

Can you unpack that a little bit? I think most people, when they think of drones, they think of the ones that have missiles on them that shoot the bad guy. But you’re saying one of their great advantages is that they allow for a lot of reconnaissance and a lot of intelligence gathering without really putting human life at risk.

Brett Velicovich

I think the media has created this narrative that all these Predator drones and Reaper drones are up there just killing people left and right.

The truth is that drones are mostly used as a surveillance tool to help soldiers on the ground conduct either capture operations or let them understand what's ahead of them.

I wasn't the guy piloting the drone. I wasn't the guy kicking the doors down running through the hail of bullets. I was the guy that was in the middle of that. My job was to take the multiple drones that we had above and basically direct them in a way that says, I need to stare at this person, or I need to look at this house, or I need to see this angle.

Before guys go into an operation, we're basically taking the live-stream video and we're saying, "Guys, guess what? This target that you're about to go conduct a mission against, he looks to have three bodyguards and his bodyguards are standing on the rooftop and they are carrying RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and AK-47s. They're waiting for you guys. They expect you. They expect you to come because they know that you're close."

You're communicating this real-time intelligence to troops that are out there risking their lives every single day. The importance of that just cannot be overstated.

I think there's this misconception that we're just out there striking targets like no one's business. You know, “Whatever, just go fire a missile off at someone and if civilians get hurt, oh, well.” It's just so far from the truth.

When civilians get hurt, we're devastated by it and we're taught to do right. We're taught to do the right thing and we're taught to do precise targeting. I can't tell you how many terrorists we let go, we let get away, because we were worried about a woman or a child dying in the process.

Alex Ward

One of the things I was most interested in when I was reading your book, and I always think of this when I go visit troops, is how young people are. You mentioned that you were 25 and you had to make the call on whether people would live or die.

Brett Velicovich

Right.

Alex Ward

Can you talk about your own internal — “struggle” may be the wrong word, but —

Brett Velicovich

The mental toll.

Alex Ward

Yeah. Exactly. You're 25. You've definitely been responsible for the killing of somebody. It’s a bad person, sure, but it's still human-on-human fighting.

Brett Velicovich

Yeah. Just these Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we had so many young men and women going into battle. I'll never forget my first time at war. I was in Afghanistan. I turned 21 in Afghanistan. I come from a nice family home in Texas. My goal was always to be a banker or a doctor, and that was my path.

9/11 kind of upended that, and all of a sudden I'm thrust into this war zone along with tens of thousands of other troops, all young, and having to make life-and-death decisions. That is a heavy, heavy thing.

Alex Ward

That must have been a burden.

Brett Velicovich

The guys that are around me, there's a heavy burden in knowing you have this power — drones and some of the smartest minds in the business of war and all these group of guys that are out there basically fighting to protect Americans — and you know you're the guy that has the ability to find these targets and pinpoint some of the worst, the most evil men on the planet.

After a while, you just become obsessed with that. You become obsessed with this idea of you've got to stop everyone. I've got the weight of the world on my shoulders. Whether or not that was true, that was how I felt. I felt like I had the guys on the ground that were out there conducting raids because of intelligence information that I was providing them.

I felt like their lives were in my hands because they're going out to this house knowing that the guy is in there wearing a suicide vest and the guys in there are ready. They're going to fight to the death. These guys are running in there knowing that that's going to happen and knowing that they have families at home. At 25, that is a fucking heavy, heavy burden.

I loved every minute of what I did. My internal mental struggles afterward came from this idea that we didn't get enough of them. We didn't get enough Islamic State of Iraq leaders, because look at them now. A lot of them got released from prison.

Soldiers lost their lives putting these guys in prison, and then we leave and they get let out. You almost wish they had been killed, because now they're the guys leading ISIS.

Alex Ward

How did you feel when the target was captured or killed? How did that affect you?

Brett Velicovich

For me, there was this elation inside, this joy of knowing we went after the worst of the worst. We weren't going after some guy that robbed a liquor store. We were going after people that — the week before, they'd packed a car full of explosives and they'd sent it into a market and they'd killed 100 civilians or whatever.

When you capture that guy, you just feel this — you've got that burden, that weight of the world on your shoulders, you just feel this relief. But it's not a relief that lasts very long, because you know there's so many more. There was never, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there was never not a guy to go after. There was always somebody.

When we think about criminals from the US and we think about some of the worst murderers in our history, the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, all these guys — they pale in comparison to the evil things that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are doing overseas.

At the same time, I will tell you that the guys I work with, there's this professionalism there. We're not out there jumping up and down, high-fiving each other. You might think it’s like a movie, you get the bad guy and everyone's cheering and hugging. No. It's not like that at all.

It's more like, “Who's next?” That was always the thing. “We got him. Who's next?” That's because of the importance of our work and the importance of moving fast.

The other side of that is when we miss one. A lot of times we miss guys because we're so worried about the loss of civilian casualties. It's the right thing to do. That's the right thing to do. There's no acceptable number of civilian casualties that should come from a drone strike or a drone operation. That's it.

When we miss people, I know that guy we're going after, being one of the most evil people, because we're only hunting the top guys, he now has another day to plan an attack against US soldiers, against innocent Iraqi civilians, against even the [US] homeland.

He has no idea we're following him. He has absolutely no idea we're watching him. When we either miss him or we let him go another day, there's this other kind of phenomenon that you actually don't even really talk about. We have to, unfortunately, see them doing bad things so that we can have him lead us to his boss and his boss's boss and his boss's boss.

What I'm saying is you have to sometimes, to get to a greater goal, let them live another day. Then you hope that instead of you getting one guy, now you've got 10. Now you've stopped some crazy number of attacks that would have happened, versus only one guy.

Alex Ward

You spent quite a bit of time tracking terrorists. We see them portrayed in the media; we have our own thoughts about them. What is it about terrorists that we regular folks don't understand about them?

Brett Velicovich

What's crazy to me is just how normal they seem. That's the thing. I was an analyst, so I'm always looking for these anomalies, always looking for something that is out of place, something that doesn't make sense.

A guy goes to the same grocery store every single day for 30 days. Then all of a sudden one day he doesn't go to that grocery store. To me, there's something different from the pattern. Then we're confirming that information. Why is that? Did he just wake up late, or is he actually now going somewhere else?

You're watching these guys and they're totally normal. You see them dropping their kids off at school. You see them having tea or coffee at a local market. You see them doing normal things. It's almost like People magazine or something. You always have these "the stars are just like us" type of feelings.

Alex Ward

Sure.

Brett Velicovich

You see terrorists doing stuff that anyone else would do. It's what they're doing in the shadows that we're trying to find. When you find that, then you know you've got him.

The other side of that is I would meet some of these guys we captured. Once they got captured I would go in and talk to them. I remember one of the guys that we got. He was basically like the equivalent of the ISIS leader in charge of all of Baghdad. He was a big fucking deal. This guy had been around for almost 10 years doing this. He was a very clever guy.

Every time an attack would happen — you'd hear about an embassy bombing, where the German Embassy or the US or whatever embassy got hit by a vehicle-borne IED [improvised explosive device], a suicide bomber — he had something to do with that. Just collectively, I can't even imagine, tens of thousands of people killed from his watch.

We finally find him, and I get a chance to talk to him. I'm sitting literally five feet from him on a couch. The people holding him didn't even put handcuffs on him, which I was very surprised by. I remember the first time seeing him actually on the ground, because I'm used to watching these guys from the air. I'm just like, "This guy is one of the fucking worst killers in the world. He's just strolling in here like he owns the damn place, not even in handcuffs." He's in a tracksuit.

Then you start to talk to them and you're almost like, "Wow. This actually is a real human. This is a real person." You see this humanity when you're talking to people that you're like, "Wow, I can't believe you're the guy. You're the guy that's in all these reports as being the most evil person in our area. You're sitting right in front of me and you just look totally normal. You're speaking totally normal." That's a crazy thing.

Alex Ward

Does that give you pause at all? Now that you've been tracking them for a long time and you know what they've done, what they're capable of — I'm not saying that it makes you go softer on them or anything. But does that give you pause that that is a very human kind of interaction you’re having?

Brett Velicovich

Yeah. It's a reminder for me. It's a reminder for all of us that these people we're going after — we say “targets” a lot. We use this word “target.” They're “targets,” but these are human beings. These are real people, and we are making real life-and-death decisions. Whether or not they're killed is generally their choice because if they decide to get in a massive firefight and go out, generally it's their choice.

We put them on that list. I said this guy's bad enough, so he's on our list. When you're on our list, God help you, because we have some of the most brilliant people and they're just going to find him eventually. Maybe not this year, but they're going to find him.

The American government does not forget. If you conduct an attack against our people overseas, you kidnap an American citizen, you try and hurt US soldiers, the American government does not forget, and you are on that list for the rest of your life. You better get used to life on the run.

The pause for me is more like, wow, sometimes you almost forget for a second that these are real human beings. These are real people, and they've made the conscious decision to cross the line. It's a sad thing to take a life, but it's also worse that they crossed the line so far that we had to get them.

Alex Ward

We've been fighting these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for quite some time. People here are saying, "We've done enough. Let's get out of here." Your perspective is, "There's always another bad guy. There's always another step." It seems like there's a tension there.

Brett Velicovich

To me, there's always going to be somebody that hates America. A terrorist leader, a terrorist group out there that believes that we have wronged them in some way to the point that they have to spend their lives trying to kill us and trying to kill everything we stand for. That will always be the case. That's just a fact.

Unfortunately, the US is still — I don't like the thought of us being this international police body, but the reality is we know so much more than all these other countries. We would go to these other countries and give them information to help them fight terrorists that were trying to harm people in their own country. They didn't even know about it.

If our government didn't provide them that information, they would have had no idea and an attack would have happened. I've seen multiple occasions where attacks were thwarted because the US government had their claws in so many things that they had the foresight to be able to help these allies that were also being hit by these attacks.

I think the fact of the matter is counterterrorism is always going to be a thing as long as I'm on this earth. There will always be another Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or [Osama] bin Laden that is hell-bent and has convinced himself that America is this evil thing. That's just the truth.

Alex Ward

What is it that animates them? What is it about the US, or what is it about their situation? What is it that animates them to go from normal folks to choosing terrorism?

Brett Velicovich

The root of terrorism, generally over the course of history has always been — or most of the time has been, at least — this fact that politics failed in their country. They started out with trying to get a voice in their government and it didn't work. What did they do? They took up arms. They took up arms to force their views to be taken by whatever country or area that they're in. That's the foundation of terrorism.

They hate us because they believe we have a greater voice than they do, and that the only way to fix that is to take up arms against us. Obviously religion comes into play.

These are things that I don't think will ever change. This is stuff since the beginning of time. This is not something that we did five years ago, 10 years ago. This is something that started from the beginning of time. If people think that can be changed just by killing a few bad guys and taking out a few terrorist groups, it's not ever going to change.

That's why it's so incredibly important. When people sit there and say, "We shouldn't go there" — you know what? If we're not over there, they're going to be here. That's why men and women are risking their lives every single day to make sure that doesn't happen.