Deep inside the heart of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified administrative compound in Baghdad, lies one of the most carefully guarded secrets of the war in Iraq.
It is a cell from a small and anonymous British army unit that goes by the innocuous name of the Joint Support Group (JSG), and it has proved to be one of the coalition’s most effective and deadly weapons in the fight against terror.
Its members — servicemen and women of all ranks recruited from all three of the British armed forces — are trained to turn hardened terrorists into coalition spies using methods developed on the streets of Northern Ireland, where the British Army managed to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at almost every level.
Since war broke out in Iraq in 2003, the cell has been responsible for running dozens of Iraqi double agents.
Working alongside the Special Air Service (SAS) and the American Delta Force as part of the Baghdad-based counterterrorist unit known as Task Force Black, the cell members have supplied intelligence that has saved hundreds of lives and resulted in some of the most notable successes against the myriad terror groups fighting in Iraq.
Last week, sources said, intelligence from the JSG led to a series of successful operations against Sunni militia groups in southern Baghdad.
Information obtained by the cell also is understood to have inspired one of the most successful operations carried out by Task Force Black, in November 2005, when SAS snipers fatally shot three would-be suicide bombers.
The killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in June, came after intelligence obtained by the JSG, as did the rescue of kidnapped British peace campaigner, Norman Kember.
“The JSG is the coalition’s secret weapon,” said one defense source. “Their job is to recruit and run covert human intelligence sources or agents — we never use the term informer. The Americans are in awe of the unit because they have nothing like them within their military.”
During the long-running unrest in Northern Ireland, the JSG operated under the cover name of the Force Research Unit (FRU), which from the early 1980s to the late 1990s managed to penetrate the very heart of the IRA.
By targeting and then “turning” members of the paramilitary organization with a variety of “inducements,” ranging from blackmail to bribes, the FRU operators developed agents at virtually every command level within the IRA.
The JSG recruits personnel up to age 42. Candidates who get through a rigorous pre-selection process spend four months in Britain being taught driving and close-quarter battle skills.
Most important, volunteers must be able to befriend people they actually may despise, win their trust and persuade them to become agents, which in some cases means getting them to inform on friends and relatives. Those who pass the course can expect to be posted to Iraq and Afghanistan.
JSG operators deal with dozens of Iraqis every week who are prepared, for a variety of reasons, to become informers.
“Some Iraqis come to us because they are simply fed up with the violence,” one source said. “They may have had members of their families murdered, tortured or kidnapped.
“Unlike much of the middle class, which has already fled the country, they may be too poor to leave and so they come to us to see if they can make a difference.”
To senior U.S. officers in Baghdad, the JSG is playing a vital role in the most important theater of the war on terror.
“In many respects, Afghanistan is a side issue, and that is something the Americans understand better than British politicians,” a source said. “Ask any senior officer in Baghdad, given a choice, which war would they be prepared to lose and they will say the war in Afghanistan.
“In many respects, the war in Iraq has redefined insurgent warfare. Think of the very worst of Northern Ireland combined with the very worst of the Balkans and you are coming close to life on a daily basis in Baghdad.”