As an American military convoy rumbled along a dusty street in Habbaniyah, Iraq, 50 miles west of Baghdad, a silver van eased to the curb. Preoccupied with operating their heavy trucks, the U.S. Marine drivers didn’t notice the van and its civilian occupants.
Fortunately the convoy was overwatched by guardian angels: a Marine sniper and his spotter atop a nearby roof. Alerted by his spotter, the Marine marksman shifted his 10X optic to the silver van—and discovered the driver videotaping the convoy while his passenger raised a scoped rifle! As one, the Marine sniper and his spotter fired, shooting dead the cameraman and his sniping partner. By itself this was a dramatic accomplishment, but there was more: Pried from the dead terrorist’s hands was a Marine-issue M40A3 sniper rifle—taken from a Marine sniper killed by insurgents in August 2005. It was now back where it belonged.
The Habbaniyah engagement was a limited but significant milestone in this unnoticed war-within-a-war, a quiet triumph of skill and courage, strategy and technology, which yielded a victory as great as that of British snipers who wrested domination of the World War I trenches from Germany’s snipers in 1915.
An Asymmetrical Conflict
The terrorist snipers’ tactics proved as extreme as their philosophy. Unencumbered by international law, insurgent snipers hid themselves in civilian clothes, took cover behind human shields, fired from mosques and escaped in ambulances. With a seemingly endless supply of sniper rifles and thousands of American targets, these hit-and-run terrorists could strike anywhere. American quick-reaction forces rushed to such scenes, but most often the enemy snipers simply dumped their rifles and blended into the neighborhood. They seemed nearly impossible to kill or capture.
U.S. Sniping Successes
U.S. Army snipers from the 3rd Infantry Division’s “Shadow Team” sniper detachment, led by Staff Sgt. Jim Gilliland, hid for 18 hours near Ramadi to stop IED-planters in a similar fashion, firing just three shots to down three terrorists.
Another sniper team led by Marine Staff Sgt. Steve Reichert spotted a dead animal just ahead of a Marine patrol, with wires running from its carcass. After alerting his fellow Marines, Reichert turned his .50 BMG Barrett rifle toward an insurgent machine gunner, striking him down at 1,775 yards—more than a full mile.
In another incident, a Marine sniper rushed to the aid of Marines taking fire from an insurgent concealed behind an automobile. The American sniper fired his heavy Barrett .50-cal. completely through the parked automobile, killing the terrorist.
In Fallujah, Marine Sgt. John Ethan Place demonstrated skill and technique on par with the best snipers in Marine history. The 22-year-old sniper scored 32 confirmed kills in only 13 days and was awarded the Silver Star.
Sgt. Herbert Hancock, chief scout-sniper with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment and a full-time Texas SWAT police sniper, and his teammate, Cpl. Geoffrey Flowers, spotted two black-robed insurgents manning a 120 mm mortar. Hancock laid his crosshair on one man, dropped him, then ran his bolt and got the second, too. The distance: an impressive 1,050 yards. An even farther long-range shot was fired by Marine Cpl. Matt Orth, who took out a terrorist 1,256 yards away.
Targeting U.S. Snipers
Two months later, in Ramadi, 20 miles west of Baghdad, two dozen insurgents overran a sniper position, killing four Marines and videotaping their stripped bodies for distribution to the Internet and Al Jazeera television. Later, again in Ramadi, an eight-man Marine sniper element was blasted by a remote-control bomb, killing two and seriously wounding several others. Near Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, two Marine sniper teams were ambushed and killed, again with video footage provided to Al Jazeera TV.
From one such incident arose the most highly decorated sniper team of the war. On Aug. 27, 2007, near Samarra, a four-man sniper team from the 82nd Airborne Division suddenly found its rooftop outpost mass-assaulted by 40 foreign al-Qaeda fighters. Outnumbered 10-to-one, it was a 10-minute fight for their lives, in which two paratroopers died. A year later, at Fort Bragg, N.C., President George W. Bush presented Distinguished Service Crosses—our nation’s second-highest decoration—to the two snipers who had held their ground, Sgt. Chris Corriveau, from Lewiston, Maine, and Sgt. Eric Moser, of Tomball, Texas. Together, they had accounted for an estimated 15 enemy killed, and more wounded.
Because al-Qaeda paid the gunmen up to $5,000 per kill, the mobile snipers documented their engagements on videotape, the spotter serving as both observer and videographer. Soon, al-Qaeda began posting the videotaped shootings on Web sites and distributing them to foreign media. At the same time, enemy propagandists created the myth of an omnipotent sniper named Juba. Successful sniping attacks were attributed to Juba, while failures or incidents in which an insurgent sniper was killed were not. Juba was everywhere and infallible, enemy posters declared.