FALLUJAH AWAKENS: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against al Qaeda
Fallujah—a city remembered for the slaughtered contractors and Marines and insurgents fighting house to house in November 2004’s Operation Phantom Fury. But, as the conventional fight ended in 2004, the violence worsened, and by summer 2006 a Marine intelligence officer submitted his analysis that Anbar province was on the verge of being “lost.”
The U.S. vs. Iraqi fighting in Fallujah was matched by such Iraqi vs. Iraqi bloodshed, that from winter 2006 through early spring 2007, the sheer number of attacks reached the highest level since the March 2003 U.S. and allies’ invasion of Iraq. This was the climate in which Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment entered as it arrived in October 2006, tasked to “improve security” and defeat the Fallujah elements of al Qaeda in Iraq.
It’s their story that first-time author Bill Ardolino tells in his superb book, “Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against al Qaeda.” His comprehensive effort describes how the Grand Rapids, Mich., reservists partnered with Fallujah’s Albu Issa tribe and spearheaded the “turn away” from al Qaeda in Iraq.
It’s also the story of how counterinsurgency, or COIN, as practiced by the Marines, is driven by personality, events and the guts to take advantage and build on whatever opportunities are presented.
A respected journalist who was embedded multiple times with Marines and U.S. Army elements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ardolino “gets” COIN. “Fallujah Awakens” focuses on how the relations between the Marines and their Albu Issa counterparts became such an important part of the fight. His book describes how successful combat operations included treating Iraqi civilian casualties, negotiating with tribal leaders whose goals might not include an alliance with the Marines, arming Iraqi police, and why all were equally important in bringing peace.
Led by Major Dan Whisnant, “Alpha” Co, 1st Bn, 24th Marines was the typical Reserve outfit—a collection of older Marines with a variety of civilian backgrounds. Whisnant was a medical equipment sales manager, while many of the noncommissioned officers and enlisted had attended college or found careers in law enforcement, emergency medicine and firefighting. They also had Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jim Roussell, a 57-year-old who’d been retired after 37 years of combined active-duty and Marine Corps Reserve time. More important were his 31 years as a Chicago cop and his ability to instruct the younger Marines in determining the “good bad guys” from the “bad bad guys.”
Ardolino is a fine writer, and he’s at his best when describing how Whisnant and Roussell built their relationship with Sheik Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi, an important sheik, but still far junior to the paramount sheik. A hard-charger from the Albu Issa tribe, “Dark,” as he invited Whisnant to call him, was eager to work with the Marines. Both an Iraqi patriot and opportunist, Dark asked Whisnant’s support of an Albu Issa force to beat back the foreign fighters in Fallujah.
The Albu Issa was the leading tribe in the peninsula; and while not particularly religious, the members were fierce Iraqi nationalists and worried about losing their stature to the newly arrived moneyed foreign Islamic fighters. The Albu Issa goal, Ardolino explains, was to retain economic and political control of the Fallujah area.
Successful COIN is built more on trust than firepower, and “Fallujah Awakens” describes the series of events that brings the Marines and Dark’s tribe closer, culminating with a horrific chlorine gas attack on Dark’s village six months into the Marine unit’s deployment. The Marine reservists, leveraging their civilian skills, responded unquestioningly and very quickly, saving all but three of the hundred-plus gassed locals. Word spread rapidly of how the Marines rushed to the aid of the locals after al Qaeda in Iraq’s depraved attack, which spurred those still indecisive into joining Dark and 1/24 in the fight against al Qaeda.
For “Fallujah Awakens,” Ardolino conducted 120 interviews with the 1/24 leathernecks, their interpreters and civilian augments. “Fallujah Awakens” is one of the better books on Marine COIN published to date. It’s the book to read to understand how to work with the locals and having them “choose us.”
Editor’s note: A frequent Leatherneck contributor, Andrew Lubin embedded numerous times with Marine units in Iraq and Afghanistan and accompanied units inside the United States on operational efforts, such as responding to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath in New York City, and also during training exercises.