Introducing: 60 Minutes All Access Learn More +
Unlimited, ad-free viewing of 60 Minutes archives, Overtime and extras

Tal Afar: Al Qaeda's Town

<b>Lara Logan</b> Reports On Battle To Retake Iraqi Town

This story originally aired on March 12, 2006.

This is a story about an entire city that was taken over by al Qaeda. It's called Tal Afar and about 200,000 people who live there became prisoners in their own homes when terrorists took control and turned it into their town.

They used Tal Afar as a base to train insurgents and launch attacks around Iraq. Last fall, as correspondent Lara Logan found out when she traveled there, U.S. and Iraqi forces were determined to recapture Tal Afar, and the Bush administration has pointed to that operation as a model for how to fight and win the rest of the war.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq had a very sophisticated strategy for taking over the city," says Colonel H.R. McMaster.

And he should know. For a year, Col. McMaster served as one of the military's top advisers on fighting the Iraqi insurgency. Yet he says when he came to Tal Afar in May of 2005, he didn't realize how badly al Qaeda had brutalized the people.

"They fired mortars indiscriminately into playgrounds, into school yards, across the marketplace to kill innocent civilians. What they really wanted to do was incite fear," explains McMaster,

Asked what life was like for the inhabitants of Tal Afar, McMaster says, "Life was horrible in the city. They would leave headless bodies in the street. They kidnapped a young child on one occasion, killed the child, put a booby trap inside of his body and waited for the father to come claim the body to kill the parent."

Masked gunmen led by al Qaeda roamed the streets of Tal Afar at will, publicly executing and kidnapping people. Col. McMaster told 60 Minutes some of the terrorists were foreign fighters, but many were Iraqis from the area. Pictures of their attacks were circulated in videos like one in which you can hear them chanting a call to jihad.

"They had schools for snipers. They had kidnapping and murder classes that were attended by people on the best techniques," says McMaster.

The colonel says he was surprised to learn the enemy in Tal Afar was so organized. "You had this blending of former military expertise and organizational ability with, with a radical Islamic ideology, and it was fertile ground here."

Col. McMaster is a soldier-scholar, known for writing a book that found fault with military and political leaders during the Vietnam War. As commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry, he was given the mission to recapture Tal Afar. He told 60 Minutes that to defeat an insurgency, you have to win the trust of the people.

"The enemy showed the people who they really are. These are mass murderers. These are people who don't have respect human life," says McMaster. "These are people who want to choke the life out of cities like Tal Afar."

"Al Qaeda planted its flag in Tal Afar and said 'This is ours,'" says Michael Ware, then Baghdad bureau chief for Time Magazine.

Ware was able to take pictures of the city while it was still under terrorist control last summer. The video, which 60 Minutes bought from him, shows Tal Afar had become a ghost town, with the streets deserted, shops closed and whole families so afraid that they stayed behind closed doors.

Ware agrees with the notion that al Qaeda could do whatever they wanted in Tal Afar. "They owned Tal Afar," he says.

There was nobody to stop them and Ware says, "They were the authority."