A chilling account of the US Army’s notorious kill team in Afghanistan reveals its members strategically planned their civilian executions, with innumerable conversations over the possibility of being caught as they bagged “savages.”
Warning: The images and video linked to in this article are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING. Viewer discretion is advised.
Rolling Stone has just published a chilling tale of horror, complete with graphic still photos and video, all providing proof the American occupation of Afghanistan is so much more than about bringing democracy to the country.
The article, The Kill Team, reveals how the kill team, part of the 3rd Platoon of the 5th Stryker Brigade based out of Tacoma, Washington, first put to work their braggadocio in the isolated farming village of La Mohammad Kalay on January 15, 2010.
As officers of the 3rd Platoon were questioning village elders about their possible connection to the Taliban, two of its members, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc Andrew Holmes, went searching for their first target, an innocent haji, a contemptuous term the team used to describe Afghans. They found Gul Mudin, a young kid about 15 years old, working alone in a poppy field. “The general consensus was, if we are going to do something that fucking crazy, no one wanted anybody around to witness it,” one of the soldiers later told Army investigators, Rolling Stone reports.
The two soldiers then called to Mudin in Pashto, ordering him to stand still. Ducking behind a mud-brick wall for cover, Morlock then tossed a grenade toward the boy. After the grenade exploded, Morlock and Holmes opened fire on Mudin, repeatedly hitting him with their machine gun and M4 carbine.
Unexpected gunfire typically generates some sort of emergency response from other soldiers, especially under such circumstances: a sleepy farming village with its perimeter secured. Yet, as Rolling Stone reports, several soldiers were not particularly alarmed. Nearby, Spc. Adam Winfield told his fellow soldier, Pfc. Ashton Moore that it was more likely a staged killing than an actual combat situation.
When questioned by a staff sergeant over what had happened, Morlock said the young boy had been attempting to attack them. “We had to shoot the guy,” Morlock said, according to Rolling Stone. The article then lays out the scenario:
It was an unlikely story: a lone Taliban fighter, armed with only a grenade, attempting to ambush a platoon in broad daylight, let alone in an area that offered no cover or concealment. Even the top officer on the scene, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, thought there was something strange about Morlock's story. “I just thought it was weird that someone would come up and throw a grenade at us,” Mitchell later told investigators.
Adding insult to injury, Mitchell, believing Mudin could still be alive and thus a threat, ordered Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague to “make sure” the boy was dead. Sprague fired twice.
At that point, a local elder approached the group of soldiers, accused Morlock and Holmes of killing Mudin, pointing out Morlock as the one who had thrown the grenade. He was ignored by the group.
Then, after identifying the body, using a portable biometric scanner, the kill team began photographing themselves with the dead body. At one point, the squad’s leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, using a pair of medic’s shears, allegedly sliced off Mudin’s pinky finger, handing it to Holmes as a trophy for his first Afghan kill.
Rolling Stone notes that fellow soldiers reported he began carrying the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends later reported. “He was proud of his finger.”
Neither of the soldiers involved in the killing were disciplined or punished. After slaughtering Mudin, the kill team then went on a shooting spree, according to Rolling Stone. Within the next four months, they killed at least three more innocent civilians.
The killings became public last summer and the Army took quick action to put the lid on it, attributing the work to a “rogue unit” operating on its own, without the knowledge of superiors.
Yet, after a review of investigative files and internal Army records obtained by Rolling Stone, indications are that the dozen members of the kill team operated out in the open, in clear sight of the rest of the company.
Staged killings became common knowledge, a topic of open conversation, and “pretty much the whole platoon” knew they were illegal, stated one soldier in a complaint. Pfc. Justin Stoner told the Army Criminal Investigation Command: “The platoon has a reputation. They have had a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it,” Rolling Stone reports.
Mudin’s murder drew added interest when, within days of the killing, Mudin’s uncle along with 20 villagers from La Mohammad Kalay showed up at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ramrod, demanding an investigation. “They were sitting at our front door,” said Lt. Col. David Abrahams, according to Rolling Stone. A four-hour meeting commenced in which Abrahams was informed that several village children had witnessed the horrific killing by members of the 3rd Platoon. After ordering the soldiers to be reinterviewed, Abrahams reported there were “no inconsistencies in their story” and dropped the matter. Abrahams recalled “It was cut and dry to us at the time.”
Still, there were other officers in line with the ability to question the killings. Commander of the 3rd Platoon, Capt. Quiggle has not been held accountable for his unit’s actions. Nor has 1st Lt. Roman Ligsay. Both repeatedly failed to report the murders, even though there was plenty of reason to question them.
Rolling Stone notes that
Indeed, it would have been hard not to know about the murders, given that the soldiers of 3rd Platoon took scores of photographs chronicling their kills and their time in Afghanistan.
Rolling Stone has obtained copies of the photos and it should be reiterated here that they are graphic in nature. One photo reveals a severed head, another shows a hand missing a finger. Other images, equally shocking, show bloody body parts and legs blown apart.
Many of the photos do not reveal whether the dead bodies are Taliban or civilian, so the possibility exists there were no illegal acts committed by the soldiers, but Army standards deem the images, and sharing them with others, a violation. Rolling Stone notes the soldiers passed the collection of images around as a war memento, shared on hard drives and thumb drives. One soldier had a complete set of images, available to any who asked.
In the collection are several videos, including “Motorcycle Kill,” a killing that is believed to have been conducted by another Stryker Brigade battalion. It shows two Afghans on a motorcycle, who may have been armed, being killed as they round a turn in the road.
Another video, shot through thermal imaging, with a title card reading ‘death zone’ and complete with a rock soundtrack, shows two Afghans, believed to have been planting an IED, being blown up in an airstrike.
The suppression of the photos reached the highest levels of both the US and Afghan governments, with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and President Hamid Karzai reportedly being briefed on them as early as last May, Rolling Stone notes. The US military then launched an intense campaign to sequester all files of the images, pulling them from circulation before another scandal similar to Abu Ghraib erupted. Investigators in Afghanistan confiscated computers from more than a dozen soldiers, searched hard drives and ordered the deletion of any provocative images. The Army’s CID also sent agents to soldiers’ homes and their relatives, taking any copies of the files they could find. As Rolling Stone noted,
What happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan.
One photo shows two dead Afghans tied together, hands bound, placed at the side of road, with a handwritten sign hanging around their necks reading “Taliban are Dead.” It suggests the Army is trying to suppress evidence that the killings were not isolated to a small group in 3rd Platoon.
The Pentagon says it is investigating the images but states the investigation is stalled. “It’s a mystery,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Rolling Stone reports. “To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure they know where to take it next. All we have is two apparently dead Afghans handcuffed to each other against a mile marker. We don't know much beyond that. For all we know, those two guys may have been killed by the Taliban for being sympathizers.”
A Stryker vehicle is clearly seen in the photo, revealing identifying marks on it. A source in Bravo Company, speaking to Rolling Stone on condition of anonymity, said the two unarmed men in the image were killed by soldiers from another platoon, not yet implicated.
“Those were some innocent farmers that got killed,” the source told Rolling Stone. “Their standard operating procedure after killing duded was to drag them up to the side of the highway.”
Neither Rolling Stone nor the government commented on the fact that most modern digital cameras have features that date and geographically locate all image capture. With technological advancements available to the US military far exceeding those for the average American consumer, the easy question is how hard would it be to obtain the necessary evidence for convictions?
Much of the kill team’s operations are centered on 3rd Platoon’s squad leader, Calvin Gibbs. Morlock, along with five other soldiers, have agreed to plead guilty for lesser crimes in exchange for testifying against Gibbs, who now faces life in prison on three counts of premeditated murder.
Gibbs, according to Rolling Stone,
has been widely portrayed as a sociopath of Mansonesque proportions, a crazed killer with a “pure hatred for all Afghans” who was detested and feared by those around him.
Yet that image of him goes counter to evidence gathered by Army investigators from Bravo Company soldiers. “Gibbs is very well-liked in the platoon by his seniors, peers and subordinates alike, stated Spc. Adam Kelly, who added that Gibbs was “one of the best NOs I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with in my military career. I believe that because of his experience, more people came back alive and uninjured than would have without him having been part of the platoon” according to Rolling Stone.
Gibbs, from Billings, Montana, dropped out of high school to get an equivalency degree and joined the Army. He obtained medals in the Iraq occupation where, Rolling Stone notes, he and other soldiers are alleged to have fired on an unarmed Iraqi family, killing two adults and a child.
That incident, not prosecuted at the time, is currently under investigation by the Army.
Gibss arrived in Afghanistan with the Stryker Brigade after a squad leader had his legs dismembered by an IED. The group’s soldiers were angry and shell-shocked, according to Rolling Stone. Facing an elusive and evasive enemy became a boring routine for the soldiers. “To be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference between local nationals and combatants,” one soldier later stated.
Gibbs brought with him a gung-ho approach, suggesting to the troops there was no reason to wait to be attacked by IEDs, instead taking the battle to villagers known to be sympathetic to the Taliban. “Gibbs told everyone about this scenario by pitching it - by saying that all these Afghans were savages, and we had just lost one of our squad leaders because his legs got blown off by an IED,” Morlock said, Rolling Stone reports. Revenge killings became the calling card.
The Rolling Stone story paints Morlock as a problem the Army might typically pass on. Hailing from Wasilla, Alaska, Morlock brought with him a history of drunkenness and fights, driving without a license, and leaving the scene of a serious auto accident. A month before deploying to Afghanistan in 2009, he burned his wife with a cigarette and was charged with disorderly conduct. Once in Afghanistan, he slid easily into an environment of rampant drug use among US soldiers. Rolling Stone reports that
After he arrived in Afghanistan, he did any drug he could get his hands on: opium, hash, Ambien, amitriptyline, flexeril, phenergan, codeine, trazodone.
Word began to spread about the operations of the kill team, with Spc. Adam Winfield sending a Facebook message to his father in Florida. “I’m not sure what to do about something that happened out here but I need to be secretive about this,” he wrote, Digital Journal reported last September.
Winfield told his father there were fellow soldiers getting away with murder and they were planning another killing involving an Afghan innocent, planting an AK-47 on the victim to look like a bad guy.
Winfield soon began having second thoughts about the matter. According to the Rolling Stone story, Winfield was warned by Gibbs that he would “go home in a body bag” if he told anyone of the murder.
The kill team, apparently satisfied by the lack of response from Army superiors over the actions, took it for granted that they could murder with impunity, as long as “drop weapons” were left at the scene of the crimes. As Rolling Stone noted,
The presence of a weapon virtually guaranteed that a shooting would be considered a legitimate kill, even under the stricter rules of engagement the military had implemented as a key element of counterinsurgency. A drop weapon was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. And in the chaotic war zone, they were easy to find.
The kill team’s second known murder occurred two weeks after the first, on the night of January 27. Driving along the highway and using thermal imaging, the discovered a human heat signature near the side of the road. Stopping 100 yards from the man, they illuminated him with high power spotlights, ordering him to lift up his search, expecting to find a suicide-bomb vest.
“He was acting strange,” one soldier recalled. Warning shots were fired at the man who had been shuffling about. He then approached the soldiers, ignoring the warnings. Someone yelled “Fire!” and the soldiers spent approximately 40 rounds. Most of the man’s skull had been blown off by the assault and Spc. Michael Wagnon kept a piece of it as a trophy.
Rolling Stone notes the scene was staged with a dropped weapon. Stoner later told investigators: “Basically, what we did was a desperate search to justify killing this guy. But in reality he was just some old, deaf, retarded guy. We basically executed this man.” Since he ignored the platoon’s warnings, moving in their direction, no one was charged with the murder.
Within a month, Gibbs had killed another civilian and performed another weapon drop and claimed the man had fired at him with an AK-47 which then jammed. The gun was later fired by military personnel who reported the gun operated properly.
Discrepencies in reports, murder coverup, and a failure to investigate the incidents by commanding officers are all a part of the sadistic kill team story. The team began using their Stryker as an attack vehicle on civilians, launching grenades from it and claiming to be under attack. Indiscriminate firings into crowds of civilians, multiple shootings on the same day, the murder of Mullah Allah Dad in the village of Qualaday, and of all things, an argument between bunkmates over getting stoned finally led to superiors’ investigation the team.
But not until the team had blown apart Allah Dad with a grenade, then fired upon him with an M4 and a SAW machine gun, and for good measure, two bullets fired into his head into his head. After the scene settled, with soldiers pushing away the wife and children of the dead man, overcome with grief, Gibbs used his medical shears and severed the man’s left pinky as a souvenir for himself. Then, donning a surgical glove, he opened the mouth of the corpse and yanked out a tooth, handing it to Winfield, who later tossed it aside.
The murder infuriated the village and two days later, at a districtwide council attended by the unit’s commanding officer, the district leader informed the military the murder was the result of the grenade being planted to justify the execution.
The next day, Lt. Stefan Moye was dispatched back to the scene to conduct damage control, where he found two elderly villagers claiming to have seen Mullah Allah Dad with a grenade. He urged the two to spread the story.
Around midnight of the same day that Moye returned from the village to spread the grenade story, Stoned went to the company’s tactical operations center to file a complaint over fellow soldiers in the unit using his room as “a smoke shack for hash.” He was worried the lingering smell would land him in trouble and asked them to find another place. They refused.
By the next day everyone knew Stoner had snitched and he soon was the victim of an assault by members of the team he was a part of, and then, after the attack, warned that he would be killed the next time on patrol if he didn’t keep his mouth shut.
The following day Stoner was examined by a physician’s assistant who discovered the damage done to his body. He was sent to Army investigators where he recounted the assault which then led to the confession of the platoon’s killings of innocent people. He laid out to the investigators the whole story: the names, the places and the times.
Other platoon members were interviewed, confirming the story. Morlock agreed to be videotaped and described in detail the kills.
On March 23 of this year, Morlock received a 24-year prison sentence in agreement to testify against Gibbs. Gibbs claims the three killings were “legitimate combat engagements” and three other soldiers - Winfield, Holmes and Wagnon - all claim their innocence. Five other Bravo Company soldiers have been convicted of less serious crimes, including drug use, stabbing a corpse and the assault on Stoner. Two more face related charges. Last December, Staff Sgt. Stevens was given a nine month prison sentence in exchange for agreeing to testify against Gibbs, stripped to private E-1, the lowest service rank, and allowed to stay in the Army.
To date, no officers or senior officials have been implicated in either the murders or the cover-up.