Wednesday, December 26, 2007

FOB Pacesetter

In the last few posts, I asked several questions about what to me seemed like odd choices that Kirk von Ackermann made shortly before he disappeared. This post looks at the area surrounding the last base he visited for context.

Excerpt from Death of a Contractor

On October 9th, not long after he and Phillips tried to take half of Ultra Services from Dawkins and create a rival company, Kirk von Ackermann visited FOB McKenzie, a U.S. forward operating base near Samarra. After meeting with a Turkish subcontractor, he left the base behind the wheel of his Nissan Patrol SUV. He was alone.
Prior to December of 2003, Forward Operating Base (FOB) McKenzie was known as FOB Pacesetter.

An aerial photo of FOB Pacesetter originally posted online at by a member of the US Army, kinard_r.

Map inset showing the general location of Pacesetter originally published in the New York Times on December 29, 2003.

FOB Pacesetter was home to an artillery battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. The base has also been referred to as Camp Pacesetter, Samarra East Air Base and/or Al Bakr Airfield. Pacesetter is probably most notable as the first home of the Stryker Brigade in December 2003 (ref). The region immediately surrounding the base is flat and dry and quickly changes to mud under winter rains.

Interview with MAJ Deverick Jenkins
Combat Studies Institute Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, February 21, 2007
JENKINS: We ended up on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Pacesetter and there was just an artillery battalion there. They were responsible for this entire airbase which was possible because it was a pretty wide open space. All you could see for miles was sand and farmers. It was pretty doable security wise. We did visit the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit one day to pick up commander’s emergency response program (CERP) funds and we were salivating at how good they had it. Of the month we were at FOB Pacesetter, we only had electricity in tents for about four days. We were there when Saddam was captured in December 2003. I spent my worst Christmas ever there.
Capsized in the canal
by Michael Gilbert, News Tribune, February 20, 2005
So many U.S. convoys had been attacked along the highway through Duluiyah that they’d taken to calling it Ambush Alley. A cemetery north of town was the suspected launch site for mortar and rocket attacks on the American camp at Saddam’s old air base nearby, dubbed Forward Operating Base Pacesetter by its new American occupants.

A field artillery battalion from the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, was the lone occupant at Pacesetter before the Strykers showed up. With a few hundred artillerymen, the battalion didn’t have the numbers to make a major push into Duluiyah. And the 4th I.D. was concentrating on problems elsewhere – Tikrit, Samarra and Balad.
Map of the region surrounding Samarra from (see 'click here to zoom')

It's not clear which direction von Ackermann travelled after he left FOB Pacesetter.

To the north of FOB Pacesetter is the historic city of Samarra, population approx 300,000.

To the south of FOB Pacesetter is the city of Ad Duluiyah, population approx 50,000. It's about 20 miles between Ad Duluiyah and Samarra.

In 2003, a number of other small American bases were scattered through out the area: in Samarra - Camp Brassfield-Mora, Patrol Base Casino, Civil-Military Operations Center in Samarra; further south in Balad - Camp Anaconda, FOB Lion, Camp Balad, FOB Carpenter, FOB Omaha, FOB Eagle. Von Ackermann's colleague, Ryan Manelick, was killed shortly after leaving Anaconda for Baghdad.

Looking north of Samarra is the city of Tikrit, population approx 200,000, home to the tribe of Saddam Hussein. There were several American bases in Tikrit in 2003. To the south - Camp Packhorse (renamed FOB Remagen) and to the east - FOB Speicher. Inside the Tikrit Presidential Palace, Camp Ironhorse (renamed FOB Danger) and nearby Camp Raider (renamed FOB Dagger). Just south of Tikrit, Camp Arrow in the small city of Ad Dawr. Ad Dawr was where Hussein was captured in December 2003.

It is my understanding that John Dawkins was in a meeting at one of the bases in Tikrit when the call came through that von Ackermann was missing.

For more information on Pacesetter:
Global Security
If you know anyone who was stationed at FOB Pacesetter in the fall of 2003, please email me. I'd like to hear about access and restrictions getting on and off the base, local patrols, curfews and travel restrictions, etc.

Update - satellite photo of Balad

Northeast of Balad, on the other side of the river Tigris, you should be able to spot the air base.

View Larger Map

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Safa Shukir & the Phone Call

Excerpt from Death of a Contractor

On October 9th, not long after he and Phillips tried to take half of Ultra Services from Dawkins and create a rival company, Kirk von Ackermann visited FOB McKenzie, a U.S. forward operating base near Samarra. After meeting with a Turkish subcontractor, he left the base behind the wheel of his Nissan Patrol SUV. He was alone.

A short time after leaving the base, von Ackermann called Safa Shukir, an Iraqi employee of Ultra Services, to say he had a flat tire and needed help. Shukir drove out to meet him at the mountain pass where he had pulled over. It was a dangerous place -- von Ackermann had warned his co-workers that it was an ideal site for an ambush. When Shukir arrived, forty-five minutes after von Ackermann called, he found the SUV on the side of the road, abandoned. There was no sign of struggle. Von Ackermann's laptop, his satellite phone and $40,000 in cash he had been carrying were still in the car. But there was no sign of von Ackermann.
Not much is known about Safa Shukir. More questions.

Why did von Ackermann call Safa Shukir?

How old is Shukir? Is he fluent in English? Did von Ackermann try to call any one else first? Did he call any one else after he spoke with Shukir? CID must have looked at his satellite phone service records but as far as I know, that information has never been divulged.

Why did von Ackermann choose to call an Iraqi employee instead of one of his contacts at the local US bases. Does that sound like a stretch? Von Ackermann was former US Army and US Air Force and, my understanding is, he wasn't shy about letting officers he was doing business with know his past experience. I understand he even crashed on base a couple of times when it got a little too late.

Why didn't he call someone at FOB McKenzie for help?

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends and I looked a lot alike. I'll call her Jane. Jane and I were both the same height. Same weight. Same color and length of hair -- although hers was a bit sleeker than mine. Jane and I dressed in the same brands of clothes, wore the same shoes. And I could do a great impression of Jane's voice and pattern of speech. One of Jane's favorite pranks was to have me call another close friend of ours and pretend to be Jane. We never got caught. I think I even fooled her mother once. Lots of giggles at the time... But today, those pranks make me wonder about Kirk's phone call to Safa Shukir.

Could Shukir recognize another American man's voice if that person identified themselves first as Kirk?

I don't doubt that someone made a phone call from Kirk von Ackermann's satellite phone to Safa Shukir and that Safa Shukir believed he was speaking with Kirk von Ackermann. But there's this little question in my mind -- could Shukir really recognize different American men's voices over the phone?

Car Photo

Continuing the thread of my last post on Kirk's Car. Photo of a 2003 Nissan Patrol SUV in Australia, similar to the car Kirk von Ackermann is reported to have been driving when he disappeared. Don't actually know which year or color but thought you'd like to see one for reference.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Kirk's Car

In my last post, I asked a relatively simple question, albeit one that's kept me awake on occasion: Where did Kirk von Ackermann get his car? The answer, it turns out, is far from simple.

According to the CID, Kirk bought that car in Iraq. Further than that I do not know. They also told me that the car he bought was supposedly the type that Iraqis think CIA agents drive (or that CIA agents actually do drive - can't tell which from my notes). This sounds odd to me as A. if it were true Kirk would know this and would not purchase the car and B. why on earth would the CIA drive consistent types of cars?
That doesn't make sense on so many levels, it's mind boggling. Kirk von Ackermann was a former Air Force Captain with extensive experience in counter-terrorism which required and demanded thinking like a terrorist. Why would he want a car that might be mistaken as belonging to the CIA?

Remember, von Ackermann was traveling for work in the Tikrit region. In the fall of 2003, Tikrit was awash with Americans looking for Saddam Hussein who was from nearby Ouja. It's a very safe assumption CIA personnel were in the area at that time. It simply defies logic that von Ackermann willingly bought a car with even a hint that an American might be inside let alone one that would identify him as CIA.

My second question is, for me, the dog that didn't bark. It's the one detail that has bothered me since the very first time I read Colin Freeman's first article: Why did von Ackermann leave his satellite phone in his car?

Why didn't von Ackermann take a more defensive position, take the satellite phone -- probably similar to a Thuraya with GPS -- and wait a safe distance a way from the car? That response would have been more consistent with his background and training as described in the blog entry: No One Left Behind.

From von Ackermann's family:
I can go one further - why did Kirk not drive on the flat tire to the checkpoint? Yes, the rim would be ruined and he wouldn't make great time but he would not be sitting stranded on an area of road he had himself identified as particularly dangerous.
To better understand the environment these decisions were made in, it would be helpful to reconstruct day to day life in Iraq in 2003.